Vince Mountaga Diop: Story of a Pioneer
The Ethiopian Fintech industry has witnessed significant growth over the past decades. Entrepreneurs have a huge part to play in this expansion. Loline had a chance to speak to one of the pioneers of Fintech in Ethiopia, Vince Mountaga Diop.
Born in France to a Senegalese father and a Dutch mother, Vince Mountaga spent his childhood in Ethiopia. Vince has a soft spot for Ethiopia, as evidenced by the Ethiopian names he gave to all six of his children. In 1979, he left Ethiopia for Senegal to further his education, enrolling in a military polytechnic school that focused on STEM fields. He then went to Canada to further his IT skills before returning to Senegal to implement Dakar's vital events registration database. Four years later, he became Senegal's head of state's advisor, making him the country's youngest advisor. Speaking about his experience, he says,
At a young age, I had the chance to see how nations were planning their development in the IT space and be a part of it.
Vince’s journey later steered towards the business venture. His first project was called NSA (Network System Area). He says that it was an extremely ambitious project that took longer to complete than he had planned. “It was one of the first companies in Senegal where we had developers coding” he adds. His second venture, Alphacad, outsourced digitized maps to the French market. He then made a “big switch” by moving to Canada once more. Vince states that he wanted to explore new venues of business. “I was a good software engineer, but I didn’t have any skills in terms of selling. I wanted to learn how to sell and how to build a distribution network” he says. With that in mind, he joined a group called Sydcor, which initially sold basic goods before expanding to offer more complex solutions to bigger businesses. Vince claims that as a result, he developed two types of knowledge: the ability to operate systems and to distribute products. This motivated him to start his own pre-paid debit card company. Based on existing platforms and infrastructure, Vince’s venture sought to sell pre-paid debit cards to Quebec’s mostly underbanked immigrant population. The value of building and owning platforms and infrastructure rather than relying on pre-existing ones was one of the most crucial lessons he learned from this endeavor.
On a holiday trip to the Netherlands, Vince had a chance to meet with fellow businessmen like Abraham Gulilat. Together, they decided to create a “world-class” platform where customers can obtain comprehensive services, including banking, payment, and exchange of services. Their ideas culminated in the formation of World Open Services (WOS). Vince says he was fortunate to meet people who shared his vision and had the skills to fulfill it. While initially wanting to operate in the Netherlands, WOS decided to move into the African market. Vince then relocated to Ethiopia after 35 years, where he discovered a high demand for digital platforms among local banks. His solution was to create a local, pan-African brand that can address the needs of Ethiopia’s banking environment. As a result, BelCash was founded under World Open Services. At that time, Ethiopia did not have a VAS(Value Added Service) license, and BelCash was initially founded with a garage license.
As a person who has lived and worked in various countries. Vince says that traveling is in his DNA. His diverse background has given him the flexibility to adapt to various cultures and lifestyles during his travels. Although his job requires him to travel regularly, Vince also enjoys staying put. He praises the internet for enabling him to manage businesses from a distance.
Despite having no entrepreneurial background, Vince claims that his desire to "be his own boss" is what inspired him to pursue entrepreneurship. He believes everyone should try to have a business of their own, as it would at least serve as a learning curve. Vince believes the first business anyone starts is themselves. “You are running your own cash and time. When you say I will take care of business, it means I will take care of myself” he adds. Vince believes that being a business person has nothing to do with the scale or formality of your business. When you begin to manage yourself and engage in activities that are different from the ordinary in terms of receiving a wage at the end of the month, you are a businessperson.
As appealing as it sounds, being your own boss also has its challenges. The main challenge, according to Vince, is the lack of a guaranteed tomorrow or the lack of security that would otherwise be provided by a salary. Vince maintains faith that if we work hard enough, we will make it regardless of our challenges.
A business is a mindset. It’s how you perceive life.
After BelCash was established in Ethiopia, it decided to change its brand in order to be more accessible to customers. Consequently, BelCash established the “Hello” brand. There are several companies running under the “Hello” brand. Of these companies, Hello Solar is the most notable. Hello Solar imports solar energy products and distributes them to farmers living in remote areas. Hello Solar was founded mostly in response to the fact that most mobile users in rural areas could only charge their devices on the weekends when they traveled to adjacent towns with electricity. The solution was to provide an affordable charging kit that would remove the power constraints that prevent them from using their phones. So far, Hello Solar has distributed more than 15,000 units to farmers in Ethiopia, changing the lives of more than 60,000 people. BelCash is taking a further initiative called “The Green Connectivity Network” which intends to build 15,000 smart kiosks throughout the country that provide digital services while creating up to 200,000 jobs.
Vince describes BelCash’s venture as “Techfin” rather than Fintech. This is mainly because BelCash is a “technological company in the financial sector” Their venture only provides platforms for the financial sector as opposed to running financial services. As one of the earliest “Techfin” companies, Vince outlines the factors that motivated him to invest in Ethiopia. The first one was his Ethiopian roots growing up in the country. When he and his Ethiopian partner Abraham Gulilat visited the country, they discovered a critical lack of technological infrastructure in the country's financial industry. As a result, they decided to relocate their startup, which was limitedly operating in the Netherlands, to Ethiopia.
Of all BelCash’s ventures, perhaps the most successful and most notable is HelloCash. HelloCash was one of Ethiopia's earliest mobile money services when it launched nine years ago. Despite regulatory restrictions that hampered innovation in the past, HelloCash holds a strong foundation that has made it Ethiopia’s most notable mobile money service provider. HelloCash operated with great success in areas that had a shortage of banking infrastructure and services as opposed to big cities like Addis.
When asked about the impact digital literacy has on their reach, Vince believes it doesn’t present an obstacle. “If you send money to someone through Western Union, they’ll find a way to get that money”. Vince says that as long as people are receiving money, they’ll have no problem adapting to a new system. Rather, he argues that it is a lack of savings that impacts their ventures. And for people to have more savings, they need to have more money. In the areas where they operate, Vince has observed that the revenues of producers are often reduced by middlemen (Delala). He adds that digital banking systems will offer better prices to the producer, improving their income.
Competition drives innovation and better pricing
As a pioneer in the market, BelCash has braved the challenging Ethiopian business environment and has demonstrated that it is possible to start and succeed. Vince takes pride in the number of young people trained under BelCash. When starting out, about 80% of BelCash’s technology was imported from the Netherlands. That 80% is now produced in Ethiopia. According to Vince. this is thanks to the highly professional youth trained by the company.
Although his market has relatively little competition, Vince believes competition is necessary to stimulate growth. He believes the best thing that can happen to Ethiopia is to allow competition. Competition drives innovation and better pricing, as it seeks to reach an end-user. He goes on to say that a lack of competition will cause frustration on many levels.
Operating a business in Ethiopia comes with its own pros and cons. One of the main upsides of investing in Ethiopia is its market potential. Vince believes that Ethiopia can become the powerhouse of Africa in the near future. However, this potential comes with a set of challenges. One of the main challenges in Ethiopia is sensitivity to change. Fast-paced changes often create tensions and frustrations in different parts of society. However, Vince acknowledges that the challenges he faced when starting his business, such as a lack of licensing, a legal framework, and infrastructure, are now long gone.
Vince expresses his source of optimism in one word: Africa. According to Vince, who views Ethiopia as the soulof Africa, Ethiopia's diversity can serve as a role model for the rest of the continent provided it is managed well. Vince adds that he is impressed by the Ethiopian youth and admires their entrepreneurial tendencies. He also appreciates the religious values built within Ethiopian society. Technology is also a source of optimism for Vince. Our increased connectivity is helping us catch up with the rest of the world. Technology has also enabled the youth to enhance their skills much earlier. Vince adds that university students today are able to work even before graduating as the internet has helped them gain new skills.
Striving to be a pan-African brand, BelCash’s future is bright. Vince expresses their plan to raise more capital and create a pan-African seamless currency, which allows cross-boundary trade among countries at an SME (small and medium-scale enterprise) level. According to Vince, their main goal is to aid farmers and enterprises in growing through digitization. As the pioneer in the Fintech industry, BelCash continues to be the leading force in Ethiopia’s digital transformation.