Hanu Fejiro may today, at 26, sit atop a crypto exchange company boasting of 30,000 daily transactions and 660,000 users, but only a few years ago, he knew little about cryptocurrencies. The company in question, Patricia Technologies—or just Patricia—was originally registered in Nigeria as a gift card exchange after Fejiro fell into the hands of fraudsters.
He’d received a gift card worth ₦30,000 (~$73), in 2015, from his uncle in the US, in lieu of a monthly allowance. Needing to exchange the gift card for cash, he went online to transact with a gift card exchange, only to fall victim to a scam. Gift card scams are commonplace: users are asked to disclose the card’s number, unwittingly granting the scammer access to its funds. After his experience, Fejiro figured that if he was getting scammed, others were too; building an exchange where people could safely exchange their gift cards for cash was an obvious opportunity. And he seized it.
For the next 2 years, from 2017 through 2018, Patricia would operate as a gift card exchange. But not for long.
In 2019, Fejiro transitioned Patricia from gift card exchanging to a line that he found to be blossoming in popularity and demand: crypto trading. Nigeria was on the cusp of being identified, within the next 2 years—2020 and 2021—as a leading crypto economy. The stats thrown around about this development functioned as both news headlines and high praise for the country’s crypto adoption rate. The highest number of Google searches for “bitcoin” came from Nigeria. Twenty-three-point-seven percent of Nigerians online owned some form of cryptocurrency. Businesses were adding crypto plugins to their payment options. Trading volumes were surpassing $1 million per day on Binance.
If an economy could be a crypto heaven, Nigeria was looking like it. But the country’s government did not share the enthusiasm. Soon, the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) would descend its regulatory hammer on crypto trading, and Fejiro would have to think fast to save his young business.
Thinking fast, moving faster
Fejiro is speaking to me from Dubai. It has taken me and his team 5 weeks to schedule this interview; there’d been a scheduling conflict in February and a long silence after that, until April, when he gets on a call with me, 6 minutes late, battling a cold that sometimes fogs up his voice. And yet, the story he tells me over the course of an hour, about himself and Patricia, is clear and does not stumble. It’s a story he’s told so many times he knows it backwards—which comes as no surprise; he will write his memoir someday, he assures me, and is already shooting footage of his life for a future documentary.
As an undergraduate at the University of Port Harcourt, studying mathematics and statistics, he’d done everything he could to make some extra change. He sold noodles, then popcorn, then started a clothing company, and had even attempted to start a taxi business. The list of start-and-stop businesses to his credit would eventually stretch from 5 to 13—all before his hit venture: Patricia.
I wonder at his going bullish on several entrepreneurial ventures while still in school. I ask as delicately as I can manage: was he poor? He says no. He’d lost his dad when he was 8 and his mum when he was 16, just before university, but he hadn’t lacked anything; his extended family took good care of him. He just had always been entrepreneurial, he says. When he was in primary school, growing up in Warri, south-south Nigeria, he distributed candy to 4 primary schools in his neighbourhood, earning enough profit to pay his family’s rent for 2 years.
Fejiro has an uncomplicated relationship with executing his ideas; he does not overthink them. In his world, if it sounds like a plan, it probably is. He’d christened his company by its curious name on a whim: his mother’s name was Patience, but his grandfather preferred to call her Patricia, to annoy her, and start an argument—every time. Many years later, when Patricia popped into Fejiro’s head as a suggestion for his company’s name, he didn’t think about it twice.
“You may spend so much time thinking and not acting fast enough,” he explains. “And the market is actually moving. You need to be able to move as fast as the market. When you spend too much time thinking, you end up losing everything.”
And so, when the CBN suddenly banned commercial banks from facilitating crypto transactions, Fejiro knew he had to think—and act— quickly.
News of the ban had dropped on February 5, 2021, a Friday afternoon. Reactions to it on social media were riotous, angry, and pained. The apex bank had not only proscribed banks from servicing crypto transactions, it had ordered them to close all accounts found to be used for crypto trading. Worse, the following week, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) banned crypto use altogether.
When it became clear that the country’s regulations had a hostile attitude towards crypto use, Fejiro relocated Patricia’s headquarters to Estonia, a country in northeastern Europe, famous—at the time—for its liberal crypto regime. This was 5 months after the ban in Nigeria.
The Estonian business environment is famously progressive. The country has an e-residency programme—the first country in the world to introduce this; a young entrepreneur can easily incorporate their startup there, in a process that takes less than an hour and costs less than €5,000—all based on a residency permit that is entirely digital. The country had even considered introducing its own national cryptocurrency, the estcoin, in 2017.
But the Estonian crypto party would not last long. Three months after Patricia’s relocation, the Estonian government opened discussions to tighten its crypto regulations; in March this year, the tightening became law, a move directed at combating rising fraud and money laundering issues associated with its earlier liberal crypto regulations.
Although Fejiro supports the tightened regulations, it would seem that he is cautious about camping his business too close to regulatory quick fire. He moved Patricia’s headquarters to Lithuania.
“We moved out of Estonia when the law became too stringent for us to operate,” he says.
Way bigger than him now
Fejiro rises at 7:30 AM, every day. Three times a week his day begins with him receiving management updates from a team he had gradually built from 2 to over 350 employees spread across Ghana, Lithuania, the UK, Nigeria, and China. The management meetings set the tone of his day. Although he describes himself as a risk taker, building a thriving business may have given that trait an altruistic edge. When he started Patricia, he’d invested all his personal money in the venture, but he tells me now that that kind of risk taking is well behind him. “When you start a company, you really have nothing to lose except your life savings—and that’s just my life savings. I will take risks, though,” he cautions, lest I get it twisted, “but at the scale we’re at now, I wouldn’t take a bet-the-company risk, because Patricia is way bigger than me now.”
My Life in Tech (MLIT) is a biweekly column that profiles innovators, leaders, and shapers in the African tech ecosystem, with the intention of putting a human face to the startups and innovations they build. A new episode drops every other Wednesday at 3 PM (WAT). If you think your story will interest MLIT readers, please fill out this form.