#CareerGoals: Viola Llewellyn helps African SMEs grow to scale
Viola Llewellyn is the co-founder and President of Ovamba Solutions, Inc.. Ovamba is Africa’s first “FinTech” company to create technologies to serve African SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises) with innovative Sharia compliant finance products, eCommerce, and logistics services. Ovamba’s technology gives global accredited and institutional investors the opportunity to invest in the fast-growing African private sector.
Having grown up in the UK, why did you decide to move to the States?
I have always had an impulsive sense of possibility. I came to the USA on vacation and never left. I saw a country of opportunity and decided to take my chances. Suffice to say, that is no longer possible in today’s world of heightened security and immigration paperwork.
How has your Cameroonian heritage impacted your career choices? Did you ever feel pressure from your parents to choose a path different from your desires? If so, how did you reach a compromise?
Like some Diasporans, the relationship with the country of our parents/forefathers is one of push and pull. Sometimes we are in, sometimes we are out. Sometimes we feel accepted, other times, not. “Belonging” becomes something that undergoes constant re-definition in our lives. My Cameroonian heritage was something that I ignored when the burden of Africa became “cumbersome.” When the “problems” seemed insurmountable and too complex. My parents never pressured me to do anything in Cameroon, let alone Africa. They and my family have been utterly surprised at my commitment to rebuild Africa’s narrative via FinTech and growing SMEs. I didn’t have to compromise in the end because the world is global and interactive. I am still me, and the burden of Africa is still cumbersome. I just became better at sharing the load via technology and with others.
How did you get into the FinTech space? What has your experience been like as a black woman in that space?
My business partner Marvin Cole and I first thought that the route to helping SMEs lay in the pattern and volume of remittances. This model proved to be ineffective at growing the SME space. We got into FinTech not just because we wanted to assist SMEs with access to capital, we got into FinTech to help Africa’s “missing middle” with financial services and tech innovation to help them grow so that they can meet potential. As a black woman, I am often the only one at conferences that have a few thousand attendees – specifically white men. White women also have a similar experience in this regard. I don’t focus on this or pay any attention to it. I believe that excellence is globally attainable by choice, in the same way that African business and tech innovation can be world class.
Why did you decide to focus on African SMEs with Ovamba Solutions?
The greatest needs should be addressed with urgency. We have seen great businesses stagnate in “start-up limbo” for more than twenty years because they can’t see a line of sight on where to grow “to.” To grow you need direction. You can’t choose a direction if you can’t rely on support and services. We chose to focus on African SMEs because they are worthy of support and service; no one else was doing it and it was the kind of success that Ovamba is achieving. SMEs have the potential to provide employment and are the engine behind GDP growth. Supporting SMEs is a crucial to Africa reaching its true potential.
Where do you see the most potential for growth within the African private sector?
The formal and informal trade market is a combined $3.5 trillion opportunity. Within this sector alone is the potential to impact manufacturing, agri-business, service industries, and technologies to address sector growth requirements such as logistics, payments, eCommerce, etc. In addition to trade, I see agriculture, healthcare, and technology as significant areas of growth. It’s a great question that you are asking here as defining and understanding the trajectory of growth directly relates to how we engage outside investors.
Can you tell us about your innovative Sharia compliant finance products and their socio-economic importance?
Deep in the DNA of Africa is the activity of trade. And almost as ancient as that is the introduction of Islam to Africa and its accompanying business practices that arguably pre-date organized banking and deposit taking. Fast forward to recent times and we are at an impasse: how much does risk cost? Can banks buy and sell products? How can we share risk responsibly and ethically? The answers are: “don’t always know,” “no” and “yes – with Sharia structures” – which by their very nature fall outside of regulated banking. Ovamba’s products are designed to share risk, measure risk, and help growth in the most ethically responsible silos of Africa’s business landscape. Ovamba innovated upon these concepts by creating a platform to measure and aggregate data to make the learnings useful. We have called our product “Growth-As-A-Service®” and within that are a number of sub-services. Our tech enabled products and services reduce paperwork and shorten the qualification and funding approval process. It also allows the informal sector to access services (previously inaccessible) that will help them to grow. It further has social impact by consciously supporting non-extractive businesses which are known to harm the landscape and natural ecosystem. Ovamba does not fund businesses that do not promote health and wellness, e.g. tobacco, ammunitions, timber, alcohol etc. Ovamba has gone as far as gain certification from the Sharia Review Board of Bahrain. Many institutes attempt to serve the Islamic business community but this discipline is very specific and needs to be endorsed correctly for certification.
What has been the most difficult career decision you’ve made? How was that decision pivotal to getting you into the position you are today and how did you navigate through making the decision?
Although it was not the most difficult of my career, leaving my “last job of employment” was the most important decision in my career. It was pivotal for me to change the inside of my head, the state of my mind. I had to give up a regular paycheck in exchange for discomfort and uncertainty. This was key to navigating to where I am and where Ovamba is today. I have to say, for many entrepreneurs, there is not a lot of thought put into this stuff. Entrepreneurs are like the fire brigade who race into danger – entrepreneurs will fly into the arms of unconfirmed opportunity with barely a hesitation because they are going on guts, bravery, conviction, and the potential to win!
What has been your greatest success to date? Name one personal and one professional.
Personal: Meeting and marrying my husband, Vincent Llewellyn. Without his unwavering support, nothing could have happened. You need to be a special kind of human being to be married to an entrepreneur – they really can take you through it!! The usual scenario has the man out there charting a course and taking chances. Men who support their wives the way my husband has supported me deserve so much respect and gratitude.
Professional: Reinventing myself from great employee to successful business owner! Starting Ovamba with Marvin Cole and becoming the fastest funder of SMEs in the Central African region, being able to do what banks could not do, supporting the growth of hundreds of SMEs, originating more than 125 million Euro in business in just three years is pretty groovy! Bonus Success: Gaining a global platform to support diversity and women in business.
What career advice do you have for young people who seek to follow a similar career path to yours?
Don’t get hung up on what you don’t have; capitalize on what you’ve got. Find others to supplement where you don’t have knowledge, experience, or skills. Don’t worry about needing to be “traditionally educated” or qualified to do any of the things for which you have a true talent and desire. Seek or “take” mentorship. Emulate the behavior of good, honest successful people, you are likely to get the same results. Do not seek success for success’s sake, seek to fix a pain point or provide a service that is for the good of others. These are sustainable ideals and ambitions. Embrace technology! No matter how old you are, never stop learning and never stop reading. Most importantly, fail forward! Failure is your greatest ally. It will teach you what success never could. Failure whilst in the act of succeeding is fine! Just learn from it. This advice is specifically for those who want to walk the lonely path of entrepreneurship and business ownership.
Viola Llewellyn will be speaking at the African Nordic Business Conference, an event of which Ayiba is a proud media sponsor.