From London to Cape Town via Harare, Natalie Payida Jabangwe has a goal: developing new ways of managing money through mobile services. Her path and her story led her to do it in Africa, where there might just be the most potential.
By Lola Breton
She wanted to become a lawyer. She wanted to study law and enter courtrooms every day. Yet, Natalie Payida Jabangwe is now digital executive officer of the African insurance and banking group, Sanlam. The 103-year-old company – which works across the whole continent, as well as India and Malaysia, but whose headquarters are based in Cape Town – bet on the 38-year-old to build its new digital architecture. “My role is to set up new digital ventures in financial services and to make sure Sanlam transforms into a digital-first business”, she sums up. To do so, the company entrusted her with a 600-million-dollars budget to “approve funding for clusters or business units that would like to innovate in a disruptive way”. To be even clearer, Natalie Payida Jabangwe drives the digital strategy to make fintech thrive in Africa.
If we listen to her, she arrived there “accidentally”. “My mom was an immigrant in the UK, and she had just gotten a new job where she had to learn how to use a computer. She did so in two weeks. I was just in high school back then. She said : ‘It’s clear to me that the world has changed. I could have missed this opportunity if I had not learnt how to use a computer. I think you should go study technology. If I can learn at 50, anybody can’”. Natalie Payida Jabangwe took on the advice. And ended up being the best in her field. “What I retain from this is that you can learn anything”, she smiles.
Learning in the UK
After an internship in the United States where she helped develop the city of Atlanta’s first IT policies, Natalie Payida Jabangwe graduated from Middlesex University as well as from Imperial College London (Executive MBA) and landed her first job in “a top software house in London which created financial technology for investment banks.” She coded and installed dealing room platforms. “That’s how I went into financial technology. I was lucky early on in my career to understand not only investment banking, retail banking but to understand fintech in all those sectors”, she says. She understood it so well that a man, one of the richest businessmen living in the UK, hired her to change the banking habits of a whole continent. “I had made journals for the banks to develop their mobile banking strategy. He caught a hold on these, he saw my name and recognize that it was a Zimbabwean last name, so he asked one of his CEOs to come and find me. He was convinced that what I was trying to do in Europe could easily be done in Africa. Europe was not ready, for one reason: banking was pervasive, and people were already financially included on banking.”
Natalie Payida Jabangwe was skeptical at first. In London, she was working with top-notch and innovative actors. Yet, she agreed and, in January 2014, relocated in the country where her parents had come from, to work at EcoCash, a phone-based money transfer and financing service. In 2015, she reportedly became the youngest chief executive of a mobile money business in Africa. “I thought to be handpicked to run that transformation was really inspirational. I quite frankly shamed and feared for under delivery. That kept me on my toes, she now reacts to this title. I felt extremely fortunate, but I also felt the pressure to perform. I think I felt obligated to do much with it. I am a firm believer that whom much is given much is required.”
Implementing in Africa
So, she gives back a lot. Especially to Africa and its people. “I strongly believe in the economic development of African nations through the implementation of technology, she points out. And there is no better or more efficient way to transform Africa’s economic development than through tech.” Natalie Payida Jabangwe’s views seem to be right. According to a study conducted by GSMA, an organization which represents global mobile operators, half a billion Africans now own a phone solely for themselves. “It is true to say that in Africa there are more cellphones than there are toothbrushes and more sim cards than there are people, insists the engineer. If we are to give access to banking and credit, lending or saving, then technology is the only way of doing it at a scalable way and through mobile technology, the one thing that everyone has in their hands.”
In 2021, Natalie Payida Jabangwe changed jobs – from EcoCash to Sanlam – and location – from Harare to Cape Town – but she stayed true to her beliefs… and further. She hopes: “If we could create a continental payment platform the same way that Europe created a single currency, I think that would be the future of Africa. But that would have to be supported by fintech payments. In that sense and in terms of economy growth, Africa free continental trade area could really change the face of the continent.” The core idea of this agreement, launched by the African Union in January 2021, is for states to support each other commercially. Having a support system is exactly what Natalie Payida Jabangwe preaches on the daily. As a single mother of an 8-year-old daughter, she knows how important it is to have a whole village beside you. Professionally, she is determined to give back, hence the creation of Ibu Hub, funded by the United Nations Development Program. Through this hub, she “would like to identify other young people who are as daring, as entrepreneurial, as ambitious as [she is] to connect them with the same networks” she has had the chance to work with. “Part of setting up the innovation hub really goes beyond my career or my profession itself, it’s really about championing the potential of others, she underlines. I like to bring the best out of people, and I think this is one of the key things in a leader. It’s not about me leading, it’s about me bringing the best out of teams.”