We've helped build Kenya's payments ecosystem

Interswitch General Manager Romana Rajput. [File, Standard]

From installing Kenya’s first ATMs, to now running a 1 billion dollar African electronics payments giant, Romana Rajput has been on the front seat of the country’s fintech transformation.

Ms Rajput is the country general manager of Interswitch, the Nigerian-headquartered firm that entered the country in 2014 after acquiring a majority stake in Paynet Group, the parent company of PesaPoint.

In Kenya, Interswitch has largely been a third-party processor supporting financial institutions like banks and Saccos.

The firm deploys its technical capabilities behind the scenes to run thousands of ATMs across the country. Interswitch also facilitates debit and credit card issuances and monitors point of sale (POS) systems for merchants. 

Now, the firm is looking to strengthen its market position in Kenya’s payments ecosystem with setting up a domestic switch later this year. 

“One of our big projects this year is gearing the banks together to switch domestically as per the guidelines of the Central Bank of Kenya’s (CBK) National Payment Strategy,” says Ms Rajput.

This will save the country huge foreign exchange costs associated with routing transactions through foreign switches, she says. 

Banking infrastructure

“We’ve been working on it and when the two biggest banks (Equity and KCB) in the country come online, then we are domestic switching. The rest will follow up and we expect it to also enhance collaboration in the local payments ecosystem.”

The CBK-licensed payment service provider (PSP) is riding on its experience of running a similar switch in other countries including Nigeria and Gambia.

Interswitch is behind the Verve card that offers customers real-time access to funds in their bank accounts while on the go. It has over 57 million tokens in Africa and spans 27 African markets.

Ms Rajput notes that both Equity and KCB – Kenya’s largest banks – accept the Verve card. This is significant as they control about 70 per cent of the banking infrastructure network in the country and will lead adoption of the domestic interbank switch. 

“We all have to come together and do what’s right for the national good as well, our country is going through changes, and we’re getting more sophisticated in our payment instruments and infrastructure,” she says, noting that Interswitch will partner with other financial services firms. 

Domestic switching

Switching to domestic access means that one can use a local debit card in any bank’s infrastructure.

“If you’ve pulled your card out of your wallet, you don’t have to ask: Where can I use this? Or look for your bank … You need to just walk anywhere, put that card and get your money or buy your goods,” she says.

“So that’s what we’re trying to achieve with domestic switching in Kenya and I’m very passionate about it because I once we get that nailed, there are many other things we can build.”

The firm is also cementing its footprint in East Africa with operations in Uganda and has recently ventured into the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Ms Rajput has seen the big changes in Kenya’s electronics payments landscape and bringing convenience to consumers’ fingertips hasn’t been a walk in the park.

She joined StanChart in 1992 which had become the first bank to introduce ATMs into the Kenyan market in 1989.

“This was one of my projects, I had to go and install ATMs in branches and connect them and the technology was archaic. The sophistication of technology today is out of this world,” she says.

She says that at first, Kenyans were apprehensive of using ATMs as they were used to walking into branches and having physical interactions with bank staff. 

At StanChart, she was also part of the team that introduced bill payments through the ATMs.

She was also part of the team at the then PesaPoint which enabled customers to withdraw cash from their M-Pesa wallets via ATMs in 2008, bridging the gap between the two payment platforms.

With innovations such as M-Pesa, Kenya has been one of Africa’s leaders toward a cashless future.

Interswitch offers two types of cards; physical cards that support a significant amount of banking technology today and Paycode, which exists as a mobile phone token that customers can use to access cash from their bank accounts.

“There’s a need for both since on the one hand, the world is still heavily invested in card technology and on the other hand, Africa has been leading the way in mobile technology and use of smartphones,” says Ms Rajput.  

In 2019, global payments giant Visa acquired 20 per cent of Interswitch. Ms Rajput notes that the deal was a result of Visa recognising the company was “becoming a pan-African powerhouse.” Interswitch also has many Visa customers.

She says financial regulators such as the CBK have been key in nurturing the fintech space. Kenya’s tech boom has also led to the strengthening of data protection with the country appointing the first-ever Data Protection Commissioner in 2020.

What does it take to run a thriving tech giant?

Ms Rajput says that governance is paramount as there’s a lot of scrutiny from customers and financial regulators. “When you’re in the payments space there’s a lot of responsibility on your shoulders.”

She advises fintech entrepreneurs to strive to build local solutions. Interswitch was founded by three entrepreneurs from Nigeria and has managed to attract investors such as Visa and Helios.

Ms Rajput adds that they have an open collaboration culture, and believe in customer success, ethics and innovation.

As a top executive, she looks for passion when hiring.

“Having worked in this space for over 30 years, what I want to see in people is passion, and the right attitude,” she says.

“You can’t build a road by just talking about it. You have to carry the first stone … You cannot build a payment ecosystem by just talking about it and designing it,” says Ms Rajput.

“You must get your hands dirty and start integrating with banks and your customers creating the solutions that they need.”

To stay on top of things as a business leader, she says prioritisation is essential.  

Interestingly, Ms Rajput wanted to pursue veterinary medicine in college but was bit by the tech bug. To stay on top, she has kept learning. 

She’s doing a senior management leadership programme at the Strathmore Business School, which is also a  networking port.

“Many of us come from the tech industry and don’t have the natural management capability, we have to learn a lot of these things. And leadership is a calling and you have to work at it like you work at anything else,” says Ms Rajput. 

Her moments of regret and disappointment as a top executive are when her team fails to deliver on customer promises.

To unwind, she plays tennis.

“I play tennis twice a week and have also picked archery as a new sport,” she says. 

“I keep myself healthy and active and also interact with many different social groups in my own community.”

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