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African entrepreneurs need to be obsessed with data & AI, says Cellulant’s R&D chief

2017 marked the launch of Jack Ma’s AliBaba Group eFounders initiative program, in partnership with United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). This is an intensive two- week training course designed especially for entrepreneurs in developing countries, whose businesses lean toward e-commerce. The initiative aims to help empower 1000 entrepreneurs in developing countries to succeed in their home markets and beyond by harnessing the power of technology.

First cohort members posing for a photo

The inaugural training, (the first of a possible five) took place in Hangzhou, China, commencing on the 23rd of November, 2017 and was attended by 24 Africa-based entrepreneurs. Some of the companies in attendance were Ghana’s Ahwenepa, an ecommerce platform for African fashion designers to display and sell their merchandise and Cellulant Group, a Nariobi-based multinational payments firm, on a mission to digitize payments for Africa’s largest economies.

Cellulant, founded by Ken Njoroge, (gCEO), and Bolaji Akinboro (CEO of Cellulant Nigeria) in 2004, is building a payment infrastructure that is powering African economies at scale by enabling businesses and consumers to make and accept digital and mobile payments with ease.

The firm operates an ecosystem that seamlessly connects all the players in the financial sector to their customers in line with its mission to build a world class business in Africa for Africans by Africans. Cellulant currently has presence in 12 markets but services 34 countries in Africa, accounting for approximately 12% of the African mobile payments consumer market as of January 2017.

Recently, Cellulant launched its two core consumer products Mula in Kenya, Uganda,Tanzania and Ghana; and Tingg in Nigeria.

Kenn Lisudza

TechMoran, got a chance to seat with Cellulant’s Kenn Lisudza, 31, the group’s young, charismatic Head of Global Delivery, who represented the company at the training in 2017. Kenn has been an integral part of Cellulant for a little north of 10 years. In his time there, he has nurtured several people, amongst them, upcoming acts in the African tech scene, like Abel Masai, whose company, Kocela, recently bagged the Payment & Transfers category award, during the Africa Fintech Awards 2017 held in South Africa.

Kenn is a “fun, brilliant and strict leader. He likes precision and accuracy,” according to Paddy Addalah, a former Cellulant intern. Here is what Kenn told us.

Tell us about yourself, your role at Cellulant and your educational background?
I am the head of the Global Delivery Team, and recently took on the role overseeing the Research and Development at Cellulant. I am basically in charge of integrations and networks, as well as overseeing the development of new product lines. I graduated from Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, with a degree in Information Technology.

How would you describe your experience at Alibaba?
(sighs) China was mind shattering, revealing, eye-opening. Everything was so breathtaking. The Chinese have built several roads and other infrastructure in Kenya, so you would expect us to almost be at par, but their infrastructure is next level.

China has a very large population hence technology is designed to match that population. In Kenya, it’s easy to plan to scale your product later on after its release, but there’s no such luxury in China. Technology is advanced there and I got to witness financial inclusion in action in terms of payments. The major players in the Chinese mobile payments space are WeChat and Alipay. They have become sort of a lifestyle. You can buy anything using these two platforms. You can even donate to a beggar on the street who has his own little sign with a QR code- imagine that! You only need to scan and finalize the transaction.

Alipay has a reward system, where you can earn carbon points while using the platform. After acquiring a certain number of points, they plant a tree on your behalf. This encourages people to use Alipay, while at the same time promoting environmental conservation, which is a major issue in China and globally. For me it was all about absorbing as much as I can and finding how to apply the newfound knowledge back home.

What was the major lesson that you brought home from the training?
At the Alibaba Campus in Hangzhou, there are a number of statues of tall, naked men, with their heads hanging low, looking at the ground. They serve to emphasize the theme of humility that is a key factor at Alibaba. This is evident across the board. The VPs for Logistics and Human Resources also gave talks at some point, and the same humility could be seen of them.

The statues at Alibaba campus

What major changes is Cellulant making, based on lessons learnt?
On the second night of the training, we were taken to Shanghai for the 11-11 festival. Also known as Singles’ Day or Guanggun Jie. It is popular amongst the Chinese as a day where they celebrate being single. It is a day where they get to socialize after a long year cooped up at work. The ‘holiday’ is very popular in China and as a result, corporates jumped in and turned it into a shopping bonanza, offering massive deals and discounts on various products, much like Black Friday. On that one day alone, Alibaba made $23.5 Billion. That night the CEO gave a short speech. There was noticeably no confetti or champagne popping. In Kenya, we tend to pop our champagne for much lesser achievements. There however, needs to be a culture of modesty and humility and a hunger to do more, which is exactly what we need to cultivate. Data and analytics are very important to any technology business. Take for instance Alibaba, a company that started off running e-commerce platforms. But today, they’re are easily a BIG Data and AI company.
With a lot of data at their disposal, they’re able to to use it to solve real life problems. Obsession with data is something that we need to really start doing.

Who did you meet at the training that impacted your life greatly? How did they do so?
Meeting Jack Ma was undoubtedly most impactful moment for me. He’s a leader with great charisma and visionary. He is humble, and for a man of his achievement and having done so despite the odds, it was refreshing to see.
We also got a chance to interact with one of the 18 Alibaba co-founders, Jane Jiang. She’s still with the business to date, with the same amount of passion if not more. This shows the importance of believing in your mission and staying true to it.

Jack Ma giving a talk at the training

Seeing as most of Africa’s most successful startups are built around the finance industry, what do you think the future of FinTech in Africa is?
FinTech plays an important role in Africa. It is a sector that emerged because the normal players (banks) needed to innovate around creating accessibility and convenience for their consumers. Today, we are still not there.
This field will continue to grow as problems surrounding financial inclusion and lack of disruptive innovations around how customers access their money continue to exist. African entrepreneurs in FinTech, and other fields as well, have an opportunity to solve big challenges that our consumers face today. They should be more deligent in identifying a problem/opportunity and create unique way(s) to solve those challenges. Above all, they should be committed to finishing the work the start. Entrepreneurship is no walk in the park, but the result of their determination will be worth it in the long-run.

Cellulant has won several awards, among them, the African Diaspora Awards in New York. What does Cellulant do to stand out so significantly against competition?
Cellulant has always been and continues to be a place where big challenges are addressed. To date- our core advantage is that we have built the largest payments ecosystem in Africa that tackles Africa’s big problems in every sector- a good example being our work with our eWallet for farmers or building the Ecobank mobile app across 33 markets. But possibly what makes us stand out is our focus on building products that solve a real problem for our users.
At Cellulant we apply ourselves in how we develop our products. Our driving factor is user experience: we ensure our interfaces are user oriented. Take Mula for example, today, it takes all the hustle and pain out of paying bills. Today, users in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Ghana are finding Mula as a more convenient way to pay their bills. This is mainly because we have aggregated their bill and the different payment options on a single platform.

Mr Lisudza receiving his certificate at the end of the training

On a lighter note, what did you do for fun during the efounders initiative training.
Oh, there was no time for fun. The training ran every single day from 8.00am to 8.00pm. By evening you were so exhausted to do anything else. It was tiring but insightful. We have a lot of work ahead of us in order to spearhead the type of transformation that is needed in financial technology- more specifically in eCommerce.
While mobile money has propagated our growth in the Financial Technology world in Africa, there is much more we can do to innovate around the way consumers and businesses alike receive and make payments.

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