Paul Damalie, CEO of Inclusive Innovations Inc., and winner of the Ghana leg of DataHack4FI Season 2, explains how he is growing his digital identity business.
You started the business in 2016. Tell us about your journey in building an African identify solution.
After completing high school, I joined an insurance company as a sales agent. Although I interacted with many different clients, I was losing customers [due to verification problems] and I was worried as I was earning commission. Later, during the university holidays I participated in a management training programme at Ecobank. I didn’t stay with the bank, but the experience showed me the problems experienced by customers trying to open a bank account. Sometimes people were even asked to draw a map as proof of address.
My previous startup was Loystar, a reward programme for MSMEs. The last part of the loyalty programme process was redeeming the rewards, which required proof of identity. I kept seeing the complexities of identity verification and realised KYC [know-your-customer requirements] needed to be democratised.
I initially considered developing an insurance-claims platform; however, during conversations with BIMA, the identity challenges were raised again.
Inclusive was established in December 2016. Our flagship product, Appruve, is a financial data API [application programming interface] that enables financial services to onboard, verify and monitor identities remotely by tapping into last-mile datasets, as well as offline and regular government ID databases.
There are currently seven staff at Inclusive Innovations, but I hope we will soon grow to 15 people. We’re also busy fundraising for the next 18 months. At present, we are building the business and relationships with key stakeholders in different markets. Each market has its nuances, and we’re hiring compliance people as well.
Tell us more about the clients you serve.
Our first clients were mostly fintechs – largely lending and digital-insurance fintechs in Ghana. 17 of the 30 clients we initially trialled the concept with are still fully active on our platform. Some of our clients are banks, but banks typically take longer to close, as they represent bigger projects. We are now getting inbound enquiries from the rest of world – especially from people who want to be in West Africa.
How does your business model work, and where do you foresee new business will come from?
Clients pay a monthly subscription depending on the number of people they typically verify. Once they exceed the threshold, they are required to pay a small amount per additional person verified.
Potential new clients are given a sandbox with 100 free credits.
We have access to data in Ghana and Nigeria, so growth will come from organisations that want to access those countries. We are now collecting data in Uganda, and we are also building relationships in Kenya and Rwanda (although we need to meet compliance requirements there first).
We are looking for more fintechs we can work with – in payments, remittances or insurance. We are also keen to talk to the “bigger guys” and organisations that do agency banking.
The case study published by i2i outlines some aspects of your data solution. Could you share something about the softer side of the data journey. For example, how difficult has it been to source the right skills, and what kind of data skills do you require as your business grows?
It’s been challenging to find the right skills. I need a data scientist (whom we plan to hire when we have the resources). We also need a junior data engineer (who can extract, transform and load the datasets we get), and we hope to hire a data analyst or statistician. Ideally the engineer should also be able to do analysis, but I’ve found it difficult to find someone with both skill sets. So, I will have to hire two people.
Adjoining skill sets, which we would consider eventually, include a machine-learning engineer (who can code and work with low-level data) or an AI specialist. I would love to get African women to do these jobs – our goal is to fill our data science department with women.
Although it is relatively easy to find people who are interested in data or have studied related subjects, most of them lack experience. We’re trying to build a talent pool, and getting into the Google Launchpad Studio (an applied machine learning acceleration programme) has been very valuable as they provide expert mentoring.
Outside of the identity solution that you have developed, who is doing really interesting things in the field of digital identity?
When we started the business, we focused on data aggregation, but once we started seeing a demand from our clients in biometrics, we started to work with Smile Identity in Silicon Valley.
VoLo, which is active in francophone West Africa is another interesting player.
In fact, there are several Silicon Valley companies looking to get into the market in Africa, but I sometimes ask people whether they want to put identity in the hands of foreigners. We (at Inclusive Financial Technologies) are empathetic and we have cultural connections here. I tell people that if you want to do Pan-African identity verification you need an African leading it!
When you are able to influence the ecosystem it’s good, it brings you a lot of business and therefore we focus on relationship building. When we were looking at opportunities in Africa, we liked the fact that the Startupbootcamp (Afritech) was focused on the continent; we think it’s more important to connect to networks in Africa. Startupbootcamp has links with a number of South African banks, and some of them are interested in moving into West Africa, as are some of the fintechs from Cape Town.
CEO of Inclusive Innovations Inc. Paul Damalie is also a member of Ghana’s Financial Inclusion Forum and the Digital Financial Services Working Group for the Ghanaian government.