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From wiring festival venues to leading fintech development at TradeDepot, Karen Adie’s slow and steady climb

My Life In Tech is putting human faces to some of the innovative startups, investments and policy formations driving the technology sector across Africa.

Karen Adie’s approach to leadership is one I haven’t come across expressed in many of the profiles I’ve written in this series. It’s like a dance, constantly changing each day to fit the needs of the teams she leads. Having started from the very basic rungs of the ladder in her career, Adie’s journey to leading Merchant Services at TradeDepot is a delightful read.

Before she was tapped to join TradeDepot—the e-commerce company which launched in 2016 to connect FMCG manufacturers to micro retailers across Africa—Karen Adie had never heard of the company nor knew what they did. 

“I think we’re still, today, fairly notorious for operating under the radar,” Adie tells TechCabal.

As Director, Merchant Services, the company’s new fintech business, her role oscillates between rolling out financial products and services to the company’s retailer base as well as driving digital adoption among them.

In the past six months, Adie’s team has launched its first product, an inventory loan scheme that allows retailers to receive inventory-type credit for their next orders. 

In Nigeria, its current market, MSMEs account for 96% of the total number of businesses in the country and contribute about 50% to the national GDP. 

More than half of these businesses (55%) are in the wholesale and retail industry and many of them are informal players. 

In a survey conducted across 29 states  last year, 22% of these businesses said finding funding to grow was their most pressing issue. 48% said they turned to friends and families for financing, while only 15% obtained credit facilities.

Absorbed into Shop Topup, the multichannel e-commerce platform and toll-free lines via which retailers order for inventory, the credit facility  can range from ₦50,000 ($106) to ₦500,000 ($1,064)  for a tenure of 2-8 weeks. 

The lending rate is about 5-6% monthly and the loan can be paid back in installments. Since rolling out in July with about 50 retailers, the scheme now serves 2,000+ retailers and has disbursed more than ₦180 million ($380,000) to date. Repayment rates are currently at about 95%, says Adie, impressive for a year where lenders worried about loan defaults. 

Adie always knew she was going to end up in the technology industry. Having studied Computer Science at undergraduate level, her passion for tech grew stronger than the others she held. Her career trajectory started with a role as an IT support in Scotland for three months where she wired venues for theatre festivals. 

That experience, she says, was necessary in grounding her with the foundations of computing upon which she was able to progress to roles at Goldman Sachs and Tata Consulting before moving back to Nigeria in 2016 to join a by-then rapidly growing technology ecosystem in Lagos. 

“I moved back because, at the time when I was moving, the tech industry here was still very very young. It’s not a long time ago but it just goes to show that we’ve had a lot of growth in this industry in Nigeria in a very short period of time,” she says.

“And it’s been outstanding.”

In 2016, Adie joined ACE, a startup that was trying to figure out the fragmented logistics space for e-commerce companies and went on to work across a number of other businesses including Aella Credit, Intelia and Mint Digital Bank. It was these experiences that helped her build a portfolio as a Product Manager with a focus on the e-commerce and fintech segments. 

“Everything I had done prior to this point led me to joining TradeDepot,” Adie says.

“Apart from the similarities in industries, finance and e-commerce, across all of these companies, having to scale across different steps of the ladder, starting from the simple things, to more sophisticated roles, managing teams.  I feel like if I had just scaled many steps and gone to a higher position, I would have missed out on a lot of perspective, color and knowledge that I gained.”

Product development for the informal retail sector

At TradeDepot, there are three things Adie says help guide developing technology products and services for the informal retail sector. 

One would be user feedback, which has been very beneficial in the inventory credit product and tailoring the tool to suit its users. 

The others are ideating from experience and what she can see similar companies build and more importantly, the overarching mission of the company to improve the everyday life of informal retailers on the continent.

“We do not operate in isolation just as a company. Setting our goals and deciding what we want to do is impact-led. What this means is that we have to consider the wider goals of what is being set by the macro-environment say CBN in terms of financial inclusion for women,” she explains.

“We are also driven by larger sustainability and development goals that are prescribed by USAID or IFC or say the World Development Bank because IFC is one of our key investors.”

As with every tech business, the processes are not that different and entails sprints and iterative cycles where products are tested by users and feedback utilised in further polishing the products.

TradeDepot’s retailer base mostly comprises women (75%) many of whom their small retail businesses are sole sources of income. 

According to Adie, product development does take this into consideration but not necessarily from a gender lens as it is catering to the larger client base of the company.

Some may assume that being informal retailers, the job of driving digital adoption might be more tasking. Adie says one thing herself and her team discovered quite quickly before launching the inventory credit product, however, was that the level of digital savviness in this demographic is oftentimes underestimated. 

In order not to build the product in isolation, TradeDepot contacted its retailer base with a survey that included questions to find out how digitally savvy they were. 

“When we ran the survey we had our own biases and assumptions, I did for sure,” she says. 

“There was an explicit question that said, do you own a smartphone; do you own a bank card and something around what apps they used regularly. Just as a joke, internally, we had our notion of what those numbers would be. And I was somewhere around the 40-50% range. 

When the results came back from different geographies and age demographics, over 85% of them owned smartphones, had bank cards and used apps.

“We often think that they [informal retailers] are not as savvy. That might be true but not to the degree that we think it is.”

While more startups looking to play in the B2B e-commerce space have since followed in Nigeria and across the continent, Adie says there’s still a huge gap in data collection and analysis in a way that drives business decisions, predicts the market or customer outcomes. 

“It’s not easy to gather the data but there’s an opportunity for people to aggregate data and use it to inform purchasing patterns,” she says, particularly when broken down into niche retail sectors like fashion or electronics. 

Managing teams, especially remote ones

Adie considers herself a highly intuitive manager. For her, the idea of leading people is one that involves constantly trying to figure out how to because it is “the most difficult thing about being a leader if you’re being honest with yourself.” 

At the very foundation of her success with this is making sure that she hires the best hands for the teams. 

“It’s very difficult, but it’s one of those things that pay you forward,” she says. 

“What I try to do is to find people who are better than me. Assuming I became absent, those people should be able to do the work, that’s the way I think about hiring.”

Adie says there’s no formula to getting the right people on your team but she has used a combination of gut, experience, and just being lucky to find the best people for the job.

On a daily basis, Adie says managing her teams is being present, recognising each day is different even with the same team members and adding value in ways that solve problems, eliminates obstacles in addition to providing the resources necessary for each team member to carry out their tasks excellently. 

“Being present on a daily basis means when you come into a meeting or into any interaction, reading the room and being empathetic.”

“I don’t typically use the same approach for everyone on my team in terms of communication or giving feedback. I’d rather pick up on the best way to communicate that allows me to add value. But if I’m not present, it is very easy for those things to slip through the cracks and you end up feeling like something is working against you,” she explains.

This approach has been very useful in the past few months with all the current Merchant Services team being hired and starting out remotely without having met any members of the team in person. 

“I’ve had to do more listening more than I would’ve because when you can’t see people, the only way to be attuned to them or be present is by listening,” she says. 

Discipline goes a long way

Adie attributes discipline and curiosity to having moved across various roles and risen to her current career height in such a seemingly short timeframe. 

“I’ve not achieved everything in one fell swoop by casting a magic wand, every single day, I do small things that might be painful but at the end of the day yields results.”

But there’s also a community of support by way of family from whom she’s learned to be resilient and strong-willed, colleagues as well as mentors. 

But what is most driving is the impact of her role at TradeDepot and how simple technology tools and solutions can make a great deal of difference not just in the life of the business owner but also the family members and a number of others who rely on them for survival. 

“Look, the work that we’re doing at TradeDepot, I don’t take that for granted. The people we are doing the work for, the impact that we’re making is very big,” Adie says. 

“I think it was yesterday that we crossed 3,000 loans and someone sent me a message saying this is a milestone. 

“A lot of the retailers who are actively using our credit system, I speak to them regularly and know them by name, so this is not just statistics for me.”

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