Iniabasi Akpan is the Country Manager for OPay in Nigeria, an international fintech company which is a member of the Opera Group of Companies. In this interview with SEGUN KASALI, he speaks on the option B of the organisation after the okada ban by the Lagos State, among other issues.
How did Opay start in Nigeria?
Well, the fact is that Opay invested in a mobile money operator called PayCom Nigeria limited in 2017 and PayCom applied for license in 2010 and got an approval in principle from the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) in 2011, with a final license in the same year. The ultimate goal of Opay is what we are trying to do which is to drive financial inclusion. For many years, inspire of the normal mobile money operators and the other players, the fintech companies in Nigeria, you would still find out that financial inclusion is not deepened yet over the last couple of years. And that is one of the things that are driving Opay. Obviously, Nigeria is a very big market for this and if you look at the report especially the percentage of those who are excluded, it is far higher across Africa. Today, that exclusion as at 2018 was over 36 per cent. So, that is a big opportunity for Nigeria, I mean you know the number of informal people who carry cash almost everywhere and they trust cash more than they trust anything. And so, if you are going to include them into the financial payment system, which is the goal of the CBN, definitely there should be a way to digitise a lot of payments. So, that is a huge opportunity for anyone who wants to tap into that.
What other factors militate against financial inclusion in the country besides large population?
Obviously, there are regulatory challenges and I am sure you can see some of the challenges in the areas Opay made an investment. So, there are regulatory concerns. Nigeria has a risk factor. People are interested but at the same time, they are cautious.
Is that not threatening your business existence?
Well, you know business is not without risk. You always have to recognize that fact. Wherever in the world you decide to play, there is always a risk. You just need to look at the risk and then decide am I willing to take that risk. It doesn’t change even if we try to empower or equip a certain set of people in certain areas and we have run into some difficulties and then, we would change.
How much have you lost due to the challenge of the okada ban?
Well, I don’t know how much my competitors lost (Laughs). But, I think everybody is feeling some pain. There is no doubt that the okada ban in Lagos state cost us a great deal. But, we still have a payment business which is thriving. And I think that is the most important thing. I guess others were more hit than us because they don’t have a payment business. Our core is the payment business. So, that has always been the core of our business and not actually the ride business.
You actually downsize the number of your staff, was it as a result of that?
So, let me ask you this question- what would you do if you were in our shoes? I mean you have created jobs, employed people based on a particular plan and then something like that happened, would you continue paying the bills? Obviously, you have to cut back. We have no other option that to do that. I mean it is a painful thing. Obviously, not everyone was laid off. We had to trim down.
How many people were affected?
I can’t give you that. We tried to retain as many people as possible.
There are rumours that other states may tow the path of Lagos state in banning okada. Do you think the Opay would still be unshaken?
Okay. I think you should understand the dynamics of our business. Like I said, we still have a core payment business. So, if the ride doesn’t work, there are still opportunities for us in payment in terms of bank transfers, airtime. So, Opay itself is a payment business, but then, when you have other subsidiaries like the ride hailing, food and other delivery side which is O-food. Where we see opportunity that will empower people, we will leverage the digital platforms that are available.
Where do you see Opay in three or four years from now?
We hope to see Opay as a brand that will be celebrated across Africa not just only in Nigeria and that is very important for us.
How would you describe your achievement in this fintech space?
With some of the things we are doing and if you take a look at the report now, it show that mobile money is growing. There has been a rise in the use of wallet because there are more payment scenarios for mobile wallet than it used to be. So, you have huge number of people who could then make payment for a ride or food using mobile wallet that doesn’t use to exist before we came into the game. So, that in itself is a major impact because I mean the okada man could not receive a payment before. But then, he could receive payment.
You have been in the IT space for exactly 30 years now. How do you think the government can effectively drive financial inclusion in the country?
They need to come out with some policies that would encourage some kind of things that happen in Silicon Valley. You need to have a wholistic strategy to empower those who are coming fresh out of school to implement their ideas, have a basic infrastructure that would support them, put in place financial models that will support them. So, if you don’t provide them with the financial resources and infrastructure to do this, those ideas will not blossom. It will not translate into something that will be better for the economy. There are a lot of young people who are enterprising and with great ideas in this country. But, they just don’t have the financial capacity, infrastructural capacity to implement those ideas. So, they need to have that kind of infrastructure like technology hub and all of those things. So, the government has to make that investment. So, companies like ourself do the best we can to train people and expose them to some of the skills needed in engaging the global players. But, there have to be a government strategy to drive it. I mean a lot of people go to school and they come out and no job for them. So, they have an entrepreneurial mind. You have to teach those things in school.
Are you talking about the government reviewing school’s curriculum?
Exactly, I mean everyone coming out of school with the idea of creating jobs rather than I am coming into the job market. And it all comes back to what you teach them in school. And there are opportunities out there. You can create your own ideas. There are lots of things to do. It is not only the education side but also providing resources they need to do these things when they come out of school.
What is the place of Public Private Partnership in driving the creative industry?
I think so. It can help. But, who is going to drive it from the public side. That is always the thing. Obviously, you need somebody who is dynamic. Because now, we are in a new generation, you need young people who are dynamic to drive a lot of things. It is not only people who understand this generation that can do this. So, you need people like that who work in government who are part of government to run that kind of things.
What are the other subsidiaries of Opay?
We have subsidiary like logistics and transport. With the ban, we are going to be focusing on things around delivery. I am sure there is lot of discussions going around that. And very soon, I am sure that there will be some transformation.
But there are lots of people in the delivery space already
I mean everything boils down to partnership. We must understand that there are ways to partner with organisations. There are lots of organisations who are now digitalised. If you take a look at instagram and if you take a look at Facebook, any Nigerians have started doing interesting stuff but the biggest challenge we have is delivery. My wife is an example. She orders a lot of stuff through instagram. She goes through the product and finds the person in charge but the challenge is always how it is going to be delivered? You can connect all of those. So, it is easier to place to an order and get it delivered through various kinds of these platforms like ours. In that process of ordering, we are going to see more and more orders if you have right infrastructure to deliver it to the people because that is always the biggest problem.
So, you think the imminent logistics plan will also serve as a spring board for the company?
Of course, and it will also help a lot of SMEs who want to go online, who want to do deliveries but they have inner problem because they cannot afford to put in place the infrastructure to do that.
What about the cost of infrastructure to Opay?
There is no additional cost to us because we already have the bikes and we have the people. So, it is a function of now connecting them to various enterprises. Food is one of them. They want it delivered. Cars that you find on the road, somebody sent a driver to go and buy something and do you think that is why thre is traffic in Lagos? If I can order a coffee and get it delivered, why sending my driver to go and get the coffee?
Are you saying logistics will solve the traffic congestion in Lagos state?
I can tell you many of the cars you find in Lagos are either going to pick up something or drop something and it is always doing busy hours. So, if people can get what they order delivered, you will find out that there will be less traffic. I believe that. Logistics would make an impact on the number of cars that you see on the roads.