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. 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 for “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 a 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.
Can you say Nigerians have understood and embraced virtual currencies?
I would say it’s a work in progress. Nigeria is the 3rd most technologically-advanced country in Africa, but there’s still a strong need to drive innovation. According to Google Trends, Nigeria was recorded as the country with the highest number of bitcoin searches globally in early 2021, indicating the growing practicality of cryptocurrency in the country. Nigeria also has one of the world’s highest grassroots adoptions of crypto. The majority of people invest because they are rare assets that have the potential to increase in value. They are also malleable and can be broken down into smaller units without losing value. Cryptocurrencies are almost impossible to counterfeit, which makes them a very desirable asset to own for long-term investment. They are also a cheaper and more viable means of payment for cross-border transactions. This is because many international merchants do not feel very comfortable accepting payments from Nigeria.
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 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.