According to TechCrunch, data-driven firms are 5% more productive and 6% more profitable than their counterparts.
For small businesses, data-driven starts with accurate and complete financial records that provide meaningful insight on customers, inventory, and profitability.
Today, in most African small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), operational data is housed in the business owner’s head, not on the profit/loss statement.
In an ever-changing marketplace, by not keeping accurate financial records and measuring progress regularly, it can be difficult to turn a profit, succeed beyond the founder’s lifetime, and access financing, which all remain roadblocks to sustained growth for many SMEs.
With the vision of helping African companies move from one generation to the next, Ibrahim Bashir created dillali. Dillali is an income and expense management (pre-accounting) tool for SMEs in Africa and other emerging markets. Through dillali, business owners can manage their inventory, create invoices and receipts, and send automatic payment requests all on the go.
I spoke with Ibrahim Bashir, co-founder of dillali, about what led him to create dillali.com, the importance of tailoring solutions for Africa, and what Built In Africa means to him.
Journey into tech and how did it lead you to create dillali?
My tech journey started very early because my father was an engineer. In the 80s, we got our first computer, a ZX Spectrum. And in the mid-90s, we were one of the first groups of people to use the internet when it came to Nigeria. That exposure showed me the possibilities of the internet and led me to build my career around the Web.
While I was at the University of Lagos, I began building websites for businesses. Two years after graduating, I started a web design company, which I ran for three years. Since then, I’ve worked in different sectors around Nigeria, from telecoms to oil and gas to consulting.
While running the web design business, I traveled around Nigeria and interacted with business owners from across the country. As a curious person, I would ask a lot of questions. Listening, I began to understand the various challenges Nigerian businesses were facing, one of the most significant ones being income and expenditure management.
Initially, I thought this problem was isolated to freelancers and the tech industry since it was new. Clients would pay us a portion of the amount upfront for a website and the balance at the end of the project. This worked early on, but as we grew and began to take on multiple projects, managing invoicing became that much more difficult. Recognizing that this was a general business problem sparked the idea to create dillali.
To validate the idea, we also did some research. We interviewed 15 business owners and surveyed 30 more. Together with my personal experience, this feedback gave us the confidence that this was a real problem.
What gap did you discover that inspired dillali?
The gap wasn’t the technology. There are existing solutions that provide accounting and financial management, but most are difficult to use if you don’t have a financial background. And in Nigeria, most small business owners are not financially savvy and can’t afford to hire a good accountant and financial adviser. But they still want to set up the right structure for their business.
That was the gap I saw. I wanted to build a solution that made it easier for everyday business people to start off well and understand their numbers. And the demand for this type of product is overwhelming. In Africa, we have 100 million businesses, most of them informal and small businesses. And in Nigeria specifically, there are 41 million registered businesses, and 73 percent are sole proprietorships.
Also, most of the solutions available were not designed for Africa. They often have requirements that work for an American or UK market, but not an African market—for example, requiring a customer to put their address. With dillali, we aim to create a solution localized for African users.
Tailoring dillali for African SMEs.
The last 15 years have shown us what technology can do when we own it and adapt it to meet our needs. But it starts with understanding that it’s a gradual process. Today, 90 percent of all transactions in Africa are cash-based, so most of the time, there is no paper trail.
With dillali, we’re starting by laying the right foundation. We want to make it easy for business owners to document their financial information and gain insights into how their businesses are performing. Recently, a business owner who uses the platform said, “For the first time, I know how much I make,” and she’s had her side hustle business for the past seven years. These are the kinds of stories and feedback we receive from our users.
We’re also tailoring dillali for mobile. Seventy percent of Internet traffic, from Nigeria on average, and about 65 percent in most African countries, is driven by the mobile phone. We are building dillali so that users can do the complete A to Z of their financial record-keeping and management on their phones.
What were some of the challenges you faced building dillali?
The biggest challenge I faced early on was finding the right technical co-founder. Although I started a web design company, I’ve gravitated to the business side of things since then. Initially, I tried running the business as a solo founder and hiring a team, but that failed.
Last year, I decided to take one year off to focus on dillali. After learning Lithuania was one of the most startup-friendly countries, I applied for a startup visa and, in February 2020, together with my wife, I relocated to Lithuania. Since then, I’ve found two co-founders, got into an accelerator - Startup Wise Guys, received 55,000 euros in funding, and launched our beta app.
The second challenge is government policy. Although the policy is improving in Africa, we’re waiting to see how the governments will adopt technology and create systems that we can easily integrate to make our solutions more seamless for users.
Share how you remain persistent as an entrepreneur.
My persistence comes from my conviction and believing this is a problem worth solving. I’ve been generally persistent in everything I’ve done in life, but dillali has been different. I have put my all, 100 percent, into it. I’ve committed to doing this no matter the challenges.
I’ve faced a number of setbacks throughout the journey, but what successful individual or startup hasn’t faced adversity? Seeing up-close what successful companies and people go through helped me stay the course.
Celebrating the little wins also helps with persistence. When I initially put up the Google form on social media and asked people to sign up if they were interested, only one person signed up after two days. Then, the next day another person signed up, and then it kept increasing. People I didn’t know from all over the world were signing up. That, for me, was one of the key drivers to say, I’ve got to move forward with this.
How do you see dillali evolving in the next 3-5 years?
I’ll tell you our 20-year plan. We’re here to make an impact, and our vision is to help business owners build businesses that outlive them. I believe when our businesses can successfully move from one generation to another, Africa will grow.
We’re focused on the small business sector, as it contributes to more than 30 percent of the continent’s GDP. By improving how business owners manage their finances and improving their financial literacy, they’ll know their numbers and move from running cash-flow to profitable businesses. Also, they’ll more likely be able to employ at least one person, which would create millions of jobs.
In turn, we also hope to increase access to finance. A major problem for small businesses is access to capital. It exists all over the world but is more prevalent in Africa. A report released last year said only five percent of small businesses in Nigeria could access loans from financial institutions.
There are more than 30 million small businesses in Nigeria. If only five percent were able to access capital, what happens to the rest? They have to raise money from friends and family and alternative lending channels.
The primary reason banks don’t loan money to small businesses is the lack of adequate financial records. Once we fix this problem for our users, they’ll increase their chances of getting a loan to grow their businesses.
Tips to entrepreneurs getting involved in Africa’s tech ecosystem?
As entrepreneurs, we often have this ambition of conquering Africa, but it starts with small steps. Find the right market and grow from there because Africa is not a country and is more than a continent.
Oyo State, which is in southwest Nigeria, has a population of about eight million people, and is a little larger than Belgium in terms of geography. Oyo State is about five percent of Nigeria’s land mass and less than four percent of its population. And that’s just Oyo State, in Nigeria, in West Africa, in Africa.
My tip for entrepreneurs, especially those in the Diaspora, is to realize that business in Africa is different. It’s not like Silicon Valley or the U.K. Having success in Africa requires you to change your mindset. Here local knowledge is everything. Collaboration and finding the right partners are key.
Lastly, be wary of policy. Although it’s getting better, it’s still an uphill battle.
Built In Africa? What does that mean to you?
For Africa, by Africa, to the world.
That’s what Built In Africa means to me. I’m proud to say that we’re seeing people doing great things in Africa, and the world is gradually beginning to recognize and see that not everything from here is bad news, and people are doing great things.
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