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Digital inclusion as a catalyst for economic empowerment: Mastercard's Imelda Ngunzu

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Mastercard's Imelda Ngunzu has witnessed firsthand how digital payment solutions and mobile money can transform the lives of small business owners like farmers.

She tells the story of a tea trading organization deep in Western Uganda that was heavily reliant on cash. After enabling mobile money payments to small holder farmers, the general manager could pay his farmers directly to their mobile money wallets in seconds.

"He could not believe it, he sends us an email with words like, this is 'transformational', the farmers are asking if it’s 'witchcraft'," she said.

Ngunzu is the manager for H&D Markets Development for Strategic Growth at Mastercard. She is responsible for creating, maintaining and working with an ecosystem of partners within East Africa and ensuring that Mastercard's digital tools are adopted and used by the communities they are innovated for.

She is also the chair for Women Leaders Network, Nairobi Chapter, which is a Mastercard initiative with members across the globe that seeks to empower women employees to be better placed to seek opportunities within the organization, and beyond.

Ahead of East Africa Com, Emily Parrett caught up with her to find out more about her career and the ways mobile money is transforming lives in East Africa.

Emily Parrett (EP): You've had a really interesting career. What are some of your career highlights to date?

Imelda Ngunzu (IN): In mid-2015, I was selected by my then employer to attend an Executive MBA program at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa. It was an immersive study program that required me to travel to SA at least once a month for a week throughout the year.

By the time we began the program, I was five months pregnant, which meant traveling even when I got heavier, taking a break when doctors would not allow me to fly and resume when my baby was two months old.

It was the hardest thing I have ever done in my career. When I boarded that flight and left my two-month-old son, I cried the entire four hours, I questioned my priorities and my ability to be a good mother.

My daughter who was seven years old then could not understand, and it affected her school work, but I managed to finish all my exams and projects so as to graduate with the rest of the class, and I did quite well.

I consider this a career highlight because it gave me an opportunity to learn a lot; first that there's no limit to what we can do, there's nothing impossible under the sun and that we need to do better to accommodate nursing mothers in hotels, planes, schools and everywhere else that they need to be.

EP: Interesting, so what was the pivotal moment in your career?

IN: This has to be my transition from the telco world to payments, it was an amazing challenge for me to learn a new industry.

It also gave me an opportunity to not only focus on payments but also on innovations that drive financial and digital inclusion; something that I have found great purpose in.

I get to interact with people who need technology to improve their basic ways of life, and to be able to contribute to this, even if my efforts will only push the needle slightly, is something I consider quite pivotal in the greater scheme of things.

EP: Could you tell me about your work with Women Leaders Network?

IN: Women Leaders Network is a Mastercard Business Resource Group, with membership open to all women employees. Its mission is to empower the next generation of women leaders. We do this by creating internal forums to mentor, inspire and empower our women to be ready for and seek out leadership opportunities.

As the chair for Nairobi chapter, I am constantly challenging myself on ways in which we can reach and impact women in our societies. I want to focus in the next months to find a way where we can use our tech skills to impact women outside of Mastercard, whether it's young girls that we can help raise their interest in technology or small businesses owners who we can encourage to use more tech in running their businesses etc.

I am a big believer that we can use tech to empower women to achieve more in their respective roles in the society.

EP: Definitely, tech has such an important role to play in empowering women globally. The Africa Continental Free Trade Area (ACFTA) was implemented in January 2021. How do you think this could benefit women?

IN: In 2019, UN Women released a report on the Opportunities for Women Entrepreneurs in the Context of the ACFTA, in which it mentions that women in Africa are predominantly in subsistence agriculture and that women-led SMEs are beginning to participate in both regional and international export markets. It notes however that market access challenges limit their effective participation.

This and many more are challenges that the ACFTA could help solve, which I believe would avail opportunities for women entrepreneurs to grow their businesses and incomes.

EP: What are some of the barriers you want to help women overcome?

IN: Digital and financial literacy. In most of the communities we work in, it's not rare to find women owning the operations of a small business or farm, but shunning away from using tech and accessing financial services, sometimes letting their spouses to run this part of business, just because they do not have the basic knowledge on how these can help them or how to use them.

We've seen cases where women farmers will go sell their produce but give the mobile money numbers for their husbands to be paid to. Some of it is cultural, some of it is genuine lack of interest and some of it is lack of phones or bank accounts.

But think about this scenario for a minute, what it means is that women have less control of the money they've earned which translates to them not being empowered enough to make decisions about their earnings. If we can overcome the digital and financial literacy for women in the informal sector in East Africa, then we are well on our way to driving financial inclusion and women's economic empowerment.

EP: Of course, digital literacy is both a huge opportunity and challenge to overcome. What are some of the ways digital tools are adopted and used by your communities?

IN: I discovered a new one the other day, Africa118, because I am a fanatic of anything that can help SMEs, it is a tool that is helping customers to find local small-and-medium business and services. Can we also talk about how WhatsApp for business has helped SMEs connect to their customers?

EP: You'll be speaking at East Africa Com about the next frontier of African fintech. In your view, how has the pandemic impacted the uptake of fintech in East Africa?

IN: I believe there's more awareness around the possibilities of fintech today. I have personally shopped online and used the delivery tools the most in the last one year (e-commerce enabled by digital payments).

With the government of Kenya's intervention on the cost of mobile money transactions, we've seen quite an increase in these, which has helped drive down the use of cash.

Safaricom recently put the numbers at 87% increase in volume of peer-to-peer (P2P) transactions and a 55% increase in the value of amounts transferred.

In the development world, we've seen a heightened interest in the use of digital tools. International development organizations are reaching out more to seek partnerships that can help them better deliver services to the communities through technology.

My belief is that all these set off a chain reaction and behavior change moving into the future. Some of the habits we have formed will trigger more usage of fintech which will necessitate more innovations from technology companies. It can only get better.

EP: So, what are the critical enablers for the fintech revolution in East Africa?

IN: The adoption of mobile money in East Africa, with Kenya leading the pack here. If we flash back to what the possibilities were 10 years ago, and the ecosystem that mobile money has enabled, then we see quite a number of use cases that would not be available were it not for mobile money capabilities.

The other enabler is just the sheer need for these services. When technology companies build solutions that actually add value to consumers, then consumers uptake these services because they are adding value. If you take for example international money transfer services like Chipper Cash, etc., you see that there was a great need to transform what Western Union for example was doing. And again, given mobile money availability, it only makes sense for a consumer to use these services.

Partnerships, and without getting too technical here, it's important to mention availability of open APIs and API-first approach which many technology companies are adopting, the availability of which has enabled technology companies to integrate and provide "smoother" end-to-end services, unlocking an even bigger potential on what technology can accomplish.

EP: I completely agree with this notion of unlocking opportunities. It's like people are locked into where they are but technology companies can help open doors and build economies and improve lifestyles. Mobile money is a prime example of this, and East Africa is of course the home of mobile money. So how can mobile money help economic empowerment for women and marginalized groups?

IN: I alluded to it earlier, we first need to take a step back and drive financial literacy for women and marginalized groups.

The majority of the women, especially in marginalized areas, still consider it a man's role to run the finances for the family. While this may be true from a cultural perspective, there's great value that women can add to this process – our ability to look at things from different angles on the home front, for example.

Once we have skipped this huddle, these women will be able to utilize mobile money to trade, save, to access credit, to learn new business and digital skills, and there's no limit to what they can achieve with that phone in their hands and that skill in their brains.

EP: Are there any positive or inspirational stories you could share?

IN: Some time in 2019, we'd just deployed Mastercard Farmer Network (MFN) – our platform that digitizes marketplaces, payments and workflows within the agriculture sector – to a tea trading organization deep in Western Uganda that was heavily reliant on cash.

Their process was still quite manual, which meant that every two weeks the GM would transport sacks of cash from Kampala to Western Uganda, with all the risks of the cash getting stolen, and have the farmers line up for hours on end to receive their payments.

We had enabled a capability on our platform for mobile money payment to their small holder farmers, and with a click of a button and a few seconds wait, just because the connection is not as good, the GM could pay his farmers directly to their mobile money wallets. He could not believe it, he sends us an email with words like, this is "transformational," the farmers are asking if it's "witchcraft."

The next time we visit the villages, it's the song and dance that welcome us, from the women, that tell the story better than that email.

EP: What are some challenges that must be overcome?

IN: I tell the story above with so much pride, because it's not unique. I have a similar story for Eastern Uganda, Northern Uganda, Northern Tanzania, the Southern highlands of Tanzania and the list is endless. There's so much opportunity for digital inclusion across East Africa, but the challenges are in equal measure.

In Tanzania and Uganda for example, mobile phones, mobile money and cash out points penetration and usage are not as good as in Kenya. We have found communities where 70% of farmers do not have a mobile phone, we have found areas where the next cash out point is 20kms away. We've found areas where Internet connectivity is non-existent, mobile phones still connect using 2G, and don't get me started on the lack of electricity.

These are huge challenges that are great barriers to tech adoption, which I believe if solved, we'd see more usage of technology by the marginalized communities and we'll help them to better realize the full benefits of technology.

— Imelda Ngunzu will be speaking at the virtual East Africa Com taking place on May 11-12, 2021.

Related posts:

*Top image is of Imelda Ngunzu, manager H&D Markets Development for Strategic Growth at Mastercard (Source: Munene Njagii).

— Emily Parrett, Associate Marketing Manager, Prospects, Africa Tech Festival

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