My Life In Tech is putting human faces to some of the innovative startups, investments and policy formations driving the technology sector across Africa.
Owen Odia is keen to see how money evolves in the future. She is also keen about financial wealth creation and inclusion and as Country Manager (Nigeria) at Luno, she has merged her interest in virtual currencies and a passion to educate in hopes that more Nigerians and Africans can understand and adopt its use. This is her life in tech.
Money wasn’t always the medium of value exchange in the history of man’s civilisation. Before shekels of silver and paper monies, value was directly exchanged between individuals through items that both parties thought were of somewhat equal value and worth trading, a practice that is still in use today; salt for some spice, a bowl of porridge for a birthright, some milk for a bowl of cereal.
Over the years, money has continuously evolved, from the first official currency in 600BC and the first paper currency in 700BC to mobile and virtual monies, or cryptocurrencies, in the 21st century the first of which was created in 2009 by a pseudonymous person (or persons) named Satoshi Nakamoto.
Born in Zaria, a commercial city in northern Nigeria, Owenize Odia heads Nigeria operations at Luno, a virtual money trading, transaction and investment training company headquartered in London and with presence in 40 countries across the world.
Odia’s interest in technology was a second choice behind her dreams to become an architect. The only female child of her parents, her first choice of school did not sit well with her father and led her to a degree in computer engineering at the Benson Idahosa University in Benin where her family had moved to. Odia graduated one of the top students in her class and after her desire to move to the UK for a Master’s degree fell through, she joined Zenith Bank’s marketing department where she spent almost a year before finally pursuing a Master’s degree in Mobile Computing. She returned to Nigeria, to Zenith Bank right on time.
“That was around the same time the CBN [Central Bank of Nigeria] started giving out mobile money licenses,” Odia says.
“And I thought, you know what, since I just finished studying Mobile Computing abroad, let me come and show them what I’m made of.”
Owen led the Zenith Bank mobile money team from 2012 when the bank obtained a license and launched its mobile money service, EaZyMoney in partnership with Visafone.
“I designed the mobile banking interface, the front end, and I had programmers do the backend,” she says.
After a cumulative eight years at Zenith Bank, Odia decided to move her career in financial technology towards a new direction.
“I liked the idea behind cryptocurrency, the idea of money on the internet, and this was something I wanted to be part of,” Odia says. She found Luno online, sent a cold pitch and met up with the leadership team sometime later when they were in the country for an event. The rest, they say, is history.
Angst with available cross-border payment infrastructure, increasing financial literacy and desire to build sustainable wealth, and the idea that a single global currency can stabilise global financial systems are some of the reasons cryptocurrencies have become popular on the continent in the last five years.
According to Hootsuite’s 2019 Global Digital Yearbook, 10.7% of South Africans possess cryptocurrencies—the highest of the 40+ countries surveyed. Nigeria came in at 7.8%, and Ghana at 7.3%.
Luno is one of a number of platforms that allows individuals send and receive payments via a range of cryptocurrencies, buy and sell, or hold crypto assets. With a 3million+ user base, key to its services are its knowledge building and sharing around trading and investing in cryptocurrencies. As a country manager, part of Odia’s role involves overseeing the execution of training and knowledge sharing events around the country and the ability to impact some understanding of virtual currencies to individuals especially young Nigerians, is something she considers crucial in her work.
“I don’t expect you to invest in something you don’t know about.”
Last year, the team conducted a school tour of universities in the country, and according to Odia, not only was the turn out great, the interest was palpable, some of it being around her gender—a woman thoroughly knowledgeable about the cryptocurrency market.
“It was very impressive,” she says.
In spite of growing interest and measurable adoption of virtual currencies in transactions, the volatility of the market, peripheral understanding of the technology and regulator bottlenecks still pose huge challenges to whether it becomes the future of money indeed.
“Regulation is very important. It brings clarity to your business and it keeps bad players away,” Odia says.
Across the continent, governments and financial sector regulators have simply rejected the import of virtual currencies or dragged their feet towards erecting operational frameworks for the space.
In 2017, Nigeria’s apex bank released a circular to banking institutions in the country instructing them to not use, hold or trade in cryptocurrencies; to do their due diligence if they were to bank with companies like Luno and to report any suspicious activity to the Nigerian Financial Intelligence Unit (NFIU).
“A lot of banks were sceptical about dealing with us, in fact we still have those issues now,” says Odia and adds that some institutions are insisting that only an addendum to the apex bank’s circular can change their stance on virtual currencies. Unsurprisingly, customer faith in the technology is also shaky when institutions like the Central Bank express their disapproval.
“A lot of customers say they do not want to invest in crypto because it is not backed by the CBN,” Odia adds.
While countries like Morocco, Egypt and mauritius have completely ruled out the possibilities for their citizens, others like Rwanda, Nigeria, and South Africa are forming committees to better assist the government and regulatory stakeholders understand the technology and inform what rules and guidelines need to be put into place.
Luno has a government-approved license to operate in Malaysia, Odia says, but in most of its other markets, conversations are constantly ongoing with regulatory stakeholders and governments, first to educate and then to develop frameworks around the use of virtual currencies.
This hesitancy is not specific to the continent. Facebook’s Libra Coin met with so much backlash last year that it was instructed to halt plans for its launch and all its bigshot backers dropped interest in the project.
In addition to the volatility of the market and regulatory bottlenecks that many say arise from the decentralised nature of the virtual currency and the need for global economic powers to remain in control, there are also concerns about how much energy mining virtual currencies consumes (Africa is power deficient as it is) and digital insecurity when it comes to cryptocurrencies.
Last year, cyber criminals netted US$4.3 billion from digital currency exchanges, investors and users with the largest cybertheft causing a loss of US$2.9 billion worth of coins in one full sweep.
Whether or not the adoption of virtual currencies become mainstream is anyone’s guess but in another five years, Odia hopes that there will be more definitieve regulation in place not only to guide activity in the sector but to also aid weed out the bad players and deepen confidence from customers and banking institutions. Education is also very key in this mix.
Odia credits her success so far as a country manager to not only her ability to connect with people but also an in-depth understanding of her field and what needs to be done when.
“As long as I know what I am talking about, I don’t have a problem connecting with anyone,” she says and a huge part of this lies in her continuous drive to learn, to continue to develop technical capabilities in the sector and the desire to see the impact that a decentralised value exchange system could potentially have in the future.