The future is digital, says Nigerian entrepreneur Uzoma Dozie, who left the world of traditional banking last year to launch a technology-driven financial services company.
Dozie, former CEO of Diamond Bank, which was acquired by Access Bank in 2019, recently launched a mobile-first banking platform, Sparkle, with the aim of using technology to provide financial, lifestyle and business support services to Nigerians across the globe.
Sparkle, a smartphone enabled platform, offers many traditional banking products – providing loans, enabling savings, shopping transactions, paying bills, buying airtime, and sending money to third parties. But Dozie believes that moving these products online will help to drive financial inclusion as Sparkle makes it quick and easy to open an account and adds value through using data to provide bespoke services to support customers’ lifestyles and businesses.
Dozie, whose father Pascal founded Diamond Bank in 1990, took the plunge to go down a new path after the merger with Access Bank was given the go-ahead, leaving the corporate world after nearly 30 years to join the ranks of the new generation of digital startups.
A year of product development led to the launch of Sparkle in June.
So how does it differ from the type of legacy bank he cut his teeth on? Sparkle, he says, is not a typical bank. While it offers banking services, it is a platform that looks at the customer holistically in order to service their needs.
For example, customers’ spending habits are tracked – how they spend, what they spend and when they do so – to see, he says, which habit they feed the most. Customers get regular feedback on their spending patterns while a chat bot on the platform will provide electronic advice on how to manage their money differently and answer their questions.
Dozie says this product will give small businesses, which often lack financial literacy, the tools to manage their accounts, access business services and improve their skills.
The Sparkle offering goes beyond financial services, notes Dozie. The platform will link customers to legal services, give them access to official documentation and connect them to other platforms to pay bills. A partnership with PwC will allow Sparkle to also provide tax assistance.
“Our platform will build a profile of customers that is much more than about what they earn. Lending decisions will be based not just on income but on their broader financial profile, which will reflect spending habits and a willingness to pay tax or settle bills timeously, for example.”
The corporate market in Nigeria is saturated, he says, as a result of financial institutions focusing their energies on this segment. “The real growth is in the SME space.
“Twenty years ago, your job options were to be employed by government, banks or oil companies. Now there are a lot more choices and many young people don’t want to work in established businesses anymore. They want to do their own thing and Sparkle can help them. Technology has given us the tools to do this.”
Dozie’s interest in technology began while he was still running Diamond Bank. He saw the impact technology could have on scaling a business with the growth of the bank’s mobile app users, which grew from just over 200,000 people in 2014 to 3.3 million by 2019.
“It took us almost 20 years to generate the same customer numbers via our network of branches. Technology helped us to scale efficiently, quickly and cheaply, which drives financial inclusion, but it can be difficult for bankers working in a bank to create a tech business. It requires a different mindset.
“That’s why I wanted to combine my years of banking and industry experience with my love for and fascination with technology to build a digital-first business from the bottom up. Sparkle is being built by customers rather than bankers. We understand their journey and pain points and can address them.”
SMEs – the engine of growth
The reality that the SME segment is the engine of growth in African economies is now widely recognised. But the process of integrating these enterprises into the mainstream economy has been slow. For example, there are fewer than four million registered small businesses in Nigeria, with a total population of nearly 200 million people. This shows there is significant room for growth.
Sparkle has signed up a few thousand customers since its June launch, but the real marketing push will happen when its international partnerships are bedded down. The company is collaborating with global giants such as Visa and Microsoft to add services and capacity. This includes assistance with education and training in the market, technical assistance, marketing and technology development, such as virtual banking cards.
“They liked our approach to building SMEs and having them on board validates what we are doing,” he says.
Starting a business in Nigeria is tough and expensive. Sparkle aims to lower the barriers to entry for startups by making it easy to open an account and to navigate Nigeria’s time-consuming regulatory procedures. It aims to, in time, link its platform to all relevant government agencies to ease the registration process for customers.
He says the government is working on easing business requirements, which will benefit small business. For example, the new 2020 Finance Act gives tax relief to SMEs, while the Corporate Affairs Commission and Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS) have collaborated to issue a tax number with a company registration certificate, previously a time-consuming process across two separate agencies.
Risk in the financial services sector has also been dramatically reduced by the introduction of a Bank Verification Number (BVN), a unique biometric identification number that is required to open or operate a banking account of any sort.
“The introduction of the BVN has gone a long way to increasing trust in the industry. You cannot talk about financial inclusion if you don’t know who you are dealing with,” explains Dozie.
But, he adds, there is still a tendency for government ministries to work in silos and more communication with the private sector is required to align priorities and legislation to the innovations taking place in the fintech environment.
Escalating fintech adoption
Running a technology business is not plain sailing. A big challenge is educating potential customers to move from their old ways to online business. At the basis of this is building trust.
“This requires a lot of education and handholding with clients to let them know how the technology works and what it offers. People quickly see the convenience of the system, but we still have to do the work of getting them there.”
The fintech space in Nigeria is one of the fastest growing in Africa, and the competition is increasing. Even his brothers (Ngozi and Chijioke) are in fintech with their company Carbon.
But Dozie says competition is good for the whole ecosystem. Having quality players in the market helps to increase awareness of the advantages of financial innovations and their education efforts benefit all companies in the sector.
Smartphone handsets are getting cheaper as is the cost of data. Research shows that data costs in Nigeria dropped by 75% between 2014 and 2019, fuelled by competition in the telecoms market.
The biggest competitors are still the established banks, he says. “They are starting to see the importance of the SME segment of the market. But they need a paradigm shift to be able to address the needs of the real economy.”
Dozie says although Sparkle’s targets for 2020 have had to be adjusted in light of the unexpected Covid-19 crisis, the aim is to sign up 200,000 customers by the year end.
He is confident it is achievable despite the economic hardship the pandemic has precipitated. In fact, the crisis may boost the business on the back of increased demand for contactless transactions and the growing willingness during lockdown to adopt technology-based services.
On the regulatory side, he says, the coronavirus crisis has also made government agencies more willing to see how they can stimulate business activity as the economy starts to reopen.
Sparkle also hopes to build a customer base in Nigeria’s large and active diaspora community. If they have a BVN number they can join the platform and, for example, send remittances without the prohibitive fees many companies charge. He says Sparkle has already attracted customers to its platform from countries in Asia and elsewhere.
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