Mr. Segun Akano, is the Managing Director of Upperlink Limited, an indigenous software development company licensed by the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) as a Payment Service Solution Provider (PSSP). In August 2016, Upperlink developed Paychoice, an enterprise suite of payment and collections solution specifically designed and built to address challenges usually experienced by Federal and State Governments, MDAs, large and small corporate bodies, religious and educational institutions as well as other business entities in processing their payments and collections and it became commercially viable in January 2017.
Recently, Upperlink’s Paychoice won the CBN Electronic Payments Incentive Scheme (EPIS) Efficiency Awards, topping other 10 licensed PSSPs. In this interview with Daily Sun’s Tech&Gadgets, Akano speaks on Paychoice and the Nigeria’s payment system.
Paychoice philosophy is about self service that gives comfort to the users. There are three major variables that would determine the acceptability of your product in the market and they are comfort, speed and security. If those three are there for you, there is no way people will not patronize you. So, when we talk of Paychoice, we talk about comfort, the comfort is about me at any point in time, anywhere I am and irrespective of weekends make my transactions. So, it gives that liberty of freedom for you to make use of the service without having to look for assistance and that’s the philosophy that we are trying to entrench in the financial landscape. Up till now, some states would be rushing to do their transactions by Friday, Why? Because they know over the weekend the banks will not open and they want the state employees to have their monies before the weekend especially if it is running towards the Ramadan period or Christmas. You see that rush, once they do not do it by 12 noon Friday, the rest will be Monday and you see some staff crying because they would have loved to have their money due to one reason or the other. So, that is the stress we have removed from the public because your financial transaction, no matter how huge doesn’t have to wait till Monday. And you don’t need to say that because I have meeting this place, I cannot make it to the office to sign those documents to take it to the bank because Paychoice has taken care of it. We see this as a major setback to efficiency among the directors who approve final payment, so, this lack of freedom is what we have removed because even while in meeting such director can still do his work with Paychoice and it doesn’t have to be in Nigeria, it can be outside the country.
You have already laid an analogy with David. It is God’s anointing that made David to come from the back to the front. It is the same thing that has happened to us. If you see what we have been doing for the last decade, in particular, we have been touching lives (the motherless, fatherless and indigents. So, certainly God has a purpose for our business and that’s why, he is giving us the grace to have the skills and strategies to drive our business.
I have said earlier the philosophy driving Paychoice today is self service, comfort when and where you want it. We are relying on the Nigerian central switch which is managed by NIBBS and they have done a lot of work to make sure we have speed, security underlying the services. What we have just done is to be patience enough to understand the technology in NIBBS and we make use of it now effectively. It has taken us like two years trying to understudy them and by the time we understand how they work, we found out that there is a lot that have been put in place by the Central Bank to enable NIBBS to be what it is today. So, we are riding on that on that infrastructure. As you have said earlier, we are small, if we are to build our own infrastructure, we probably would not be anywhere. But, the truth is that, everybody doesn’t have to be building infrastructure, it is a waste of resources. Why don’t you leverage on the existing infrastructure and entrench on your skills with the front-end people. That is exactly what we are doing. We want to make use of our energy to satisfy our customers in terms of customer service. We run 24 hour service, it is laid down by the CBN, we make sure that every complaint is treated appropriately and we make sure that we follow up with our customers. We ensure that we get feedback from them, that is, what next do you want and because we code our programmes by ourselves, we don’t need to wait for anybody from South Africa or Canada, it is not costing us all that, it is only costing us the patience to needs of the users. And so, we look at every sector, what we give the education sector is different from what we give the health sector. Today we have a product called EduChoice, this service the education sector, we have another one called e-hospital solution that service the health sector and the rest of them. So, we have staff that will first understand the market and that is the difference. This is why we need to let government know that, it is not enough to bring SAP, Oracle,. They don’t understand our environment, we need people here, who have been living here, who understand the way we do our things and begin to convert manual process into automation. So, that is the innovation we are bringing to the market.
Importation of foreign software
As a patriotic Nigerian, if we must be honest to ourselves, we must stop capital flight. Remember, when CBN ban those 43 items about two or three years ago, the mindset was that, if we can produce some things here, why do we bring them from abroad? Because, it is depleting the hard earn foreign exchange. Unfortunately, software is not a tangible product, I am sure, if it is something physical, it probably would have been in the CBN list. However, so much money is still going out of Nigeria through software acquisition and we saw that as far back as four, five years ago. And we know, the solution may not be through a fierce order, why? Every business has the liberty to run the business the way it wants to run it, because it is not government that is paying them. The solution is developing your own capability to measure up and offer it at a lower price, so that a reasonable economy person will ask himself, if I can get this thing for N10 million in Nigeria, why I mine paying $1 million for it from India. That is why we have to invest in our own processes. We have CMMI level three maturity which is called capability maturity model integration. It is a benchmark to measure efficiency of any software outfit internationally. The highest level is level 5. But, that level is good enough to say, this is fit for purpose quality for any software you want to design. So, when we have it, we can raise our head up that the software is going to measure up and there will not be any deficiency. So, when the industry users now begin to see the alternative quality wise, they will opt for it. This is the pain we have gone through to ensure that, we have all it takes to develop software the way any other company across the world will and that is the CMMI modeling.
The idea is, we must be competitive. There is no order from Abuja that will do it except maybe their own parastatals but how many are government parastatals. The bulk of the market is in the public space. Look at the Insurance sector today, all the software they are using, who owns it, are they from Nigerian firm? And all the eateries, the likes of shoprite who owns it, are they Nigerians. The money on software is more than the money on oil because these are real dollarize item across the world. Indians have seen that and they go all out. In US today, if you are not a citizen, Google will give you job, if you are a programmer but other jobs, they want you to have your citizenship before they give you job. That exemption for programmers is a key thing across the world. Luckily, the crops of new students we are having in Nigeria are also good. In fact, that is the new paradigm shift that people may not know. In or organization today, we have graduate from both private and government university and even those that come for IT, once they do the job for just six months, they catch up. The idea that, we have graduates that are unemployable, I can’t support it again, as far as software development is concern. This is because, these students are already exposed to quite a number of all these gadgets while in school unlike when we went to school that it was rare to have access to laptops. So, they are already in tune, all we need to do is to have that enabling environment for them to be exposed and be coached. For us, we spend time with them here now and we have an ample of them that are talented. So, I foresee that in the next five year, you just found out that Nigeria is having a pool of talents that can migrate to other parts of Africa and form a formidable force that bring up software in all these countries.
We are close to the users and one thing about software is that the best software is the one that is defined by the users. So, we are close to our customers and we move with them. Every step they want to move forward, we move together. We believe with that we are going to sustain the bond between us and our customers which is very important. So, if you see our software now, what it was in June 2017, is not what it is today. So, we do a whole lot of upgrade and expansion and it will continue. So, any other person can come up with his own but we believe that as far as, we give our customers what they need any time they need it, and that efficiency of speed is there, we will continue to be in business.
The development of any software must follow fundamental processes and when you follow Capability, Maturity, Modelling, Integration (CMMI) processes, you can be rest assured that your software is fit for purpose. We also have the angle of other third parties in the industry. Because there is no software that is an island, we are connect one to another. So, every note point must be sure of what it is doing. When you here of security breaches, systems alone no matter how secure are still vulnerable, so, we put in controls. You can only be lucky that it is not a lot of your control is fraudulent. So far so good, we have got a clean slate. So, in Nigeria today, the breaches that are reported, if you probe very well, you will see that, there are bad eggs or connivance. But, there is no room for them, once you are discovered, you are gone. So, we are proud to say that, in Nigeria, we have high level of efficiency of payment services and the level of fraud is within the error margin.