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Adedeji, CEO, Wakanow: Why I abandoned $300,000-a-year job in US and moved back to Nigeria

Adebayo Adedeji made a good first impression to this reporter at the Akwaaba Travel Conference in September 2023 at Eko Hotel, Lagos. In his presentation, he spoke passionately about travel and technology. His listeners could easily get confused and conclude they were in the wrong profession, with the passion and tenacity he talked about his topic and made travel seem the centre of the universe.

Leaving a $300,000-a-year job to head a travel start-up in Nigeria might be the most ridiculous decision anyone could make. But Adedeji, a former senior finance leader at Amazon, did just that. Having worked with several multinational companies like Ecobank, Walmart and Amazon as a financial analyst in Nigeria and overseas, he took the decision to work with Wakanow, a travel company that he joined in 2019 as the chief commercial officer and head of transformation, before becoming the chief executive officer a few months after.

At the just concluded World Travel Market in the United Kingdom, the Wakanow stand was a reference point at the exhibition in London.

In this interview with Saturday Sun, Adedeji reveals more about what makes him tick as a businessman.

Where does the passion for your job come from?

Travel! Because travel can open the world. There’s no job that you speak of today that doesn’t involve travelling. Doctors are involved in travel; nurses are involved in travel; hotels, security, fuel, oil and gas. Travel is one of the largest businesses we have in this country and, if we actually focus on travel, we can raise the GDP of the country because travel does everything we do. There’s no field of endeavour that’s not involved in travel. I moved back to Nigeria four years ago from America and I am that passionate about this and I came back because of this. This passion was what brought me back.

So, you were in America when you started Wakanow?

No. I didn’t start Wakanow. I took it over and we transformed Wakanow from where it was.

In your presentation at the last Akwaaba conference, you sounded more like a preacher with, ‘Praise the Lord!’ It seems you are a pastor-turned-businessman…

People believe in God. So, I use God to bring them in so that they can buy travels.

What is your perception about this year’s World Travel Market?

I think the world travel market continues to show us what is possible in tourism. I know Nigeria had a showing, but Wakanow had a bigger showing because we mainly went there as a tech provider in Africa. Actually, Wakanow was the only provider there, the only exhibitor that was representing Africa in the technology site. That speaks volumes to the opportunity and the gap in the technology space when it comes to us as Africans and as Nigerians. Wakanow was able to represent us. We are a good business mixer; we call people to be more aware of us, of our brand, and of our presence across Africa. But again it avails the opportunity for us as Nigerians or as Africans. When we look at what Rwanda did, and what Morocco did, what Tunisia did, we see the opportunity that we continue to talk about in tourism to attract. Look at what the Kingdom of Morocco did. Look at what Saudi Arabia is doing in tourism today. We have the opportunity to attract inbound tourism into the market, attract people into our shores and begin to generate revenue from tourism.

Could you tell us the survival strategy of Wakanow, which has become a global brand?

It is just that we focus on the customer. Honestly, there is no special secret about us. It is about taking the time to understand the customer. We don’t permutate on what we did or what the customer did. We go out to understand the customer, and innovate on behalf of the customer. I say it very often: the customer, especially the African customer, and Wakanow being able to innovate for that customer, has been our driving force to success. It’s just our ability to innovate. We have great people. We have great employees working at Wakanow. Of course, that can fuel the thing but the biggest part of it is, we are not just thinking about today, we are thinking about tomorrow and being able to just think about the customer and take care of the customer. And every single day we are not perfect but we continue to strive towards that path of perfection in taking care of our customers and making sure that they are okay.

From 10am to 5pm, we don’t get as many calls and, like all travel agents, we are all hustling at the same time. At Wakanow, we wait. When they close, we open. Technology and data. We are able to consume data that tells us when to open and when to start. And that is why we run a 24-hour call centre, understanding the need for global expansion. Understanding that, since we have the technology to service Nigeria, we can expand that technology to the rest of Africa. Wakanow, on the 12th of September 2023, opened up Nigeria, Benin, Cecil, in Ivory Coast, Senegal and Cameroun. We are going to five West African countries at once. Why? Technology. I don’t have to travel all over entities, because human beings are limited by time and space. Technology is it. When you really want to be a high player, you have to embrace technology. Technology is the answer, the easiest way to travel. The fact that you could come to a website and use your card and feel safe is a plus. Nigerians don’t like to use their cards. They like to do transfers. The ability to come to a website and feel safe to do a transfer that imposes your bank account tomorrow means that we have technology to secure you. That’s why people book tickets somewhere else but come to Wakanow to pay. Why? Because we can secure you. Electronic commerce is very important. Selling on WhatsApp is pure e-commerce. Wakanow.com Nigerian does N1 billion a month on that WhatsApp you are holding. That is one channel. We do N1 billion a month on conversational commerce on WhatsApp and people keep complaining there is no business. We understand that WhatsApp is technology. It is commerce, it is the ‘E’ in front of the Travel that we sell.

Technology is what allows us to scale because on that WhatsApp channel you can put a chat box and that chat box can come to 100,000 customers at once.

What’s your take on the fact that a lot of young Nigerians are moving abroad en masse these days, which is now known in Nigeria as the ‘Japa’ syndrome?

Wherever you find yourself, whatever you find to do, just do it well. Leaving Nigeria is not necessarily a bad thing. Staying in Nigeria is not a bad thing. I think, wherever someone is, they can find success. Whether in Nigeria or outside Nigeria, you must be diligent. You must pay attention to your environment and you must be able think on your feet. People leave Nigeria and still want to behave like they still live in Nigeria and not imbibe the culture of where they are. They must become students of the new environment for them to be successful. Whether you are in Nigeria, UK, America or Canada, you must become a student of the environment, and, if you become a student of the environment, you pay attention to the environment, then success is yours. The opportunity just sits there. I mean you can be successful anywhere. Your location does not determine your success. Living abroad is not easy. It is not a walk in the park; and, if you are able to embrace that, I think you will be successful.

When you are not thinking about Wakanow, what do you do?

I have other interests. I love the beach. I love innovation around tech. I advise a couple of tech companies. I sit on the board of a couple of tech companies. I like recreation. I like to travel; I like to see the world. I make sure I explore the world. That is what I like to do. I do such things as recreation.

Who inspired you, growing up?

Every time I am asked that question, I struggle. I think I was not inspired by one person. I was inspired by a host of people, a combination of people: the Ehierieres of this world, the Ekurumas, the Awolowos, even the current President inspires me. Mrs. Alakija inspires me. I am an avid reader. I read inspirational stories of many great people, like Dangote, and just understand how and why they do what they do and how they got there. I pay attention to those details and I am inspired by them – not just to follow their path but to also understand how we all make our destiny by what we choose to pursue. That is why I am inspired by a bunch of people. I don’t think my inspiration comes from one person; it comes from a host of people. Watching successful people around me and also watching unsuccessful people and seeing all the mistakes they made and how they made the mistakes, and making sure I don’t make such mistakes.

What are your plans for Wakanow in the next five years?

Our goal is to expand across the world. Our goal is to be able to serve customers from everywhere in the world. Our goal is to become a global brand that can take up customers wherever they may be, and that’s what we aspire to be.

What is your advice to persons who wish to have travel agencies in future?

Collaboration for growth. Sign up to have your own website. In 30 days, I can start a website for you powered by Wakanow, where you too can sell travels. You can become a sub-agent. I can give you a mobile app that you use to sell. We can give you gifts you distribute. We are in a competition but we can collaborate because, if I have something you don’t have then we can collaborate. Some people that have things that I don’t, I collaborate with them. I don’t have a plane but I collaborate with Royal Air Moroc, Ethiopian Airlines, Virgin, Kenya Airways, they have something I do not have, because we don’t own airplanes. Also, invest in social media.

How do you relax?

I like afrobeats and amapiano. I like to just sit at the beach and just put my feet up and relax. I like the quiet beach during the day. Nigeria, I love Nigeria because of the culture of the people and the face of everyone in Nigeria.

What is your take on fashion?

From a fashion standpoint, I love to wear native. If you look at my pictures, I love native. It’s simple, it’s super-comfortable. I don’t think we’ve projected it enough.

After the World Travel Market in London, your team had a reception at Enish Restaurant. What informed that party?

Our ability to bring people, our ability to bring customers together is quite important. A lot of business was done in that room that night. We met a lot of people and we are glad we were able to do that.


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