Interview with Tamara Cook: CEO of FSD Kenya

The recent news coming from the CBK about making treatment of digital borrowers the same as that of traditional ones is interesting, even more given the perspective of your new role. What do you think this institutional choice says about the pace of financial technology in Kenya?

I should start by stating that Kenya has one of the fastest-growing financial technology (Fintech) sectors in Africa, and mobile penetration crossed 100%mark according to data from the Communications Authority. FinAccess 2019 found that 87% of men and 81% of women had access to their own phone and smartphone penetration has increased to 36% of men and 26% of women.  This has helped drive uptake of digital lending and borrowing in the country, in large part due to the relative ease of borrowing using digital platforms, which typically do not ask for collateral or the borrower’s credit history. Moreover, many digital lenders make their services accessible to borrowers using even the most basic mobile phones. FinAccess 2019 found that 10% of Kenyans are using mobile banking loans and that 8% are using unregulated digital loans.  Uptake is higher among younger and male users.

Consumer protection in terms of transparency, treating customers fairly, recourse mechanisms, pricing and data privacy are all critical factors for getting appropriate credit solutions into the market. It is really up to the regulators to drive the appropriate course of action.

 

– You will soon be at the Afro-Asia Fintech Festival to talk about how innovation is powering leap-frogging of emerging markets, where do you see the next big leap happening in the FSD Kenya scope of interest?

I like to say that Kenya has a greater “possibility frontier” for fintech innovation than many of our peers, mainly because so many of the necessary ingredients are either in place or at least further along. We already have vibrant innovation hubs and 83% of the population have access to a formal account. We have enabling policy frameworks, and very importantly, the passion of Kenyan entrepreneurs and financial sector intrapreneurs. For instance, mobile money has taken off in a big way over the past decade. Mobile money providers are partnering with diverse financial service providers–including formal banks–to create services that enhance financial inclusion.

However, there are still stubborn pockets of exclusion within Kenya, from a geographic and demographic perspective, that we will continue to address in partnership with the financial sector.  These include parts of Northern Kenya, a far-flung, semi-arid region that has historically faced significant economic and security challenges. We are also working with women, as well as partnering with various stakeholders in the complex task of helping individuals and communities attain sustainable livelihoods. These are some of the areas that we are focusing on since they involve groups that happen to fall on the margins of financial inclusion and wellbeing.

Our overall hope is that the next “big leap” in building inclusive finance in Kenya will be about making financial solutions that make a bigger difference in Kenyan families and businesses. Despite the dramatic increase in financial access, financial health has dropped from 39% in 2016 to 22% in 2019. Our financial health index looks at the ability to manage day to day, cope with risks and invest in the future.  Current financial tools are doing a decent job at helping people manage day to day, with 55% being able to do this.  However, they are much less successful at coping with risks and especially investing in the future.

This “big leap” will, therefore, need to build on the progress that has been made so far, to pair technology with consumer insights, to craft new and better financial solutions in partnership across the financial sector, and perhaps more importantly with partners in other sectors.

 

– The Festival is eloquently dubbed “Fintech in the Savannah”. In nature that is quite a lively ecosystem and at FinTechStage we are obsessed with ecosystems! What is the one single step you feel is most needed to make yours stronger?

I wish that there was one single step that take the ecosystem to the next level, but I believe it will require several single steps from multiple corners. The Central Bank of Kenya reached out to FSD Kenya to curate a panel on building a thriving ecosystem for fintech at the Afro-Asia Fintech event. Based on our experience in supporting the ecosystem, we have pulled together a group that can speak to some of the biggest gaps.

For instance, we have an investor association who can talk about the challenges of local founders to raise funding from international investors, as well as the reluctance of local investors to place their funds with innovators.  We have an incubator who can discuss the headaches of founders in moving beyond the initial idea and team to scaling up toward commercial viability. We have a talent firm, well-versed in the types of gaps fintechs find when trying to recruit the right talent and technical skills.  We have a banker running an innovation hub within a bank, seeking to change banking from inside as well as fostering partnerships with fintech. Finally, we have a regulator who has tried new ways of fostering innovation while maintaining their commitment to ensuring stability and protecting customers. Doesn’t that sound like it will make for a fascinating conversation?

I guess you could say that the single-step required in Kenya is taking all of these great ingredients that are already in place—and bringing in some of those that are still missing—to craft a recipe that will help the ecosystem for fintech move to the next level, where it can really create value for Kenyans.