Africa, Mobile Money And A Serial Innovator

Aletha Ling, Chief Operating Officer of Fundamo

VENTURES AFRICA – In an era where innovation and technology seem to drive organisations’ strategic plans, Aletha Ling, Chief Operating Officer of Fundamo, is on the cutting edge. Fundamo, a subsidiary of Visa Inc. is an industry pioneer, leading the charge of “Mobile Money”. Since 2000, the company has developed and provided the most innovative platform for the operation of mobile financial services and in 2013, the world’s oldest Mobile Money service will celebrate 10 years in operation on the Fundamo platform. According to the World Bank, there are over 2.5 billion unbanked customers worldwide who need financial services. The platform’s success has been primarily driven by the vision of its leaders who seek to take financial services to that 2.5 billion and beyond. Aletha Ling is a successful corporate executive and technology entrepreneur, and one of the chief driving forces behind Fundamo’s success.

Known as a “serial innovator”, Aletha is known for founding, nurturing and selling ventures in various industries. She has over thirty years of experience in the IT industry and a wealth of expertise in technology, sales, marketing and management. For years she built a successful career at IBM and after leading the company’s Software Business, she left in 1993 to pursue her passion for entrepreneurship. Ling, together with Anne Czerner, started a company, the incredibly successful Software Futures. So successful was she that she grew the business to a 300-person software and services company in under 3 years, and capitalising on the dot.com boom, she sold the company to the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE) listed company, Computer Configurations Holdings (CCH). In 1999, she was named the Computer Society IT Personality of the Year.

CCH however ran into financial trouble and in a highly controversial decision, the company was acquired by MGX, another South African IT group. Despite allegations of widespread mismanagement and accounting fraud, Ling was able to walk away from the now defunct business relatively unmarked. Her story, like every other successful entrepreneur, is no fairy tale. In retrospect, the lessons learned from the experience prepared her even more for successful business. “Selling Software Futures was not the right way to grow the business”, she says. “You no longer have control over your future.” And as if to recapture some of what was lost, Ling took a sabbatical in 2004 during which she sailed her yacht from Cape Town to the Caribbean with her husband.

It is clear however that past failures have not dampened her enthusiasm for technology innovation and entrepreneurship. True to her nature of serial innovation, Aletha also started Futureworld, a global business and technology think tank, where she served as futurist and CEO. She continues today as an associate of the organisation and member of the World Futures Society. She joined Fundamo in early 2006 when she saw the opportunities for the development of mobile payment and banking solutions. Speaking about the reasons why mobile money is becoming increasingly important, she said; “cash is very expensive for the economy generally, it is also very dangerous to be carried around and it does not lend itself to entrepreneurship and innovation. There’s very little to innovate around payment or financial services in a cash economy”. Although a cashless economy using debit cards has been heavily promoted in emerging markets, Ling is now a firm advocate for a cashless economy facilitated by mobile devices. According to her, now is a good time for mobile money. She reasons that the technology is more available to more people than ever before; there is a drive from governments towards financial inclusion of all segments of the population and regulations are being relaxed to encourage that. Finally the appetite of mobile network operators and financial institutions is growing as they seek to differentiate themselves and mobile money services provide a ready avenue for differentiation.

When asked in 2006 about Fundamo being a target for acquisition, the gun-shy Ling answered “Not again! First we want to deliver on the potential of this business.” Their business has indeed delivered on its potential with clients across many developing countries including Kenya, Zambia, Democratic Republic of Congo and Nigeria. Fundamo was acquired in 2011 by Visa Inc, a bold move that is seeing the company extend its services even further. A successful writer and speaker, Aletha Ling made one thing clear as she spoke on Nigerian business radio programme, Talk Business: Mobile Money is a powerful driver of innovation and it is here to stay.

So the next time you think of carrying cash, think Fundamo — a better way.