Tyranny within the office: The chaotic tradition of Bento Africa

“Bento took every little thing from me—my sense of humanity, sanity, confidence, and belief,” Pascal*, an ex-sales government at Nigerian payroll startup Bento Africa, stated about his time working there. “We labored across the clock. Ebun [CEO and co-founder of the company] would ship you messages by 2 AM and count on a response asap. No relaxation. We went to mattress each night time praying our jobs would nonetheless be there after we awakened the following morning.”

On March 18, 2021, Pascal’s prayer, which had appeared to work for over a 12 months, stopped working. He was abruptly fired from his job. He fell right into a depressive state, and every little thing stopped making sense. He stopped going out, and his relationships with family and friends suffered. Regardless that he stated working at Bento for over a 12 months had been torture, it was all he had on the time. 

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Bento Africa (previously referred to as Verifi.ng) is the brainchild of Ebun Okubanjo and Chidozie Okonkwo, his pal, enterprise accomplice, and Bento’s Chief Working Officer (COO). Headquartered in Lagos, Nigeria, Bento offers payroll administration software program to 900 companies, together with Tangerine Africa, Paystack, Kobo360, Department, and LORI Techniques.

Okubanjo and Okonkwo constructed, and nonetheless run, a number of companies collectively. Whereas each co-founders flock collectively, they aren’t fairly of the identical feather. All ex-employees who spoke to us described Okubanjo as fireplace and Okonkwo as neither water nor fireplace; Okonkwo merely stays within the background, silent and barely engaged within the firm’s day-to-day operations. These ex-employees due to this fact consider that Okonkwo’s angle outsources all authority to Okubanjo and permits his toxicity.

In Okubanjo’s termination e-mail to Pascal, he was fired due to a “lack of cultural match and poor efficiency”. However Pascal questioned: “How might I’ve been culturally unfit and incompetent after working for you for over a 12 months? Why did it take you that lengthy to clock my incompetence?”

The termination letter

He stated, regardless of the each day verbal assaults he endured within the fingers of Okubanjo, all he needed to do was to be one of the best salesperson within the firm and make his employer proud. He hadn’t performed a lot work in gross sales previous to Bento, so he put within the work. Inside 5 months, in response to him, he had the second-highest variety of purchasers on their sheets on the time. He closed a few of the greatest purchasers—a few of them with over 1,000 staff and a month-to-month payroll value ₦15–₦20 million (~$47,000).

Regardless of his achievements, nevertheless, Pascal didn’t achieve making his boss proud. “There was no free day from Ebun’s verbal abuse. If he wasn’t calling me a ineffective particular person, he was threatening to beat me up,” Pascal stated. In some unspecified time in the future, whereas recounting his expertise to TechCabal, he paused to catch his breath. 

Pascal described his time at Bento because the darkest interval of his life.

Pascal narrated how staff would weep through the gross sales crew’s check-in name at 8 AM each weekday. Okubanjo harshly criticised their work and threatened to fireside all of them at these conferences. 

Ezekiel*, who had labored with the corporate’s development advertising and marketing crew, shared his expertise with TechCabal. He had joined one of many gross sales calls and heard Okubanjo calling them “pussies and deadweights”. He additionally heard Okubanjo inform the crew that they smelled. “Regardless that he by no means attacked me personally,” Ezekiel stated, “I all the time questioned how anyone might undergo that each morning and stay sane.”

Bento co-founders
Bento Africa’s cofounders: Ebun Okubanjo (left) and Chidozie Okonkwo (proper)

Ex-employees additionally revealed gaps in Bento’s employment contract, particularly the place go away days and time without work had been involved. Okubanjo promised staff that they may take time without work once they wanted it, however Bola*, one other ex-employee from the corporate’s gross sales crew, dispelled that promise as a fantasy. 

“I can depend on one hand how many individuals took go away throughout my keep there. Ebun stated breaks are for pussies and fuckers, and whoever takes outing of the workplace for an entire week is a weak member of the crew and never wanted within the organisation,” stated Bola. 

Each founders appended their signature to the contract

“Ebun scarred me,” she stated. “I’ve spent cash on remedy, but, I nonetheless endure from nervousness.”

In her early days on the startup, Bola requested lots of people to return work along with her at Bento. At the moment, she was unaware of Okubanjo’s “terrifying persona”. “Had I recognized about it, I wouldn’t have requested anyone to affix Bento. Now, when a potential Bento worker reaches out to me, I simply inform them to run!” 

In accordance with the sources we spoke to, Okubanjo hardly ever welcomed various opinions and monopolised making key enterprise choices; the punishment for criticising his concepts was instant termination of employment. For quite a few Bento ex-employees, termination merely entailed deactivated Slack accounts and emails.

Tinu*, who had been poached from one other firm to return be part of Bento, awakened someday and discovered she’d been fired and logged out of her Slack and work e-mail. She’d solely been with the corporate as Communication Lead for lower than 3 weeks.

“It was a nerve-wracking expertise and the worst 5 months of my grownup life,” stated Amaka*, who was excited to affix a tech startup in Nigeria after ending her research within the US. She was fired after enduring Okubanjo’s insults and unwarranted feedback about her physique.

“I’m a plus-size lady and Okubanjo would all the time have opinions about my dressing. He as soon as instructed me to not put on garments since I beloved to be bare. What did I put on? Common company garments that even my mom accredited of.”

Amaka likened the day she was fired to a scene out of a film. “We had been on a gross sales name, and Ebun stored saying I wasted firm assets whereas bringing in zero worth.” Okubanjo accused her of charging her private Bolt experience on the corporate’s debit card, unaware that Amaka had stopped utilizing the cardboard solely and even ran the corporate’s errands along with her personal automotive. 

Following Okubanjo’s accusation, Amaka requested that the cardboard be audited to establish whether or not she had certainly been losing the corporate’s cash. Okubanjo checked the cardboard and found that she hadn’t been utilizing the cardboard for private bills. Slightly than apologise to her, he modified tack and began accusing her of not working.

“He referred to as me ineffective and instructed me to f*ck off from the decision. Subsequent factor I knew, my colleagues had been texting to tell me that he’d fired me after I dropped off the decision.”

Equally, when Kunle*, a lead engineer who labored for the corporate for over 2 years, was fired final November, he solely discovered about it when he couldn’t entry his Slack and work e-mail the following morning. “Ebun fired me as a result of he felt like I used to be attempting to wrest authority from him,” stated Kunle.

Within the picture above, Okubanjo referred to himself as Marlo Stanfield on Bento’s Slack. Who’s that, you might ask?

Marlo Stanfield is a fictional character on the HBO tv drama The Wire. He’s a younger, bold, clever, and ruthless gangster. Within the drama sequence, Stanfield demanded unconditional respect, which outdated all different considerations. He was murderously narcissistic, and regularly ordered the deaths of those that disrespected or undermined him. In 2016, Rolling Stone ranked him quantity 2 on their record of “40 Best TV Villains of All Time”.

The day earlier than Kunle was fired, the corporate’s CTO Lede Adeniyi was on go away, so Kunle stepped as much as lead the engineering crew. Kunle recalled that one of many account executives had instructed him {that a} buyer needed a function that was not in Bento’s product roadmap for the 12 months. Kunle stated he defined to the manager that the corporate had prioritised different fixes and options for the 12 months and would come with the requested function on their first dash in 2022. He, nevertheless, recommended that if the client needed the function added shortly, he might speak to Okubanjo.

“I referred the manager to Ebun as a result of Ebun had already accused me, beforehand, of setting priorities behind him. However even that was a criminal offense,” stated Kunle. The chief went to Okubanjo with their request, as Kunle had recommended, and all hell broke free.

“I bear in mind how Ebun got here to shout at me: ‘Hey motherfucker, what did you say to a buyer about their ask?’ He shut me up earlier than I might even reply and referred to as me names, which was regular. I used to be his regular level of reference every time he needed to benchmark weaknesses and redundancy within the crew. Think about being disrespected in entrance of your crew members on daily basis.” 

Now, earlier than the November firing, Okubanjo had fired Kunle as soon as earlier than. It occurred on a visit to Ghana. Kunle had requested Okubanjo to cease calling him a monkey. Okubanjo responded to that by firing him on the spot. “He instructed me to seek out my method again to Nigeria, and that he didn’t care how I did it.” However then, he referred to as Kunle after a couple of hours to provide him his job again, realizing he wanted him to kind out the enterprise operations they’d come for in Ghana.

On November 22, when Okunbanjo fired Kunle for the second and closing time, he refused to pay his November wage and severance pay. Kunle reached out to Adeniyi, the CTO, to assist him converse to Okubanjo about his owed funds, however Adeniyi couldn’t do something about it. “You realize Ebun does what he desires,” Kunle recalled Adeniyi saying to him. 

When TechCabal reached out to Adeniyi for touch upon the incident, he confirmed Kunle’s report: “Sure, Kunle requested me to comply with up with Ebun, which I did, and Ebun promised to pay him.”  It’s been 4 month now and Okubanjo nonetheless hasn’t paid Kunle.

However after Kunle obtained fired, it appeared his former boss wasn’t performed with him.

“Final month, simply when my psychological well being was getting again in form, Ebun popped up on my LinkedIn, providing me my outdated job again,” Kunle stated. “I declined. Such effrontery! No type of apology. I haven’t discovered a brand new job but as a result of I’m frightened of working in one other Nigerian startup.”

Kunle claimed that Ebun sacked his pal John*, a former member of Bento’s design crew, as a result of John was speaking loads about web3 on social media. Okubanjo accused John of discovering Bento “much less attention-grabbing”.  TechCabal reached out to John by means of Kunle however he hasn’t replied.

“You’ll be able to’t give Okubanjo discover interval if you’re leaving the corporate. He’d fireplace you and inform you off,” Ezekiel stated. “When Ebun fires you, he tells you to look at how he’ll ensure you don’t get a job wherever else within the ecosystem.” 

Tare Johnson, Bento’s ex-accountant and monetary analyst, believes this was why he couldn’t discover a job for six months after leaving Bento in August 2020. When Johnson joined Bento in February 2020, his contract acknowledged that he was coming in to guide the finance crew. He would later discover out that there was no crew, and that he can be main himself whereas reporting to a “narcissistic boss”.

“I used to be principally the one one dealing with all the corporate’s funds. I used to be additionally doing clerical jobs and working errands like a private assistant, which was complicated and never even remotely near my job description,” stated Johnson. “My preliminary thought was, ‘It’s a startup and issues transfer round loads.’ However I used to be mistaken. This place was designed to interrupt staff. Ebun abused me verbally, which is customary behaviour for him with staff. He’d name me a motherfucker, dullard, and each vulgar phrase within the dictionary. He even insulted my household.”

Johnson, working a one-man finance crew, was caught in a large number he hadn’t bargained for. The pandemic lockdown hit barely a month after he obtained the job, locking him into the job at a time when firms had been laying folks off and never hiring. So he caught round and took all of the verbal abuse Okubanjo hurled at him. After 5 months, he figured he was coping, till an occasion on Monday, August 17, 2020 made him resign with out discover.

The WhatsApp dialog between Johnson and Okubanjo
The resignation letter Johnson despatched an hour after he stop in August 2020

That Monday, Johnson—like he had performed each morning—shared the corporate’s each day financial institution statements to Okubanjo and Okonkwo on WhatsApp. Upon receiving them, Okubanjo replied with: “Bro, are you drunk???” Johnson thought he should have made a mistake someplace on the statements, so he shortly double-checked earlier than re-sharing the statements with Bento’s founding crew. Okubanjo was nonetheless not glad with the statements. Apparently, some current transaction hadn’t mirrored but within the firm’s account on the time Johnson compiled the assertion; there was no method Johnson might have included it in his report. However Okubanjo, “in his regular trend”, requested Johnson to repair the spreadsheet or he’d fireplace him. Lastly fed up, Johnson resigned with a easy message: “No want, I stop” and exited the WhatsApp group. An hour later, he despatched in his resignation letter.

For Johnson, becoming a member of Bento Africa was “a foul thought” and leaving “one of the best factor he’d ever performed for himself”. 

Why had been Okubanjo’s pink flags ignored?

Among the ex-employees stated Okubanjo’s ruthless management type was apparent from the primary day they met him. “The day I met him for my interview, he instructed me he might learn poverty throughout my face,” stated Kunle.

“On the primary day we met,” Johnson stated, “I witnessed an altercation that ended with Ebun threatening to punch a stranger within the face.” 

Amaka, on her half, stated she recognised Okubanjo from a video that had gone viral a 12 months earlier than, the place he was in a heated argument with a feminine buyer of Health Central, a gymnasium he co-founded with Okonkwo. Within the video, Okunbanjo’s threatening persona was evident and on full-display.

So, why did these former Bento employees settle for to work for the corporate after seeing these pink flags from the CEO? 

“I felt unhealthy, however what might I do? I wanted the job. I used to be simply coming off the HNG Internship,” stated Kunle.

“The cash was good, for somebody who hadn’t even performed the necessary, one-year Nationwide Youth Service Corps (NYSC),” stated Amaka. 

“I had already stayed about 7 months and not using a job, after NYSC, and was even planning to return residence [which is outside Lagos] when the job got here. So, it was my most suitable choice on the time,” stated Adanma*, a former worker of the corporate.

Tradition shock after leaving Bento

Former staff who spoke to TechCabal confessed to experiencing tradition shock at their subsequent jobs. 

Adanma “couldn’t consider it when my present boss requested for my opinion on issues. “For the primary few months [at my current job], I used to be too scared to voice an opinion at conferences, for concern of being referred to as silly.”

Bola “was stunned when my present boss stated switching off Slack notifications is nice to scale back nervousness, and that we must always all strive it.” 

In accordance with McKinsey, tons of of experiments present that encounters with impolite, insulting, and demeaning folks undermine staff’ efficiency, together with their decision-making abilities, productiveness, creativity, and willingness to work more durable and assist coworkers. 

Okubanjo usually claims that Bento is “a mission and never an organization” therefore his iron-fist management. 

Bento remains to be poisonous

Three present Bento staff contacted by TechCabal had been diplomatic about their responses, however they agreed that every little thing this publication has unearthed about Bento Africa’s work tradition “just isn’t false”.

“One minute it’s silence; the following it’s chaos. It’s unstable right here, and the strain is an excessive amount of,” one in all them stated.

“I’m probably not bothered,” the second worker stated. “My former administrative center was additionally poisonous, so I’m kinda used to it. At this level, I feel all startups are the identical.” 

The third worker wouldn’t “deny that Bento may be poisonous for some folks however not in my private expertise. We work very onerous, and we play more durable. Most individuals on the crew love their jobs. It’s not for everybody, actually.”

Whereas a number of ex-Bento staff agree that the corporate has an amazing and necessary product, they consider each founders answerable for the startup are unfit for his or her roles. The corporate’s Glassdoor opinions inform extra tales of its unconducive work tradition.

In December final 12 months, Bento expanded into Ghana, Kenya, and Rwanda, with plans to arrange operations in 6 different markets—Egypt, South Africa, Uganda, Tanzania, Angola, and Ethiopia—by the top of this 12 months. The corporate additionally leveraged the affect of music veteran and report label boss Don Jazzy to push a marketing campaign supporting the African entrepreneurship spirit—a marketing campaign that arguably boosted its pan-African model fairness. These strides imply that the corporate is rising to a stage the place its obvious lack of construction, course of, and a focus to worker welfare can now not be ignored.  

TechCabal reached out to Okubanjo and Okonkwo for feedback. Okonkwo didn’t reply, however Okubanjo did. In his response, he referred to as our then-developing story “fiction” and posted our e-mail request to Twitter, claiming our article was a “hit job”. He has adopted his tweets with a sequence of abusive private messages to members of the TechCabal crew. 

Whereas Johnson, Bola, Amaka, Kunle, Ezekiel, Adanma, and others nonetheless scared to talk up have licked their wounds and moved on, Pascal’s household refuses to let the abuse he suffered at Bento slide. They’ve sued Okubanjo. “I simply need him to rescind the lies he instructed within the termination e-mail to me, I’ve all of the proof to show he lied,” Pascal stated.

Editor’s word: * In addition to Tare Johnson who particularly requested to not be nameless, different names have been modified to guard the identities of these concerned

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