Barry O’Reilly welcomes James Scott as this week’s guest on the Unlearn Podcast. James is the former Chief Digital Officer at Absa Group’s Corporate Investment Bank in South Africa. In his previous role, his focus was product design, data, and platforms, as well as new propositions. James is very passionate about building the future of digital innovation and ventures in Africa. In this week’s show, James explores his working experiences in the region, the similarities and differences in how things are done in the West, and what’s unique about Africa’s scaling venture landscape. Listen to Venture Building in Africa with James Scott.

A New Way Forward

James discovered his passion for venture building while looking for disruptive product opportunities on the continent. The last few years of working in the business end of technology, he was reluctantly involved in a massive large-scale digital transformation. “There [were] so many concurrent pieces of work,” he shares. “Organizing teams, trying to scale agile, building and transforming products and channels as well as embedding new ways of work while trying to hit regulatory deadlines… The good news from that part of the journey is that I made it out alive.” In his own journey, James found that while he loved leading and building teams within a corporate environment, he missed building products and businesses. He talks about getting back into it. [Listen from 2:22]



From Corporate to Entrepreneurship

After being in financial services and large corporates for 21 years, James had some things to unlearn. People typically think the first thing would be the safety and security of a paycheck, but for James, it was capacity. When you’re in a large organization you don’t have to worry about machinery and funding; you focus instead on organizing internal teams. What you’re really doing is mobilizing capacity, James says. “When you’re running big teams, you’re so far away from the backlog…” he adds, “part of the unlearning is [realizing] it’s quite hard to scale yourself.” He and Barry discuss creating systems to facilitate team cooperation and efficiency. [Listen from 6:05]

Debunking Misconceptions about Africa

Africa is a bed of budding opportunities at the moment, James tells Barry. There is a common misconception that it’s just one big group of homogeneous countries but that’s not true; the diversity on the continent is phenomenal. Furthermore, the big hubs of South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria to Egypt are building amazing organizations that work exceptionally well across the continent. “It’s exciting for me because I’m starting to see the maturity of businesses emerge… when you get this right, it’s less about big, global solutions and more about local high-impact businesses creating jobs and generating value in their economies,” James comments. Localization is a key part of the game, especially on the continent, Barry adds. [Listen from 12:12]

How Fintech is Driving Innovation

Barry asks James to talk about any recent developments that have caught his attention. “Fintech continues to dominate the investment landscape and I like some of the businesses that are providing various kinds of multi-country aggregation capability that’s not only moving traditional mechanisms of money transfer, but also plugging into the mobile networks,” James remarks. This is important because a massive part of the African financial ecosystem is mobile money. “Solutions that provide that aggregation are opening up lots of innovation; it’s allowing people sitting in Nairobi to be building solutions that work in Rwanda, that may be work in Nigeria and South Africa.” [Listen from 15:26]