“You already have what it takes.”
On this International Women’s Day, we sat down with Sokowatch Kenya CEO Angela Nzioki to learn more about her path to success, and what she’s most proud of so far. Trigger warning: The following interview may inspire you.
Tell us a little bit about your career path. What led you to Sokowatch, and the role as Kenya’s CEO specifically? What made Sokowatch the next right career choice for you?
I graduated from Strathmore University with a Business and IT degree which gave me the foundation to set up my first company in 2011, called Pluspeople Kenya. This was a fintech startup empowering SMEs in East Africa with simple business and financial management tools and we had over 5,000 active subscribers.
I was at the company for nine years as Co-Founder and Chief Operating Officer but when I was offered my role at Sokowatch in 2019, I saw it as a fresh challenge. I’ve always been passionate about helping underserved SMEs, and Sokowatch gave me the chance to do this in a completely different and larger field: the informal retail sector.
Across the continent, there are over 10 million informal shops selling over $180 billion worth of goods every year. Despite their importance to local economies, these shops routinely stock out of products, have limited access to financial services, and lack proper business management tools. At Sokowatch, we’re transforming the livelihood of these businesses and their communities and I’m proud to be leading our operations in Kenya.
“Across the continent, there are over 10 million informal shops selling over $180 billion worth of goods every year. Despite their importance to local economies, these shops routinely stock out of products, have limited access to financial services, and lack proper business management tools. At Sokowatch, we’re transforming the livelihood of these businesses and their communities.”
What has surprised you about your experience to date with Sokowatch? What do you think Sokowatch does better than anyone else?
How vital the fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) retail space is on the continent. I feel like I discovered a whole new world that makes everything else tick. It is no wonder that during COVID, we got classified as essential service providers. As much as people’s livelihoods were affected and there was an economic downturn, people still needed to eat, take showers, wash clothes…and these are things people will always need, no matter how challenging things get.
In regards to what we do better than everyone else, I’m especially proud of how we’re empowering informal retailers to expand their businesses through our credit facilities. In a lot of our locations, duka owners are living from hand-to-mouth and due to the fact they work in the informal sector, they often lack the official documents needed to secure credit from traditional banks.
However, based on previous transaction data on our platform, we’re able to assess the creditworthiness of our retailers and give them the ability to increase their order sizes and store capacity. For our customers, this has enabled them to take care of other needs such as medical bills, tuition and insurance and I’m proud to say Sokowatch is playing a crucial role in empowering communities that have been overlooked for many years.
Your COVID-19 related efforts have been lauded by many. Tell us about those initiatives — where did they originate, and what were the outcomes? What kind of impact have those initiatives had on retailers you serve?
In many of our key locations, there were increased supply chain disruptions for informal retailers, leading to major shortages of essential goods for not only these shops but the communities they serve. While medium and high-income households could afford to shop online, poorer families still heavily relied on informal shops as they couldn’t afford to purchase goods from larger retailers or didn’t have smartphones to order online.
As a result of this, we decided to launch an e-voucher scheme in Kenya and Uganda to provide essential goods and food (i.e. soap, rice, flour) to vulnerable families through our retailers. With the e-vouchers sent via SMS, vulnerable families were able to receive the vouchers to their phones and redeem them at nearby shops. Once the goods were received by these families, the transaction was confirmed via an app and shopkeepers were instantly credited digitally for the goods issued.
There were no transaction fees charged and 100% of the value sent through the e-vouchers was received by the family. In total, we secured over 10,000 beneficiaries for the scheme and our participating shop owners also saw their revenues rise by 54%. 2020 was definitely a challenging time for everyone but through the e-voucher scheme, we’ve been able to assist some of the most at-risk communities in our locations during a crucial time.
We don’t ask men “What’s it like being a man in this business,” so we won’t ask you that. But are there any challenges that women who are inspired by your career should be prepared for? What do you think are the obstacles to bringing more women into the fintech ecosystem, in particular?
The fintech ecosystem is a male-dominated world and unfortunately, a lot of women still have to go the extra mile to prove themselves. For a long time, it’s been a space with very few women which has created a culture and mindset which contradicts the level of technological progression the industry produces.
However, things are beginning to change gradually and more firms are not only acknowledging the biases that exist in the workplace, but also the lack of female talent in their ranks. The next step for these companies is to be more intentional about their efforts to hire female talent and increase their visibility in senior leadership positions.
It’s great that more companies are lending their voices to these issues, but there need to be tangible actions in place to ensure this isn’t simply lip service.
What’s something you wish you could say to your younger self, that you know now and wish you had known then?
If I could say one word to my younger self, it would be “patience”! Now I am a true believer in being more fully present. My younger self wanted to take on the world and change it overnight! I’ve come to learn that system change takes time! The world’s most challenging problems take resilience, maturity, people, partnerships, diversity and they take patience! I believe I am exactly where I need to be right now and the moments I missed while younger, trying to run before I could walk, simply were mine to lose. And I lost them.
“The world’s most challenging problems take resilience, maturity, people, partnerships, diversity and they take patience! I believe I am exactly where I need to be right now and the moments I missed while younger, trying to run before I could walk, simply were mine to lose.”
What’s something you wish more people knew about you?
Playing golf is one of my favorite hobbies and something I missed during the lockdown. I find it centers my thoughts and helps me decompress. Some people box, I golf! When things get tough at work and I need to unwind, I take my driver, go to the practice range, and imagine the golf balls as the problem I am facing and whack my frustrations away. Afterward, I feel so much better and can carry on without being emotional.
Where do you find inspiration in your work and life?
My parents are a huge inspiration. They both had a limited education growing up and worked incredibly hard to overcome the odds. For my siblings and I, this meant we had no choice but to constantly push ourselves whether in terms of our education or extracurricular activities, and it continues to be a big driving force in my life today.
My mentors are also a great source of support. They’ve been people who were willing to invest their time in me and expose me to opportunities that people from my background don’t usually have. To this day, I can always reach out to them if I need advice and that’s something I’m always grateful for.
On this International Women’s Day, what would you say to young women and girls who are looking at your career and wondering how to get there?
I’d say, “You already have what it takes — you just need to be bold enough to believe this and grab hold of opportunities when they come your way.” However, it’s also about proactively ensuring you’re in the best position to capitalize on these opportunities when they do arrive, i.e., actively circulating your CV within your network, ensuring your career information on LinkedIn is up-to-date. These are all things I’ve done throughout my career and I’ve definitely seen the benefits.
Prior to joining Sokowatch, Angela Nzioki was the Co-Founder and COO of Pluspeople Kenya Limited, a fintech company focused on empowering SMEs in East Africa by giving them access to simple business and financial management tools. During her time at Pluspeople, Angela grew the business to over 5,000 active subscribers, growing at the rate of 2.5% per month. Angela is also a certified project manager and has also consulted on projects within the Ministry of Tourism, UAP Old Mutual and at First Community Bank. She has a background in Sustainable Business Development from the Swedish Institute (Stockholm), a Leadership and Entrepreneurship fellowship from Northwestern University (Chicago, IL) and a Business and IT degree from Strathmore University (Nairobi, Kenya). She’s an MIT Zambezi fellow, an Alibaba e-Founder and a Skoll YLI (Young Leader Initiative). She also currently serves as an advisory board member for Kytabu, an ed-tech company, a mentor at Baobob, an Arizona State University and Mastercard Foundation Community platform, and is a committee member and Lady Captain at Nairobi Ngong Racecourse Golf Club.
Sokowatch is a solutions-based e-commerce platform, using innovative tech to improve the inefficiencies in the supply chain. Sokowatch enables informal retailers to order products at any time via SMS or mobile app, receiving free same-day delivery to their store. And through its data tracking of real-time sales, shop owners are able to purchase goods from manufacturers and distributors at competitive prices based on supply and demand. With over 17,000 shop owners in its network, Sokowatch is revolutionizing access to essential goods and services across 9 major cities in East Africa.