By Mark Kawalya
Shamirah Kimbugwe is the CEO of Pivot Payments, an African payment services provider / operator that provides payment solutions to individuals and businesses. The firm is currently serving five markets, namely Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, Nigeria, and Ghana. Pivot Payments B2B solutions include bulk payments and bulk collections from mobile money, cards, and bank accounts. The firm’s retail solution is the Pivotpay wallet, which currently has over 250,000 verified users who can save, spend, or send money from their wallet in multiple currencies, safely and conveniently.
A Career she Didn’t Choose
Shamirah’s career in the fintech space didn’t start off on a clear-cut path. She studied law at Makerere University about 16 years ago. However, she neither enjoyed the law nor envisioned herself practicing the trade.
“I came from a traditional family where your parents decide for you what career path you should take. My dad specifically chose law for me because he always wanted to have a daughter who was a lawyer. I was very chatty when I was younger, and he figured I could do well in the field.” Shamirah says.
“There is a lot of reading that lawyers need to do, which I particularly found to be quite bothersome.” she adds.
After graduating from law school, she did a little research on the 100 top lawyers in Uganda, and found out that the field was grossly dominated by men. This further discouraged her. She briefly worked in a legal environment, where she did not particularly enjoy the work.
“I also love colour and didn’t enjoy how the law has a way of boxing lawyers into dull colours of gray, black, blue, and white. It was a simple reason, yet it also propelled me to seek a life that is more vibrant and filled with more colour.” She threw in the towel after one year of trying to figure out what she wanted to do. Later on, she took a trip to the UK and attended a summer camp for work. She started earning a little money from the work, which opened her eyes to the fact that money could be made without necessarily following an employment curve. Shamirah started to look at the business side of life and wanted to figure out ways to apply herself to it.
Awakening to the Fintech Side of Things
“To be fair, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do.” Shamirah says. “I started doing a few things in retail. I borrowed some cash from my mother and friends and jumped onto the next bus to Nairobi. I came back and sold baby clothes. I also did a few consultancies before joining radio as a business development lead.” This is where the journey that led to her financial technology journey started.
One time, Shamirah made a pitch to a local bank with her boss. Although they were not successful, the bank called her back and offered her a position on their team. She accepted the offer and was hired as the brand lead at the financial institution.
She would later move into the business development department and into sales later on.
“I realized that I could not function well in the sales field without having a good understanding of what I was selling.” Shamirah says. She enlisted the help of one of the coworkers and spent an hour a day with him learning the technology side of business. The hours turned into days and months, and slowly she was able to sell better by integrating technology into her pitches. “I could sell to both a tech company and a non-tech company, and it was a very fascinating field for me to get into.”
Some of the challenges
The ratio of men to women when Shamirah started out was about 1:20 for a very long time, especially in the leadership positions. Rarely would you find a woman at the helm or occupying a top leadership position in many of the firms operating in the fintech space.
“Many of the women I encountered were either representing legal, communication, or as brand leads. You would never find them on the side of technology. For a long time, it was a very lonely journey, and there was the perception that a woman could not fill out such a role. Currently, things have changed, and there are more women in the fintech space, which is a good development.”
Another challenge facing the financial technology industry is that Ugandan educational institutions do not offer direct courses that can channel students into the industry. “The same way there is a clear-cut pathway for, say, a doctor or an engineer straight from high school, it’s the same way that courses need to be created for future fintech professionals.” Shamirah says. “Most students wishing to pursue that career have to go overseas for training.”
In 2019, Shamirah founded Pivot Payments after noticing a gap in the unskilled labour export industry. “These workers did not have an affordable and direct way to either save or send their money home. They had no access to proper financial services. Many of them sent money home for projects, but it was misappropriated by wayward relatives.” Shamirah says. This is one of the biggest issues that the unskilled labour market faces.
Pivot Payments allow migrant workers to send money home at 2% of the value of the remittance amount. The business has grown largely out of referrals and currently offers services such as savings, tuition payments, and remittances. The firm also has plans to go into asset financing and low-cost housing.
The firm’s heaviest costs occur due to three things. These are:
Compliance: The level of investment needs for compliance to bodies like the Central Bank and the Tax Body is very high, making it one of the firms highest.
Technology: Fintechs need to invest in robust, high-end technology that is in tandem with the security and operability needs required when dealing with people’s money.
People: The other investment is in people who play an integral role in running the company. “It doesn’t matter what systems you have set in place, a good team makes all the difference in a company.” Shamirah says.
Balancing Work and Family
Shamirah travels a lot, especially between Uganda and the Middle East. This often requires a lot of juggling between work and family. “It can really be hard sometimes,” she says.
“You must be able to decide that this is the life you chose, and you will do it. You cannot have your cake and eat it. You cannot be a stay-at-home mom and also be fully engaged in the work space.” Shamirah says. She adds that one has to schedule time for their family the same way they would for work.
“You also need a good support system, not just with family but also with your team at work. Let teams manage what they need to manage. You cannot, for instance, manage things like the weekly stationery that the company needs.”
The Future of Pivot Payments
The firm hopes to establish Uganda’s first purely digital bank. There are examples of these in other markets that have thousands of clients. It will hopefully be the first in Uganda and the second in the region, as Kenya licensed a digital bank recently.
Shamirah’s favorite dish is goat meat, which she says she cannot get enough of. While she is away travelling she talked about three things she misses the most. The first is the Ugandan weather, and adds that it can get really hot in some countries, making it almost unbearable. The second is Ugandan water, which is very fresh and good to drink. In some places she has been, the water is hard and is both unpalatable and harsh to the skin. The third is roasted ground nuts, which she loves to take with her tea for snack time.
One of the most difficult situations she has experienced was the aftermath of her career switch. “My family was broken by it. My dad was very disappointed, while my mom took part of the brunt of the blame. It looked like I had wasted my parents money and their time. I also lost a lot of friends in the legal profession who felt I didn’t belong in the legal circles anymore.”
Currently, all this has changed, and her family is fully behind her. However, her parents did not live long enough to see her current successes. Shamirah fully understands that money doesn’t buy happiness and believes that it is more valuable to invest in people relationships than entirely focusing on making money.