Harnessing the Power of Technology Innovation

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The initiative of the Africa Fintech Foundry, powered by Access Bank to create opportunities for tech start-ups to continually disrupt the ecosystem is a welcome development, writes Emma Okonji

Since 2017, the Africa Fintech Foundry (AFF) has raised technology start-ups and given them the opportunities to harness the power of their innovations, while linking them to seed investors like venture capitalist that will invest in their solutions and products, thereby making them globally competitive.

Last week in Lagos, for the third consecutive time, AFF held its 2019 disrupt conference with the theme: ‘Digital gold Rush-Building a sustainable tech-economy’, where it assembled international and local speakers, who have background and businesses in technology, to address a large audience on the power of technology innovation.

In his welcome address, Head, AFF, Mr. Segun Adeniyi, said AFF was set up to help technology innovators harness the power of their innovations and provide them with the platform to test-card go to market, while offering them unparalleled access to global financial, technology, business and investor partner networks.

“We aim to enable the move of brilliant and tested ideas into the market, and continually disrupt the technological ecosystem in that process,” he said.

 There are interactive panel discussions on Artificial Intelligence (AI), Robotics, Blockchain and Data Analytics. Highlight of the AFF 2019 disrupt conference, was the pitching of ideas by selected tech start-ups, moderated by renown judges who were looking out for certain qualities like originality of the solution, its importance in addressing identified challenges, scalability and the commercial value.

Evolving tech solutions

Speaking on the evolution of technology solutions and the disruption such solutions have created in the financial services sector to shape the future of intelligent bank, the Chief Executive Officer of Access Bank Nigeria, Herbert Wigwe, said banking solutions have evolved over the years, and have changed the hitherto manual operating system of the banks. According to him, 10 years down the line, the banking system changed from issuing of tally numbers and cards to the use of computers and from there to the use of mobile phones for financial transactions.

“Cards are getting extinct right in our presence and bank customers now transact through the mobile telephones. Things are changing fast and people no longer sign cheques. The question now is where will Nigeria be in the next 15 years when it comes to evolution and digital transformation.

“Technology has changed everything completely and is currently disrupting legacy structure in the financial sector. What this means from the business mindset is that anything that is repeatedly manual cannot survive the evolving technology. Financial Technology (FinTech) players are driving technology evolution and banks must collaborate with them because both complement each other,” Wigwe said.

According to him, with the fourth industrial revolution, a couple of things are happening, and people are using cloud technology, and Internet of Things (IoT) to automate processes. Banks are competing in areas of innovation to provide key services in line with today’s technology growth. Any bank that does not innovate may become the dinosaur of tomorrow.

He said Big Data Analysis, A1, Machine Learning, Blockchain Technology were all geared toward using technology to drive development, and that is what we are going with the AFF, which is an initiative of Access Bank to drive technology innovation among tech start-ups.

“With the power of computing and innovation, people can work from any part of the county and contribute to GDP growth of the economy. Africa as a continent and Nigeria as a nation must therefore rise to the opportunities that abound in today’s digital world. The contents of AI and predictive technology appear to be strong, enabling organisations to move from prediction to decision making and that is where the world is truly going,” Wigwe said, adding that the new generation banks are challenged by technology to identify the challenges of today’s bank customers and to resolve their challenges in order to redefine the market.

“So banks that do not think of the new technology changes that will recreate the future of banking, will be gone forever. Our focus at Access Bank is to redefine the future of banking in Nigeria and Africa over the next 10 years,” Wigwe added.

 

Technology as game changer

The Chief Executive Officer of Moven, a United Kingdom based company, and keynote speaker at the conference, Brett King, in his address, described technology solutions as game changer across all sectors of the economy. He, however, said it was not the technology that changes the world, but the dreams behind the technology.

“Technology is moving much faster than ever before, thus producing rapid change in development and the speed is driven by new technology tools like AI, Robotics, Data Analytics, among others. With technology evolution, two things happen: organisations and people will either disrupt or get disrupted.

“Banking is one of the industry that has been very slow to change, despite the speed at which technology is evolving. Gradual changes started taking place in the banking sector, when they realised that bank customers could do financial transactions from their mobile phones, without going to the banking hall. Today FinTech players have continued to create banking solutions that will continue to change banking operations. Today banks are beginning to shift from their physical branches to virtual operations, where customers can effect financial transactions from their mobile phones and mobile devices, through the support of banking applications developed by the FinTech players,” he said.

He said explained that aside banking, technology could also disrupt legacy activities in other sectors of the economy like oil and gas, mines, manufacturing, health, sports, among others.

“In space technology, the idea of robotics is also fast changing the old order of the day. Today AI is used to design robots that could accomplish most of activities of humans, and in about 2035, there will be over 10 billion robots in the planet, an indication that there will be more robots on the planet than humans, and the robots will be performing almost all the functions of human beings,” he said.

King further explained that with AI, autonomous vehicles will be designed for our roads without the human drivers.

“When the technology is fully developed, no human driver can compete with autonomous vehicle that is without driver because there is a special chipset designed for the operation of autonomous vehicle, that has more information than the human brain can accommodate. All these are evolution of technology that is fast taking place across the globe. We also have the application of AI in the banking sector. With AI, banks can predict and make informed decision on how best to serve their customers. The biggest bank in the world will be driven by technology. With time, physical banking halls will be phased out and banking transactions will be driven by innovative technology solutions,” King said.

Funding tech start-ups

At one of the panel sessions, the issue of funding of start-ups was discussed. The essence, according to the panelists, was to look at the challenges of start-ups funding that has limited them to expand their ideas and compete favorably with global FinTech start-ups.

CEO, Venture Garden Group Nigeria, Mr. Bunmi Akinyemiju, said: “Investors are looking for three key things: The quality of the people that form the team. The timing of the solution to the market. The market size and audience who may be interested in the solution.”

He advised fresh university graduates who have great ideas, to join existing company or start-ups from where they could further develop their ideas. The essence according to him, was for them to gain experience before starting their own business. When they attach themselves to others, they will learn more and also de-risk their business as start-ups.

General Partner, Savannah Fund, Paul Bragiel, spoke on the different types of funding that start-ups needs. Listing them as Series A, B and C funding, Bragiel said start-ups might have great ideas and they needed funding to drive it, but insisted that the first thing was for the start-up to believe in themselves and in their solutions.

CEO, Trium Networks, Adedeji Olowe, said start-ups must have unique products that could stand competition in the market before such products could attract investment. Regulatory licence is also key to investment in start-ups.

“They must have operational licence from the regulatory body to attract investments from venture capitalists (VCs) who are looking for viable solutions to invest their money in. Equity funding is one of the best funding for start-ups because it removes a lot of liability from the start-ups,” he said.

Looking at the low volume of investments that start-ups receive from local investors, Akinyemiju said: “It is true that 80 per cent of the investment that Nigerian start-ups get are off-shore investment, but local investments are also picking up and I see improvement in that area soon. My advice for start-ups is for them to be patient about funding as local investors are beginning to see the importance of investments in start-ups. The VC ecosystem in Nigeria may be slow but it could get better. We also need merger and acquisition of some of the start-ups to make them bigger and stronger. As a nation, we need to attract crowd funding for start-ups as well and when this is achieved, more VCs will be interested in investing in local start-ups.”

Participants view about funding

Some participants, who attended the conference, said the issue with funding start-ups by local investors in Nigeria, is that local investors want to make quick returns on their investments and they are not patient for the business to start yielding money.

According to them, “Local investors are in a hurry to get their returns on investment. VCs in Nigeria should look beyond the gains of funding and see funding as a way of creating solutions through the start-ups that have the ideas. We need to create a culture of long term investment in start-ups. Investors should also invest to  grow solutions that will cause disruption rather than investing to make monetary gains. We need more merger and acquisition in the start-ups ecosystem where banks and organisations can merge with or acquire a start-up company and further develop the solution to cause big time disruption in the entire ecosystem.”

Women in technology

Another panel session that discussed the role of women in technology, stressed the need for the support of women, whom they said, represented a large chunk of global technology regulators and ministers. They, however, said only seven  per cent of venture capitalists who invest in start-ups are women and only  nine  per cent of global app are developed by women, and only 10-14 per cent of technology managers are women. They therefore called for full support of women to enable them take part as technology disrupters.

The Chief Executive Officer, MainOne, Ms. Funke Opeke, said: “It is inevitable that women play a vital role in technology development because women are passionate and committed to duty, and technology in itself, does not discriminate against gender. If women are left out in the technology space, it will create a lot of friction, so we need more women in technology.”

“Women in the rural communities have less access to quality education and most times those that managed to have access to education, shy away from technology-based courses, believing that technology courses are for the men,” Opeke said.

“My advice for young women who are coming up in the tech space is to tell them to step into the world of technology and explore it with confidence. As a woman, I took a bold step into technology and today in am able to set up a technology company called MainOne and I have taken it to where it is today,” Opeke added.

Managing Director for Africa at Element in USA, Mrs. Barbara Iyayi, was of the view that AI, which is currently driving technology development across globe, would not be complete without women involvement.

 “The whole idea of AI is to create new things and if women are left out in the conversation, nations will be missing out. Women are important in building tech products and digital solutions and they must be encouraged by the government and the society. We are in a world where there is clear gap of financial inclusion among women,” Iyayi said.

Managing Director and Vice President of Commercial, Mines in Nigeria, Adia Sowho, said: “Creating a solution that addresses women needs is not enough to address the challenges of women. The women have to be involved in the development of solutions that address the needs of the women folk. Women should be talked through the design process of any technology solution. We use data to make informed decisions and data does not discriminate against gender.”

Looking at the need for women involvement in the tech space, Sowho said:  “I think women should be given the opportunity to operate in the tech space. For example, I use to hire female workers in my organisation and recently, I hired eight persons for particular role and their team leader was a woman and the women happens to manage the team very well to deliver results. Today our staff strength is in the ratio of three women to one man and work is moving on well, and targets are met on record time. So I urge the men in technology who hire staff, to always consider the women during recruitment and give them a trial.”