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Former Magento heavyweight boards booming SA fintech startup

Former VP of Engineering at eBay subsidiary Magento, Ted Pietrzak (pictured right), has joined South African fintech startup Jumo to help develop its ground-breaking system to enable financial inclusion in Africa. The appointment is said to mark the first American platform level CTO to be recruited by an African company.

The news also adds weight to the startup’s impressive hiring spree, growing its team of seven to over 100 within the last 12 months. Headquartered in Cape Town with an office in Nairobi, Jumo is said to have attracted a concentration of data and technology pioneers from across Africa, including talent from Amazon, Google, GE and Rocket Internet.

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The fintech outfit came out of stealth mode late last year and is backed by a massive total of US$22-million in investments from the likes of Leapfrog, GEMCORP and Vostok Emerging Finance.

Headed by South African-born entrepreneur Andrew Watkins-Ball (pictured left), who sold Gateway Telecommunications for US$675-million in 2008, Jumo is on a grand mission to leapfrog financial services in Africa by banking on the region’s high mobile penetration rates.

The company estimates that there are over 170 million mobile wallet accounts in Africa, with most people having no access to traditional financial services. It’s reckoned that 80% of people in sub-Saharan Africa lack basic financial services such as loans, insurance, savings and so on.

To meet this incredible demand, Jumo facilitates financial access through mobile wallets, with no need of a bank account, physical infrastructure or collateral. Its first offering, called Access, enables entrepreneurs, small businesses and individuals to access loans using just their mobile phones. The service is backed by algorithms which assess mobile wallet and GSM usage to determine the suitability of loans.

“I love what Jumo is trying to do here,” Pietrzak tells Ventureburn, who’s relocated to Cape Town with his wife for the new position. “The concept of financial inclusion for people who don’t have access to any financial institution or resource is very compelling. It’s a big vision!”

Read more: The year of mobile? 9 of Africa’s most exciting startup investments of 2015

By partnering with the likes of Airtel, Tigo and MTN, it already has a footprint in markets such as Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, with Uganda and Ghana in the pipeline. Jumo says that it’s currently facilitating between 50 000 or 60 000 transactions per day. By the end of this year it expects this number to be in the region of 250 000 transactions per day.

Watkins-Ball says that the company is rolling out a savings offering later this year, which will be closely followed by a range of insurance products. It’s also looking at merchant solutions and healthcare. But as novel as these products may sound, the founder notes that Jumo ultimately wants to be the facilitator between other service providers and the end-user:

What we’re building is a marketplace where we provide an integration solution and a set of rails, which makes it easy to transact. If you have a product you’d like to provide to a customer in the mobile ecosystem, you can come to us, integrate, and we’ll provide you with the toolkit.

This is where Pietrzak steps in. Pietrzak is well established with over 25 years of experience as an engineer, software developer and project leader with a particular focus on the payments and ecommerce platforms, including Paypal, Visa and most recently as CTO at Magento.

“He’s one of those guys who’ve seen things fall over. He’s bled,” says Watkins-Ball. “You want senior engineers who have lots of scars, because you can’t pay for that. It’s what helps you take shortcuts and avoid things from falling over.”

Read more: Exclusive: WeChat launches R50m fund for mobile startups

Jumo’s CEO adds that this hire will also help boost the startup’s reputation:

Frankly, it also makes it so much easier to recruit and get new talent when people see that kind of leadership — they want to work here. We’re trying to recruit as much as we can locally. It’s the reason why we’re in Cape Town. It’s a great source of talent.

“We want to see Cape Town on the global map as a serious tech destination. There are some very brave and smart people doing great stuff. We want to be part of pushing that envelope,” he says.

Pietrzak adds that Africa has the potential to draw in more top-level talent from around the globe, as it’s the “last frontier” for foreign investment. “If you look at the last place on earth where there’s so much underdeveloped opportunities, it’s in Africa.”

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