“The future of Africa is digital, so adopt or die,” said Uzoma Dozie, the Former CEO & Group MD of Diamond Bank who reminded us of how he would choose data over banking any day. After over 20 years in the banking industry, leading Diamond Bank for 5 years and facilitating the successful merger with Access Bank to create the largest bank in Africa by customer base, Uzoma Dozie founded Sparkle – a lifestyle and financial ecosystem.
It was only a few days after his birthday, and the Sparkle office was filled with celebratory balloons in the shape of diamonds for the Chief Sparkler. When asked for the story behind his alias, “The Black Diamond”, he responds rather articulately, “I’m an extremist, black is my favourite colour. I haven’t worn any colour asides black since 2010 and being the CEO of Diamond Bank, I included that as well”. Uzoma Dozie’s passion for technology has been evident all through his years in the financial sector.
In the post-pandemic era, companies have had to digitally adapt in order to deliver products and services amidst the crisis. However, we can say that many are still scratching the surface. A simple walk through the beautifully designed Sparkle office will leave you amazed at the many gadgets used by the team to get work done daily. Uzoma walks the talk, not just as a tech entrepreneur, but as a creative one too.
At the age of 10, he discovered his passion for technology and expressed this through photography which, at that time, had to be done manually with film. To Uzoma, taking pictures with a camera was good, but staying in the darkroom for hours just to get the final result wasn’t. With the emergence of digital cameras and smartphones which transformed the industry, Uzoma revisited his passion and decorated the office walls with his work. This was amidst pursuing a degree in Chemistry from the University of Reading and an MSc. in Chemical Research from UCL, London. He went on to acquire an MBA from the Imperial College London while on his journey into the banking industry.
In his own words, “I started as a commercial banker in Guaranty Trust Bank, and then I had the opportunity to start the retail business at Diamond Bank. In doing that, it became very clear that you required technology to achieve many things. Technology has always been there for me, I’ve always seen its potential and looked forward to how it made life easier.”
The Need for Digital Transformation
“Digital transformation is how we use technology to change people’s lives. Tech allows you to take more risks, and therefore have more rewarding experiences.”
“We were using tools like Microsoft Teams and Zoom in Diamond Bank about 2 years before the pandemic started. Then, it was for the simple reason that it didn’t make sense to have meetings where you got 50 people from different parts of Nigeria in a room for two days when you could create, meet and achieve the same objective with technology,” Uzoma stated as he recalled the transformation that occurred while he led Diamond Bank.
“Embracing technology saves you the expense of having to wait for an emergency to switch to sustainable infrastructure. So you get double the benefits.”
Uzoma bringing the paperless system into Diamond Bank required a huge mind shift. He had to stick with it for the transformation to be complete rather than being a waste of time. He would refuse to sign anything that was brought to him on paper and everyone eventually got the memo. Even when he received his children’s report cards or paper receipts from purchases, he scanned and saved them to the cloud.
“I went paperless for four reasons:
- It‘s better for the environment.
- It meant more security for sensitive information and one of our core values at Diamond Bank was trust.
- I wanted to be able to track my data, and if it’s automated, electronic or digital, then it’s always easier to do so.
- It meant freedom! It meant I didn’t have to drive to the head office or a different branch just to get things signed.
Times have changed. Millennials don’t understand how people work without technology today. For example, going to a physical bank to open an account. If they can open an account on Instagram or Facebook on their phone, then why should it be different for a bank account? The customers of today and tomorrow are digitally-oriented and we can either upgrade or fizzle out.”
The Beta Banking Experience
“I’ll tell you a story about the beta banking app”, Uzoma said with a look of fond nostalgia. “Beta banking was taking banking from the branch to the marketplace, to people who were illiterate but had money; people who relied on the Ajo system where they borrowed and kept their money with one person, which came with a lot of risks because the person could die, travel or run away with the money. We did some research and partnered with Women’s World Banking and Visa, to create a platform that allowed us to mimic the Ajo system but in a bankable manner.”
The Beta Banking account was a digital savings account geared towards self-employed Nigerian women, to improve the financial health of women and other low-income customers. To do this, the “beta bankers” went into the marketplace and explained the new system to the market women, educating and training them on how to use it.
“We started to receive stories from women who were now able to save and pay for their children to go to school, start new businesses or expand already existing ones and much more. All this happened because we gave them a very safe platform to do so.”
One thing is clear from the euphoria of this story – digital adoption will allow a business to scale, increase the value it’s offering and make lives better.
“With about 40 million small businesses in Nigeria, the majority of which are financially excluded, creating digital solutions for them to thrive will solve a lot of problems in Nigeria, the first of which is employment. The second is creating consumption because when people get paid, they buy, and when they buy it also stimulates production, whether it’s food, education, or importation. This is what keeps the economy moving”.
Nigerian Businesses & Digital Transformation
In the words of Chinua Achebe, “In Nigeria there is energy, but it is not lethargic. It is strong, even aggressive, and if that energy could be directed to work, it will produce enormous results”. Taking these words a little further, one could say that if the energy was directed to the right work, then we’d have the results we desire. Nigeria’s problem is not because of a lack of work but rather of work done in the wrong direction.
Thinking about the Nigerian problem is one that leaves most people feeling rather exasperated, but Uzoma spoke with a futuristic vision on the issues he highlighted, “Nigeria is a very big country with many parts. One of the many things that I advocate for is that rather than trying to solve problems from a Nigerian perspective, we approach it from a point of impact. For different countries there are different strategies and there’s no one-size-fits-all solution for an industrial revolution”.
Millions of Nigerian entrepreneurs are still so financially excluded that their economic impact is almost negligible. Recalling the myriad of entrepreneurs he came across within the banking sector, Uzoma relays, “Nigeria has millions of small businesses and yet millions of people who are financially excluded. When you think of all the different exclusions that exist, it helps you think of the different kinds of solutions that people need.”
In truth, Nigeria along with the rest of the world is going into a different era – an era where the problems we have will need digital solutions. Therefore, we’ll need to have a new mindset towards technology to create the kind of impact we want to see.
“I don’t think of Nigeria’s problem from a financial perspective. I think of it first as an identity problem. We need to have digital identities and such identity will give you access to social inclusion which will in turn give you access to health, education and food.”
The New Mindset
The COVID-19 pandemic has had its obvious effects on the corporate world. It has changed how we work and also, the level of competition. Working remotely means people are not limited to hiring within their location anymore. One can decide to hire people from all over the world. This is just one of the many examples of how digital transformation is taking place across the globe. It is very important – probably now more than ever before – to keep an open mind towards technology, digital assets and all of its potential.
Sparkle is the financial and lifestyle solutions merger that provides freedom, trust and transparency as you navigate the complex marketplace. Sparkle enables customers to have freedom, that is, the freedom to create and explore easy and helpful ways of saving for different goals at the same time; the freedom to request for money or payments from friends, family and customers via voice command; the freedom to split payments with friends with one click; and the freedom to manage your inventory, generate invoices and pay your business tax whenever you want.
Scrolling through the app and observing its colourful user interface, one would clearly see that it’s a different kind of financial solution. “I put my heart and soul into every part of that app”, Uzoma said with a smile. “It’s almost like getting to know how I think”.
The innovation behind creating a combined financial and lifestyle solution is deeply intriguing, When asked about the inspiration behind this unique solution, Uzoma laughed and said, “Nobody wakes up to say, ‘Oh what a great day, I just paid school fees.’ Nobody wants to pay school fees, but they want their children to have a future. People don’t rejoice that they have to pay insurance but surely they want security. There’s a financial aspect but the overall objective is lifestyle. People want to be happy, safe, and enjoy life. That’s why at Sparkle we ask: ‘What do you want to do today?’ because what you want to do will inform what you’ll spend money on.”
This is how technology and innovation work: observing the problems that people face and creating a solution that is easier and faster than what is currently available.
“What we’re doing is not new. Look at Apple!”, he says, “Before now, when we wanted to listen to Michael Jackson’s ‘Bad’ for example, we’d have to leave our house, go out to the music store, pay money, buy the track and go back home, then get the CD Player or Walkman. All of these steps before we could enjoy our music. Apple shortened all those steps with their iPod. Today, I want to listen to a Wizkid song and it’s only a few clicks away.”
That’s what Sparkle does – they integrate many transactional steps into simpler functions. The Sparkle ecosystem is one that helps individuals fully transition into the digital world. Now with the introduction of Sparkle Business – an add-on solution to make it easier to start any business while tracking daily financial activities, entrepreneurs will not be left out.
“At Sparkle, we’re collaborating with people across industries such as marketing, human resources, branding, legal, taxation, etc. and integrating their services with ours to give our customers a wholesome experience. Eventually, we’re also going to be lending at a competitive rate, because we will have access to financial data that will offer credit worthiness to individuals and businesses.”
The Future is Digital
“I believe the future of Nigeria and Africa is digital. I believe that we have the resources from an intellectual perspective and the people-investment to achieve it”, he said while sharing some insightful ideas about innovation he hopes to see as mainstream developments in Nigeria’s tech space, such as including virtual reality as a learning tool, creating greenhouses to cultivate crops all-year-round in urban areas, and more. “What drives me is being able to be a part of the transformation and defining the future. In Nigeria, we have a lot of problems, and it means that we have a lot of opportunities to solve them.”
To the future digital transformers, Uzoma says, “Keep learning, keep trying everything, diversify!” Technology is completely defining how people live and everything is changing. So the more that you can learn, the more people you can know. The more diversity you have in your life, the better your chances of adding some value to our economy and the future of Nigeria.
The Spark is a social enterprise bridging the gap between entrepreneurs that need access to growth resources and the industry leaders, philanthropists, socially-minded individuals and organizations with the requisite resources to give such access.