My Life In Tech is putting human faces to some of the innovative startups, investments and policy formations driving the technology sector across Africa.
As a young career woman working with one of Nigeria’s biggest fintech companies in its earlier years, Ejimonye Ofodum had little time to dedicate to home chores. But she did not just find a solution for herself, she’s turned it into a business that caters to individuals and corporates in Lagos. This is her life in tech.
Fichaya is Igbo for ‘clean it’. The tech-enabled cleaning service company which launched in 2017 as Mora’s Cleaning, is the brainchild of Ejimonye Ofodum, who at the time, was in a desperate search for a cleaner/cleaning service for her home.
Ofodum had just landed a product manager role at fintech startup, Flutterwave, and with the immense workload that came with it, there was little time for home cleaning. But cleaning your apartment is a sort of mandatory chore, whether you dislike scrubbing floors or hate the sight of a mop stick.
“If I want to go from point A to B, I just get on the Uber app and book a ride. A couple of times that I’ve travelled and I wanted to stay somewhere that felt like home, I went on AirBnB and I could book a comfortable apartment that looked like and felt like home,” Ofodum told me in a virtual interview.
“So for me, it was like, how come there’s no cleaning company that I could easily access and I know that for sure, they’ve [cleaners] gone through safety measures and they [cleaning company] really know these people.”
In middle class Nigerian homes, it is not unusual to have live-in domestic staff, often very distant relatives who come on referrals of even more distant aunts and uncles and carry out domestic activities in the home, oftentimes in exchange for an education and the possibility of a better life if not a monthly pay.
But this informal system often comes with its own set of very unique challenges including the security risks of having these individuals have unlimited and persistent access to every part of one’s home, personal spaces and so on.
Ofodum eventually hired a cleaner and thought, maybe there were others like her who needed to solve a similar need.
“Instead of hiring a cleaner just for myself, I thought maybe I could test if this was something other people really needed,” she says.
Mora’s Cleaning started with that cleaner (who still currently works with Fichaya and who is now referred to as a cleaning associate as are all the cleaning staff), two customers from her circle and began to actively grow 3-4 months into its launch solely from referrals. To help with the business, Ofodum went on to hire a relationship manager who oversaw the associate and the customer customer relations.
“So there was definitely a market for it. We even found that some of our customers were ordering for their parents, mostly their mothers,” Ofodum says.
The professionalism of the service, not like you would get with informal domestic staff as well as customer trust, was a propelling factor that drove referrals which she says has contributed immensely to the growth of the business.
Across Africa, services like Fichaya are springing up to cater to an increasingly busy middle and working class demographic who have little time to devote to domestic chores and are able to afford services like Fichaya’s.
Last year, Naspers Foundry invested US$2 million in SweepSouth, a South African cleaning company offering a similar service. Jinni, another service based in Egypt late last year raised an undisclosed amount of funding from an angel network servicing the Middle East and North Africa region. There’s also Eden which launched last year.
Ofodum likes to say she got into technology by chance. As an inquisitive soul who loved to keep busy, she had secured an internship role at an IT company in Lagos to keep herself occupied during a summer break at the school where she was serving during her National Youth Service Corp programme (a certified compulsory national service program for Nigerian university graduates). The company, VAS2Nets Technologies, created value-added services (VAS) in partnership with telecommunication companies for a variety of clients.
As the three months break and internship neared its end, the 2014 Ebola crisis had just begun and school resumptions were delayed. She never went back.
“The company was impressed with my dedication and the work that I did during my internship and I was offered a full time role.”
As a key account manager, she worked closely with the internal development team and the telecoms delivering VAS for banks, government agencies and the likes. After about a year at VAS2nets, she transitioned into fintech.
I like to say that my thing is applying technology to businesses. I got into tech by chance, really.”Ejimonye Ofodum, Founder, Fichaya
For Ofodum, technology is simply a tool for scale and amplification.
“What we used to do was to have to schedule services for say 100 customers on an Excel sheet,” she says.
At the beginning, Ofodum says the business model was built in a way that it was operational manually and once a structured flow was in place, technology helped amplify and scale the process.
“Technology for me and my understanding of it, is that it is not necessarily the answer to everything. It only amplifies what you have in place. It will only amplify the existing processes that you have in place.
“ In our case, if you go and build then try to adapt it to the market, you’re more likely going to fail than succeed; which is why you’ll hear ‘go and test it out first go and ask customers what they want’, once you do all of this research, you design it and tech will help you amplify.”
Every service Fichaya offers can be found on its web platform. Individuals and corporates can order for cleaning services, specify the details of their space, how often they want it cleaned and whether they require a regular cleaning, deep cleaning or a fumigation service. Customers also notify on the platform how the associates can gain access into the space, if they have any specific instructions for the associate and are notified of how much the service will cost based on their preferences.
The platform is also where it has captured its network of cleaning associates.
“So you can come on Fichaya.com and click to become an associate. We have a KYC (Know Your Customer) form that you fill online. We vet. There are a number of things [information] that we ask for and they have to tally. Then we call you for an interview,” Ofodum explains.
After the interview, a cleaning test follows and if an associate passes the test, they are paired with a super associate, one who is more experienced and has been with Fichaya for some time until the newbie is able to work on their own appreciably.
Associates earn a commission per cleaning and get paid every two weeks. On a monthly basis, full-time associates can earn between ₦120,000 (US$307.69) to ₦150,000 (US$384.62), some between ₦60,000 (US$153.85) to ₦90,000 (US$230.77) monthly. Part-time associates can earn between ₦25,000 – ₦30,000 (US$64 – 77) monthly and even an irregular associate can earn around ₦10,000 (US$25) monthly.
Income is very dependent on how much work each associate does in a month and their level.
According to Ofodum, the mantra that Fichaya is in the business of creating time for its customers is one she hopes to extend to the associates in the near future to enable them pursue other interests as they deem fit.
The coronavirus pandemic has been a challenging experience unsurprisingly. Due to social distancing and lockdown rules, much of its cleaning activities have come to a halt and income streams both for the business and the associates are very lean or gone completely.
A few weeks ago, burdened by how difficult the period must be for the company’s cleaning associates, Ofodum launched a fundraiser urging its network of customers and friends to donate towards helping the associates sustain themselves and their families.
“The first customer that donated was our very first Fichaya customer. I almost started tearing up,” Ofodum said.
Last week, the company disbursed the first tranche of₦ 102,000 it had raised to all its associates and Ofodum says a second round will go out if more money is raised.
For founders who are struggling with how to survive with the current global health and economic crisis, Ofodum has one strong advice: don’t be too rigid. For her, it is also as important to key into the convictions that propelled one to start a business in the first place in a country like Nigeria.
“If there’s nothing you can do to salvage the situation, pivot,” she adds.
Meditation is also another vital tool that she proposes.
“As a founder, it can get crazy in your head. Add the current craziness going around. I am a big advocate for meditating. In your quiet time, from a more zen perspective, you don’t know when it [inspiration] hits you.”
It’s been three years of running the company and most of its operations have been self-funded or sustained by income generated from the business. And for Ofodum, the goal is really to keep the business alive and growing.
The CEO title is cute and all but for me, it’s servitude.”Ejimonye Ofodum, Founder, Fichaya
“I am serving my customers, I am serving my cleaning associates. I am also serving my internal staff and myself, to be honest. It’s full-on servitude now and part of it is just, I don’t want to call it a burden, but there’s more pressure to ensure that we are able to grow and not die. The pressure of knowing that we have to hit sales targets.
“I have to be more tactical because whatever I do, I have to be thinking of these people I am serving.”
For this reason, Ofodum is frank and audacious about pursuing what her company needs to grow whether it be cold-calling and following up on sales leads or investors fearlessly or being open to learning, interacting with other founders, reading extensively or seeking out opportunities in your industry.
“I think it’s hard but if you’re deliberate about equipping yourself, if you’re fearless…I think so many times we are so fearful,” Ofodum says.
“What’s the worst they can say? No? Alright then, let’s do it.”