Simon Melchior is the Chief Executive Officer of Asseco Nigeria, a subsidiary of the Asseco Group, the leading software company in Central and Eastern Europe and the 5th largest in Europe. In this interview with BusinessDay’s Frank Eleanya, Melchior speaks on how the Company is driving technology in Nigeria through the promotion of local content and talent development among other salient issues.
How long has Asseco been in the African software market and what have been the lessons?
Adefolu Majekodunmi and I started Asseco Nigeria nine years ago, in 2014, although it feels like yesterday. Time flies! I started working with Asseco in 2013. At the time, they were looking to buy a controlling stake in a Nigerian software company, so they contacted me to help them find some acquisition targets. We identified about 12-15 companies, but either their founders didn’t want to sell a controlling stake or if they did, they wanted a prohibitive premium and then were not interested in staying in the business. So after a while, both Asseco and we decided to create Asseco Nigeria as a startup. Asseco Group invested $1 million in exchange for 51 percent of the shares in the company and we started developing the business organically.
As to why Nigeria, well Nigeria is a big and very dynamic market, already quite advanced from an IT perspective (particularly in financial services), but where a lot of automation and digitization is still expected to happen across many sectors, so it was perceived as a good opportunity. All this potential has not fully been realized, but we are working hard at harnessing this potential.
Asseco Nigeria, is a subsidiary of the Asseco Group, the No.1 software company in Central and Eastern Europe and the 5th largest in Europe. The Group operates in 55 countries and has over 30,000 employees worldwide. The Asseco Group is a federation of companies engaged in information technology. Its companies are listed on the Warsaw Stock Exchange, Tel-Aviv Stock Exchange as well as on the New York NASDAQ. Asseco offers comprehensive, proprietary IT solutions for all sectors of the economy.
What informs the range of products Asseco offers and what has been the market reaction to them? Can you give me some numbers?
Asseco Group is a federation of IT companies that own more than 200 different proprietary software applications, sometimes competing with each other. From inception, our mandate was to build our own software in Nigeria, but we were also customizing, implementing, integrating and supporting locally Asseco Group’s software solutions.
Over the years, we have focused on those solutions and verticals where we have the most success or competitive advantage. We now have seven business lines: banking, insurance, enterprise, public administration, trust services, cybersecurity and unmanned aerial vehicles. In banking, we focus on omnichannel systems, authentication and customer experience or relationship management solutions. In insurance, we implement our core insurance system, but also our digital frontend as well as solvency and International Financial Reporting Standard (IFRS) 17 applications. In enterprise, we have our proprietary Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system for large, medium or small corporates.
Public administration covers large e-government projects such as automation of tax collection (fiscalization) to widen the tax net and increase collection of revenue, but also various other government applications. Trust services, cybersecurity and Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) are transversal or “horizontal” solutions that we provide to various and different verticals. In trust services, we are the only WebTrust & Adobe Trust List qualified Certification Authority with a physical presence in Nigeria issuing digital certificates and digital signatures from Nigeria, and employing Nigerian staff to handle this business. In cybersecurity, we provide the full stack of services from IT security audits, vulnerability or penetration tests, and cyber threat intelligence to real-time incident handling and response.
Our UAV services are used in Nigeria for mapping and cartography, precision farming as well as security and defense. As you can see, we’re keeping quite busy. It is our strategy to have a diversified business so that we don’t depend on one solution or vertical too much. We are also growing the business beyond Nigeria’s borders, particularly in Francophone West Africa.
Looking at 2014 when Asseco entered the Nigerian market. What has changed in terms of investments and policy environment?
Nigeria is a very dynamic and challenging place. Frankly speaking, I’m not sure we’ve made much progress over the past 10 years or so, and we’re still a “potential”, but we cannot stay a potential forever, we have to realize this potential, create value locally, create jobs, harness this potential. So as a company, we are now much more focused on what works for us, what we’re good at. And we’re just doing more of that. We keep learning every day, and getting better and better at what we do
How much have you invested in the Nigerian software market so far?
In 2014 when we started the company, Asseco invested $1 million in Nigeria. It is big and small at the same time. Since this initial investment, we have generated more than $30 million of revenues in Nigeria for the group. Again, it is big and small at the same time. We have not repatriated a kobo of dividends to the group since then, although our past 4 years have been profitable, as we have been reinvesting our resources in growing our business. We are hiring, providing qualified employment and training our people. People are our most important asset and we strive to imbibe a culture of excellence throughout the company, in every business function, focusing on providing a high-quality service to our customers.
We see competition growing in the market. How is Asseco positioning for this?
First of all, the market dynamics in our seven business lines are different and we have different competitors in each one of them. Secondly and honestly, we don’t look at competition as something bad. On the contrary, competition helps us become better, improving our services and exceeding our customers’ expectations. You see, we don’t do off-the-shelf solutions, we do tailor-made, customized and integrated solutions. In clothing you have pret-a-porter and tailor-made clothes, some tailors focus on one while others on the other and either business can be profitable if you do it well. We focus on quality and tailor-made applications. So we spend a lot of time understanding our customers’ specific business requirements to implement solutions that truly answer their specific needs and give them a competitive edge. We also try to be in more cutting-edge and innovative fields, more “blue ocean” versus “red ocean” so to speak. But sometimes, we also face the herd mentality. Many companies say they want to lead, but for you to lead, you have to innovate and do things differently than your competitors. The truth is that we learn, we adapt and we continuously improve. We are detailed and pragmatic. Our job is to make complex processes simple and seamless for our customers and for our customers’ customers.
Talent has become a critical issue in the software market. What are you doing about it?
We focus a lot on talent development as a business. We don’t just develop talent for the sake of it. We do it because we need it, because by learning new skills, by being better at what we do, and by being certified and recognized, we provide a better service to our customers. Whoever works at Asseco knows that it is not Asseco paying your salary, but our customers who pay our salaries, so we better do a good job serving them. If you want to grow in the company, do a good job and you will grow. It’s very simple. Now beyond that, our purpose is to change Nigeria for better-using technology. Everybody in the organization knows that. We came up with that purpose together, at a strategy retreat a few years ago and we stick to it because it really inspires us. We live it every day. We are passionate about it. We all believe that we can do it. We all see this new Nigeria that is coming. And we want to be part of that story.