Njoku Emmanuel, a 19-year-old Nigerian building his own blockchain empire

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After Njoku Emmanuel’s father seized his laptop for “coding too much” and not facing his studies, he dropped out of school to focus on coding. 3 years later, he has become one of the best blockchain engineers of his generation, travelled the world, and now runs his own startup Lazerpay, a crypto payment gateway.

Njoku’s greeting was casual, like his outfit—a black round-neck t-shirt on jeans. His boisterous laugh set a natural mood for what would become a long but interesting conversation. It was a busy day in Lagos, and the murmuring voices around him indicated he was joining the video call from his office. The walls behind him had “Lazerpay” and some motivational quotes written all over them.

“Sorry for the noise, bro,” Njoku said, running his fingers through his locks. “It’s a busy week. We are going out of beta sometime next week, so all hands on deck!”

To avoid internet fluctuation, we switched off our cameras and dived into our conversation.

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Lazerpay, a crypto payment gateway startup Njoku co-founded with Abdulfatai Suleiman and Prosper Ubi, was launched in October, and the reception has been massive. During its beta phase, the crypto startup has been endorsed by several tech and blockchain enthusiasts as a necessary innovation needed to accelerate crypto adoption in Africa. But what is even more remarkable about Lazerpay is Njoku, its 19-year-old CEO, who seemed to have emerged from nowhere to become one of the most sought-after young tech darlings in Africa.

Except he wasn’t a sudden emergence. 

The Njoku we see today is a product of a seed planted about 7 years ago in Port Harcourt, the biggest city in the South-South region of Nigeria. In 2015, at 13, Njoku and his brothers were casually introduced to computer programming by their aunt, who was a robotic engineer. Since then, Njoku chose to write code and never looked back.

The lofty dream that followed was wanting to build an operating system like Bill Gates had, or a social media platform like Mark Zukerberg did. He wanted to be the African Mark Zukerberg and told everybody that cared to listen so, including his mother who wouldn’t stop jesting him for it. Njoku began to ask questions and pored through every content on computer programming he came across. 

Born to an engineer father and a school teacher mother, Njoku was a mathematics whiz. He represented his school in the mathematics olympiad, won several medals, and lost a few. When his mates had a single mathematics textbook that had different topics like geometry, permutation and combination, and more, Njoku had a different textbook for each topic—each textbook as big as the all-encompassing ones. 

“My father forbade us from using a calculator to solve our mathematics homework. Every computation had to be done with your head—why else do you have a head?” Njoku said. With this, his problem-solving skill was already top-notch; little wonder he was quick to embrace programming. 

Because gaming was one of his favourite activities—having played video games with his siblings—at the time, he began to learn game development and started using C++ to build games. In 2017, he wrote his final secondary school exams and cleared all his papers, with A+ in mathematics and further mathematics. 

Surprisingly, his next challenge will be finishing University.

“University was a waste of my time”

Like most Nigerian parents, Njoku’s parents wanted him to become a medical doctor—his older brother was already studying medicine. But Njoku had chosen his own path, one he wouldn’t let go of for the world. 

He got admission to study electrical engineering at Enugu State University of Science and Technology (ESUT) in 2018. This, his engineer father could live with. 

Njoku during one of Lazerpay early ideation sessions in Dubai

In the same year, he joined Quiva Games, a gaming company based in Enugu, as an intern. Everything was going okay; his plate was full—a tasking engineering course and a job where he could build his coding skill. But, after a few classes in his first year, he realised engineering wasn’t as tasking as he had anticipated. 

“I thought everything would be advanced, but it was people packed into a small hall to learn social sciences and general studies. I was like ‘What the hell is going on here?’ And the maths they were teaching at 100 level was like my JSS 3/SS 1 maths. So, it became a waste of my time.”

He knew he wasn’t going to do this for another 5 years, so he became laser-focused on coding. “Any time I was going to school, I was going to charge my laptop and code. I didn’t tell my parents. When they gave me money to buy textbooks, I used it to buy coding courses on Udemy.”

His father somehow found out he has been missing classes and invited him home. “I didn’t know it was a trick to seize my laptop. I went back to school and had to borrow laptop to finish some projects at hand and keep learning.”

COVID-19 was a blessing in disguise

When COVID-19 hit in 2020 and everywhere was locked down, everybody panicked and scared, Njoku was somewhat happy; he’d be away from school without getting into trouble. So, he upped his game and started coding 12 hours a day. He didn’t want to go back to school, and the only thing he had was to learn as fast as he could and get a remote job.

In March 2020, he got a job as a mobile application developer at Kwivar, a buy-now-pay-later company based in Port Harcourt. 

“The salary was ₦70,000. When I got it, nobody could talk to me. I was the biggest boy I knew. My parents couldn’t believe you could get a job during the pandemic when companies were laying people off. Though the salary isn’t enough reason to not study medicine, they finally saw what I had seen since 2015.”

Introduction to the blockchain

Before the pandemic, Njoku had already started learning about blockchain. He’d taken Udemy courses on blockchain and had entered the finals of a hackathon project that would be held in Lagos in 2019—the first time he’d ever be in Lagos.

2019 was Njoku’s first time in Lagos: Njoku and other participants at the hackathon.

In April 2020, a month after he started working at Kwivar, he got another offer as a blockchain developer at Project Hydro, a blockchain company based in the British Virgin Islands. He would be paid $700 monthly in Hydro tokens. At this point, he knew he wasn’t going back to school; everything happening to him agreed with that decision. 

Fast forward to September 2020, he wanted to leave Kwivar and needed something to replace it. So, he reached out to Ugochukwu Aronu, the co-founder of Xend, the parent company of Quiva Games where he’d interned for 5 months, to check if there was an opening. After sharing what he’d done at Project Hydro—decentralised wallet, snowflake infrastructure for decentralised identity—Aronu invited him to come to Enugu and join his new venture Xend Finance, a decentralised finance (DeFi) platform for credit unions, cooperatives, and individuals, backed by Google and Binance.

At the time, the pandemic was already easing up, and students had started going back to school. So, Njoku told his father he was going back to school. Aronu made him an offer—₦150,000 net salary, a MacBook, and free accommodation. 

The days at Xend Finance: Njoku and Emeka Nweke, the lead blockchain engineer who taught him how to deploy complex smart contracts

“I went to Port Harcourt to show my parents the offer and told them I was dropping out of school. It was obvious they couldn’t do anything about it. Going back to school just to graduate and earn about half or as much as I was already earning wasn’t wise,” Njoku said.

It was at this point that his parents knew and accepted Njoku’s crazy idea to drop out. At Xend Finance, he had to step in when the lead blockchain engineer was unavailable, and that accelerated his blockchain knowledge. Despite the close call—since they’d already scheduled to launch by December 2020—he led the build but not without a hiccup.

“It was difficult because I had to take charge of an entire project in the middle of building. I fixed the bug, wrote, and deployed smart contracts. But I made a deployment error that cost the company $10,000.” So Aronu told him the money he lost would be deducted from his salary. At that point his salary had jumped to ₦300,000. He panicked and started applying to international jobs—at least those ones could pay him enough money to service the debt.

He would later find out Aronu was only joking, but by then he had gotten an offer from MakerDAO, one of the biggest DeFi companies in the world. He was the first Nigerian engineer on the team. As usual, he went home to show his parents his new offer and his mother couldn’t believe her dropout son could earn over $3,000 per month. But that was the beginning.

After MakerDAO, the offers wouldn’t stop coming. He got a contract offer from Instadapp, a DeFi protocol company, for $90 per hour. “I was like, these people don’t know me: I’ll work 20 hours per day!”

He resigned from Xend Finance and was ready to make his mark on the global blockchain ecosystem. He relocated to Dubai.

Dubai was his passport to the world

MakerDAO was having an offsite meetup in Portugal and Njoku was supposed to go, but his visa wasn’t approved on time. He was frustrated, so his aunt, the robotic engineer, advised him to try applying to travel to Europe from Ghana or anywhere outside Nigeria. “She also suggested Dubai, and I took it. After staying in Dubai for a month, I told her I’m not coming back home.” 

In Dubai, more job opportunities came. He was on top of the world; he could now reject offers and travel the world. For an 18-year-old boy, there was enough money in the bank so he told his father to leave his brother’s medical school’s tuition to him. “My brother is in Bulgaria, so imagine earning in naira and paying tuition in euro. So it’s only right I took that off my father’s plate.”

He got a contract offer of $3,000 per week from Avarta, a blockchain security company based in Singapore. He joined them and built their entire blockchain infrastructure. 

Njoku and Suleiman, co-founder and CTO at Lazerpay, in Dubai

Then he met Yele Bademosi, founder and CEO at Nestcoin, who would later become one of Lazerpay’s early investors.  Bademosi then became Njoku’s mentor, so when he wanted to start Nestcoin, Njoku was one of the first engineers he reached out to. It was around this time that the idea to build Lazerpay began to form. 

Njoku dropped everything to focus on Lazerpay. Avarta reached out with a full-time offer of $7,000 per month and $50,000 worth of Avarta token, but he rejected it. They came back with another offer of $15,000 per month, but Njoku was running with his new vision now. Before, the vision was to become a great engineer, but now it’s to become a great founder. This developer transitioned to blockchain development in order to solve Web2 problems

So Njoku forfeited everything. He left MakerDAO in December 2021 and his Maker token that was worth over $200,000 and would have vested this February. He rejected a salary package worth over $300,000 from Avarta. All because he believed Lazerpay is the future of payment and will be worth much more than everything he’s given up. And also because he was already raising funds and had to put his skin in the game.  

He knew what he wanted from a young age and stood by it. His steadfastness has turned everybody around him into a believer; his parents have now begun nudging his youngest sibling to study software engineering. 

Njoku isn’t Zukerberg and may never be, but he’s building his own empire in the blockchain world. At 19, this can only be the beginning of his journey.

Source: https://techcabal.com