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Burnout, mental fatigue and talent drain are a threat to Nigerian startups

The "Computer Village" in Ikeja district in Lagos, Nigeria
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In October 2020, Yanmo Omorogbe suffered burnout at the time of the #EndSARS protests. Her weary state of mind was exacerbated by the Lekki toll gate killing, where tens of young Nigerians were killed by policemen and members of the army for protesting against police brutality. It does not help that she lives a few minutes away from the Lekki toll gate, “It was just a jarring time – a stressful time at the end of a stressful year,” she told Quartz.

Burnout is generally described as a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress, ultimately leading to lower productivity and inability to meet constant demands. The World Health Organization though limits its definition to workplace stress describing it as, “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

Omorogbe is a co-founder and COO of Bamboo, a tech startup that provides Nigerians with real-time access to buy US and global stocks. She had to weather through the mental exhaustion that comes with building the startup founded in 2019 in Nigeria. Just in its early stages, the Y Combinator-backed company had to raise funding, thrive during the COVID-19 pandemic with its different versions of lockdowns, deaths, and panic. The last straw for her was the end of the year when the #EndSARS protests began. Her mental fatigue and burnout left her drained and trudging through tasks, struggling to be productive.

I spent the same money I was working so hard for on getting a full recovery.

Research by WellNewMe, a health technology firm revealed that two-thirds or 64% of workers in the country are at risk of burnout. Omorogbe is one of the many Nigerian tech founders and employees suffering from burnout. And like most of the other founders in the country, Omorogbe’s burnout was a combination of many things that are especially inherent in building a startup in a place like Nigeria.

Building and sustaining a business in Nigeria is extremely difficult

Nigeria is home to one of the fastest tech ecosystems in Africa and the world. The neighborhood of Yaba was the first home for many of the country’s success stories. Three of the four unicorns on the continent—tech startups with a valuation of over $1 billion—are from Nigeria. In 2019 alone, the country’s startups were backed by more than $600 million in venture capital funding.

But Nigeria’s startup sector faces several challenges. As the Nigerian tech ecosystem is expanding the world is paying closer attention to it, but the major drivers of that growth—startup founders and employees—are experiencing immense mental stress and burnout in an attempt to expand this blooming ecosystem.

On the surface, while what one might see is burnout worsened by brain drain that has been ongoing for years—educated, middle class Nigerians are currently the most likely to move to other countries, especially Canada and Australia—the main issues go deeper.

Founders, just like all other Nigerians, struggle to thrive in a difficult socioeconomic environment with inadequate government support, an unfavorable regulatory climate, poor road infrastructure resulting in insufferable traffic jams, erratic power supply, and slow internet connections. All this in addition to the normal workplace stressors of fundraising, team management, recruiting, and retaining talent. It is no wonder, the country is ranked 131 out of 190 countries on the World Bank Doing Business Index.

Nigeria’s tech ecosystem boom comes at a great personal expense to those working in the sector

For Oluwatobi Ozenua, 24, working as a product designer in Nigeria means that he is constantly pressured to learn more to stay ahead. This has led to constant bouts with burnout since as far back as 2015, resulting in ulcers from sacrificing food breaks for learning and bad eyesight from excessive screen time in 2020 during the pandemic lockdowns in Nigeria. “I spent the same money I was working so hard for on getting a full recovery,” wrote Ozenua in a Linkedin blog in July.

Ozenua has had to take on more jobs to thrive in tech in Nigeria, spending N80,000 ($195) —twice the country’s minimum wage—on internet subscriptions from January to April of this year and about N2,000 ($5) worth of fuel daily to ensure irregular power supply does not stop his work, he told Quartz.

Burnout accounts for 8% of startup failures according to CB insights. Start-up founders are most susceptible to this burnout, especially because they are extremely passionate about work, have limited safety nets and operate in high uncertainty.

Whiplash government regulations threaten Nigeria’s tech sector especially during the pandemic

A ban on ride-hailing startups in Lagos last year, a ban on cryptocurrency by the country’s Central Bank in February and a ban on social media giant,Twitter, in June undermine the efforts of major players in building the Nigerian tech ecosystem. This uncertainty is not only caused by government policies, it extends to security. The country struggles with widespread security challenges: terrorism, banditry, and kidnapping. Those in Lagos have to deal with rampant daylight robberies. Founders and their employees are at risk.

You start to see that abuse as normal and you do not see how corrosive it is, on you as a person, on your team and business.

Victor Asemota, a veteran of the Nigerian tech industry, wrote months ago that burnout by African founders is a bigger risk to investors than failure by other means. He cites brain drain as a cause of this burnout.

Omorogbe considers herself lucky because although she’s suffered from burnout, Bamboo hasn’t yet lost an employee to brain drain.

Eghosa Omoigui, founder and managing general partner of EchoVC Partner, a seed and early-stage technology venture capital firm investing in emerging markets, believes it is normal for founders to lose employees to other companies and “they leave in pursuit of what they think is a better set of opportunities.” He tells Quartz, “You will lose people even if you pay them well.”

Omoigui says that when they are evaluating deals they don’t just figure out founder market fit or product fit, they also have to figure out if or not the founder has enough energy to keep going.

“It is one of the evaluation themes our team goes to evaluate: what is the level of energy and it is not where they have been but where they are going,” he tells Quartz.

Omoigui says that founders are always at risk that some government or regulatory policy that was just published completely undermines their business and that is not how it is in other emerging markets.

“You start to see that abuse as normal and you do not see how corrosive it is, on you as a person, on your team and business,” he says.

How these founders are dealing with burnout and mental health issues

Iyinoluwa Aboyeji, co-founder of Andela and Flutterwave, says that when he was still at Flutterwave, they allowed staff to work from other offices around the world for two to three months as a way of renewing a sense of purpose and avoid the stress that comes with working from Nigeria.

But personally, Aboyeji relies on his faith, “Faith does a great job for me and helps me manage burnout,” he tells Quartz. “Ultimately, the day I realized that it is not my work, it is God’s work. So he will take care of his work.” This was after attending therapy sessions which he called interesting, however he finds his faith to be a much better buffer.

He adds, “I listen to my body, the minute I feel I am getting tired, I just drop [what I am working on] because nothing is more important than you staying alive.”

Aboyeji, who is currently the general partner at Future Africa, a company that funds fast-growing African startups, now advises founders to leave the country for a while, book therapy sessions on platforms such as Betterhelp or Nguvu Health, speak to other founders or read a book to help them manage burnout.

Omorogbe says rest helps her manage her burnout, “It is important to take time to recharge. It might be an hour a day, a week after a long couple of months. She didn’t consult a therapist during her burnout and had a hard time finding the right person when she considered it. She also said her co-founder makes the job easier, “We divided the work between the two of us according to our strengths and we are very supportive of each other and checking in on each other.”

Founders that overwork themselves, and don’t appreciate the work they do, pass this same energy to their employees.

Amanda Iheme, a Nigerian psychotherapist in private practice admits that despite the fact there is still a lot to be done in mental health awareness in Nigeria, more people, “far as I know, are taking up the responsibility to take care of themselves or family members that are struggling mentally.” The pandemic has underscored the importance of mental health support globally and on the continent.

Iheme has worked with numerous founders as well as employees of different companies to help treat burnout and identify the symptoms of burnout onsite because they won’t show up for therapy. The staff members she speaks with complain of feeling demotivated, not feeling attached to their job, thinking about going away for a very long time, feeling exhausted, finding it difficult to get out of bed, finding it difficult to go to bed on time. They also complain about how their eating habits have changed and being weighed down by thoughts of going to work. Sundays are very difficult days for them, she says.

They don’t allow themselves the space to feel their emotions or even ask for help in that regard.

Iheme says that the mental health of Nigerian founders is not doing well because they are used to solving many problems themselves which leads them to thinking mental stress is another thing they need to power through. “They don’t allow themselves the space to feel their emotions or even ask for help in that regard,” she says.

She explained that burnout in founders is fueled by a productivity addiction, where they feel compelled to always be doing and creating something or moving forward, while comparing themselves with other founders and entrepreneurs, seeing how much progress they are making and feeling inadequate.

Iheme also discovered that when founders do not take care of themselves, it ends up affecting staff. Founders that overwork themselves, and don’t appreciate the work they do, pass this same energy to their employees, she says.

Iheme’s first recommendation is that they have to go on a break so that they can find time to return to themselves, “sort of hear themselves before going into the motion of going to work every day again,” she says.

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