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Narrator 1: In June 2020, Obinna Ukwuani, a Nigerian serial entrepreneur, was appointed Chief Digital Officer for the Bank of Kigali, the largest commercial bank in the East African nation of Rwanda. Such Pan-African appointments are not new, but the circumstances surrounding his, make Obinna’s story truly compelling. .
Born and raised in Washington DC, a high school valedictorian, with an economics degree from MIT to boot, you could easily expect Obinna to take his pick of jobs from some of the best companies in North America. But he had his eyes set elsewhere.
Obinna Ukwuani: “For whatever reason, I just really felt a desire to be a part of working in Nigeria, building up Nigeria, nation-building, creating opportunities, in my own small way. I felt I was gifted and I wanted my best work to be in a place where the impact would be maximised and closest to home.”
Narrator 1: On this episode of Built in Africa, Obinna Ukwuani takes us on his journey from shaping the development of robotics in Africa, to spearheading digital initiatives at the Bank of Kigali, Rwanda.
Obinna’s passion for nation-building did not just come out of the blue.
Obinna Ukwuani: “When I was 11 or 12, my dad sent me and my older sister to boarding school in Enugu, Nigeria. I wasn’t a bad kid, I was always a top student, but he really felt a need to make sure that I understood where we came from.”
Narrator 1: According to Obinna, those two years were pretty tough, but he admits they had the intended effect of helping him understand his roots in Nigeria.
Obinna Ukwuani: “When I had finished my education there and I returned to the US to finish the last 3 years of high school. I graduated, was accepted into MIT, I then travelled to Nigeria, I think the summer after my freshman year in the university. And when I got to Enugu – this had now been maybe 4 or 5 years since I had graduated – I met with my peers and friends I had made during the time that I had spent there, and we caught up and I was telling them about my experience. I told them I was in MIT but they actually didn’t really believe me.”
Narrator 1: To prove that he was going to MIT, Obinna’s friends asked him to build a website on the spot
Obinna Ukwuani: “So I just put together some HTML and CSS, did some Photoshop and all that stuff. And I actually built a website, sat down for hours and just did it. They were amazed.”
Narrator 1: Obinna’s encounter with his peers at Enugu literally inspired him to birth Exposure Robotics, an academy looking to expose young minds to the field of robotics, which he launched in the summer of 2012, while still at MIT.
Prior to that, he had engaged with the District of Columbia Public Schools where he taught robotics fundamentals to high school students.
Obinna Ukwuani: Before I graduated from high school I was the president of the First Robotics League team and my mentor, math teacher and team coach, Mr. Kenneth Lesley, invited me to teach for the District of Columbia Public Schools, as a summer tutor for robotics. And, I guess, doing the actual job, I discovered that I was really good at teaching and I really enjoyed it.
Till today, there’s really no feeling like it. It’s a truly transformative thing teaching someone a new skill. From there it just became another skill I put on my quiver.
I taught robotics for 2 summers and then this led to all the other things that I did; Exposure Robotics, NESA by Makers, Makers Robotics Academy, etc.
Narrator 1: It then became really clear to Obinna that the skills he had gained, and his various experiences, would prove very useful in Africa. So in 2015, his decision to move back to Lagos, Nigeria was so much easier.
Narrator 2: In January 2018, he founded the Makers Robotics Academy in Rwanda and partnered with the Bank of Kigali to provide intensive robotics training to over 40 children.
Ukwuani is very proud of the impact the tutoring programme has had on the lives of the students. He even shared some of them at Techpoint Inspired 2018.
Obinna Ukwuani: Over 113 students from all over every corner of Nigeria and even a few from Ghana. It’s the impact on the students, and maybe the fact that myself and my classmates that I led, we were brave enough to do this when everyone else was on Wall Street and stuff, we were focused enough to make this happen.”
Narrator 2: Obinna’s various ventures have brought a lot of Africans in the diaspora who have also been inspired to help contribute to the development of Africans in various capacities.
Obinna Ukwuani: “In the process, for the 3 summers that we did this thing, I also brought foreigners to Nigeria, other Nigerians to Nigeria who would not have visited otherwise, other Africans to Nigeria, Ghanaians, American whites, Cameronians, Nigerian-Americans like myself, I brought them to Nigeria for a 2-month period and we all just had a blast, taught a bunch of kids, made a lot of impact and really just had an experience that all of us would carry with us for the rest of our lives. I think that was one of the things that I’m really proud of.”
Narrator 2: So Obinna and a number of his classmates at MIT decided to embark on the robotics project at Kigali.
He believes its success, among other things, also contributed to his appointment as Chief digital officer for the Bank of Kigali.
Obinna Ukwuani: “I worked directly with the CEO and my direct predecessor, the CDO at the time. So it was the entire marketing department to execute that and had a number of relationships in Rwanda as well; I had been visiting for the last 3 years, very frequently every other month.
It’s also worth mentioning that in Rwanda, the leadership is really keen on giving young people responsibility; sometimes responsibility that seems super huge. So I just consider myself fortunate to have been chosen to contribute and I’m grateful that they acknowledged what I have to give.
Narrator 2: Besides his various tutoring roles, Obinna has also ventured into Agriculture by founding and chairing Bruks oil mills, a midstream agro-processing company. He also led business operations and product management for Nigerian Payments company, Paystack.
Interestingly, Obinna’s role as chief digital officer at the Bank of Kigali converges on his experiences in Agriculture and digital payments. He is primarily responsible for the division known as the Digital Factory (DF). This division includes engineers of all skill sets, product managers, data scientists, data analysts, and business analysts that work together to build channels and innovative products and services on behalf of the bank.
Obinna Ukwuani: “Like many banks, the Bank of Kigali had outsourced a lot of applications that are critical to delivering services to customers, whether it’s USSD or mobile applications. The DF was set up 2 years ago to start in-housing a lot of this while introducing new products and services like Ikofi to the market.”
Narrator 1: Ikofi is a digital wallet that offers financial services that are mainly focused on farmers, agro-dealers, agri-businesses, and other players in the agricultural ecosystem.
Obinna Ukwuani: “The easiest way to describe it to call it a direct competitor to the likes of MTN MoMo (Mobile Money) in Rwanda. In Rwanda, I think, around 60% of all the money that moves electronically, from a value standpoint, is done as mobile money transfers.”
Narrator 1: In Rwanda, you’re more likely to use mobile money than a debit card, and Finclusion estimates that 1 in 4 Rwandans use the service. According to Obinna, almost everyone has a USSD for MTN MoMo, which dominates the electronic payment space in the East African nation.
Obinna Ukwuani: “That’s the way things are just done here. Whether you’re paying a carpenter to work on your house or you’re buying a television at the supermarket, everyone has a USSD code for MTN MoMo so MTN as a telco dominates the electronic payments space. So there are obviously a lot of limitations to that. There are also systemic advantages to having a reliable way to move money around.
But for banks, especially local banks, local companies, the government would love to have a local player with more sway in the digital payments space. Ikofi was a way for the Bank to get their products directly to the unbanked. It’s a way of bringing more potential customers into the Bank of Kigali ecosystem.
Narrator 1: The Bank of Kigali is the largest bank in Rwanda with 79 networked branches and over a thousand staff. The government owned a majority stake in the bank before the company went public.
Though it had tried expanding to other countries, the entry of Diane Karusisi as CEO shifted focus to further deepen the bank’s presence in Rwanda and bring more financially excluded people into the sector.
Obinna insists that Ikofi’s main focus, for now, remains players in the agricultural sector because, like several African countries, an estimated 60% of Rwanda’s population is employed in the agricultural sector, contributing over 30% of the GDP.
Obinna Ukwuani: “And a lot of these people are not financially included. So the first step to that is to get them on some sort of payments network. Give them a place to store their money, give them access to different types of financial services. This is the dream of Ikofi and it’s very much a journey that is just beginning and it’s actually a really big part of my mandate to make sense out of Ikofi and the opportunities that exist.”
Narrator 1: Besides Ikofi, Obinna plans to gain inspiration from his experience with Paystack and the fintech sector in Nigeria to help develop the payment space in Rwanda, bring it up to date with world-class standards, engage in predictive analysis and to foster lending activities to farmers among several other initiatives
But Obinna maintains that tutoring young Africans remains his core passion. However, initiatives such as NESA by Makers have been placed on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic and for now, the Bank of Kigali’s digital initiative remains his main focus
Obinna Ukwuani: “I think definitely at some point, we’ll definitely see some more tutoring from me. Maybe another education venture or something else in the future. I still have investors who even now want to continue working with me on educational ventures. So yeah, I think definitely at some point.. But we have a huge mandate at the bank and I’ll just focus on that for the time being. But definitely, I’m looking forward to one day getting back to where I started.”
Narrator 1: Obinna believes his experiences over the last few years have somewhat prepared him for this role. He hopes to make his home country, Nigeria really proud with the work he’s doing in Rwanda.
Thank you for listening to Built In Africa. This script was adapted by Emmanuel Paul and edited by Muyiwa Matuluko
Research and interview by Emmanuel Paul
Sound design by Oghenekaro Obrutu
This is a production of Techpoint Africa
I am Emmanuel Paul and I am Oluwanifemi Kolawole
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