Nigerian fintech unicorn, Flutterwave, valued at over $3 billion, has faced a range of scandals lately. Let’s shed some light on the skeletons in the closet of one of the most successful African industry players to date.
Starting last year, Africa’s biggest fintech startup Flutterwave has been hitting the headlines of major media outlets. Unfortunately, the news reports concentrated on the scandals associated with the promising startup rather than its financial success or product expansion.
Flutterwave’s path to becoming a unicorn
Before discussing any ‘dirt’ poured onto Flutterwave over these last few years, let’s recall its corporate journey and understand the context of all the allegations.
Flutterwave emerged as a rising fintech star in Nigeria back in 2016. Although its headquarters are based in San Francisco, US, the firm has concentrated its operations in African countries and local businesses and became one of the top fintechs in Africa.
The startup initially developed an API that lets global merchants and businesses process credit cards and local alternative payment methods popular in African countries. The range of offered products and services has greatly evolved over time.
Besides using Flutterwave as a payment gateway at the checkout stage, sending invoices and payment links, businesses received an opportunity to set up their online stores straight from the Flutterwave dashboard in 2020.
Besides, business owners partnering with the startup can now integrate a card-issuing API to create and manage customised virtual dollar cards for employees, get flexible unsecured loans from Flutterwave Capital and enjoy seamless business incorporation processes with the Flutterwave Grow program. Moreover, the company’s clients can create and launch apps with embedded financial services using Flutterwave API.
The company also offers Send by Flutterwave, its proprietary cross-border money transfer solution.
Funding and partnerships
From the very beginning, Flutterwave formed strategic partnerships with industry giants like Alipay, Worldpay FIS, and Visa. Its customers included Uber, Booking.com, and Jumia.
Having co-founders with rich industry experience, the company attracted early funding from the leading global companies such as Mastercard and New York–based CRE Venture Capital.
In 2021, Flutterwave became Africa’s fourth $1B unicorn, in a funding round led by growth-equity firms Avenir and Tiger Global. Already in 2022, Flutterwave tripled its valuation to over $3B after a successful $250M Series D funding.
Fraud, mismanagement and more – inside the Flutterwave scandal
As more media attention was attracted to now the most valuable African fintech, the card house of its reputation began to fall apart.
In April 2022, Clara Wanjiku Odero, a former Flutterwave executive, accused the company’s CEO, Olugbenga “GB” Agboola, of harassment and bullying. Following this report, other former employees confirmed to different media outlets that Odero’s case is not extraordinary. In fact, they said such abusive practices were a recurring issue at the high-profile company.
Besides, the ex-employees who preferred to remain anonymous, described more outrageous incidents including inappropriate relationships between managers and staff, opaque promotion and pay structures, underpayment to departing employees for their stock options, and administrative errors with company documentation, which later created serious legal problems for employees.
Moreover, another media report in West Africa Weekly alleged that Agboola created a phantom ‘co-founder’ identity to give himself more shares in the company’s early days. He later allegedly offered share prices below the company’s valuation to some employees. Their stock sales reportedly went to an investment vehicle Agboola controlled.
Fraud and lack of registration in Kenya
In July 2022, Flutterwave attracted the attention of the Kenyan national regulator – the Assets Recovery Agency (ARA). The agency conducted some investigations at the time and stated that the fintech’s bank accounts operations had featured suspicious activities.
Some of the funds in question could have been received from specific foreign entities, afterwards transferred to related accounts instead of settlements to merchants. ARA indicated that the funds in 62 select bank accounts were proceeds of card fraud and money laundering.
Furthermore, ARA alleged that Flutterwave was operating a payment service platform in Kenya without a proper national licence, which was later confirmed by the Central Bank of Kenya (CBK). Therefore, the CBK instructed CEOs of financial institutions in the region to stop their cooperation with Flutterwave.
In addition, the Kenyan court froze $52.5 million from Flutterwave and other entities involved in the fraud allegations. Later on, over 2,000 Nigerians sought a share of the frozen billions claiming they lost their money through fraudulent actions of a sports betting platform that used Flutterwave to process the payments.
Flutterwave claimed allegations of financial impropriety were “entirely false” adding that it had records to prove their position.
That probably worked since, in February 2023, the company was cleared of some money laundering allegations. The initial case was closed and $52.5 million was released, after the ARA formally withdrew the case.
At the same time, the regulator maintained over $3 million of additional funds seizure that happened late August last year since the second related case continued, where Flutterwave, Adguru and Hupesi solutions were the defendants.
A fresh hacking scandal
Meanwhile, another financial scandal hit Flutterwave in April 2023. This time, the company’s data system was allegedly hacked a few times in a row, with 2.9 billion nairas ($6.4 million) in customer funds lost to the attackers. The hack was flagged by dozens of the platform’s users who received notifications of their accounts being emptied.
Flutterwave previously denied the claims saying that the routine check of its transaction monitoring system identified unusual transaction patterns on some users’ profiles, but employed security measures addressed the issue before any harm was done to end customers.
Nevertheless, media reports revealed that bank accounts that transacted with the alleged hackers, including direct recipients, along with second and third beneficiaries, have been frozen. It appears that Flutterwave petitioned the police and the courts to block the accounts in order to begin investigations.
Many of them were digital asset traders which caused outrage in the crypto community. Namely, the unnamed sources alleged that the perpetrators might have used fraudulently obtained funds from Flutterwave accounts to buy USDT on the crypto platform Binance.
The company again reassured the stakeholders that no customer money has been lost.
Flutterwave also updated on the course of the forfeiture petition adding that it “cannot disclose specific legal actions or discuss ongoing cases due to the confidential and sensitive nature of these matters.” However, Flutterwave claimed it was “collaborating with the appropriate authorities and pursuing all available legal options to hold those responsible accountable.”
A lot of scandalous allegations related to Flutterwave’s financial activities and the misconduct of its management have left them without any clear resolution to date. That definitely casts a shadow on the firm’s reputation.
At the same time, the startup is working on the issues impacting its integrity as a business. In 2022, Flutterwave hired a new financial chief (CFO) in a bid to recover from misconduct allegations. The firm also said it was “conducting a thorough review” of the claims to comply with ethical responsibility norms.
Revamping Flutterwave’s public image has seemingly worked. At least, the firm managed to secure Electronic Money Issuer and Remittance Licenses from the National Bank of Rwanda to expand its services and offer a range of new products to the country’s 13.5 million citizens in March 2023.
However, the new wave of scandals connected to the hacking incidents and Flutterwave’s denial of the lost funds along with dozens of frozen accounts have put another dent in the firm’s public reputation.