Andy Umana met with CrossFund’s chief editor, Luke Sheehan, to share a journey that has taken him from being a young student at the Ilorin State University, with an interest in environmental sustainability, to being the founder of a blockchain and real estate startup during the pandemic. Umana’s father was a civil servant and his mother a trader; Umana was “that guy ready to help out and try to see how to put food on the table” for his family. In his own words, he “has always sold”. As an adult, he manifested that, first, by starting a supply chain business for agricultural products (Yahgro), with a model based on finding food supply in northern Nigeria and selling in the south. Bottlenecks and a heavy presence of middlemen got in the mix, and then inflation hit, making what was a profitable company hard to scale. That’s when he discovered the blockchain. A peer-to-peer platform followed, and then he joined the team that created the first NFT collection in Nigeria. At that point, he figured there must be an untapped opportunity somewhere. He’s now founder and head of growth at Relsify, a fractional real estate platform for Africa, which was launched in 2021.
Tell me how Relsify got started.
I moved to Lagos during the pandemic. Somebody had a distressed property to sell and I could not afford it at the time. Yet I had a community because of my involvement with the crypto space. I thought, “With this community and technology, we can go in on this property and share the profit that will come out of it.”
Even during the pandemic, real estate was growing faster than any other part of the economy. To bring people into the market who, like me, are not part of the “1% of the 1%”, new solutions were needed. I mean, it is obvious that the quality of people’s earnings is reducing day-by-day in Nigeria, but the cost of housing is going higher. To get access to the market and get a return requires innovation. The opportunity to get in on real estate investment is becoming slimmer and slimmer. The space is highly cash-based, and in Nigeria—and Africa as a whole—there is little infrastructure to allow people to access mortgages and become owners. So we thought of a way to scale a platform to allow people to take profit out of the real estate market that they are actively involved in. We did a proper market analysis and we found out that the best way to go about it is to build something that uses a transparent system that allows people to crowdfund and own bits and pieces of properties in highbrow areas. That’s the basic story of how Relsify was born—hopefully the start of a revolution in housing. We have made a lot of progress so far, in terms of regulatory compliance and definitely the building of the product.
You say on your LinkedIn that you’re hiring. Can you tell me about how you’re expanding your team? Is it hard to find and keep talent?
We are definitely facing this struggle. “Japa Syndrome” [the brain drain of young Nigerians] is real. A lot of talents are relocating to other countries. Two or three of our team members, just before product launch, left the country. To solve this, we’re trying to build a culture around solving pain points for talents, not just hiring people to get the job done. We are building a community around the product, so they feel that sense of belonging and ownership of it. We’re shaping minds to ensure they are genuinely concerned and interested in revolutionising the way people invest in real estate. That’s basically how we’re going about finding and retaining the right talent now.
If you were in charge of Nigeria, what would you change?
We are building a highly-regulated product; we have to work with the government of the day. One of the challenges that we face—and why we’ve not broken into the market with full strength from day one—is that we have had to wait and talk to the SEC in Nigeria to secure a provisional licence for us to carry out what we’re trying to do. Despite numerous challenges, we were able to follow up until they recently crafted one that suits us. But now we await approvals to pull it through. They are telling us that they are waiting for the new government to come through before they [the SEC] start issuing this licence, because they want to understand [the new government’s tone and approach to policy first].
The representatives of the new government were explaining to us during their campaign that they would be pro-blockchain; that Nigeria would no longer be among the crypto-agnostic countries. There are a lot of different things that the government has to do, with regard to accepting and working with innovation. I think that regulation can catch up with innovation, eventually, and we will see paths to market for the solutions and products we are building. I think the new government should create a better playing field for startups like mine. There are positive signs from the president-elect around the real estate and startup sectors, going back to his time as governor of Lagos state.
Are you optimistic about getting enough funding in the near future?
Surely. I’m super excited about what funding is looking like in Africa. We’ve seen big funding rounds and acquisitions in recent times. I think exciting times lie ahead when people see the work coming out of Africa. Mostly, I have raised from friends and family to start and build this business, and I’m trying to build up traction towards a proper seed round. In all, I’m really optimistic about where we are going.
We are moving into using our skills for building, and the government is joining the race. When people see this from the outside world, they will definitely see the changes in our market and more funding will be accessible. We are right on time for that.
Ours is not only an “emerging market” but one that is primed to exit larger deals and unicorns onto stock exchanges, despite certain macroeconomic conditions causing depression at this particular moment.
How do you see the present and potential value of the blockchain ecosystem in Africa?
The blockchain, as a technology, has already helped Africa; people don’t say this enough. Government here has tended to sleep on it and hasn’t found a way to deal with it. But for many traders, the only way they can pay for goods and sell outside the country is by using cryptocurrencies. These are solving real-life problems for people. I know people that are schooling abroad, and that’s the only way that they can get money from their parents.
Look at the spending limit on our Nigerian debit cards. You cannot even pay for Apple music on it. You see many startups floating around using crypto to solve this.
Any comments about the diaspora? Can you see some of these rich Nigerian-origin migrants in the US reinvesting in Nigeria?
I think it’s something that we are already seeing from Nigerians and other people in the wider diaspora. We want them to see the potential of this market. That’s why my product is centred around the blockchain. Its open ledger allows it to be transparent: you put in ₦1 million, and in one month or one year you can see it has gone to ₦1.8 million or whatever, depending on the yield asset. I think diaspora Africans will trust the real estate system as a whole if you have these elements in play and they are interoperational with each other.
What is over-hyped and what is under-hyped in your ecosystem?
A lot of the money coming in has gone to fintech. The hype has centred around bringing money into or out of the country. What is under-hyped are the SMEs—how to use their money inside the country. With more regulation, people will see that your money can come and sit in this country and yield positively. I’m optimistic about that changing.
Where will tech be in Nigeria in 10 years?
When it comes to technology we could be playing with the likes of the US and China as a country—we could become a hub. We have the population and the talent.