Recruiting Americans ‘Who Have Bled’ To Work For African Financial Tech Firms

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Written by Dana Sanchez

South African financial technology startup Jumo has hired Ted Pietrzak, former vice president of engineering at eBay subsidiary Magento, to help develop its platform, Ventureburn reports.

Exponential growth in African IT means recruiting talent has become tougher for tech companies, according to blogger Contador Harrison.

Finding talent is the top issue facing a German company that does business in several African countries. The reason? Existing talent in the countries does not “fit” cloesly enough with their rather unique corporate cultures to catch up with the rapid growth in their business.

It’s not because African lack skills, Harrison said. African talent is some of the best in the world. “The issue is finding people who would seamlessly fit into the unorthodox culture tech companies tend to foster. Tech company culture is characterized by a flat organizational structure that made it essential for workers to have the flexibility to work collaboratively in small teams.

“Such fluid work structure marked by horizontal hierarchies and work flexibility, are trademarks of many tech companies and that is different from what African countries are used to,” Harrison said.

Jumo is on a mission to leapfrog financial services in Africa via high mobile penetration rates. It’s banking on the 80 percent of sub-Saharan Africans who lack basic financial services such as loans, insurance, and savings, according to Ventureburn.

The firm helps enable financial access through mobile wallets without bank accounts, physical infrastructure or collateral. Its first offering, Access, helps entrepreneurs, small businesses and individuals to access loans using only their mobile phones. The service is backed by algorithms which assess mobile wallet and GSM use to determine if a loan is  suitable.

In the past year, Jumo has been on a hiring spree, growing its team from seven to 100-plus, according to Ventureburn. With headquarters in Cape Town and an office in Nairobi, Jumo has attracted tech and data pioneers across Africa including from Google, Amazon, General Electric and Rocket Internet.

“We’re trying to recruit as much as we can locally,” said Jumo founder, South African-born Andrew Watkins-Ball. “We want to see Cape Town on the global map as a serious tech destination. There are some very brave and smart people doing great stuff. We want to be part of pushing that envelope.”

Pietrzak brings 25-plus years of experience as an engineer, software developer and project leader with a focus on payments and e-commerce including Paypal, Visa and most recently as chief technical officer at Magento.

His recruitment is expected to help boost Jumo’s reputation.

“He’s one of those guys who’ve seen things fall over. He’s bled,” Watkins-Ball said.

Watkins-Ball has successfully built and sold businesses including Gateway Telecommunications, a satellite service provider, which it sold to Vodafone for $675 million in 2008, according to Money2020.

He spent seven years at Salomon Brothers in London and New York before leaving in 2007. He found his first success building an event production business in Cape Town that included work for Quincy Jones and Nelson Mandela.

By partnering with Airtel, Tigo and MTN, Jumo has a footprint in Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, with Uganda. Ghana is in the works. Jumo says that it facilitates 50,000 to 60,000 transactions per day. By the end of 2016 it expects to do 250,000 daily transactions.

It’s kind of fun to watch the firm’s online mobile money transactions in the last minute — and mind-boggling too, assuming they’re in real time. Cha-ching.

When it comes to hiring key staff, “you want senior engineers who have lots of scars, because you can’t pay for that,” Watkins-Ball told VenturesAfrica. “It’s what helps you take shortcuts and avoid things from falling over.”

Pietrzak has moved to Cape Town with his wife for his new job. “I love what Jumo is trying to do here,” he told Ventureburn. “The concept of financial inclusion for people who don’t have access to any financial institution or resource is very compelling. It’s a big vision.”

The company is rolling out a savings plan and insurance products later in 2016. It’s also looking at healthcare and merchant solutions. Ultimately, Jumo wants to be the facilitator between other service providers and their users, Watkins-Ball said.

Jumo has some very high-powered backers who’ve sunk US$22-million in investments into the company including Leapfrog, GEMCORP and Vostok Emerging Finance, according to Ventureburn.