Reflecting on my first three months with an East African neobank 🇰🇪

On August 23rd I joined 4G Capital as chief product officer. It’s flown by and I’ve learned a load already, so this is a set of reflections as I face into 2022.

The job

Before joining I did a load of research on what a chief product officer does, and quizzed loads of friends and ex-colleagues who had similar product jobs. I had a big product job at Lloyds, but corporate companies have an entirely different set of dynamics, so it was important to do some homework. Responses were mixed, but with some consistent themes; create vision, steer the roadmap and deliver valuable product.

Dagoretti market

In reality this was a pretty accurate outline. My job broadly breaks down as follows:

  • Capture, document and sell the product vision.
  • Ensure we have a solid backlog.
  • Lead on major product initiatives.
  • Establish and champion good ways of working that enable close partnerships with tech, ops and other parts of 4G Capital.
  • Lead the product team, ensuring they have the support and direction they need.

The first three months have been skewed towards the last two bullet points, as myself and the CTO have focussed on ensuring the product and tech team have a solid basis for success. Sweating the basics in terms of team dynamic and communication has really paid off, and we’re now getting headway to get into the strategic stuff.

Familiar challenges 🧐

Before joining I assumed the design challenges of the role would be entirely different to any I’d experienced before. Therefore it’s been a nice surprise that so many of the questions we’re exploring are those I’ve faced before; what the’s ideal balance of digital self-service and human hands-on service, or how do you incentivise for one behaviour without introducing others that you don’t want?

It’s enabled me to bring a lot of more of my prior experience to the table, and most days I annoy myself by how many statements I begin with “At Lloyds we…”. Spending time with field teams reminds me of time spent in UK bank branches, and it’s been brilliant to witness our service up close and personal with the customers we serve.

Out in Kinoo market with Donald, one of our loans officers

Go go go

The single most exhilarating thing has been the pace. This is not a uniquely Kenyan thing, but more a reflection on the difference to the large corporate world I’ve recently left. In the past three months I’ve hired and onboarded new colleagues, delivered new customer features from inception to live, and run an RFP for a key strategic initiative.

Each Sunday evening I look ahead and think what’s achievable for the team, and this always includes some kind of tangible milestone, a meaningful move forward towards our aspirations as the neobank for Africa.

Learnings

It’s not all been sunshine and rainbows, as there are several things I’d have done differently, and key things I need to address:

  • Stakeholder management; the fast pace of the business means that key decisions get made on the fly, and assumptions then happen on who knows what. I’m thinking hard about how we introduce just-enough sign-off procedure as a product team, to retain our pace but avoid awkward last-minute hitches.
  • Language barrier; while English is widely spoken, Swahili (and variants thereof) is the language of our customers. An early call-listening session in our contact centre was a non-starter, as my colleagues scoured prior recordings for a rare English conversation I could analyse. I’m heavy into Duolingo and exploring a local university course, as there’s no getting away from the fact I need to speak the same language as our customers.
That time I stupidly sat in the back seat of a very cramped and hot Matatu (small and occasionally hectic buses). Not good for a tall claustrophobe.

Other observations

Some things I’ve observed in my first three months others might find interesting:

  • Mobile is everywhere but data is fairly expensive. I noticed when booking ubers that the driver would accept a booking, then remain static for ten minutes, then suddenly appear on the map right next to me. I realised they only turn data on for just long enough to get the booking/location, then turn it off until the last minute.
  • Chama is a common saving/investment activity for people in Kenya and East Africa more generally. More here.
  • M-Pesa the mobile payment system is ubiquitous, and I immediately miss it the minute I get back to London. It’s brilliantly mechanical; every merchant has a 6 or 7 digit number, which you use to pay from a balance held against your mobile number. This means for many their mobile is used more widely as a proof of ID than say their address or national ID.

That’s it for now. Will get another of these written sometime in 2022 as it’s going to be a big year. Big thank you to any of my colleagues reading this, as I have loved the journey so far and enjoyed meeting and working with you all. Twende vita!

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Ross Breadmore

Mum asked for a baby, dad asked for a transformer - I was the compromise. Chief product officer at 4G Capital.