African fintech startups can be disruptors or enablers


“We will disrupt you if you don’t want to play, but we will enable you if you want to access new customers.”

Such is the “joy of fintech”, according to Viola Llewellyn, chief executive officer (CEO) of alternative finance company Ovamba, speaking at the recent Dot Finance Summit in Kigali, Rwanda, last week.

Taking part in a panel discussion around bridging Africa’s SME funding gap, Llewellyn discussed the difficulties banks have in innovating and reaching new customers, and said they had a choice as to whether they are disrupted or enabled by fintech startups.

“We have the ability to disrupt, and to enable. There are challenges about getting banks to make decisions about whether or not to pilot. There is a case of “if you don’t want to play with me I will pick up my toys and go home”. What we say to banks is that they know full well they are losing shareholder wallet, and creating a gaping chasm between the formal and informal sectors,” she said.

Startups will inevitably find it easier to come up with innovative solutions than the more cumbersome banks, she said.

“Banks don’t have the luxury to experiment their way through failure to success. We are a fintech, that’s what we’re supposed to do,” said Llewellyn.

“They are bankers and they are going to keep thinking about how they don’t want to lose any money doing this. They are going to continue grinding over on their usual customers and they will miss out on others.”

Companies like Ovamba, however, have “an African sensibility to understanding business”, Llewellyn said.

Her views were shared by another panellist, Sharon Arungu-Olende, head of East Africa at alternative lending company Lendable. She said SMEs were very much aware of what type of funding is not available to them, namely bank loans.

“They know they can’t walk into a bank, even if they are able to show a track record. Traditional banks are not going to service them,” she said.

Arungu-Olende said this provided an opportunity for smaller companies to come in and use non-traditional data to fund SMEs.

“I don’t believe in the very near future traditional financial institutions are going to help,” she said.


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Passionate about the vibrant tech startups scene in Africa, Tom can usually be found sniffing out the continent's most exciting new companies and entrepreneurs, funding rounds and any other developments within the growing ecosystem.

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