EcoCash: From start-up to 98% market share in four years

Task Force member Natalie Jabangwe is the CEO of EcoCash, the second-largest mobile financial services company in Africa. Currently the youngest tech-company CEO on the continent, the British-born and -educated Natalie was working a prestigious job in London when in 2014 she was recruited to come run a start-up in her family’s native country. A 2017 Oxford University Tutu Fellow, a 2018 World Economic Forum Young Global Leader and a Task Force member, she spoke with The Friday Reader about the experience of driving EcoCash to its current position of market dominance, the uses and temptations of power, and her vision for the Task Force.

Deceptively simple first question: How did you do it? How did you build EcoCash, in four years, into a company whose subscribers represent 80% of the adult population and whose transactions account for more than 70% of the country’s entire GDP?

Two words: needs must. You must meet the customer at the point of his needs. Often without even realizing it, so many companies proceed by designing and delivering products that appeal to them. They create what they think is cool and then try to market it on that basis and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. We do the opposite. We make it our business to deeply understand what our clients need and what their dreams are. We are constantly running surveys, running focus groups. Then we go back to the office and think: What do we have on our platform—or what could we create—that would solve their problems and delight our customers? It’s customer-centric not product-centric or tech-centric.

How do you keep it? You have 98% market share now. How does a company keep its competitive edge when it doesn’t have any competition? Business literature is full of examples of innovative companies that conquered the world and then got lazy.

It’s a question of values, ultimately. What we truly care about is serving our customers. If that is your priority, you can’t go wrong. If it isn’t, then nothing else you do will really matter. We don’t worry about what else is going on or not going on in the market. But we never really did, and it’s been working so far. We just focus on the challenges our customers face and delight in how we can create products to solve those problems. And we always will.

What were the challenges when you were starting out?

Being an entrepreneurial start-up firm in a market dominated by big incumbent firms. In the early days, we just operated below the line. While the big financial services companies were spending their big marketing budgets on above-the-line campaigns, we were quietly fanning out among the people of Zimbabwe, learning about what they wanted from a financial services provider and how we could deliver it. When we emerged from what I like to call “stealth mode,” we became visible in the marketplace as a serious player. Too often, the big firms try essentially to weaponize the regulatory sphere and regulate newly innovative and swift-moving firms out of existence. It took a lot of hard work the first three years to defend our position and beat back the vested interests. I often wonder what markets would look like if all players put half the energy into serving their own customers that they put into trying to force out new entrants. 

Moving to the Task Force, where do you see the major opportunities for the digitalization of finance to advance the Sustainable Development Goals?

I say this as the CEO of one of the fastest-growing mobile money companies in the world, but it’s about so much more than mobile. It’s about artificial intelligence, blockchain, big data, machine learning—it’s about applying rapidly evolving digital technologies onto financial services platforms to create products beyond financial inclusion. There’s financial inclusion and then what I call eligibility. Once people are included, what else might they eligible for? Digital financing makes a lot of new things suddenly possible. Maybe a person is a newly arrived immigrant or very young or otherwise someone who just doesn’t have a big credit file. Data lets us see that he pays his rent and utility bills on time—that should matter, and now it can. Or it might reveal that he has a big social network of friends and family who send small amounts of money to each other all the time to help each other out. That “social capital” should matter, too, and now it can. Along with blockchain, e-commerce no doubt will be a big part. That alone holds all kinds of potential for consumers to have access they didn’t have before to SDG-related goods and services they need, and for suppliers to produce and deliver those goods in more sustainable ways. I think there are limitless opportunities, and I am excited to be on this Task Force that will be identifying the high-value ones. As far as I am concerned, the story of EcoCash, like the story of Ant Financial, and IEX, and others is this: technology is creating new values in a very short period of time. I want to keep creating new value, and unlocking new value chains in the market, both through my leadership on EcoCash and on the Task Force.

What are the barriers and the risks?

A lot of people, including some in leadership positions, don’t understand what is going on. Even those who know one sector deeply—who really understand technology, for example—don’t understand finance, or don’t think very deeply about sustainability. If our work is going to succeed, we have a big responsibility to educate the market and all the players, first and foremost.

Who needs to be doing what?

I am glad that so much of our conversation at Davos focused on regulation, and I’m glad that in the Framework Document we landed on regulation as a key analytical lens. Based on my own and others’ experiences, I think most regulators want to do the right thing. They really do. They want to strike that balance between making space for innovation while protecting their countries’ citizens and the soundness of their financial systems. We have to share our experiences with them, educate them, make space for them to learn from us and from each other. We have to find ways to deal with powerful vested interests who talk about concern for safety and soundness but are really just interested in regulatory capture.

You are CEO of a company that single-handedly accounts for more than 70% of your country’s GDP. That means you have power. How do you understand your power position, and how do you use it?

There’s power-over and then there’s power-to.I am not really interested in power-over.I don’t have a lot of patience for moving some kind of control agenda through the channels of dominating people. I am however very interested in power-to– in influencing people and moving ideas through a process of empathy. I like to deliver things that I can lead and drive, but otherwise my power is more that of a counselor or an advisor. And again, for me, it is all about purpose. It’s not about where I am, it’s always about why.

Press reports always mention your age—that you are the youngest tech-company CEO in Africa—and the fact that you are a woman. How important are those things to you?

Not at all. I don’t believe in prejudice. That’s not to say I am not inspired by other women as role models. Before this Task Force was formed, I gave an interview where I named Maria Ramos as someone who has inspired me for many years. I am also inspired by Ursula Burns, who turned Xerox around and more importantly, inspired by experienced and successful people that take no prejudice on the traditional approach. Our Group Chairman Strive Masiyiwa, believed in me and has a good eye for innovative talent. I hope I can inspire other women, young people, people of color, and so forth, but I am not preoccupied with my race or sex or age. I just believe that I am and that I can.