Hearing From: Gwera Kiwana, Head of Crypto at Onafriq

Home  ❯  Interview   ❯   Hearing From: Gwera Kiwana, Head of Crypto at Onafriq

8th April, 2024 No Comments

After spending time in the trenches with her own African cross-border payments venture, Gwera joined Monzo to scale their financial crime operations and internal product as the company grew from 100k to 4M customers.

Gwera also founded Women Who Build Africa and also hosts crypto@scale, Africa’s first crypto podcast focused on the utility of crypto.

Can you introduce yourself and tell us a little more about your current role and how you got there? 

I’m Gwera, and I’m Head of Crypto at Onafriq. Though my formal title is ‘VP of Partnerships and Blockchain Payments’. 

Onafriq is Africa’s largest payment gateway. We’re moving money in the continent, but also out of the continent as well. We’re also a pretty big prepaid card issuer as card usage is starting to ramp up. African consumers and businesses are keen to be connected to global commerce, and we’re doing as much as we can to help with that. 

What are you doing with crypto specifically?

It was part of my job to figure that out when I first joined as the ‘Founder in Residence for Crypto’. It’s going really well! We’ve forged a few key partnerships, including one with Ripple which is supporting our existing remittance business. We support a lot of remittance termination in Africa, and some of the largest players you can think of leverage our network at Onafriq to facilitate payments. We have 500m mobile money wallets, 200m bank accounts and lots of other cash points as well. 

Onafriq enables cross border payments into Africa for multiple financial institutions on RippleNet. We’re an exclusive partner for Ripple’s ODL which supports our send money product for people who want to send money into Africa.

I’m also doing some internal advocacy, as I’m the first crypto hire into a traditional payments company. There’s a lot of education to share with our regulators, compliance and regulatory affairs team in the business, and engaging with them.

It’s really all about pushing to a world where crypto is not a big scary word and it’s embedded into our operations. Bringing the cost down, making things more efficient, and making borders matter less. 

Even having worked in financial services for almost a decade, I feel like I don’t know nearly enough about crypto… it sounds like you have a pretty significant role here?

One thing I often push back on is, many people don’t need to know lots about crypto. I think that becomes barrier number one for people.

The way you and I engage with crypto isn’t the way the rest of the world will. We’re trying to make small incremental changes to the way money moves to improve the experience for customers and the people who are using the service don’t necessarily need to know that crypto is facilitating their money movement, they just want to know it’s cheaper or faster than it was before… 

Essentially it’s a new form of value transaction that makes payments quicker, cheaper and easier.

There’s been a lot of hype around crypto since it was introduced, what are the most exciting tangible benefits it has which aren’t as well known?

Africa and the Global South has been a site of extraction historically. Either extraction or introduction of new tools and technologies where we’ve been dictated as to how we would use it.

With technology developments, that’s been shifting slightly, and the rise of mobile money has driven a lot of financial inclusion (for example creating mobile wallets connected to a phone number to replace banks). This was less extractive and more collaborative.

Crypto is the first time a technology has reached everyone globally roughly around the same time. In the Global North, crypto is still a big scary word, it’s difficult to understand, it’s wildly hyped and people are chasing yield and returns.

In Africa – yes that still exists, but we’re also seeing crypto being harnessed in other ways. 

In places like Argentina and Nigeria, where there’s currency crises going on, their currencies are devaluing at a blinding rate. People want to have their hard earned money hold its value. So instead of holding it in a bank account, which can be a low trust environment with particular governments, they’d rather hold it in a crypto wallet.

Bitcoin and Ethereum are much less volatile than some of the local currencies. We also have stablecoins so even in places where getting dollars is hard, you can now acquire digital dollars which enables people to have control and faith that their money will hold its value.

So there’s lots of use cases here: remittances, hedging for volatility, and plenty more emerging. Ultimately, we’re thinking about how we reimagine and rebuild a financial system that is more equitable. Crypto will be a net good for this, and I’m really excited about it.

The African fintech market is projected to reach
$65 billion by 2030– what are the major changes in the market you’re expecting to see?

One thing I’ll say is I’m tired of the Africa rising story. Africa has risen. But the positive work that’s been done already is not nearly done.

There are a few unicorns in the space trying to capture that value and provide that impact (Onafriq being one). I do see this momentum growing, but I want to see Africa being measured by its own yardstick. 

I push back on this idea of digitisation at all costs because VC models from Global North investors prioritise this. It doesn’t take into account the environment we find ourselves in.

One thing I’m seeing now is a renewed respect for cash and offline payments. A few years ago we acquired an agent network in Nigeria so someone running a business with a POS device offering cash in cash out services, bill payment, remittances etc can use Onafriq. These offline transactions are still incredibly popular, and it’s quite paternalistic to say “let’s all be digital”. So what I’m hoping to see is more focus on the ’hard stuff’. We’ll see a rise of anti-fragile business models which will take into account elements of growth in tech and fintech that don’t scale the way we’ve seen them do in the west.

Another major change is diversification of markets. A lot of concentration has been on the big four markets (South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, Egypt). And rightfully so, Nigeria alone has over 200 million people, Lagos has almost 20 million people – it’s a rapidly growing economy. 

But I see more focus being on the other markets, so Francophone Africa doesn’t make the headlines the way other regions do, but they’re experiencing very rapid and exciting growth. Countries like the DRC, we’re also seeing a lot of growth in. They’re experiencing socio-political and humanitarian crises but life is still moving and there’s still hunger and a need to be connected to global ecommerce.

And the last thing I think we should be expecting, is stronger ties and relationships in fintech between Africa and China. Lots of crypto outflows from Africa are going to China and East Asia because the supply chains are so strong. As that develops and trade continues to grow, I think we’re going to see stronger Africa – China relations.

You run a community called “Women who build Africa“, can you tell us more about it?

I met my co-founder Thea Sokolowski in Nairobi and co-founded Women Who Build Africa (WWBA) back in 2022.

We’re a growing community of around 1000 women and allies, with a unified mission to support gender balanced growth for the next generation of African growth.

We support three main groups: founders, investors and operators...

Our members come from a variety of industries: fintech, climate, healthcare, education, AI and Web3. We support our ecosystem with in person and online events programming that supports our three segments.

We have pitch coaching for founders, mentorship matching (which I thought would be difficult to support, but people are so open and willing to offer their time). We’re building a database of senior women operators across Africa at startups because studies have shown there’s a high likelihood they’ll become founders themselves – so we’re mapping these people out and supporting them where we can.

Then we have the WWBA assembly, a conference in Nairobi where we partnered with the Kauffman Fellows to invite 10 founders from across the continent to pitch. We had incredible feedback from that experience. Of the ten founders we picked out, almost all of them were profitable and it speaks to the fact that these founders have to clear a higher bar for investment. 

There’s so many amazing women building incredible things across the continent, and we’re running it again this year in November and partnering with the Africa Fintech Summit for that. 

Lastly, we focus a lot at The Heard on the role of public speaking and opportunities. Do you have any advice for women in fintech who want to do more of this? (Or broader advice for those looking for a career in fintech)

I actually don’t love public speaking. What makes it easier (or bearable!) is that I really enjoy what I do. I’m passionate about fintech, I’m passionate about payments and gender equality, so one piece of advice

I would give is to talk about things you’re passionate about. There’s nothing more awkward in my experience than someone speaking about a topic which they don’t care or know much about.

Also – say yes to opportunities that are in line with your expertise and interest!

And then listen to women speak at events and learn from them. I’ve really admired certain women in my network, like Dr. Leda Glyptis as just one example. She’s someone I really admire and her passion shows through when she speaks. So find people you admire and learn from them. 

You might not think you’re knowledgeable enough but you’d be surprised. The fact you think you don’t know enough shows you probably do know enough.

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