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Kawooya: Ugandan CEO ready to champion digital financial inclusion in Africa

Innocent Kawooya

Innocent Kawooya

Innocent Kawooya was recently awarded CEO of the Year 2021-2022 by TIG Network Afrika, a social enterprise that seeks to identify role models for Uganda’s youth to emulate.

The 34-year-old Ugandan has spent the last 13 year building and fostering digital innovations, with more emphasis on promoting digital financial inclusion. His personal motto is ‘Made of God’, and when we meet him for this interview, he is proudly wearing a rosary that he caresses diligently. Our reporter caught up with him in an extensive interview and below are the excerpts .

Tell us about yourself

My name is Innocent Kawooya, and I am the CEO of HiPipo, a position I have held for the past 13 years. HiPipo is a multifaceted, ever-evolving entity, and our interests are in fields as varied as entertainment, events management, restaurants, digital innovation and ICT management.

I thus wear many hats, and at any given time I'm involved in projects that involve computer programming, internet entrepreneurship, events management, awards, and music and film production.  Also, and as largely pertains to this article, I am a FinTech & financial inclusion specialist. HiPipo’s, and indeed my own major passion, is in the field of digital innovation, especially in regards to technology that enables the unbanked, the vulnerable, low income users and the marginalised to acquire digital transactional accounts and start to enjoy the benefits of being part of the formal financial ecosystem. HiPipo, primarily through its foundation, has quickly grown into one of the premier advocates on the continent for the creation and dissemination of such technologies.

It was this advocacy that served as the primary motivation for me to recently make a foray into politics. I stood for the mayoralty of Kampala, Uganda’s capital, with the slogan ‘Digitising Kampala’. I was also awarded CEO of the Year 2021-2022 by TIG Network Afrika, a social enterprise that seeks to identify role models for Uganda’s youth to emulate.

What was growing up like?

I was born in 1988 in Masaka district, which is in the central part of Uganda. Officially, both my parents are teachers. But in truth, they are so much more: they are prayerful, community leaders with an eye for enterprise. I have learned so much from them in those aspects, and they remain the biggest influence in my life. I am the middle-one amongst 3 boys, and we are quite close, not just in that brotherly way, but also due to fantastic quirks of fate that have seen us remain connected in our professional lives.

In between being a student leader and a pretty good footballer, if I may say so, I was also quite the entrepreneur. Even in my pre-teens I was selling goods as varied as sweets and rabbits. Maybe this is where I bring up my parents again, for they always encouraged me in these endeavours.

Which schools did you go to?

I am an alumnus of Harvard University (Professional Leadership Certificate), Sikkim Manipal University, and had earlier studied at St. Mark’s College, Namagoma (A-Level), St. Henry’s College, Kitovu (O-Level), Molly & Paul Primary Schools, and Victoria Nursery School.

Do you have a family? 

As things come full circle, I too am a father today. My three very beautiful girls are not just a joy to behold, they are also a primary motivator in my and HiPipo’s initiatives to improve the lives and livelihoods of the underprivileged and marginalised, especially women. Our ladies are this continent’s giant, untapped development reserve, and I for one cannot wait for the day when all have unfettered access to resources, especially digital ones, that will enable them fully unleash their innovative and entrepreneurial skills.

What have been your career engagements?

Most of my professional career has been right here at HiPipo. I am its co-founder, and started working here 17 years ago. It is where I learned and honed my coding skills, amongst others, skills with which I became proficient enough to serve as a junior lecturer for four years at the Makerere University College of Humanities and Social Sciences among others. Any young person that has had to teach people far older than themselves can tell you that it is a unique experience, and for one it taught me how to impart impactful training to people of various personalities and backgrounds.

Eventually, I and a few others were able to build what eventually grew into one of the region’s most influential entertainment platforms. This success gave us the impetus to become the visionaries and advocates for all things digital that we are today. It was easy to see that for us and the sector at large to grow, matters of digital innovation, digital inclusion, financial inclusion and cyber-security had to be brought to the fore.

A lot of what we have done under my leadership has been to accord our innovators, musical and digital, the recognition they deserve. That is how we created what have turned out to be one of the most influential music awards on the continent, the HiPipo Music Awards, which with their recent celebration of a decade further cemented their legacy on the continent’s entertainment landscape. We also delved into film production, and I was the proud producer and co-director of the first Ugandan film to be streamed on Amazon.

However, it is in the fields of digital financial services and financial inclusion that I, and indeed HiPipo, are most proud. We have been able to conceptualise and actualise a number of sector changing initiatives to put Africa’s digital innovators on the pedestal they need so that they can go about solving our problems. They include the 40 Days 40 FinTechs & FinTech Landscape Exhibition; the Women-in-FinTech Hackathon, Summit & Incubator; and one of the continent’s most distinguished gongs for digital innovation, the Digital Impact Awards Africa (DIAA).

These initiatives and their related activities, publications and implementations, have seen HiPipo rightly judged as one of the most important conveners of the various players/stakeholders in the FinTech and digital financial services space. And through it all our actions and advocacy have been geared towards having the unbanked, the marginalised, including women, youth, children and persons with disabilities, as the main beneficiaries of these innovations. It is why HiPipo’s major partner and supporter today is the Gates Foundation, and we are recognised proponents of The Level One Project. Indeed, in the same vein, I was in December 2020 elected as Chairperson of the Mojaloop Community Council serving for a year’s term.

All the above has been due to me working with a worthy team, and meeting so many inspirational individuals along the way, be they young innovators, or women leaders of informal markets. We are also glad we have inspired so many, and we as HiPipo move forward with ever more optimism that we shall achieve the goal of 100% Financial Inclusion soon.

What have been the most challenging points in your career?

Of course amidst it all the highs have been some pretty dire lows. One challenge continually stands out though. That is the issue of financing. 17 years and counting has given me a fair share of hindsight, and I can vividly remember how thick the air was with scepticism when we approached financiers and financial institutions alike back in the day. Yes, attitudes have greatly changed, but there’s no denying that a lot still remains the same.

When you seek to innovate, to disrupt, to turn the status quo upside down, the path forward quickly becomes chockful of doubters. Even as these innovations take root (think mobile money, for example), and are positively impactful to hundreds of millions, you still get surprised by how slowly investors and governments alike support the sector. I have had my share of cold, sleepless nights as I wondered where the next coin is going to come from.

And I advise any innovator to be ready for the same. So, even though HiPipo and I have enjoyed tremendous success, I am never blind to the fact that what others and I do in the space is many times just a month’s rent away from being abandoned. It is why HiPipo, through its various initiatives, seeks to publicise what our innovators are doing and hopefully attract for them support and goodwill that places them on a sure financial footing.

What is your assessment of the state of financial inclusion in Africa?

I am quite optimistic about the state of Financial Inclusion in Africa. Over the past decade, the FinTech sector has more than played its part, and because of it, you can safely bet that full inclusivity will be attained in the not too distant future. When you look at the almost 400 FinTechs (and counting) that are operating in Africa, add the banks, plus the mobile network operators that are creating mobile money wallets- over 600 million people have acquired functional transactional accounts that they are able to use every day- the progress made is obvious.

What will increase my optimism for the future is simple: down with the silos, and up with interoperability. In this regard, one of the things that needs to happen, especially from the regulatory point of view, and is doubtless something HiPipo is spearheading, is the creation of Instant & Inclusive Payment Systems that enable an interoperable environment, bringing together every single innovator and player in the same space.

Also, there’s the need to ensure that continentally we come together to leverage tested frameworks and rails, think the Level One Project Principles for example, so that we can build regional payment hubs and switches that will help in eventually cutting costs, thereby heralding the creation of affordable digital financial services that are usable by everyone on the continent.

If you compare financial inclusion ecosystems in Africa in early 2000-2010 vs 2010-2020: What are the overriding impacts of the latter compared to the former?

Looking at the first two decades of this century, for me, two things particularly stand out. First is how mobile money has proven to be an enabler of financial inclusivity. Even though it is what was initially suspected, today there is no doubt that Africa is a mobile first and/or mobile only economy.

The numbers speak for themselves: there has been growth so exponential that none of the traditional players (banks and whatnot) had anticipated it. In fact, they still seem surprised by what is happening. Some are still fighting the inevitable, but thankfully most have been wise to the situation, and are getting in on the action.

In Uganda, and I believe a similar situation exists in many other areas on the continent, the bank with the most number of accounts on its books is one that integrated with a mobile network operator and incorporated financial services for that telecom’s subscribers. This decade will surely see more of the same as the mobile phone continues its assault on the bank hall.

Secondly, and this is something we at HiPipo and everyone else in the space is excited about, is how FinTechs and innovators have continually sought to tailor the technology to specific niches. And as more have been on-boarded in the past decade than the past, the hope is for this trend of growth to continue, again with specialisation playing a major role. Chief amongst the challenges to be addressed is the ongoing one of overcoming the language barrier.

It is all part of the understanding amongst innovators that it is now necessary to serve different people in their different locations, all while satisfactorily catering to their different needs without having to replicate services.

They could be persons with disabilities, or refugees, for example. So yes, much as I view mobile money and the emergence of FinTechs (which themselves have been continually adapting) as the overriding impact of the past decade over the decade before, I also say that a lot of the impactful that is going to happen in this present decade will again revolve around those 2 factors.

Innocent Kawooya during one of his tech mentorship session

What more can international organizations’ do to deepen and sustain the impact of financial inclusion in Africa?

What I would recommend for the international community, and the various donor organisations, funders and agencies therein, is actually quite simple. If their intention is ‘to deepen and sustain the impact of Financial Inclusion in Africa’ then all they have to do is emulate the Gates Foundation. Indeed if they chose to, they can even join/partner with it. I will say from the onset that this not because of the support HiPipo continues to receive from the foundation.

The truth is that the Gates Foundation is now one of the most experienced entities at supporting life-changing initiatives in the Financial Inclusion space, especially in regard to the creation of instant & inclusive payment systems, switches, plus interoperable payment hubs and systems. Think of The Level One Project, for example: it is facilitating the creation of vast amounts of material and data which can be invaluable to innovators and creators.

The process of creating sustainable financial solutions has been greatly eased. Once Level One is combined with the Mojaloop OSS, also affiliated to the Gates Foundation, you come to the realisation that we actually have the fundamentals and the resources in place to build the interoperable payment systems.

At this point, I would actually then also ask that the international community join HiPipo and others like us, in our advocacy to remove the barriers that are preventing the above from happening. It is within our grasp to change the lives of many of the most vulnerable in society, to bring more women into tech and FinTech, to accelerate the dissemination, adaptation and adoption of FinTech. The resolution of demands like those in the Sustainable Development Goals would be greatly more assured.

Digital Financial Services is taking the center stage of inclusion in Africa, despite the reported exponential increase in onboarding, there is still a large gap of livelihood impact, what can be done to improve this situation?

Yes, it is true that though digital financial services are taking the center stage of inclusion in Africa, and that despite the reported exponential increase in onboarding, there is still a large gap of livelihood impact. But when you view the whole picture it cannot be ignored that a lot of the current situation is due to the well-documented gaps in governance and accountability that our continent still contends with.

Addressing them will definitely improve the situation. One has to imagine, if so much progress has been made even with these issues, what will happen when they are dealt with? We are operating from a far more favourable technological standpoint: the existence of frameworks like The Level One Project and Mojaloop ensure that building Instant & Inclusive payment switches and implementing things like cross-border interoperability are far easier to do than 10 or even 5 years ago.

But if our citizens are not getting properly educated, if they have no jobs, if the multitudes of our women that work in informal markets are not trained to use even the existing technology, if we live in places where the pandemic was not used as an opportunity to vastly improve and expand e-learning for our children, then a lot of the tech we create is not yet falling on solid user ground.

So, as we speak about matters like justifying interoperability it is also factual that scale is an important element in ensuring that when you have numbers those very numbers are capable of aptly using these interoperable payment platforms. It is not a secret that adaption and adoption have happened far easier and wider in places where issues like literacy and an optimal working/entrepreneurial environment exist.

Do you think that the use of blockchain, and cryptocurrencies can help financial inclusion in Africa? 

When it comes to blockchain and cryptocurrency it is important to remember that such technologies fall under the broad category of cryptography, and cryptography is already being leveraged to ensure that we create financial tools that are ever more secure and reliable. Mojaloop, for example, uses the Interledger protocol, which, as is known, is based on cryptography.

So blockchain in particular and cryptography in general will continue to be used to create the secure digital financial environments we need. Be it a hub, a payment application, open APIs, all those and more will continue to use the blockchain. And with security guaranteed, the environment to promote and engender financial inclusion will be at its most favourable.

Blockchain and cryptocurrency are also going to play a major role in the discussions inevitably to come on Central Bank Digital Currencies (CBDCs). Yes, many regulators and governments are still hesitant to begin the CBDC conversation, but it cannot be ignored forever. Secure adoption of CBDCs has the potential to vastly improve financial inclusion in Africa, again emphasising how the onus is on us in the FinTech ecosystem (innovators, regulators, governments etc.) to be proactive about the likes of blockchain and cryptocurrency to ensure that they are used to usher in the financial inclusion environment, safe and secure, that we are working towards.

How can we integrate this?

One of the best ways to integrate such technology is of course to pick from the elements of cryptography and/or blockchain that are available in the rich and wide variety of use-cases already in the space.

One would not be reinventing the wheel. For example, if you want security, the Interledger protocol helps. If you want an aspect of managing finance, then you can go the Bitcoin way. Use-cases and prototypes exist from which we can pick and choose to ensure that the use of cryptocurrency and blockchain is only towards the creation of a DFS ecosystem that is more robust, more secure and more reliable for users.

What’s the financial inclusion space going to be like in 2022?

2021 saw a lot of investment in FinTech. However, this progress was dampened by a single unfortunate fact, that only 1% of this investment was directed towards services deliberately set up to serve the needs of women. Therefore, although I fully anticipate even more sector investment in 2022, my hope is that the numbers for women-related initiatives increase considerably.

That said, I affirm that FinTechs and the various start-ups in the space will remain a good bet for investment overall. And there’s every chance that this investment will prove sound, for I also expect for there to be ever more impactful services and initiatives. Relatedly, speaking of HiPipo’s initiatives for example, I for one can attest to the fact that our efforts- including 40 Days 40 FinTechs & the FinTech Landscape Exhibition, and the Women-in-FinTech Hackathon, & Summit - will benefit from improved ideas and approaches. In fact, at the recently concluded Women-in-FinTech Incubator, which HiPipo started to improve the entrepreneurial and overall operational acumen of the woman innovators that feature in the Hackathon. Better and/or improved products and services, especially those that are tailor-made for individuals that still are yet to be adequately on-boarded, like PWDs and those involved in small-scale, informal agriculture, will emerge.

And as the products and services improve in delivery and user-experience, they will also improve in variety. Other than payments (P2P and the like), think insurance, borrowing and agricultural extension, amongst others, should be added to the fray.

The operating environment should also change. We are going to see governments and regulators come up with new policies and regulations. Many economies that were working with basic mobile money guidelines are now enacting formal acts and regulations.

Barring the occasional faux-pas, like what happened in Uganda with the tax increase which has led to increased charges on mobile money and data, most should be progressive for the sector and facilitate increased financial inclusion. 

I also anticipate the emergence of neobanks, or a semblance of them.

Your goodwill message for the year 2022.

My wishes for you in 2022 is that you remain in good health, and that FinTech continues to play a major role in that. COVID remains troublesome, and it is sad that we have lost so many. Its threat should never be ignored or understated. But the hope is that innovation continues to flourish, innovation that will keep you and your loved ones safe and out of harm’s way. Let us be even more disruptive, and come up with innovations that will prop us up where we are already dominant, like in agriculture, for example. A good fintech year will be a blessed year, and may we continue to make major strides to ‘Include Everyone’. May you remain ‘Made of God’. Thank you.

Comments

+2 #1 Ephrance Eunice Namu 2022-03-14 08:19
Well done Mr Kawooya! To many more years of victory and success.
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