As founders of Ovamba Solutions, Inc., Viola Llewellyn, and Marvin Cole provides Africa’s 40 million trading businesses with the access to capital, funding, systems and technologies needed to acquire the assets they need to grow their businesses.
After 4 years in business, the keys to successfully running Ovamba ran along similar themes: helping customers plan for growth and providing sophisticated technology to measure risk and improve the performance of businesses so that they are attractive to investors.
Co-founder Viola Llewellyn shares her approach for solving the problem of growth for African SME’s (subject matter experts or entrepreneurs), the power of failing forward and how women are breaking down barriers in business future women in business.
Tell us about your background
I was born in London and went to school in the UK. My parents are from Cameroon and I spent 4 years going to school there between the ages of 12 and 16. I had always loved science and technology and thought that I would be a Genetic Engineer. That didn’t happen! I moved to the USA in 1992 and changed my career. I got into communications and advertising where I learned client management. My career in the USA also led me into Government communications and Finance. Before forming Ovamba with my co-founder I was in alternative asset class investment and management.
What are your top 3 accomplishments?
Launching Ovamba and funding over 200 customers in Cameroon is definitely something that I rate as a wonderful accomplishment!
Participating in Wilton Parks policy development meetings for diversity and gender equality. This is important for women in business and for growing the African ecosystem for global participation
We’re very proud that we are engaging the informal sector by developing tech-enabled tools for literacy – both fundamental and digital. This will allow the thriving informal sector to have the choices they are entitled to for growth and GDP impact.
Tell us about the “AHA” moment that inspired you to open your business?
The “AHA Moment” wasn’t the inspiration to open the business In fact, it was after we opened it and realized that “access to capital” is being approached from a western viewpoint which doesn’t provide for an African sensibility. The Aha Moment was realizing that African SMEs don’t need more money, they need money that is directed with velocity into the right areas at the right time to the right people. That requires, sophisticated technology to measure African risk, technology to open up eCommerce power to African SMEs involved in trading to source inventory and then technology to add velocity to the placement and return of that capital whilst engaging all parties in the “buy-sell” dynamic.
What problems does your business solve? Who are you solving this problem for?
We solve the problem of Growth for African SMEs. We solve the problem of Access to capital. We solve the problem that banks have failed to address, and that is how to serve SMEs and measure risk while providing them with service.
On top of that, Ovamba solves the problem of improving the performance customers making them a better risk. This solves the problem of attracting investors into this asset class (private sector direct investment). We are solving the problem for both the SMEs and the global investors who see Africa as a potential for investment but cannot find the right partners to assist with risk measurement and vetting. Ovamba solves all of these problems with an online portal and mobile apps for customers to apply for funding, and an Artificial Intelligence/Machine learning based investment process that minimizes risk for our investors.
What has been your greatest challenge? How did you overcome it?
Interrupting the customers’ expectation. Having been so used to bank services, many customers stopped planning for growth. We created services (logistics, purchasing, warehousing) to resolve their business challenges from an end-to-end perspective.
Tell me about a time you failed in business. What did you learn from this mistake?
Oh, my!! I have failed so many times! What I have learned is that you have to fail forward as you succeed. Especially in emerging markets where records, databases, and statistics are hard to come by or verify. I have learned that you need to build a business that can “pivot” in the face of market realities. What this does is create the pressure to manage investor expectations with great care and professionalism. You also have to choose your partners with care and ensure that they have the temperament to stay through changes and adaptations.
What barriers do you feel are being broken or challenged by current women in business for future women in business?
Women are taking their rightful place at all levels and all sectors of business and industry. I have recently joined the advisory board of the European Women Payments Network (www.EWPN.eu) which was founded by Martha Mghendi-Fisher. Organizations like this bring focus to the need for women to prepare themselves for choice. When women approach “barriers” as a group, there is a lot of power. The power of an organized group is undeniable. It is really important for today’s leading business women to set the standard for how to create choices instead of waiting to be offered choices. Choice is power!! Women should not be afraid of power.
What are the top three ingredients that have enabled you to succeed?
My secret sauce: never stop learning. Talk to people, “take” mentorship, don’t seek to be mentored. But the top 3 are as follows:
- Get close to the money! When you control or influence the money you have the power of influence
- Fail Forward! If you are not failing, you probably are not trying enough new things in your personal or business life. Failing indicates growth.
- Do not be afraid to change your mind in the face of changing circumstances. It is not a “fickle” or “female thing”, it is a POWERFUL thing to adjust and calibrate as you learn more
What would be your advice for those trying to create a brand?
I am not a creator of brands in the traditional sense, but I can speak to creating a set of values that one is known for. This is defined by the standards you maintain regardless of what else is going on. Your personal or business values should direct you when you find yourself in new or uncharted situations. These values should also govern relationships and how to make decisions. The outside world will probably view this as a brand, and that’s fine. This “brand” should be defined and clear enough that you or your business are recognized for it. It takes thought, vision and commitment.