The Middle East and Africa (MEA) region is generally an up and coming region with respect to its wider economic development. Specifically, the region has seen a growth and importance in fintech, producing its own unique innovations, entrepreneurs and thought leaders in the space. As The Fintech Times in September celebrates the Women in Fintech we take a moment to hear more from some of the leading female leaders in both the Middle East and Africa. One of them is Lilian Makoi, who is originally from Tanzania but lives in Tanzania and is an expert in fintech and specifically in Micro-Insurance and Personal Finance.
Lilian Makoi, Master’s in International Business, is a Serial Entrepreneur who is passionate about technology and solving financial products uptake and literacy in the African market.
Ms. Makoi has founded various successful ventures including, JamiiAfrica, a Mobile Micro-Health Insurance product for the mass, Mipango App, an AI enabled Personal Finance app and a road construction company, StripesnSigns. Previous failed Startups she co-founded and learnt from include WaterTek, which was addressing water billing for the mass, a problem that the government took to address, replacing private entities. Before getting into the entrepreneurship world, Ms. Makoi spent over six years in the telecommunications industry in Business Development.
Describe your career journey
My first job was at Spice VAS Africa pty a Mobile Value Added Services Provider, as Assistant Administration Office, where six months after I as hired, I was promoted to Sales Account Manager. I then moved to OnMobile global, who was a global and leading player in content aggregation and content management for big telecom companies, where I worked as Business Development Manager again overseeing mobile based products like, Ring back tones, Mobile radio to sports and marketing portals. This job gave me exposure to mobile based financial products as I worked and sat within the M-Pesa team in Vodacom. I learnt a lot on how powerful the mobile device was at the time and the potential of the technology disrupting various industries! In 2014 I then moved to consulting for Flytxt Mobile Solutions, overseeing mobile based marketing platforms.
Two years later, I had a personal loss, where my house help lost her husband after a motor accident only because they couldn’t afford medical services. This lead me to building Jamii Africa, a mobile based health insurance product for the mass population. I kept my job for a year before I later felt that I had gained enough knowledge and industry exposure to quit my job and fully focus on building my own startup. That was when I got into various accelerators, including Techstars Africa, Seedstarts and XL Africa that helped us through the tough journey of building my first company. With Jamii, we have impacted a total of 11,000 families by giving them access to quality health care though a affordable and accessible health insurance plans.
While working on Jamii Africa, I also co-founded, WaterTek that digitized water billing, with the objective of being a service provider for the government. This was going well, until the Tanzania government ordered all digitization to be solely done by the government with not private public partnerships. We were then forced to close shop. In 2020, I also co-founded Mipango app, a personal finance application targeting to empower the Tanzanian mass with financial education, tools and opportunities to reduce the rate of self-inflicted poverty caused by poor financial practices and knowledge. We enable users to track their income, expenses, budgets and financial goals in a very simple and fun way. Mipango app is localized in country specific local language, with localized expense and income types. Leveraging on latest technologies, we use Artificial Intelligence to give free financial advice and link users to relevant financial products and investment opportunities to help them improve their finances and prosper. Mipango is accelerated by NIVIDIA and to date has about 1,000 downloads all within the first month of the app launch.
As a recognised thought leader and a female, what difficulties have you faced in your career?
I think the biggest challenge is access to funding, while most founders think we have had our luck in raising funds, in reality where it should have taken us 6 months of raising, we did 1 year to close a round! If you have raised funding round, you would know how tiring this is and for one to go 12-18 months of pitching and convincing, investors, it is not an easy task!
Building a team is one another challenge, where you know you need team mates with x skills but you can’t afford them. You are then forced to nurture your own junior team mates, whilst needed to grow fast! Again in my market, employees don’t value equity as compensation, rather, cash to facilitate life..this make the journey of building a company, very tough!
Corporate partnerships are also not the easiest partnerships to crack, this has also been a major challenge growing all startups I have been a part of. Positioning your company for partnership with a well-established organization, takes effort in terms of spending time to know what the corporates want and structure yourself to that want. Again, their wants changes as their internal teams changes as their KPIs change, it becomes difficult trying to stay relevant throughout all the transitions of teams to KPIs. In our case, we work with more than one corporate in partnership, with the same change in wants and priorities for each entity, again making it twice as hard keeping both entities happy and staying relevant throughout, to each and to both!
It isn’t all tough times though, once you have figured out how to maneuver through the systems and have studied the system and partners well enough, it gets easier, and actually fun learning and growing.
What are the future trends and predictions you see happening in the region?
We have observed a rise in digitization of most services and businesses, especially and forced by the CoVID-19 pandemic. The resistance to adopting to technology that was there in the previous year, is really dying,, with most businesses forces to understand that digital adoption is not a choice but a necessity.! This has significantly increased the appetite of investments towards technology and tech startups. For the first time we see local organizations aggressively looking for startups to fund, partner with and or acquire! Definitely a first for especially Tanzania! The adoption of smart phones in equally on the rise, creating a great environment for digital solutions uptake and obviously bigger market to serve.
The cost of data has surprisingly increased, affecting usage but users are hoping for a change in pricing in the near future or rise of cheaper charging internet providers (competition).
I foresee technology getting the recognition and support it deserves especially now in the region, with more investment flowing into tech based companies than ever.
What advice and recommendations do you want to give future female entrepreneurs and thought leaders who are based in the Middle East & Africa (MEA) region?
My advice to future female enterprises and thought leaders is for each individual to have confident in themselves and train to grow thick skin to not be discouraged through the hardships of entrepreneurship. Always remember, each entrepreneur is going through a hardship of t=some sort but using skills and experiences to maneuver through these challenges, why not you?
Also doing self-analysis of your personal strengths and weaknesses will help you know what areas you need to be complemented on or get help or be careful on and what areas you don’t need a second to process on. This goes a long way as you build teams, seek partners and investors. An understanding of your market systems, all the way from taxation to policies that affect your business is also very crucial and investing in personal development…from education to traits to your core.
And in all this, don’t think of yourself as a woman, the thought of you doing all these as a woman will scare you and drag you, see yourself as an equal to the men you are competing against or working with. Believe you are an equal, act like and equal and the everything around you will see you as an equal.