ALP Seminar 2019

Akano: FinTechs Will Revolutionise Financial Payments

Managing Director, Upperlink Limited, Mr. Segun Akano

Managing Director, Upperlink Limited, Mr. Segun Akano, spoke with Emma Okonji on new trends in the financial payment system and how local financial technology  solution providers could revolutionise the payment sector. Excerpts:

 You founded Upperlink, one of the 11 licenced Payment Service Solution Providers (PSSPs) that developed a local payment software solution that is currently revolutionising the financial payment system. How was this initiative conceived?
We started Upperlink some years ago as a small firm that provides internet connectivity to businesses but later saw a gap in the financial payment system, where systems were run in silos, thus creating delay in financial transactions. When we saw the existing gap, we decided to develop a local payment solution called PayChoice to address it. The local payment solution is an infrastructure gateway that offers payment and collection efficiency. It was developed in August 2016, but became commercially viable in January 2017.

 Of what benefit is the PayChoice solution to the federal, state and local governments?

I can confidently say that the locally developed software has helped state governments with multiple accounts scattered across several banks in their states that were hitherto unknown to the state governments, to detect such hidden accounts, thus helping state governments to recover lost funds and to block further financial leakages. It is also of immense help to the federal and local governments for financial transactions.

 What is PayChoice all about?

PayChoice is a self service solution that gives comfort in financial business. It allows corporate organisations and government agencies with multiple accounts in different banks, to identify all such accounts and operate them on a single platform that is provided by PayChoice. It offers solution for instant payment of salaries and financial remunerations for vendors, merchants and contractors. Based on its unique operational module, PayChoice recently won the CBN Electronic Payments Incentive Scheme (EPIS) Efficiency Awards. Upperlink won the innovation award for efficiency recently  by beating competing brands in the Payment Solutions Service Provider (PSSP) category.

There are three major variables that determine the acceptability of software solutions in the market, which are comfort, speed and security. If a solution addresses these three variables, it permeates the minds of  business owners who want to promote efficiency in business. What PayChoice does is to allow organisations to conclude instant financial transactions before the weekends and public holidays set in, irrespective of the volume of transaction. So it saves the stress of delay in payment transactions.

Having won the CBN’s EPIS award, how do you feel that your solution topped the solutions of other 10 licensed Payment Solution Service Providers (PSSPs) to revolutionise the Nigerian payment industry?

We feel great and thankful to God Almighty because God has a purpose for our business.

What kind of technology innovation was put into PayChoice solution that brought it to national recognition?

We have put in a lot of technology innovation into PayChoice since it was first developed in August 2016, up till when the solution became commercially viable in January 2017 and we are still innovating till date, while building on speed of use and security around the solution. We built our solution around the Nigeria Central Switch, which is managed by the Nigerian Interbank Settlement System (NIBSS).

It took us about two years to understudy the technology of the Nigeria Central Switch before perfecting it in our PayChoice solution. So what we did was to leverage on the existing infrastructure of NIBSS to build the PayChoice solution, instead of building our own infrastructure, which of course is highly capital intensive to do. With PayChoice, we offer 24 hours service, attending to customers’ needs and challenges. The solution is locally developed by our team of young software developers, which make us unique in addressing customers’ needs without waiting for foreign expatriates.

Does Upperlink have other software solutions aside PayChoice that is addressing the financial sector?

We have various software solutions that are locally developed that address the needs and challenges of other sectors. For instance, we have EduChoice software solution that addresses that needs and challenges of the education sector. We also have e-Hospital solution that is servicing the health sector. Any hospital that wants to do end to end automation of patient registration, consulting, ward and laboratory management among others, can conveniently do so with our eHospital solution, which has proven to be very efficient.

Having won the CBN EPIS award with PayChoice, what are your plans to sustain the standard of your software app?

We have not stopped innovating despite the award we won. We are still close to our customers to find out new ways to serve them better. We are doing this to sustain the bond that exists between us and our customers.

How secured is the PayChoice solution, and how can it block loopholes to financial leakages in organisations and within government circles?

The development of any software must follow fundamental process. CMMI for instance, is a yardstick for measuring quality in the software industry, which also addresses the issue of security and our PayChoice solution is in line with CMMI standard. It is highly secured and can protect customers’ data any time of the day. Again, the software is developed in such a way that it has high level of interoperability to connect and scale with other software solutions and devices. There are lots of controls in our solution that makes it difficult for few people to cause security breach on it. For CBN to recognise our solution, speaks volume of the high level of security features embedded in the solution.

 Your solution is designed to address the gap in financial inclusion, yet lots of people and businesses are still outside the banking system with no bank accounts and they still carry cash around. What is your view on this?

The CBN is working hard to address the situation through its drive for financial inclusiveness. The CBN has put up a lot of resources in this regard through agency banking, which I think will help drive financial inclusion. The infrastructure that the banks need to drive financial inclusion is enormous and the banks cannot do it alone, hence the use of agency banking in rural communities as add on to the cashless initiative drive of the CBN. I understand that CBN is planning to license additional supper agents across the country that will drive agency banking in the country.

This initiative will help bring in those without bank accounts into the financial system of the country. There are volumes of money that are outside the financial system of Nigeria and what the CBN is doing is to bring those cash from the unstructured system to the structured system and this will enable government to generate data that will drive GDP.

SMEs are engines of growth in emerging economies like Nigeria. Do you have software solution that is specifically designed to manage SME business?

We have solution for SMEs and NIBSS has a product called MCash, designed for SMEs. It is a financial service product for SMEs, which save them the stress of having to deploy same solutions that enterprise businesses deploy. The solution will help SMEs to source for funds easily.

Government policies and regulation could make or mar businesses. What kind of policy regulation are you expecting from government in the payment industry?

Our payment industry is highly regulated by government through the CBN and over time  the policies and regulation of government have helped the payment industry to grow stronger. So we need more of such regulation and policies that will continue to promote industry success. One of the CBN policies led to the creation of PSSP  and the regulation after the creation, has been of high standard that has kept players in the sector on their toes. But one thing I will like government to do in the area of regulation is to cut down on the charges of financial transactions to enable small business owners participate freely in financial transactions. If the transaction cost charged by the banks is high, it will scare small business owners from doing electronic transactions.

What is your view about FinTech collaboration with the banks to drive innovation in the payment space?

FinTech players are financial technology service providers that develop financial solutions that are disrupting the core banking operations and there is need for collaboration between FinTech and the banks. Upperlink is one of the FinTech companies whose solutions are actually helping the financial sector to better manage their business, so I see the need for collaboration. All payment solution service providers are FinTechs, providing financial services to the financial sector and they need to be encouraged.

 Do you have plans to extend Upperlink solutions beyond Nigeria?

Yes, our dream is to operate in other countries outside Nigeria and get our business expanded. Presently we have established Upperlink in Congo Republic and we are currently working to expand further to more African countries.