James Lawson is the Founder and Chief Information Officer at Intergreatme, a global digital identity platform that can be integrated into a wide range of businesses in less than a day to bring identity verification and secure multi-factor authentication in seconds. In this exclusive interview with Heath Muchena of Business Africa Online, Lawson shares insights into his approach to leadership as CIO of a technology company, scaling a digital business, and overcoming operational challenges in the Know-Your-Customer (KYC) and ID verification space. Excerpt.
Heath: CIO roles in today’s IT environment are quite dynamic. What do you enjoy most about your role?
James: Each day is completely different from the next. I try and plan what I can in the morning, and then spend the rest of my day engaging with executives, development team, support agents, and with our clients.We have a dynamic business, and being a start-up means we are constantly dealing with resource constraints – which isn’t a bad thing, it forces you to focus on the most important tasks at hand.
I enjoy the freedom that I have around exploring new technologies, looking at existing products and looking at how we can optimise not only the code we have, but the products and services we use to run the business.I am also analytical and detail oriented. I build my own reports, interrogate the data, and use it to build data-driven decisions to help optimise the business. This helps to provide recommendations to our customers as to how they can optimise processes where our technology plays a role in their onboarding process, especially where they can achieve greater savings by implementing quick-win solutions.
Heath: Describe your leadership style? How do you lead through change?
James: My main leadership style is through servant leadership. As such, I believe that the technology side of the business is most effective when employees are given the opportunities to make their own choices, and for me to support them in those choices (unless I can see there is an obvious issue with the decision-making process). This also gives each individual a high degree of autonomy, and we have really worked hard to try and build self-managing teams.
This is also really reflected in my attitude towards servicing our customers. That does not mean to say that I am a “yes man” and will implement every product feature that a customer asks for, but that I will hear our customers out, and advise them on the best route forward – and sometimes decision that involves persuading them to cut out a feature, though proven experience in our product domain.
Heath: Can you explain the most difficult part of being a leader?
James: The most difficult part of being a leader is dealing with the decisions no one else is prepared to make. Sometimes, those decisions are not the popular ones. But at the end of the day, the decisions I make in the business are always focused towards the betterment of the company, and the people working inside of it.
Heath: To what do you attribute your success? How has it impacted your enterprise digital goals?
James: I consider myself fortunate that I have been able to move between different industries. I have worked in several non-technical jobs in banking and finance; have lectured at several universities, worked as a journalist, as well as in tech-and-management roles. While some might consider this a more… checked past, I see this as a valuable attribution to my collective knowledge and experience in the workplace.
One of the more innovative solutions I helped design was for a training institute, where we digitised the manual process of getting classroom labs set-up into an automated one. Before setting up a lab, a technician is required to manually copy each image across to the computer, often a symmetric process of copying the image across one-computer at a time. Working with the internal development team I managed (along with 3 other departments), we incorporated BitTorrent into the classrooms and built a Web-UI classroom management solution.
This meant the technician could now do his work remotely, increased the speed at which classroom labs could be setup, but more importantly, if a student had an issue with their lab, a new instance could be deployed in seconds vs. minutes or hours to manually find the correct image on a server and copy it across.
The impact was massive in terms of time and money saved, as well as customer satisfaction.
Heath: Where do you see your business in two years?
James: Intergreatme has two products, an app where people can upload and manage their identity with form-completing services, like renewing their car licence disc; and our Know Your Customer (Self-KYC) solution that handles the remote collection, validation, and verification of personal information to help businesses comply with their regulatory requirements, such as FICA and RICA.
I believe in the next two years that we will see a shift to our coresolution as corporate South Africa comes to grips with regulations like therisk-based KYC approach and the eventual implementation of Protection of Personal Information Act (POPI).
Heath: What are some of the challenges you face from a day-to-day operational perspective?
James: I would say my biggest operational challenge is keeping the focus in the company on the route forward – the identity space can be disrupted in so many ways! It is easy for someone to come up with an idea that is entirely feasible, and easy to implement; but knowing when to show restraint and say no, is one of my biggest daily challenges.
It can also be very tough to motivate the various teams, especially when we are under pressure to deliver product. I am proud to say I was able to refine our internal development process to reduce the stress levels of everyone in the dev. team, while also keeping stakeholders happy. We moved from break-neck development with long hours, and tight deadlines, to a more sensible flow.
Understanding policy, especially from a local regulatory stance. Our business is built around identity, and trust, and ensuring that we not only build a product around these regulations, but also that we employ a best-effort approach to securing our services.
Vetwork Inc, MENA’s leading startup for animal care is bringing petcare to your home
Vetwork Inc Founders, Abdelreheem Hussein and Fady Azzouny (Source: Vetwork)
Pets today are considered family members, best friends, confidants, and so much more. Taking care of them requires more than just love and dedication, but also the right knowledge to recognize when something is not right. Vetwork Inc, MENA’s leading startup for animal care industry one country at a time and its mission is to make pets healthier, pet owners happier. In this interview with Alaba Ayinuola of Business Africa Online, Fady Azzouny Founder and CEO of Vetwork Inc talked about his entrepreneurship journey, his vision for petcare with Vetwork and the future plan. Excerpts.
Alaba: Why did you start and what’s the passion behind it?
Fady: Petcare should be easy, as it stands its full of inefficiencies for both pet parents and vets. Instead of a crowded clinic with a waiting time of 30-45 minutes, vets come to you at home at the time you choose. Rather than try to muster up a massive amount of money to fund a clinic, vets can practice their services without any initial cost and make extra money to live a better life.
The vision of regulating the petcare industry involves a lot of innovation, our dream is to use the available technologies to make everyone’s lives easier and right now we’re on the right track.
Alaba: What is your background?
Fady: I graduated as a veterinarian, but I consider myself an entrepreneur. I saw some problems in the veterinary market while I was still studying and started a bunch of projects, with a few of them turning into medium sized companies. My initial problem was the absence of technology in my solutions, with Vetwork I think we can really achieve my vision of making petcare easier.
Alaba: What are the problems you are solving and what is your value proposition?
Fady: Its simple, we are solving the problem of finding a good vet by selecting our vets from a pool of more than 1000 annual applications. And the problem of waiting in the clinic through Home visits available 24/7. Also, we are addressing Vets problems of low wages and salaries by offering them easy access to extra income.
Vetwork is reliable, affordable and available petcare.
Alaba: Tell us more about the process, users, business model!
Fady: As we stand the process is the same across Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirate (UAE). We onboarded more than 300 vets across these three countries. These vets help us cater to our customer’s needs. A pet parent can log into our website or app and request a service at the time of their choosing. A vet will be assigned and introduced to the client.
The vet will then arrive, conduct the visit and deliver a detailed orientation on the tips and tricks of petcare. Our medical records also allow us to follow-up with our pet parents to make sure that everything is going according to plan and their pet is getting better.
Alaba: What are your main challenge?
Fady: Since we promise to deliver all your pets needs to you, finding the right groomers, trainers, vets and boarding facilities is always a challenge due to our strict onboarding guidelines.
Alaba: What is your achievements and coming plan?
Fady: After launching in three countries our plan is to start expanding further into the MENA region and build our presence in the countries that need us the most. Our tech infrastructure allows us to launch in any country in a matter of days and we plan to take advantage of this to test markets and become your pets partner anywhere in the Middle East.
Alaba: Do you think the ecosystem support you?
Fady: Ideas and mentorship, we’re always happy to learn and listen to other people’s ideas on how we can make petcare an easier process. We try our best to promote pet adoption since a lot of shelters are full of pets that need a home. Access to people with a wider audience can surely help us deliver our message to the people that need us the most.
Zoe Adjonyoh, the Ghanaian Irish Chef, Writer and Activist revolutionizing African Cuisine
Zoe Adjonyoh, Founder at Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen (Source: Zoe Adjonyoh)
Zoe Adjonyoh is on a mission to bring African food to the masses. Born to a Ghanaian father and Irish mother, the writer and chef from South-East London deepened her understanding of West African cuisine after a trip to visit her extended family in Ghana. Described by the Observer as “the standard bearer for West African food” and named by Nigel Slater as ‘one to watch’ bringing immigrant food to Britain. She was named one of “London’s hottest chefs” by Time Out and most recently has been included as one of ‘The 44 Best Female Chefs in the World’ by Hachette Cuisine France. She became a judge at “The Great Taste Awards” in 2016, which is known as the “Oscars” of the food industry, and in 2018, she won the Iconoclast award at The James Beard Foundation.
Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen
Zoe began by selling Ghanaian food outside her front door during the 2010 Hackney Wicked Arts Festival to ‘make a bit of pocket money’ after returning from traveling across The United States. After the popularity of the stall she set up selling peanut stew outside her front door, Zoe went on the host many supper clubs in her home consistently selling out.
Zoe has been making waves in the international food scene ever since. Zoe has taken her fresh interpretation of classic Ghanaian flavours to pop-up venues across London, Berlin, Accra, Russia and New York, and is a leader in the new African cuisine revolution. Along with her world-renowned supper clubs, Zoe launched her first fixed restaurant space in 2015, at shipping container community project Pop Brixton.
In 2017, Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen became a roving private dining, street food, wedding and events company, which Zoe ran alongside her chef residencies. The brand is a prominent force in the festival community around the UK, including Camp Bestival as part of The Feast Collective, and came runner-up as ‘Best Street Food Trader’ at the UK Festival Awards 2017.
Revolutionizing West African Food
Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen was the first modern West African Restaurant in the United Kingdom. Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen was the epitome of social, relaxed and affordable dining – where guests gather to enjoy Ghanaian favourites, notable for their heartiness and spice, alongside Zoe’s contemporary West African creations.
In 2014, Zoe began writing her debut cookbook titled ‘Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen’ and was released in 2017 by
Octopus Books. The first modern West African Cookbook to be published in the United Kingdom. Due to its demand the publishers decided to re-release of the cookbook in November 2020 and is the process of working on her second book.
Visit Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen
Coco Olakunle, the Nigerian Dutch photographer passionate about humanity, inclusion and diversity
Coco Olakunle is a Nigerian Dutch photographer with a background in Human Geography based in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Her cultures and lived experience are constant sources of inspiration. This produces a photography style that can be seen as a crossover between documentary and fashion, where she always try to highlight the importance of the subject’s identity and background. During her work time, she likes to create a space where the subject feels comfortable and at ease being themselves and letting their personality show. Coco finds that when the subjects in her work feels comfortable, it is felt in the overall process and in the end product.
Her work revolves around people and the personalities they embody: Coco uses her camera as a way to engage with humanity and peacefully open the doors of full spectrum inclusivity and representation. She’s constantly creating spaces for her subjects to express themselves and discover who they are. The subject is always the starting point but what you see in the image is actually a snapshot of her vision: how I want to see us.
“For most of us, 2020 was a tough year. At the beginning of the year, all my jobs were cancelled. Being in lockdown and not being able to work forced me to rethink my skill set. I wasn’t able to practice photography though photoshoots, but I was able to share my experience as a freelance photographer with others. During that time, I got the opportunity to be in front of the classroom multiple times at various art academies, including one I had been previously rejected from as an applicant. To me, this proves that there are different tracks and ways to achieve your goals. Talking to the next generation of visual artists about my work and the philosophy behind it was a new experience for me. It was refreshing to bring other perspectives to the table, especially not coming from an art academy myself. I feel a great responsibility bringing new perspectives into these institutions and guiding students in finding their visual identity and translating it into their creative work.” Coco said.
One of my absolute highlights from 2020 was shooting the cover of ELLE magazine’s September issue. This was super exciting because I got to focus more on the fashion side of photography, and it was such an honor to have my work on the cover of such a big magazine. I look forward to doing more work in the field of fashion, where I can bring my photography style and cultural background to the table. I am constantly inspired by so many great African photographers, some of which are Nigerian, which makes me even more proud. Seeing all the creative work that comes from the continent inspires me from a distance, and even more when I am there.
Coco aim to get back to Lagos, as soon as possible. She said, “Creating in the motherland is very personal for me because it’s a way for me to connect with and learn more about my culture and my people on a deeper level. Being on Nigerian soil gives me a different type of creativity and inspiration from within and I love working with my people when I am there. My camera is like a passport that gives her access to new people and stories which I love bringing back with me and sharing.”
One of her personal projects is a documentary fashion series about her family in Lagos, which she sees as a personal exploration of her Nigerian culture and an exciting challenge. The idea for this project stems from when she was young. “I dream about Nigeria a lot and created my own image of how it would look in my head, and how my family would be. This visualization is my starting point for this series, blending my own vision with what I see when I am there. This project is a way for me to connect with my heritage and discover more about Nigerian culture, and, through that, myself.” Coco said.
In terms of personal development, she hopes to explore different sides of photography she is less familiar with. Coco is excited to master the physics of lighting, because she believes light is how you paint a picture. She loves learning new things in general, making the entire process to be a fun one.
“The past year brought me a lot of new opportunities and new perspectives which I am grateful for, and hope to take with me further into the next years. For the new year, my focus will be on sharing and creating supportive environments where other photographers can connect with and uplift each other.” She said.
A few weeks ago, Coco organized a ‘Creative Catch Up’ for a small group of creatives to reflect on the past year and share ideas for the next year. With good food, music and a table filled with (photography) books this get together turned into a supportive environment where they shared project ideas, thoughts and insecurities. Something she thinks they as freelancers should do more often.