Investment in education, right skill sets, building human capacity will help Africa go farther – Ukwuani
Obinna Ukwuani is an MIT trained Nigerian American economist and serial entrepreneur who is in the fintech space on the African Continent. In June 2020, he was appointed the Chief Digital Officer of Bank of Kigali (founded in 1966) which is the oldest and largest bank in the East African country of Rwanda. The ever-busy and reserved Obinna whose schedule is as tight as can be for Tech Bro (a terminology reserved for professionals in the tech space) and who is passionate about technology, agriculture and education; sat down with Dolapo Aina in the impressive Digital Factory hub cum department at the headquarters of the bank in downtown Kigali on Wednesday, 30th March 2022 for an exclusive and compact interview. Do read the excerpts.
When you were appointed the Chief Digital Officer of Bank of Kigali; and when it was announced, there was quite a handful of applause in the tech space on the continent (Sub Saharan Africa.) How did that make you feel? And were there expectations and were you worried?
That’s a good question. I think it’s a mix. Obviously, when such an achievement or appointment or privilege is bestowed upon you and people are celebrating you, you feel proud. You know, you’re happy that are being celebrated, it feels good. But then you realized, again, that all eyes, at least at that moment are on you. And the role itself is weighty and the responsibilities and the expectations are great. So, failure comes at a high cost and there can be that concern that well, would I live up to the hype? So, I think that was definitely something that went through my mind. And I think now almost two years in, I’m no longer driven by, I guess, that external validation, per se. Rather, I recognize a platform that is and I recognise the impact of my work can have. So, I do my best work, which I think is fairly good work, because of the impact I can make on the people that I’m serving. But also, because obviously, it reflects very well on me, if I can use this platform, to its fullest.
How has the journey been so far?
It has been exciting, there hasn’t been a dull moment, obviously, it can be extremely stressful. For so many different reasons. Obviously, it is a corporate environment. It is a big organisation by many standards. So, you have the normal corporate dynamics, but also the nature of our projects, the nature of of the work that we do in technology and bespoke technology, meaning; really building from scratch, from design to product management and requirements gathering to software architecture, design, and engineering, and even a bit of information technology, DevOps, the whole spectrum. We are a modern technology company within a larger company.
A modern technological company within a larger company?
Yes. A modern technological company within a larger company which is traditional. The bank itself is not what I call digitally native. But as a division, we are. The people here are digitally native, we are designers and product managers and engineers, and we tend to be younger as well. And we’re trying to affect change within this organisation for the better. But obviously, there can be friction for different reasons. And so, in that sense, there’s always a challenge that you need to rise to, but there is always difficulty as well. So, it is exhausting. It can be frustrating, but it is fulfilling, and it is stimulating, and it is full of lessons and absolutely a huge learning curve for different reasons.
What is the digital factory about?
The digital factory was set up in 2018 by our boss, the CEO, Dr. Diane Karusisi (a Rwandan statistician, economist, bank executive and academic). She is quite a maverick in many ways. she is brave. She takes a lot of risk and she pushes beyond where most executives would not want to push for whatever reason. She set this special division up that was meant to deliver on the bank’s digital transformation, journey or initiative. Since then, that initiative has evolved. And now it’s no longer just one division, but everyone in the bank is participating in the journey. And the digital factor has now morphed into more of a studio, where we build things. I think one way to summarise, what we’re doing now is that we are transitioning this traditional bank into a modern “sexy digital bank” that can compete with the likes of Kudabank out of Nigeria; sparkle out of Nigeria. Revolut which is out of Europe, Monzo bank out of Brazil. We want to be named amongst those digital banks. And we take pride in the fact that we’re doing all of this in house. We are building one of the strongest technology teams in Rwanda. And we hope that very soon, they can show off things that they have done.
What are some of the milestones and challenges of the Digital Factory?
So, I think for milestones, many of them are yet to come actually, I guess this dispensation of the Digital Factory with me as its leader is still young. But we’ve done so many things that have gone under the radar that most customers would have noticed. We played an integral role in the recent central core banking system migration. We launched an internally developed internet banking platform, which was built and still maintained here, internet banking, 1.0, which is what all our customers used to transact with us now. And we’re building a number of bespoke channels. Now, like I said, we’re building a digital bank. So, we have a new app coming out; a new USSD application, and a 2.0 version of the internet banking, which is coming out this year 2022, and the mobile app is already in alpha testing, I have it on my phone, and we hope to go into public beta, before the end of second quarter.
And we’re all you know, looking forward to that as we’re gearing up. So I’d say that these are milestones that I’ve we’ve already crossed the milestones to be. In terms of challenges, like any technology, organisation, talent is always a challenge. Of course, you never have enough hands, enough skilled hands. And, this isn’t the kind of work that you can be as per se, right? Nothing gets done, if people don’t do anything. People have to be good at what they do. And they have to actually work hard to get it done. And finding people that can deliver with those constraints, it’s rare. So, we’re always in the business of recruiting; always in the business of nurturing the people that we already recruited; always in the business of building capacity and training. So even if we hire people who are less skilled, we can bring them up. And I take pride in the fact that we’ve done that for several of our members already.
Like I said, before, as well, we’re a traditional institution and Bank of Kigali is the oldest and largest bank in the country. And change is always difficult. And in our case, more so when you have competing priorities. The work that you do here with digitalisation, can seem like it’s going to threaten someone else’s job, right. Or make them irrelevant, or make their life more difficult, or make them less important. So, you’re always fighting those types of headwinds. But you know, our mantra is; stay focused on the work and let that speak for us.
And I think everyone will eventually find out that what we’re working on, is to the benefit of everyone, our customers, our team members etc. We’re building internal tools as well, that allow people to do things more easily, more efficiently. So perhaps you used to come in, in the past at 7am. And you leave at 9pm because your job was so manual. Well, now, you can come in at 10am and leave at 4pm. Because, you know, the way that you’re doing your job now is so much more sophisticated. So, it is one of those things that you have to show and not tell. And so this year, we’re hoping to host a very big event to really talk about an announcement of the new innovations that we’ve built here.
You are passionate about education, technology and agriculture. From your perspective, as an African who has gone through the four walls of an Ivy League university, and who has seen how systems work in USA, Nigeria and Rwanda. How do you think the African Continent can bridge the gaps in these sectors? That is agriculture, technology and education?
Bridging the gaps in those three sectors. I think the answer is actually in the question. I think education. Education was where I started. That’s always been my first passion. And if you’re able to educate people, groom, cultivate the right mindsets. Seed the right skill sets; half your problem is solved actually. Because when we talk about agriculture, we’re talking about mechanisation, industrialisation; being more efficient, being smarter, wasting less. It requires creative people who have had exposure, who can leverage resources, write business plans, manage stakeholders, who can do things on a larger scale. You don’t get that by accident; you have to educate people. And technology is the same thing.
I mean, we can’t build anything without talented people, I think, in Africa, and in many countries, we’ve consumed foreign technology for such a long time. We buy billions in foreign exchange annually to purchase licenses for various different types of software. Now, this is unavoidable. In most cases, like your operating system, Windows is unlikely that Africa will have its own operating system, these things tend to be monopolies. That is just how it is. But something like a digital banking platform, why can’t that be built by an African team and used by African customers? Core banking systems, basic business process, automation software for anything from managing your stock in your store to managing a pharmacy and making sure that your inventory is correct with all the drugs and everything. These are things that are fairly straightforward that can be built by Africans and consumed by Africans.
But you don’t get there unless you have the people can build these things. So, I think the more that governments invest in building human capacity, the further we’ll go. And, of course, you invest in human capacity, you have to keep those people in the country. But I think a country that can effectively invest in human capacity probably is also thinking about quality of life as well, to ensure that people don’t want to leave people want to stay and contribute. And I must say, I think that is something that Rwanda specifically has done very well. Deliberately, I think you name those three countries, Rwanda, Nigeria, the USA, those three countries couldn’t be any more different from each other. And I think Rwanda with size and everything and since they have the luxury of that focus; they have focused to great effect. And it is quite a marvel this place.
How do you foresee the FinTech landscape in Rwanda and in Africa?
So, in Rwanda, I think Rwanda is quite nascent with respect to fintech. So, really anything can happen in the future because it hasn’t even started. So, this is how I see it. People would say that the market size is tiny. Of course, Nigeria, you have 200 million people who can transact on your platforms; Rwanda is around 13 million. So, those quantums are totally different. But I think one million high quality customers is better than 200 million not so high customers. Now, this isn’t yet the case. I think Nigeria’s market is obviously way more and still much more vibrant, by virtue of its size. But I think in time, as Rwanda becomes more wealthy, I think it would be as good as market as any other.
And I think the FinTech solutions being built here by entrepreneurs or being brought in by entrepreneurs from outside will contribute to that growth. Now, it’s also nascent with respect to FinTech entrepreneurship, there aren’t that many indigenous Rwandan fintech companies yet and I think it is because talent has not been there and the talent that is now there, this is their first go at entrepreneurship. And with these types of things; it takes practice. I mean, the likes of Jeff Bezos, and all these guys; they’re seasoned in one way or another. So, I think Africans also need to be seasoned; Rwandans need to be seasoned. So that is where we are now. And I see that changing dramatically over the next five years. Already, Rwandan companies or companies based in Rwanda are already raising multimillion dollar rounds of funding.
As we saw in Nigeria, that booms very quickly, you know. Eight years ago in Nigeria, all this stuff was not in existence. And now today, we’re at the forefront for whatever reason and I see no reason why Rwanda won’t have her own rags to riches story. So, I think their time is coming. And in Africa in general; in a sense, we’re still getting started and I think the continent is still somewhat disconnected. You know, where we are a Continent of over a billion in total population.
We’re not talking to each other; we’re not trading with each other as much as we should be. I think Fintech is going to facilitate a lot of that trade and a lot of that communication. And that will have a multiplier effect on how the African Continent can grow and continue to scale. So, Fintech is going to be right there playing a role. As Africa grows in fintech, we would end up with the likes of Alibaba, the African version; the stripes, the African version. So yes, it’s just a matter of time. And anyone that’s involved in building these things today, they would be the titans of tomorrow. So, I wish us all the best.
What were the gains of the Makers Robotics, Academy Rwanda? And is it still in operation?
So, Makers Robotics Academy Rwanda, it was a one off actually and that’s how and what these things were designed to be; just summer camps, that really put a spotlight on STEM (S.T.E.M. is an acronym for educational studies in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.)
In Nigeria, we did it three times in a row and in Rwanda; we only managed to do it once. But in all cases, the programme that I did in Rwanda or the ones I did in Nigeria, whether it’s Makers Robotics, Nigeria; or Exposure Robotics Nigeria; there are interesting follow up stories. I have alumni (scores of them), who are now literally all around the world, working for all the companies that everyone has heard of; all these start ups raising millions. If you look up on some of their rosters, you’ll see my alumni. There is someone from Enugu State in Nigeria, he has now one of the Beta flutter mobile developers in Nigeria, he is on the Chipper Africa team. They just raised like 4 or $5 million, not too long ago. I have alumni working at Andela; people working at Flutterwave; some at banks, playing integral roles and building new software.
Some of these programmes went on for years. Some of them are one offs. But I think the legacy is still reverberating. If I have a down day, and I think about my alumni, it always picks me up. Sometimes they will send me random messages thanking me for my role in where they are today. And when I see them on LinkedIn doing what they’re doing, it makes me so happy. In Rwanda it is the same as a number of the alumni have gone on to do good things. And, you know, the kind of experience that we gave them in those short four to six weeks is not something that you forget; as it leaves an indentation on you. Your expectations change. And it has been nothing but positive outcomes from that programme.