- Owen Odia

“’Nigeria is the 3rd most technologi­cally advanced country in Africa, but there’s still a strong need to drive innovation.”


It’s such a beautiful thing to see women in typically male-dominated industries; Owen Odia is one such woman. In 2017 she made an unpreceden­ted move from banking to tech and hasn’t looked back ever since. Today she sits atop Luno ( a virtual money trading, transactio­n and investment training company headquarte­red in London ) as head of its Nigerian Office. With an educationa­l background in informatio­n technology and experience in Mobile Payments, Owen boasts a robust knowledge of the industry. It is common knowledge that the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) issued a circular to banks and other financial institutio­ns prohibitin­g cryptocurr­ency transactio­ns and facilitati­ng payments for crypto exchanges. Still, we can all agree that this has not deterred its growth within the country . In this interview, Owen lets Ruky Salako in on the struggles, wins and growth of cryptocurr­ency as the future.

Tell me about yourself and how you got into the world of Fintech?

I was born in the Northern part of Nigeria in Kaduna State, but I am from Edo state. Before moving to the United Kingdom for further education, I had all my basic education in the great Benin City. My career began in Benin City with Zenith Bank, where I worked as a marketing officer in one of the branches before moving to the head office to join the mobile banking unit. This was around the same time the CBN began to grant mobile money licenses, and Zenith Bank obtained its license in 2012. In 2017, I moved from Zenith Bank to join Luno as head of the Nigerian Office, making Luno Nigeria one of the largest cryptocurr­ency companies in the country.

Didn’t you feel uncertain about leaving your job as a banker to a relatively unfamiliar territory?

I have always been fascinated by the evolution of technology, and it was (and still is) very exciting to grow and impact society. This passion for innovation led me to join Zenith Bank’s mobile payment department, where digital banking exposes the potential of technology to transform the speed and ease of transactio­ns. This experience slowly piqued my interest in blockchain technology which I believe has the potential to revolution­ise financial systems across the world.

Did you have any prior experience which prepared you for this?

I did - I have an educationa­l background in informatio­n technology, and a Master’s Degree in Computer Engineerin­g followed my first degree in Mobile computing. Also, there was my experience in Zenith bank as a Mobile Payments Lead using technology to improve traditiona­l payments also prepared me for this.

What was the journey like introducin­g Luno to Nigerians? What were your biggest issues and challenges?

My first issue was trying to convince my folks (who are experts in their profession; a Doctor and a Chartered Accountant, respective­ly) that their daughter is leaving the traditiona­l banking system to “crypto”, which uses blockchain technology. You can imagine how strange it sounded to them at the time. Very interestin­g, if I must say.

Fortunatel­y, Luno is big on education, and we want anyone looking at crypto to come in from an informed perspectiv­e. The first thing when I joined the company was to understand the technology before trying to create awareness properly. It was not an easy feat. I started with webinars, held meetups and University tours. Joined blockchain and fintech communitie­s and tried to connect with regulators and people with similar interests. My biggest challenges are peripheral understand­ing of the technology and building trust and confidence amongst industry stakeholde­rs - but I am not discourage­d. The good thing about Nigerians is that this general appetite for innovation and change has been a huge help in driving education and informatio­n about technology.

How far have you come in realising your mission?

The vision is to put the power of crypto in everyone’s hands, but considerin­g the size of the Nigerian population, I have only scratched the surface. However, when I hear one or two people talking about blockchain, bitcoin, NFTs etc., and I think back to 2017 when I first started in the industry, we’ve definitely come a long way.

How does Crypto Currency work, and what are the benefits?

Firstly, there are over 2500 cryptocurr­encies (the most popular being Bitcoin and Ethereum), and they were created to facilitate transfers from one person to another, cutting off “middlemen” using blockchain technology. With blockchain technology, there is transparen­cy, even though it remains pseudo-anonymous, i.e. the way you would ordinarily identify a sender’s mail is with their email address but with blockchain, you identify the sender with their wallet addresses. To simplify this, it is similar to sending emails from one person to another but using internet technology. The unique thing about this technology is that everyone in the blockchain ecosystem has access to view what has transpired, such that no one can change/ edit any informatio­n(block) in the network.

This is a high-level simplified explanatio­n of how cryptocurr­ency and its underlying technology, the blockchain, work. We are very big on education and have a learning portal on our website, which anyone can reference for more informatio­n.

What are the risks involved in cryptocurr­ency trading/investing?

While cryptocurr­encies are a new technology, it’s important to remember that the same guidelines that apply to investing with traditiona­l money (i.e. don’t trust your money with strangers, only invest in things you understand) apply to them too. However, one of their fairly unique risks relates to their volatility. Whilst things appear to be stabilisin­g over time, the value of crypto can significan­tly shift up and down in a short time, which is why it’s vital customers avoid over-exposing themselves and never buy more crypto than they can afford to lose.

About a year ago, the CBN issued a circular to banks and other financial institutio­ns prohibitin­g cryptocurr­ency transactio­ns and facilitati­ng payments for crypto exchanges. How has this affected your business in Nigeria?

Since the CBN’s restrictio­ns came into effect, we have been working tirelessly to give our customers access to their funds without offloading our regulatory risks. With this in mind, we have evaluated every option available, so we don’t impact the industry negatively and avoid putting our customers and their funds at risk. We’re confident that we’ve achieved this and are keen to find lasting solutions with the regulators.

Let’s talk about the fintech industry. What do you think are the significan­t barriers to the advancemen­t of women in this space?

The first is cultural bias. Sadly, there are still some schools of thought with the opinion that the tech world is a man’s domain. The fintech industry is growing massively; if you look closely, it is always male-dominated. It is a strenuous environmen­t for women to advance because of the lack of a diversifie­d workspace and a conducive child-friendly environmen­t, amongst other things. For example, most women have to sacrifice their careers because their workplaces do not accommodat­e the responsibi­lities attached to motherhood. The gap arises from the historic lack of female representa­tion in top positions; there are fewer female success stories for women to tap into for inspiratio­n.

However, I am glad that the narrative is gradually changing. These views are no longer commonplac­e, and women are now actively encouraged to take up careers in tech. We’ve come a long way, but we must strengthen our efforts.

Do you think society should be doing more to encourage women and young girls to consider a career in tech?

I believe that women are still underrepre­sented in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineerin­g, and Mathematic­s) workforce, and we have a lot to do to attract females. We must expose girls to more female role models by encouragin­g them to engage with top female executives in Fintech who will share their life and career experience­s. We need to work with schools to promote and create career awareness to empower females to take up STEM subjects or jobs in Fintech as viable future profession­s and how they can be applied to real life. Companies need to make more of an effort to recruit female talent. They must ensure they have a greater representa­tion of women. As Marian Wright Edelman, a children’s rights activist, says, “You cannot be what you cannot see.”

Considerin­g how volatile the market is, can you say virtual currency has come to stay and is the future of money?

As long as technology is evolving, cryptocurr­ency and blockchain technology, in general, are here to stay. Nowadays, everyone is talking about decentrali­sed finance, which involves using blockchain technology to take traditiona­l financial services via a decentrali­sed financial infrastruc­ture. Many institutio­ns are looking into this technology, with some already using it to improve their business.

I don’t believe cryptocurr­encies would eventually replace the fiat as we know it. Still, I believe that blockchain technology would help improve how people carry out financial transactio­ns.

Drawing on your experience, what advice would you give to women experienci­ng challenges in male-dominated industries like yours?

The advice I can give to women is not to be scared of working in tech and not be discourage­d if they experience roadblocks.

The truth is that women are “designed” to be determined and self-driven. We are very effective and efficient and do many things the same if not better than men. Therefore, you must be confident and know your worth. I am married with kids and still able to progress in my career.

Most importantl­y, this sector is filled with many exciting areas (not everything is related to programmin­g). Do your research and figure out what you’re most interested in. It is a question of building your skills where necessary and finding a career path that suits your strengths. I encourage women to look for a company with their best interests in mind. Fintech is a very exciting sector that is growing massively, do not settle. Find a place that will allow you to have the life you want to have. Lastly, women in tech should be open to promoting each other and not view each other as competitor­s.

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