RK: Good to have you Joel on #360Mentor
JM: Thank you for having me here.
RK: What do you do?
JM: I am currently the CEO of Flyhub which is a fintech subsidiary under Standard Bank Holdings. Birthed on 25th November 2020. The idea behind it is that banking has been done the same way for decades and centuries while the bank has been trying to leap into the 21st century it has just been a labour. And I am sure as you have seen fintechs are eating the lunch of these banks. So the idea was to be like a disruptor in the way the bank does its things. We are not only going to be doing services for the bank but our goal is to try and help digitise different companies. As the bank rolls out its platforms,we hope that it is able to touch more and more businesses. My work is building digital solutions.
RK: So to what problem are you building the solutions?
JM: That’s a good question. Perhaps I will describe the problem this way, the technology available to us now, particularly speaking from digital services and extending to other arenas, is birthed from a different context from the economy in which we are in. It’s birthed in silicon valley, the uk and wherever and there are homegrown solutions as well but the problem here is that we have got a fractured data containment economy. By that I mean that the applications like safe boda are building their own database, mobile money is building their own database. Someone like me, I have no one direct data point of seeing the activities in the economy. MTN knows something about me, my internet service provider knows something about me, safe boda knows something about me. But if I wanted to access a financial service, they would still ask me for a property for me to get credit. I am not seen for all the products I am doing because all those digital products are almost containerised in different places. So we are not a digital economy. And to try and embed digital services in an economy that is not highly digitised means it is very expensive and it is only working for an exclusive set of people who are connected.
RK: Let me ask you an idiot’s question; what does it mean to be a digital economy? What is involved?
JM: The processes in which business is done. The way in which records are maintained is not exclusively hardcopy, it is not paper and pen. It’s not a location. It is not in physical space but it is put into digital form, one that can be digested but with different systems and read by computers. I think the stage we are at now is that we are trying to digitise a lot of paper records we have. That is a one to one translation. Where you had files in a cabinet on a server somewhere. But there is a next stage where that information is able to move and cut across different systems where there is interoperability meaning that if I want to start a business I don’t have to walk over to URSB to have myself registered, go to KCCA to get things done. The processes that are going to underlie my starting a business in principle could be made into algorithms that could allow me from the comfort of where I am to be able to set it up much quicker. The idea behind a digital economy is that the way of engaging with technology has become embedded into the culture and the way of doing business. And it is not that the tools are available. Here we have tools available but the utilisation is quite low.
RK: This is what puzzles me, Joel; why is this interoperability that you are talking about? Why is it eluding us? I will give you an illustration: you have to move from immgration with hard copies, then to the physical location of the Interpol office, then URSB, then NIRA. I have my data in the bank, in the telecom, at NSSF, URA, why hasn’t a Ugandan come up with something that makes all this information accessible?
JM: First of all, I don’t think it is a tech problem. It is easy to think that once you build it, it will come. But underlying any tools in technology is the incentives and the structures that are going to be affected. Tech is not neutral. Once technology is applied to anything, Newton’s 3rd law is going to come into effect. There is going to be a reaction. An effect.
I will use the example of mobile money which has been one of the big successes in the country. People say mobile money is electronic cash but it isn’t. It’s a remittance service. It is a way to get cash from one place to another with an in between session of digitising the transfer. It’s just a republication of what cash is doing. Then on top of that, we realise that it is a remittance service that is going to solve a lot of problems. So the digital problem for which mobile money was created and the usage we are trying now are different things. Take the example of what has been happening in digitising the value chains in the agric space. Let’s say there is an offtaker who wants to pay some farmers that are producing crops and selling it to them. For the offtaker, it makes a lot of sense rather than having a lot of bullion vans to go and pay the farmers, it makes a lot of sense to load it up with an aggregator and send via mobile money to everyone’s account. It solves the problem for the aggregator but for the farmers who receive that money, the ecosystems that they live in, no one is really taking mobile money. It is quite expensive to do transactions that way. Because the technology doesn’t quite fit the incentives,what people are going to be doing, the adoption is going to be quite low. What is happening is that we are trying to push it as a service instead of having it be a pulling effect.
The opposite example I will give you is something like social media. No feels like it is a labour having to get online. It’s a subtle thing, subtle enough that you don’t even realize it is happening to you. You realise that notifications are pulling you. That you are doom scrolling, you are just looking at your phone. You don’t even know why you are scrolling through the phone. But that is not by accident. It was designed to have that kind of engagement.
To answer your question; there are incentives or why things are the way they are now and technology is never neutral. I think that one of the issues we have for instance is the fear that technology is going to change the way jobs are, the way we interact. For instance when the lockdown happened and we were working from home, the thought was that we were just taking the office home. But you realise that you can’t just do what you’re doing in the physical space of the office. You can’t manage your team when people are working from home.
RK: You can’t just take what you used to do at the office and put it online.
JM: Exactly. And I think that is partly undersold from the side of people who are trying to do technology change. We understand that there’s going to be a fear of that uptake. We try to usurp those fears, but some of them are quite valid. That’s why I am passionate about how we feel about how we adopt technology because it is definitely going to change how we interact. And that change management is the hard piece. All the steps you are mentioning, there are probably some individuals who earn off your frustration. They benefit from you going from one place to another. The more problems you create, the solutions you can portend to provide.
RK: I must ask you the question I should have asked at the beginning; were you born with all this knowledge?
JM: No. Everyone who knows me, knows I just fell into things.
RK: How did you fall into things?
JM: When I was doing my masters degree, I had a choice between doing an MBA which was just going to be in global supply chain management or technology services.
RK: First wait. Going back to your earlier school days, at what point did you start picking interest in tech?
JM: I first got interested in philosophy. From philosophy, the thing behind it is that I really got attracted to the idea of causal effects like the four causes of everything that you see. The final cause, the efficient cause, the material cause.
RK: You are really sounging philosophical here.
JM: Hahaha. I am going to try and be less booky.
RK: Please break it down for us.
JM: My dad is a carpenter. I would see him; before making the table, a lot of his time was spent mapping out how he was going to build that table. Planning the wood it was going to take, the shape, and how he was going to do the work. Looking at that and helping him out in his workshop helped me think about the hardest part of creating any product, which is the thinking. Having the purpose for which you are doing that work and how you arrange all the things around that.
RK: Why is that so important for the outcome? I will give you an example: I make eggs in the morning,something I think every bachelor does. When I am making scrambled eggs, I remember seeing the video of Chef Ramzy making scrambled eggs. And I have made scrambled eggs for years, I know how to do them. But I saw him explain, he said he does not stir the eggs, he doesn’t whisk them until he puts them into the pan, puts butter on top, doesn’t put the salt until after they have heated to a certain level. Every action that he is taking has an end in mind. There are a lot of ways in which he can make a lot of mistakes while he is getting to perfection whereas I am stumbling and trying to get to the end. And the end product of what he has made and what I have made is that I am eating mine in my apartment while he is serving his at a 5 star hotel.
RK: And making money off it while you are losing money.
JM: Exactly. But we have the same materials. The same hands. The same things in common. The only difference is the purpose for which we are doing it.
When I thought about that, I thought that even with the technology that we utilise, we sort of see it coming like when you buy a phone it feels brand new. But several hours of ideas have gone into it. There have been failed experiments. Ideals about how you are going to engage, how you are going to have it in your hand and all of that is meant to be seamless. It is meant to be invisible. And you just use the tool. I was fascinated by how someone can put such rigour into building something such that it becomes almost oblivious to you that it becomes like an extension of yourself. The only time they realise that it is not working is when it breaks down.
RK: Two questions;
1. Can you describe to us why everyone here needs to adopt that cognitive processes as part of their day to day activity?
2. How can we apply this thought process to adopting technologies to the context of the African continent and leapfrog some of these things?
JM: I’d say, it’s ultimately important for you to pay attention to what is important to what you are doing. First of all, the only thing you have is your attention, what you focus your mind on is what you reproduce and get results from. But modern life is struggling and pulling for your attention. There are headlines, notifications, it’s a huge cognitive burden. The human brain is good at having shorthand. Most people when they are driving home, they don’t think much about it. You just enter the car and get onto autopilot and drive home. The fact that we can easily get into autopilot mens we can get results that we don’t necessarily want but we forget that we are always making decisions daily in a way that we are paying attention to. We are not paying attention to whether we can get it the way we want it. A lot of people may have a vague answer which may quieten their fears but having a specific answer of what you are trying to do helps you to eliminate the value of what you are trying to get to. We are finite beings but the world is full of so many opportunities and options. The only way you can adjudicate between those options is by clarifying where it is that you want to go.
RK: Is that what they mean by the process being more important than the outcome?
JM: Yes. There’s no business that starts out to fail. Having a goal doesn’t matter. It is the process that is going to take you there. It is a very humbling thing to be able to face your own failures. It is a self esteem shaking thing. That is why not everyone is an entrepreneur. Underlying that advice it is going to shake you. Life is going to ask you, is this what you really want? Are you on the right track?
RK: Let’s say something here; I think sometimes we mix up being an entrepreneur with having business ideas. People forget that in addition to having good ideas, there is taking the risk. There is dealing with uncertainties, having the strength and depth of character to see to it that you sit with the action before it is taken. It is a combination of factors. Yes, there will be lots of people with brilliant ideas, they may be innovators but I don’t think that makes them entrepreneurs. Some people are just risk averse and they will not do it.
JM: True. and I suppose we all don’t want the world where everyone has to be an entrepreneur. We want a world which is going to allow some people to be entrepreneurs and there to be the customers/market for them. But again, it is important to know what it is that you want so that you do not pursue a path because other people think it makes sense for you.
To the second question. There is a story about these fishermen who were out in the ocean trying to go into the deep to get big fish, but then they got caught in a vortex and their ship was sinking. Of the three fishermen, one of them notices that not everything in the vortex is going down to the bottom. Some items are being thrown back at the surface. And eventually he jumps off the ship and grabs a barrel that is going on top and he leaves the other two fishermen who think it is safer to just be on the boat. That story was told by Mashal Macrown and he is the one who coined the message, the medium is the message. The meaning behind it is that we are inundated with a lot of media and technology that it is easy to just allow ourselves to just go down to the vortex. We just allow ourselves to be on the receiving end because there are some benefits. There are benefits to not having to struggle to find the barrel and try to climb to the top but to your point again, we will always be on the receiving side. The afterthought globally if we are not taking ownership of what technology is going to do to our cultures. It’s no surprise that we are looking more and more like a western nation. It’s that someone is telling us you need to speak like this or this but it is in the movies we watch, the clothes we wear. It’s a subtle thing to the point where if you asked a fish what water is, it wouldn’t know. It only knows what water is once it is out on the land. I think for us, it is about jumping out of the water and seeing what is around us. Seeing the direction it is going and asking if it is the direction we want to go that we don’t find ourselves somewhere and ask ourselves how did we end up here?
It is about being intentional about where we want to go. The only way to leapfrog is by understanding our torment for lack of a better term, for what is good for us. Not everything is technically sound or great do we have to necessarily adopt. And when we are adopting it, we need to know what this means for our culture. What does it mean for the kind of businesses we are trying to build?
RK: From where you stand, where are we? What do you see? What are the big points?
JM: Let’s take the example of #360Mentor, this is a kind of way of how my parents or grandparents used to get information. They sit around and people share information. Technology may change but how we adopt it could either reinforce the things we want to maintain or it could change how we socialise with each other. Look at SACCOS and VSLAs, one of the biggest failures of my career was building an app called ledger link which is meant to digitise the details of savings groups. It was supposed to mimic what they were doing in their counter books and have them save money there and send it to the bank. Our whole idea was that it was going to save time for them. All of that made sense on paper. The app even got awards. It seemed like a hit. But no one was using it in those communities. It hit us that this application was built to make individuals communicate with each other from a distance. But the reason they are in savings groups, it’s more than putting more together, it is part of the community. It is part of how they hold each other accountable. So while the tool was going to solve the issue of getting visibility with the bank, it was tearing apart something which was necessary for the group to stay in operation. That is not the thing that the people I was working with at the Gates Foundation were ever going to think about. Because from their vantage point they are going to get us to a position where people are financially independent. They are atomised and are able to stand as individuals which is not a bad thing in itself. But if you are introducing it in a culture which has different ways of relating, it is either going to be rejected or misused. And I think that element was missing when we began building that application. Today, we seem to adopt technologies which seem neutron but the way we are going to be taking them on is going to affect what we call Ugandan culture. They are going to affect the way we relate. And I think not being cognisant of that is taking us to a place where one day we shall all wake up and don’t recognise that the older you get, the more you don’t recognise the world that you are in. Because a younger person will just come and have a different view of how they socialise. I am not making a judgment whether it is good or bad, I am just saying that it is important for us to know what it is that we are doing. Where are we directing our efforts? The way we design our legal services, the e-government service that NITA is doing. I guess that is a good thing but we should ask ourselves, what power does this give the government. My father for instance will never let go of cash. He always knows where his cash is but when it is in the hands of an institution, he has to trust that institution. So his adoption of mobile money or mobile banking is not a matter of convenience, it is a matter of trust. These technologies do not exist in a vacuum.
RK: You brought up the issues of e-government, some of the things we have with the government involve going to see the big man because you want to ingratiate yourself with this person so that they can see you. If you now made it distant and digital, how does that shape our politics, the power dynamics?
JM: It goes back to your question of, why are things not being adopted. If I was in a certain position, I would probably also be resisting certain technologies that reduce my status. You have to remember that the “big man syndrome” is what made sense to us in our previous cultural context. I usually joke that I am like a monkey which has been put in the middle of a metropolis.
JM: I still have mannerisms of which I am more natural. Even though I cannot articulate it, I feel more comfortable in a certain environment. No one wants bureaucracy but the definition of bureaucracy is that you are going to be treated like you are not special. All of us when we go for any service, we want special treatment. And that is part of human nature. If we are implementing technologies that are going to do away with that, we have to know that there is a cultural shock that is going to reinforce that shifting in human nature. Otherwise, the very same incentives of showing favouritism will be embedded in the technology we are using. And there it is going to be worse because then what tech and digitisation will do is make it much harder for you to find what is going on. It will make it much harder for fraud to happen. You see a lot of these stories where money is stolen, if it is cash, the efforts are less grievous. But when it is a matter of digits on a screen the power that is being decentralized is so great. And perhaps that’s why there is a counter movement now why digitisation is being decentralised. Things like crypto currencies and block chain are showing up to decentralise that power to spread it out a bit more. But those two forces as they battle things out, by the time I am 60, the world is going to be totally different. My views will probably be antiquated because the rapid changes of technology cannot leave culture the way it is.
RK: If you will be antiquated, where does that leave me?
JM: No, like I told you, you were fast at dominating traditional media now you are taking over this new media, you are trying to do a remix.
RK: What do you mean when you say technology is not neutral?
JM: I will start by explaining what I mean by technology. Technology is any extension of a human capability. A telescope is an extension of our ability to see a telephone is an extension for us to be able to speak. When we think of it as an extension, that you can say is neutral. But we never use it in a neutral manner. It’s always applied in a certain context. It is always as a result of someone’s thinking trying to motivate us to accomplish a certain goal. In 2010, China overtook the US as the number one market for automobiles. That means that new Chinese cities are designed with cars in mind. At that point in time, it was planned that the way people are going to live is predisposed towards the gas guzzlers. It is not looking at public transportation. That technology seems neutral but it is affecting how that country developed.
RK: Joel, are you saying that our village only has footpaths because that is the only technology we have is our feet.
JM: Yeah, I mean think about our cities and how they are arranged, downtown is predisposed to the roads and towards motorists. If you try and walk through Kampala, you feel like you are a nuisance. You feel like you are discarded. And that is not by accident, it’s the fact that if you are not thinking about it strategically, you can end up putting up infrastructure that for years upon years, people are going to have to deal with. We are going into an age where electric cars are going to become a thing, that means the way we laid up our cities might have to change. Then the question is, is it easier for us to form new cities or try and force them into electric vehicles. When you try and force those in, you end up seeing the disorganised result.
When I say tech is not neutral, I mean it is not just an art. Infact, it is about the way it is going to be utilised and who is going to utilise it and how it affects the relationships we have with each other.
RK: If you found yourself as the president of the African continent, looking at it continentally, what kind of thinking should we have towards technology? And how should we prepare for it? I need to prepare my 14 year old son for when he will be 30. When I was 14, my father would never have anticipated mobile phones. Now we have the ability to look into the future, what should we be preparing for?
JM: I think it is about being malleable and being adaptable. Like you said somebody in 1940 would never have thought of today. There is no way of predicting where things are going. All you can do is to be the person who is paying attention to where things are going. You see yourself as a subject and object in the world. As you are experiencing things, you are trying to see that you are asking where this is going. I have nephews who have not been in school for two years. I understand the struggle their parents are having but the idea is that school is a place you go to but you can earn from anywhere. The tools already exist. But the mental block to say I need to be in an institution and say that this is how learning should be. It has to become something of how we see life not to simply go with something new. Not to go with the tide. We need to ask how am I absorbing this information into my life. The fact is when you are inundated with information in this information age. You are not learning much, you are just changing from one context to another and getting dopamine hits. You are just being entertained because it is too much for you to try and grasp an idea and focus on it. The people who have focus are the ones who are running everything. The people who are not jumping from one place to another but are sort of focusing on something so that they can build out an idea. Otherwise everyone is expanding their horizons and you can just play in those. Rather than this continent becoming the playground for everyone else, we should determine how it is that we want to engage and play. I don’t think that by being at the top I will be able to figure it out. All I would do is to open up the brilliance that is available to everyone on this continent.
People have all sorts of different ideas, it’s just that they have not been put into a position where they can be put into practice. It is about changing the way we think of education.
RK: What’s it about NFT and metaverse?
JM: The way I understand it. NFT is a non-fundable token. Take the example of Lukeman Ali whose movie has just made it to Netflix. If he asked us to sign some posters of the movie and he wanted people to own original copies of the movie, they would pay money for him and get an NFT marker. They would be able to say they got the original. If you download music or movies, everyone will say I have it. But with this, you have a right to ownership. It is more like saying you got an exclusive version of it. A right to access what the producer has made. Ali may say he is inviting everyone who bought an original poster to a party. But if I was just a picture, we would print it out and show up but the idea being the NFT is that you have to select a group of people who own something that cannot be altered so that they could be codified. The relationship is codified.
RK: So it gives you a uniqueness to this thing, it is an original. Not a photocopy.
JM: Yes. In the digital space, you see what happens to music, you release one song, everyone will just get it. Then it was the physical material that limited it but now it is not physical.
RK: Wait, what they have done is to create a restrictive method of distributing digital assets that used to be easily shared without restriction?
JM: Potentially. Look at the Monalisa for example, we could all get a copy right now but there are different people who want to get close to the origin of the Monalisa. What NFT would do is that you have a certified ownership stake in Monalisa. NFTs are all about owning something whose form and purposes could be infinite.
People could for example have a copy of your first tweet, if you had a way of making it an NFT you could monetise it. People would then say, they own your first tweet for whatever value they see in it. It is like why people collect coins and stuff like that, it’s not for the monetary bit but for the sake of having it.
RK: And metaverse?
JM: My understanding of the metaverse is from the virtual reality world. A platform in which you can have an avatar, a representation of yourself in a virtual world. A proper metaverse can have an interconnected platform, you could still experience on and on and jump into different spaces but most of the technology right now. Building physical hardware is hard because of the physics involved in the material world. But in the digital world, it is endless. That’s where a lot of innovation is happening. It is a weird time that almost a lot of stuff is happening. It is easier to get lost in a virtual world where you could structure the kind of experience you want to have.
RK: How do we deal with a generational contradiction? On a continent where you have much older people who are in charge of physical control and the new emerging world of young people?
JM: The answers may not be great. The thing about youth is that there is an immediacy that you want things to change. You want a difference to occur right now. We have access and we think we are putting up with things we think should not be happening.
One way is if we mobilise and push out and act. But the danger there is; if we make it a demographic issue, we end up losing a certain part of where we are going. The Predisposition for us to concentrate on being youthful is to tell half the story. It involves telling the story of how many people are 90 and how many are 9. It doesn’t matter how many there are. The more productive path is to find ways in which we can build inroads; start to develop things like what Solomon King is doing with Fundi Bots and Esther with 4040. We have to find ways of laying down what we want to do. Our generation is called to sacrifice quite a bit. It is not such a popular idea but every generation is standing on the shoulders of giants. We are called to become those giants. We might not enjoy it like the people in your age range who are in Canada or the UK but, they are benefiting from some of the actions that were taken by their ancestors. It’s upon us to do that for our descendants. It might be a tough task for us to revolutionise the world that we are in and enjoy the life we are having. Each one of us has to count the cost and say I am going to do this much and enjoy the rest of my life. That’s all we can do. Sudden change is just as dangerous as no change.
Comrade Otoa: What is it about you young people and tech?
JM: I think it is just the curiosity young people have. As you grow older, you want certainty. You harden. I see it in myself now. Before I was more open to enchantment and adventure. I think that is the attitude that allows you to create newer things. And it needs to be counter balanced. The reason I emphasise why the 90 and the 9 year olds are both needed is that for any society that is going to be balanced is to have a creative force. But creative forces are also destructive forces. Creative destruction is innovation. What you need is the wisdom to be humble. So I think the conversations around the generations is necessary. Right now it is viewed in terms of respect for your elders but I think the elders also need to respect the youth that are coming up. That’s where the fresh ideas are coming from. It is like planting a few seeds, it’s from those seeds that is a power for a tree to grow. Why wouldn’t you focus on the forest that you are going to see eventually. I like to think of myself as young. I am 36 years old.
RK: A lot of sectors like yours, I was in the old media; the question was we wanted to adopt technology to the things we are doing now. We never sat down to see how the technologies would make us do things differently. How do you see things from the banking side?
JM: This is my opinion. Banking went from a hall you walked into to an app. The idea was to become the bank of the future but if you look at your phone. It is still a place where you tell people to go and get banking services. But at the core of it what you need is financial services where you are. There are a lot of content creators here, the fact that it is still hard for you to get paid to produce content. It should be possible for you to crowdsource and raise money and have cash directly sent into your bank account. If you need a loan, you don’t have to get out of where you want to go and get it. If you were on a safe boda, could you be able to get money from your bank app to the safe boda app. That is when we could say we have embedded banking services into the ecosystem. That is where people are. That is the shift in mindsets. That’s where the future is. The idea of what a bank is will change. You are freeing up people to be more humane like in Norway, old banking halls are places for business clinics. And that is a banking service.
But to be fair, asking an institution to complete change is hard. Change is good and progress is good but it undermines meaning. For 40 years of your life you have been used to digging something a certain way, it would be hard for you to just change. It is very dangerous.
RK: That takes away a lot. Previously, someone walked the streets as a banker and now you are telling him to retool, what is that?
JM: Yeah. The labels we have used to define who we are and our identities, those things are being challenged. The old ways of affirming yourself are no longer as solid as they used to be. It is an uncomfortable position but the only one that makes sense. Otherwise you can one day wake up and find that you only know who to use a typewriter but the rest of the world doesn’t care.
RK: Thank you Joel for taking off time to share with us this evening.
JM: Thank you for the opportunity to share.