Chika Uwazie: Nigeria can export HR system to other African countries
In a period the Nigerian Government is desperate to diversify the economy in order to exit from recession and grow GDP fast, Chika Uwazie is looking beyond the obvious places to exporting human resource system, which she sees as the next big thing.
The 29-year old plans to make her company, TalentBase, not only the place to go to for all HR issues – salaries, pensions, taxes, and human capital development in Nigeria but other African countries as well. Guess what, she’s convinced software development will do the trick. The HR expert tells Clara Nwachukwu how she plans to achieve this.
Tell us about TalentBase?
It’s a Human Resource (HR) and payroll software company. We founded it about two years ago because we noticed that many Nigerian SMEs are still using paper, still using excel to manage their payroll and it’s support system. In order for these SMEs to grow and to get more structure, one of the key things they need is a digital payroll system that is also affordable. So, we built a very simple system that is affordable and easy to use, and companies with five employees all the way to 100 can use the system.
Why the interest in HR?
I was a HR consultant for over eight years. I spent some time working at the World Bank, worked at ExxonMobil Lagos, and did some other HR consulting, so actually I studied it. My first degree was in Psychology; basically I love working with people and helping them solve their challenges, so HR was a natural fit for me.
How old is TalentBase, and how successful has it been?
It has been on since 2015. We currently have over 150 companies currently using our software. And it’s everyone from Bella Naija to the CDL African League to XoL, etc. Many different companies use our software, and we have about 10,000 employees on the platform. We also have investors that have invested in our company.
These 10,000 employees, are they all on your payroll or also include agents?
These are employees across the different companies. Just like I said, we have over 150 companies on the platform, and we have companies that just have 10 employees and some about 5,000. We have a range of different companies that have this total amount of employees that are using the platform.
How many employees are in TalentBase?
We have 12 employees. We have a team of developers, sales people and customer systems and marketing.
How are they able to manage these 10000 employees you spoke about?
It’s difficult. I’ll say it’s not an easy task but everyone is really dedicated to working as a team, and also we are using a lot of technology. That helps us to manage all the companies. We have different systems we use to monitor the companies; we use programmes like Zandex, so that customers can reach out to us at any point if they have any problems or questions. We also do clients visit as well. We try to find out how they are, what they feel about TalentBase, and to give us their feedback.
What would you say have changed for these companies from when you took over to where they were before?
I think one of the biggest things is that we have created a way for them to create their HR offices that were very manual. For examples, if you’re doing payroll, typically you have to calculate the salaries, the pensions, taxes, and that can take hours, and then you have to send it to the bank. If you don’t have that, some of these companies have to extract these information one by one. For something that could take hours just to package the payroll, with our system, you can package your payroll with ease, it’s all automated, and at the end all the employees are posted on the email. It’s very simple.
Automation has to work with effective networks, and often such services can be quite disappointing. How are you able to manage such a challenge?
It is actually limited. We are aware that all the companies that use us actually have access to good data, and we haven’t had an issue so far of a client calling and saying because of network issues, there is a problem with the system. We haven’t had that challenge so far; we’ve been lucky that they have access to good data. We are also building a mobile app that will come out at the end of quarter three that will also help our clients so they can have backups. They can use their web desk, or the desktop version, and they can also use their mobile app as well to process their payroll.
A lot of HR agencies are springing up, why the sudden interest in HR?
I think Nigeria is getting to a point where we realise that HR is important. I come from a school of thought that if you don’t have a good HR system, a good team, your company won’t do well. I think a lot companies are trying to invest in their employees whether it’s in training, whether they’re recruiting the right candidates, whether they’re putting good people in sales. Also, other companies are realising the value of a good HR system, and I think a lot of people are trying to solve the different parts of their HR ecosystem. It’s actually quite big, and we can really go on and on, on the different parts of HR impacts in an organisation.
Does your system management include pension, taxes and all that?
Yes, we actually automate the pension, so right away as soon as you put in the employees’ salaries; our system knows what pension the employee needs to contribute and the employer. We also automate the payroll as well, our system automatically automate all the whole process. The employer doesn’t have to think how much or what they need to pay as far as pension and PAYEE go.
Do you offer other advice or consultancy services to these firms?
We do that informally because I am a HR consultant, and because my customer success team is well trained in HR, we do consult for the organisations. For example, they may say: “we have a very different tax system, how do we create systems that automate?” We customise solutions for clients as well, but we don’t formally offer consulting services. But that is definitely something we are hoping to do in the future
You find that many employers do not remit the pension or taxes they collect from employees. They also will not pay their workers on time. How do you deal with such issues?
I think it kind of goes back to putting systems in place. For example, the big reason why some organisations are not remitting their taxes and pension is that if they physically have to go to the banks, you have to have some relationship with the bank to actually be able to pay the parties. This is a system that we are actually trying to fix so that employers do it. I do believe that when you create a system that makes it easier to do them, employers will do it. For example, if you tell somebody: “you have to go the bank,” I mean nobody would want to go out of their way to do that. What we try to do is we try to create a system that makes it easier for everyone to remit the PAYEE. As far as paying salaries on time, we do have a spectrum that reminds the employers, but at the end of the day, it’s actually up to the employer, we cannot force them to pay if they don’t want to.
Have you had issues with the enforcement agencies or regulators over the evasion or non-remittance of taxes or pensions by these companies, and how did you handle it?
Funny enough, they actually see TalentBase as a partner in this; we actually have agencies that have been working with us. Like I said before, the big vision for TalentBase is to build something similar to ADP in the U.S. where ADP helps to pay salaries, it helps remit taxes, it helps remit pension. But right here in Nigeria, to be honest, our system is broken. We have been working with agencies on how we can have our system built to connect to your system, so more SMEs can work with clients. We do realise that for example FIRS has been knocking on every door, charging them big fines for not being compliant. We actually get a lot of employers that come to us, saying: “can you automate the pay packages so it can be more convenient?”
From your narrative HR appears to be very time consuming, how do you fit all of that into your schedule, I’m sure you must have other interests?
Well no! I am one of those people that believe in: do one thing and do it very well. To be honest with TalentBase, there are so many problems that we are trying to solve with just a job. For example, we are still trying to partner with agencies to remit PAYEE. The next project will be to work with pension agencies so that people can easily use the pension package for their employees. Even recruitment; we get a lot of requests to help them recruit. We do have a recruitment system, and we also want to help people find candidates. To be honest, all my time is really focused on creating a better HR system for SMEs. I think I can actually go on for the next 10 years and build other HR systems like training and it goes on and on. We really want to focus on HR, and we want to build a system where when you think of HR in Nigeria, you think of TalentBase.
A lot of fraudulent HR agencies are also popping up daily, and duping unsuspecting job seekers. What do you think is influencing this and how do you think this can be checked?
Interestingly I actually see this a lot on LinkedIn. For example, I will see a job, and perhaps on behalf of my client I may follow up and say: “we may have some candidates that are good for this position.” Then they say: “wait a minute, I never posted that position.” Or they may say: “we closed that position like six months ago.” I then realise it’s a third party company that is doing it.
There are a lot of people doing this because to be honest, the recruitment agency is very lucrative. For example, if I sell a job and I get a candidate, I can easily make N100,000 to N2million from one candidate depending on how much salary they get paid.
The way to change this is that we have to start building agencies that are verified by the companies. For example, we are working in partnership with LinkedIn to be one of their first African partners so that you know when a position is posted by TalentBase, it has been verified. I think we have to build more systems like that because a lot of these other job world, they are not taking time to properly verify if the company actually posted the position.. We have to take steps to verify, and to confirm that the company actually posted that position at that time, and that’s how we are going to be able to cut down on fraudulent job postings for candidates.
How easy was it leaving a World Bank job and an ExxonMobil job that millions are hoping to get, and struggling to make it on your own? What made you take that decision?
I kind of always knew I was going to do my own thing. Even when I was working at the World Bank, I was always working on start-ups. I will help them with social media; I will help them with operation, helping them with PR. I really enjoyed that sort of thing; I tried to go for their events when I was in the U.S. just ‘to understand those kinds of things. I was also part of a consortium called, Valley Africa, and really started learning about the start-up world there. I knew that at some point I would leave the workforce, and to be honest, I said I want to make an impact. I said if I stayed in the U.S. with my degree and making my money, I didn’t just feel I will be making an impact. But with TalentBase I see clients that tell me: “thank you for your system, it helped me, it’s making things easier,” and that’s what gives me joy. I just want to make the impact.
Who then is Chika Uwazie?
I am a pure Nigerian American. I grew up in the U.S., born in the U.S., I came from parents that both of them were very academic, my mum always drove into my head that I cannot bring home average grades: “you have to smarter than everyone. If you’re the smartest in a room, you need to get a new set of friends.” I always had that sort of encouragement from my mum. My dad was the first MD of IBM, so he actually brought IBM to Nigeria, and to West Africa. I think watching him affected me, and it eventually led me to where I am today. I went to Georgetown University; where I got my first degree in Psychology, and I went on to get a Masters in Human Capital Management. I actually live, breathe, and eat HR. I have been studying it and been working it for over a decade.
Do you have family in Nigeria?
Yes. My father left IBM about 15years ago, and started his own IT organisation. That was eight years ago, and that was really the main reason why I came, because the thing with Nigeria is if you are not in this country, you can’t just get a job here. You need to have a support system like friends, family, someone that can kind of show you how Lagos is, especially as I didn’t grow up here. He really was one of the reasons why I moved back to Nigeria. He really supported me; I used to work out of his office when I started TalentBase until now that we have our own office in Lekki.
And are you thinking of settling down yourself and having your own family?
Well, we’re getting there. I am actually turning 29 in some couple of weeks, June 22nd; I think thereafter we could see a change.
What do you see as the future for Chika Uwazie, and for TalentBase?
For TalentBase, I really want to have a total African domination. We already have some partnerships with banks, and that will allow us to extend to Francophone, to Ghana, even East Africa, and many other places in Africa, and that that will be our plan for the next five years. We want to really build a big HR software system across Africa. I think another thing for TalentBase is that we want to build a team of developers in Nigeria, and extend that across Africa because a lot of people still don’t believe that Nigerian developers are as good as the ones in the U.S. or the U.K. Our developers are all Nigerians, so it’s very important to me to build something like a software house, where we are training developers; even if they leave us and go on to build their own thing and that’s really important to us.
For me, I still see myself in TalentBase for at least another seven years. A lot of people don’t realise that when you’re building a start-up software, you have to give it at least seven, and it’s been about two years now, before you get to the point where it’s cruise control. Still, I would want to go back to HR consulting, I get a lot of requests for that to help them build their companies and all that. But further that I am really an advocate of women in technology, and whenever I can, I speak about encouraging more women, empowering more women, and teaching them whether they want to be a developer or whether you want to start your own business; it’s really important for women to be in technology. I see myself speaking a lot about that, and being part of the group for empowering women in technology.
I find it interesting that you are thinking of exporting HR system to other African countries, especially in a period when we are talking of economic diversification, and we are thinking about agriculture; we are thinking about manufacturing and all that. So it is interesting to know that we can actually export HR system.
Yes, we can! I still had this conversation with the Special Adviser on ICT to the President; I think that one of the things that will grow Nigeria or make Nigeria great again is exporting software. It’s one of the few things that don’t need a huge amount of capital. Agriculture requires capital, manufacturing requires bulk capital, but with software, all it takes is a developer or two developers and tap into their brains. It doesn’t require much money at least to get going. I think we need to think about how we can export software to different African countries. I went to Ghana, I went to Kenya the past year, and they are actually excited about it, and that shows that I am not limited to just Nigeria. I also think it’s one of those things that it doesn’t matter what language a country speaks; if its software, if it works, it works. There is accounting, there is invoicing, there are so many different software that SMEs across Africa need. Definitely, more people need to look into that, it’s a budding industry.
Finally, how can government help?
Government can help; I think No.1 is funding; and I am very passionate about it. I spent some time in Silicon Valley for over six months; I kept getting the feedback that; “oh, we don’t know about Africa yet!” They say that because they haven’t seen our own people advance in technology in Nigeria. I think government needs to step up, just like India, and invest in technology start-ups, because it’s going to actually help our GDP. I know they talked about a software industry and setting up a software fund, and I do hope that they actually fund that because that is the place to start.
Number 2, for me personally and other HR companies, we need the government to really mandate using in-house software in the country. There are a lot of Nigerian companies still using SAP 04, and there is software that is just as good that needs to be used. Some regulation can actually help our business such as PAYEE, such as pension. We need to get away from just doing things anyhow; we actually need to get the regulators moving, which will help the industry grow.