How the Best Product Managers in Africa Build Secure Products for FinTech.

Editorial Interview with Yemisi Alabi and Yarmi Ashama, Product Managers at Interswitch and Cowrywise respectively. This article has been edited for clarity purposes.

Think of an orchestra or a music conductor who works with different people to create beautiful music. It’s similar to the work of a product manager, as they work with different people who bring different expertise and the end goal is to build useful products for customers and the business.

From day to day, it’s an ongoing interaction with business developers, growth marketers, customer support etc. They identify opportunities where they can provide value and build a requirement document to detail everything then engage designers and developers to build it out.

They also look into the data to understand their customers, the technology, the industry and how the business itself is evolving.

We sat down recently with two of Africa’s best product managers building amazing products at the continent’s fintech giants. Here’s some of their expert advice on scaling secure products for the African customer.

Yarmi Ashama Yemisi Alabi Fintech Product Managers
L-R: Yarmirama Ashama and Yemisi Alabi

How do you build and scale a product in a low-trust market like Africa?

Yemisi: I always start with extensive research. Africa for instance has particular nuances that you have to be aware of. As I research and document my thoughts, I speak to developers to figure out technical requirements or constraints. Then write out the next steps, it helps that I can also design so I do that on Figma to sketch what it can look like.

I lean extensively on my network for building products. Usually, I’d have like three sessions with senior product developers, designers, and developers.

For another product, we went through a series of ideations. You can’t over-emphasize the amount of research that’s required. To build something solid, you must have fleshed out the idea. You have to be willing to discard your perception for the truth of what your research shows you.

It’s foundational in building a product – leveraging your relationships. Especially if you’ve built social capital

Build – Ideate – Don’t be afraid to scrap it – Build again – link to your network – Push to market.

Yarmi: The Cowryise model is a great template to follow. There are things we do now that we did not do at first. For example, we didn’t start out with KYC or an SEC license. But as we evolved with more customers and features, we had to evolve our standards with it as well. So you don’t need to go all out from the very beginning.

So the question is what’s the barest minimum that you can implement without being at risk with regulations and compliance? And would it also still give your customers a sense of security? When you start out with this and get a few customers, you learn from this.

You learn about the gaps and how to close them. So one thing at a time, depending on the stage you’re in, you solve your security problems continually. Security and user experience are never-ending challenges for scaling products in Africa.


Along the way, How do you approach product changes from a customer perspective and business-wise?

Yemisi: For starters, an important skill for PMs is clarity of thought. It helps you see things holistically from a builder and from a customer perspective.

If you observe a space is packed, drill down to needs and pain points that will help you connect with users. I’m a curious person, why is this thing working, why is it not? What’s happening in the market, checking the data, the analytics, what can we do here and there? Sustaining market share is one of the biggest jobs of a PM, to sustain revenue and customer loyalty.

For some products, you have to physically see how people interact with the app. From time to time, observe patterns from friendly users so you can see how to improve them. Sometimes numbers and data don’t tell the whole story. Nuance from observation and experience tells a better story. All of that information helps you scale, not data in isolation as the contextual view is lost. Customer experience and data go hand in hand so you can make informed decisions on your product.

Yarmi: When you’re building products, it’s to make sure it’s useful for customers. We don’t build for the sake of it. For example, when we built the ‘Emergency plan’ at Cowrywise, it was based on feedback from customers who requested a fallback plan from the long-term savings option.

So in essence, what they were asking for was the opportunity to break the current long-term plan. As a product manager, when a customer makes a request, you have to look beyond the surface as they say and dig in to understand their actual need and how best to solve it all while keeping the business’s vision in perspective.

So in our case at Cowrywise, though we knew our customers loved the initial long-term plan, we also realised we could build an emergency product where they could make withdrawals while still achieving the major goal they set out to achieve.

So building products could come from meeting customer needs on request or based on the needs that we identify as a company.


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When one of those needs is an important one like a security challenge, how do you balance meeting security requirements and Financial Inclusion?

Yemisi: Financial inclusion is a separate conversation from security because of the innovation required and the dynamics at play. For example, if an NGO wants to distribute money to Internally displaced person camps and make sure the money gets to them, how do you make sure it does? How many of them have identities on devices or accounts that can be tracked?

You have to sit and study what’s possible. Agency networks and POS are one of the finest innovations in Nigeria because access to cash is very limited. So to verify or authenticate those kinds of people, they have to be onboarded to some sort of system and that requires adoption.

So we need to think of an identity system that would be owned and remembered by them and can be assimilated into a data system that’s retrievable.

That’s the only way towards financial inclusion.

It always starts from the beginning, from the scratch. It’s very important. For example, OTP can be used across other industries. It can be used in place of security questions for instance. So whatever you’re building, think of it from a security perspective and as devices evolve, so also will the dynamics of security and authentication become easier.

User experience and security can co-exist and be incorporated from scratch.

Yarmi: We play in a heavily regulated industry and deal with people’s money so we have to be very hands-on and make sure we know who’s who and keep proper books on them.

Part of what we leverage to balance security and experience is a User’s BVN to verify a user’s identity details from their name, and financial details and we use that for KYC regulations.

To help customers get accustomed to some of the required changes that security demands, you should layer on a service that they already use to the introduced feature. For example, when we needed to introduce BVN verification to our product, we added it to the existing Stash feature which required that users had a bank account on Cowrywise.

We also did a lot of educational content within and outside the app to help ease the transition so people could learn about the importance of the feature. From a product perspective, giving context is important. When you can be as clear as possible on what’s required and the goal, everyone can move forward much faster.

Also, the process is not as easy as it should be in terms of banking the unbanked. But there’s a market for savings. For example, it’s much easier to save funds without the protocols of a bank system. So there’s some progress in making financial services accessible to customers.

While you may not see a huge number of people using digital banks in rural areas, you’d also find them turning to POS systems, agent banking and other forms of banking outside the walls of a bank office.

Generally, the industry is still evolving to make financial services more available to people.


Finally, what’s your best-kept secret to Product Management?

Yarmi: Sometimes, it’s hard to show your work as a product manager compared to a designer or developer so you can fall into a mire of doubting your own value. It’s important to find ways to document your work so you can easily reference it even on the craziest days.

Yemisi: Invest in yourself, invest in knowledge and apply yourself. No knowledge is wasted. As a design person myself, there was no need for me to learn to code. But I learnt it and now I have an idea of how long it should take to do some certain projects in Frontend, so when I work with developers and they give an estimation of time that’s padded, I can tell it shouldn’t take this long.

If you’re starting out in product, take some courses in product school. I gave myself a target. I was reading four articles on product and scrum every day. So set bold targets for yourself, even when entering a new industry. For example, I would give myself a target of three case studies a week and then think of how it applies to the current market in Nigeria.

Communities are also super important as they can provide mentoring that could propel your career in more ways than one particularly when it comes to decision-making and career growth.

And when seeking mentoring, seek to do the work first so it’s a mutual and beneficial relationship.

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