unke Opeke is an experienced telecommunications executive who has led companies both in Nigeria and in the US. She returned to Nigeria in 2005 as the CTO of the telecom firm MTN after working in large corporations in New York City and for a startup in Silicon Valley. At the end of more than twenty years in the US, she was the executive director of Verizon Communications’ wholesale division. An avid student of physics and mathematics, Funke holds a master’s degree in electrical engineering from Columbia University and a bachelor’s in the same discipline from Obafemi Awolowo University.
How did you first become interested in electric engineering and impact entrepreneurship?
My interest in electrical engineering came from my love for physics and having great teachers in my girls’ high school. I wanted to be in the sciences, and I didn’t like the biological sciences. I was very good in physics and mathematics, so I naturally gravitated in the direction of electrical engineering. In the ‘70s, we were starting to see new electronics come out and I was really curious about them. I used to go to the school library and read a lot of different journals. I did my undergrad in Nigeria and master’s in New York City, and started to pursue a career after that.
And how did that lead to entrepreneurship?
Following graduate school in the US, things were rapidly changing in the telecom industry. The internet and data communication connectivity were exploding, and I thought it was a fascinating place to be. I started in the infrastructure side of networking, and then in the late 1990s, when you had the first dot com boom, I moved out to California to join a startup. We went bust when the market crashed in 2000, and I went back to the east coast to join Verizon. But I started wondering, after having shares worth a hundred million dollars on paper that vanished, what’s next and whether I should go back and do something good in Africa with the knowledge I had acquired. At that point, I was looking for fulfillment more than anything else. So, I came back to work for MTN in Nigeria. Having been away almost twenty-five years, I saw huge gaps in the telecom-industry value chain, especially with internet connectivity. Internet access was terribly lacking and I saw that I could help create more of the critical infrastructure to bridge the divide.
What were some of your early struggles and how did you overcome them?
I decided to create a company that needed $240 million to launch. That was a challenge, especially in a frontier market like Nigeria. When I look back, this was 2008 to 2009, it was not the best of economic times. I had to get people on board who shared the vision and the commitment to bridge this gap. There was a lot of concern about the infrastructure we were trying to build. We were the first private submarine cable on the west coast of Africa and there were a lot of questions about the capacity to execute and then manage and operate the business. We had to demonstrate and prove that capacity.
What do you believe was your worst decision or biggest mistake? What did you learn from it?
We spent a lot of time trying to extend our cable down to South Africa and it never really materialized or proved worth the effort. I don’t know that it was a mistake though. I tend not to dwell on regrets but take challenges as opportunities to move on and be resourceful in new ways. I think if I have one regret, I would say that the impact we’ve had is still not enough. The COVID-19 crisis has helped me realize how much impact we’ve had and how much we still need to have. A lot of businesses have been able to migrate to working from home because they are well connected and have moved into our data centers. On the other hand, broadband penetration in Nigeria is still below 40 percent and public schools and public institutions aren’t well connected, so I’d like to have more impact there.
What do you believe was your best decision?
The best decision was to ensure that we invested in infrastructure that served not just Nigeria, but also additional countries. We have made investments in Senegal and Côte d'Ivoire, added extensions to Cameroon, all to networks we built in Nigeria and Ghana. This gives us one of the best-connected cable systems across West Africa. It was a good decision to have that broader regional focus in the plan from the outset.
What were the challenges of making this a profitable business model?
One of the things we had to do to secure our financing agreements was to obtain commitments from major telecom players in the region. This was really the first critical indicator of success. If we had not secured these offtake agreements, we wouldn’t have been able to complete the funding to build the cable system. We did end up getting the cable built on time and within budget, which meant we could cash in on those offtakes. Since then, we’ve been cashflow positive and we’ve been growing the use of our infrastructure. We’re also building data centers so that we can attract local businesses and international technology players serving the West African market to our network.
Entrepreneurship is for brave souls here. If you see a need, you deliver well and you get the variables right, then you might just be successful.
How would you describe the Lagos ecosystem?
Lagos is very high energy and it reminds me of New York. It’s very intense and everyone’s got a hustle. It’s jam packed with traffic and a mass of humanity. We realized very early on that we needed to support building the technology ecosystem because it was good for our own survival. If startups are deploying business models that connect with customers online, then those customers need internet services, and internet service providers will come to us. This grows the capacity of the market. Through the efforts of CcHUB, one of the early pioneers of enabling business models here in Lagos, we were able to start supporting the ecosystem. Lagos has really bloomed. The amount of capital startups have raised, the impact they’re having in delivering services to society, that’s probably one of the bright lights for me personally in terms of the impact we’ve had.
How have you built the right team?
For my team, skills and values are very important. Right from the beginning, we built that into the company. We needed people who were skilled and had the right values, especially in our society where rule of law is not always obvious, so you need to have those governance structures in place. We wanted to do good but also wanted the business to succeed. If you don’t have the right values or work ethic, and if it’s just about the money, then we’re probably not the right place for you. It’s a lot of hard work, so we need people who want to do good for our society and have the vision to do things differently and envision a different reality for West Africa. We want to put things in place that did not previously exist.
How do you keep your team engaged and inspired?
We’re typically breaking new ground with most of the work we do. We’re working with world-class companies and leading technology, opening new markets, deploying services to landlocked countries and transforming the ecosystem. We provide the opportunity to do that. We also tend to be less formal than big companies. We’re pretty communicative and have an open-door policy. We focus a lot on training and development because we’re working in a lot of new areas where the technology is evolving fast. Everyone knows they are part of the team and they are heard even at the highest levels of the organization.
What advice do you have for newer entrepreneurs in Lagos?
Lagos is a tough environment because we don’t have the infrastructure or services, so businesses do not easily scale. There’s not a lot of institutional or government support or the same access to capital as in advanced markets. This could be a plus in that there’s opportunity, though making it happen is a challenge. So, you need a good plan and should know that you’re going to have to pivot to refine that plan and iterate a lot. You’ve got to be disciplined and focused. Entrepreneurship is for brave souls here. If you see a need, you deliver well and you get the variables right, then you might just be successful. If you can become the best at what you do and find the opportunities to pivot when you get further along, then you can make it by stretching in different directions.
What are your top work essentials?
At what age did you found your company?
What’s your most used app?
What’s the most valuable piece of advice you’ve been given?
Do your best.
What’s your greatest skill?
My work ethic.