Alpine Adventures and African Insights: Interswitch Germany’s Trailblazer's Tale
In the intricate tapestry of global business, where knowledge transfer is often envisaged to flow from established tech hubs to more emerging markets, a unique narrative unfolds within the realm of Interswitch – a story that defies conventional expectations and reshapes the way we perceive technology, innovation, and the interplay between continents. This edition of Switch Stories follows a remarkable professional who has found himself charting a different course. Through his role at Interswitch, he has witnessed first-hand the potential of African innovation and has been instrumental in steering its course. We sit down with Nicolai Ionita, the head of messaging at Interswitch Germany and delve into the fascinating tale of how working within an African powerhouse has ignited unparalleled technological insights that have yet to be conceived in other markets. Beyond his pivotal role, we uncover his fervent passion for sports, particularly cycling down the majestic Alps, a pursuit mirroring his dedication to both professional excellence and personal adventure.
Hello Nicolai, what would you say are three words that best describe you?
Helpful, demanding, and accurate
What is your job role at Interswitch, Germany and what does it entail?
Officially, ‘Head of Messaging’. I am responsible for managing the international SMS traffic which includes the contact to vendors or beta partners that we face on the international leg. It also includes assisting with all the domestic SMS businesses that we run. I advise where I can and assist with the domestic SMS business and all the messaging networks we have in Nigeria, this includes USSD and RCS.
Tell us about your career journey, what motivated you to pursue a career in financial technology, and how did your journey lead you to Interswitch Germany?
I was working in construction, it is a very exhausting environment and I wanted a less demanding and exhausting job with less working hours, that’s my honest version; construction was exhausting. I worked in project management, which is essentially still what I do, so I basically just switched industries. My long-term friend was starting Vanso Germany, which then was more telecommunications than fintech, and he needed staff, so I opted for the role. I can however say now that it is not necessarily less demanding but less stressful and more rewarding.
What do you find most rewarding about your role?
Implementing solutions. There is always an interesting project going on. Witnessing them and working on them is most rewarding.
Can you tell us about the specific role of Interswitch Germany in the overall work that Interswitch group is doing on the African continent?
It is a 2-legged business and one of them is hosting and providing technical services which includes USSD and MBDP. These are some of the platforms we provide to Interswitch Africa. We provide stable hosting due to our well-developed infrastructure; we are able to offer well-built, reliable solutions and services from traditional models.
In addition, we support with project development. Due to our expertise in programming, our app developers help to build state-of-the-art payment solutions and banking apps, which we did not know existed before.
What do you reckon is the motivation behind the kind of ideas that come out of Interswitch Africa especially as we are not as advanced technologically?
All the solutions around payments, all the ‘switching’ around payments, USSD and mobile wallets; I would never have heard of that if it were not for Nigeria. All the technology around payment switching, the interconnectedness of card to wallet and payment solutions on a mobile level is 5 years ahead of what we’re doing in Germany.
The banking system here is well established, we walk into the bank and just do everything physically, so we did not see the need to build solutions around mobile payments, it really is innovative.
You did not know these payment solutions existed before working at Interswitch?
Yes. Interswitch Africa has enlightened us with a number of payment solutions that we couldn’t imagine here in Germany. There is a misconception that the knowledge transfer is linear, coming from Germany to Africa but it is in fact mutually beneficial. We support with the technology to implement but all the solutions come from Nigeria.
Building for Africa from a German office must pose its unique challenges, could you share some of these with us and how you have been able to overcome them?
Timelines. Germans are very accurate, sometimes maybe over-accurate but Nigerians/Africans are not as accurate. This has definitely taught us to be more relaxed to a certain degree. During the last 6 or 7 years as Interswitch Germany, communication has improved a lot. By making sure we continue to work as one company and being well-connected to the relevant conversations, we are able to stay in the loop.
Could you share some success stories?
The USSD gateway. My colleague built this and when he started building it, no one thought that USSD will be a complimentary product you could offer to the banks. It has a long way to go and we are working on ways to ensure it could be monetised more adequately and build products around it, but it is definitely a success story. It started from scratch, and it’s being implemented more and more into every solution that we offer.
Which of the Nigerian banks do you integrate USSD for?
We integrate by default into the white-label Africa banking app so that is exactly why I call USSD a success. We have a solution that we offer for all the microfinance banks as well, we offer them a mobile app solution and USSD is a part of this, they can switch it off and on as desired.
How do you perceive the Fintech industry’s growth in Africa compared to other regions?
In Europe many solutions are directly serving the reality of customers and their environment, and the development is pleasant to watch but I have to say that in Africa there is consistent innovation taking place, things change rapidly, and it is impressive to watch. So compared to the part of the world where I live, it's really a tremendous development that's happening.
Is financial inclusion in Africa reaching a point that can be considered successful, given that many of our solutions are aimed at addressing this significant challenge in our region?
We started creating solutions to bank the unbanked ten years ago and I must say that we are not where I envisioned we would be. It is gaining momentum but not as I thought it would, I thought it would be much faster.
The reason for this is the fees distributed by the MNOs and the banks. For example, USSD could’ve been a solution for the unbanked because it's offline payment, you don't need a smartphone for this, and the fees weren't regulated by the NCC for a long time. So, the banks and the 'telcos' could charge fees that are far too high for the transactional volume that those customers could do. I however believe that we are on the right path and will achieve it in no time.
Beyond your role at Interswitch, what are your personal interests or hobbies, and how do they contribute to your overall wellbeing?
I do a lot of mountain biking and combat sports like martial arts; they help me reduce stress. With mountain biking, I go up by a lift and then I cycle down. The most exciting experience I have had yet is doing biking trips to the Alps. Sports provide an escape for me; it really is fulfilling, and it helps me stay grounded.
Are there any specific skills or lessons that you have learned from this that you find applicable to your professional life at Interswitch?
Focus. You cannot afford to make any errors when you are biking down a mountain, so you must focus a 110% (hundred and ten percent) and when you do business, you also have to have a high level of focus.
How do you envision the German division's growth and its contribution to Interswitch’s overall mission in the future?
I envision us consistently assisting in core functionality; helping to build proper stable solutions and state-of-the-art platforms.
I really enjoy working for an African company. It sounds strange yeah, because there are challenges when it comes to the work but there is so much happening in Africa and it’s exciting. There are so many problems being resolved and new-age solutions being formed. Having the opportunity to visit various countries like Kenya and Tanzania because of Interswitch has been exciting. I look forward to also visiting more countries like Rwanda this year. The job is challenging but gratifying.
What part of Nigerian culture and that of other African countries interests you the most?
The mixture of 'high tech' and 'low tech'. The disparities. Everything looks the same in Europe. In Nigeria, you leave Interswitch, a high-tech company to go to a hotel 2 minutes away and you see a roadside motorcycle repair man who’s been there for maybe 10 years, I have visited so many times and he’s always there. This intersection of high tech and low tech at every corner is so interesting to see. There’s so much progress being made in Africa and I love being able to witness it and play my part.