Breaking Barriers: Women Changemakers in Financial Inclusion, Ep. 4 featuring Dr. Tosan Oruwariye

January 16, 2020

Intro clip (Dr. Tosan Oruwariye):

When you have an idea, you really need to have passion for that idea and know the mission. What you’re trying to do if you’re mission driven. Because there’ll be shocks and bumps along the way. That’s guaranteed. So, you need to be persistent. You need to persevere.


Karen Miller (Host): Women’s World Banking is bringing you a series of podcasts about trailblazing women leaders who are driving change to ensure that women worldwide have access to and usage of the financial products and services they need to build a better life for themselves and their families. I’m your host Karen Miller, Global Head, Leadership & Diversity Programs for Women’s World Banking.

Today I have the distinct honor of interviewing, and I am going to butcher her name, Dr. Tosan Oruwariye, Co-founder and Director of Strategic Partnerships at MaTontine in Senegal, who has recently joined the Women’s World Banking Global Network of Partners. Tosan, thanks so much for joining us today. I always like to start and find out a little bit about people’s childhood. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

Dr. Tosan Oruwariye (Guest): I come from a middle class background. I was really lucky to have a family that nurtured, that cared, that wanted the best for me as a young lady. A family of four girls and a boy. A father that always felt that all his kids could achieve to their best potential. So, he pushed us to be the best we were. And that was very telling because I was born in Nigeria. It is a very paternalistic society, but he had his vision for his four daughters, exposed us to the best he could afford in terms of education. And so, I started my education in Nigeria, and he sent us to Europe. I went to school in England, and exposed us to different parts of the world. I then came to America later on to do some more of my schooling. I was really fortunate, but my father had a caveat. We were blessed to come from such a home. We have to give back, and that commitment he made us have, five children, and is what has guided us today.

Miller: What do you think actually prompted your dad to feel so strongly that four daughters and a son could all achieve whatever they wanted to do?

Oruwariye: I think my father was the visionary. Because he knew the society he was born into, where women had very little opportunity. He had four daughters. He loved them a lot and he wanted to have more opportunity than he saw growing up. But he was also a very hardworking man. He felt education was a way out because education was a way out for him. He came from a very poor background, but he wanted to achieve a lot for himself and he struggled to get that education. He got a scholarship and he went to London to study many years ago, and he saw the difference it made in his life. Coming back and having a family and then having four daughters, it was such a passion in him and a determination in him that his daughters really needed to have the best education they could have.

Miller: That’s so powerful, and such kudos to your father. He’s been an amazing man. I always am curious because Tosan you have one of the more interesting backgrounds for someone who is in the financial inclusion space. You’re actually a medical doctor here in New York. What prompted the interest in medicine?

Oruwariye: My mother was a nurse midwife. I saw the work she did with children and mothers. I saw the education she provided. She had shown me growth charts of children. So, I was very interested in her work. And if you know anything about Nigerian families, I suppose my father sitting at the dinner table saying every day, “when Tosan becomes a doctor she’s going to look after the kids,” also helped me sort of pursue my career even further. That exposure and all the support from my family just made me want to do medicine. I’ve never really thought of anything else.

Miller: And so, day in and day out, you’re working as a doctor, you’re working with children. It seems like a bit of a leap to becoming more aware of the challenges of women’s access to finance. So how did that happen?

Oruwariye: Although I’ve been a physician, I always went back to Nigeria trying to work in Nigeria in the health care sector. And I actually took two years from my work in New York and went to work on an immunization project in Nigeria. This project exposed me to very rural communities where there was no access to infrastructure. And I remember a very telling scene in one of the communities I went to up in the northern part of Nigeria. I heard a noise of somebody like moaning. And I asked, you know, “What’s that?” And they told me, “Oh, it’s a lady. She’s sick.” And when I walked into that home, I’ll never forget, it was a horror. I saw a lady in what I know was stage four breast cancer, just there wreathing in pain! But the hospital was about an hour and a half away. And I knew that if they went to the hospital, even though they don’t have the latest medical equipment, they could give her more resources than she had in her home. The chief of the community said, “We don’t have any money. Money is so hard for us.” And that was the first time the issue of finance came into my head. And I stayed talking more with the community, and then I realized they didn’t have opportunity to do things to empower themselves. And over the last year I spent in those communities, for me, it became an issue of poverty alleviation. And that’s how I got to thinking about finance, and poverty, access to funds. I thought about helping people.

Miller: And then what made the transition to say, “I could start a company that could help with this issue of access to finance and create a FinTech of all things?”

Oruwariye: It was a journey because I remember it took me about five to six years to get a FinTech company. I always felt technology would be something that would help. But I didn’t think about it immediately. About four, five years ago, my co-founder went to Africa and said, “Tosan, you know, we really need to figure out what can we do. Each time I go, there is so much poverty.” He didn’t talk about healthcare, he just talked about poverty. The issue was really poverty and finance, not just healthcare.  There was a competition, I think it was the first MasterCard competition. Something called financial inclusion, how to help poor women. When I look back, I didn’t know it was going to be called a FinTech company. But I talk about this idea in this project, and that’s how I sort of made the switch, because later on I said that’s financial inclusion. And that’s what FinTechs do.

Miller: And so, you created with your co-founder, MaTontine in Senegal. Tell me a little bit about MaTontine and what it hopes to do.

Oruwariye: MaTontine is a digital financial services platform that has digitized traditional saving circles to provide access to a range of financial services to women, primarily women, earning less than $5 a day using a basic-feature phone. Traditional saving circles are done all over most developing countries, that’s how the poor have access to bulk money. It typically involves, for example, a group of ten of us. We’ve put down $5 a month into a common pot. By the end of the month, one person takes the $50 dollars. This circle continues until all ten of us have got our $50 and then it starts again.

So, what we’ve done, because it’s a very common practice in Africa and they use it to buy bulk purchases or to buy seeds for their farms, we’ve digitized the platform and capturing the risk profiles of these women and the poor in different communities to give them access to various financial services.

We see ten years from now, a member in a village, trying to farm, needing some seeds; going with her feature phone to request $50 on our platform. We see our partners, which could be banks or social investors saying, “You know what, I can give her some of this money.” They give her a financial plan because her risk profile includes what she wants to do with the seed, includes things about the planting season. So, they can come with a plan that says, “You can pay us back with some money from your savings for the first three months. But when you harvest, you can pay us back this amount at a different time.” She can you really use those funds for things that impact her family because she has more control over the funds she makes. And slowly over time, we feel she’ll build her wealth. And we do not just address poverty, but really sustainable wealth creation for our members.

Miller: In building that sustainable wealth for the members, I’m guessing that this includes that wide variety of financial products and services that you and I take for granted in a way; a safe place to save, insurance, access to credit.

Oruwariye: So, our platform includes a suite of services: life insurance, micro health insurance, access to credit, target based savings, group savings, different kinds of financial products. Because we’ve all learned that the poor, like you and me, is really a cash flow problem because one shock puts them down into poverty. So, for that same lady that borrows her $50, we expect her to have crop insurance. So, if the farm doesn’t make enough produce, she’s protected from that shock. Or if she gets sick, she’s protected from that shock. And that’s what we see us doing over time.

Miller: And have you seen any patterns in terms of the products that women value the most being part of the MaTontine platform? Is it savings? Is it the credit? Or is it really that suite to address all of their specific needs?

Oruwariye: I will say, when we started as entrepreneurs, our passion was to really provide access to the services. You really have to ask the right questions by identifying their needs. So, we’ve been doing some of that market research and field research and we realize that they want a host of services. One of our feature products was the first product we put on the market with a 98% optic. And that product was really co-developed with them. They told us about the kind of credit they could borrow that won’t be a burden on them. And it gave us an idea of how they could repay that credit. And with that initial product that was so successful, we kept on doing more of a deep dive into their needs. And we realized that when you ask them, they might not say health insurance, but also, “I don’t want to be sick like I was sick last year because last year I couldn’t farm. I was so sick,” or, you know, “I had to take my child from school because, you know, my husband wouldn’t have the money to pay the fee.” And they co-designing the product with us was really key to what we have as a suite on the platform.

Miller: I think that point about co-designing and co-developing is so critical particularly when you are working with the low-income women segment. And really helping them be able to voice what it is that they need. And we shouldn’t be saying these are the types of products. And so, I think you’ve done a tremendous job in integrating your clients into that design so that the solution could be as successful as possible for them.

What kind of challenges have you faced in starting a FinTech? And has anything surprised you in becoming an entrepreneur? Because I would guess that going from being a doctor and having a certain way of doing things to starting a company from scratch and really being that entrepreneur, there’s probably been some interesting learnings along the way.

Oruwariye: First of all, realizing you might have a great idea, but put it into practice is very, very difficult. There were three main challenges we faced when starting a FinTech:

The first thing we realized was regulation from country to country. Not so much that the regulation was different, which expected a little bit, but that it would take a long time to make changes in the regulation.

The second one was partnership. We thought if we get a good value proposition to our partners, they would want to work with us. And that surprised us, the length of time for partnerships to really grow and blossom.

And the final one was personnel. Having been educated and worked abroad, my co-founder and I, we took for granted that we might find personnel that had a lot of expertise, same work ethic, same approach that we had. And when we did find such personnel, it was very, very expensive. And I think what really surprised me was just the time it took to do everything. It took months to get anything done. And we realized that everything had to be aligned. A lot of it was luck. Luck that the ministry will change the regulation one year. Luck that the banking partner will automate their systems one year. So, it surprised me the length of time it took and the luck involved in just making sure everything aligned nicely to move one step forward.

Miller: And so, I think because of those surprises and challenges, what advice would you give to other entrepreneurs starting out?

Oruwariye: When you have an idea, you really need to have passion for that idea and know the mission. What you’re trying to do if you’re mission driven. Because there’ll be shocks and bumps along the way. That’s guaranteed. So, you need to be persistent. You need to persevere.

But also, you need to be careful. With most FinTech companies, we can create products we like. But having a product for the target community is so important. And having those processes in place. So, looking for either a board that can support you in terms of governance, people that have expertise in the space that could mentor you as a startup is so important. And having that open-mindedness to listen and learn I find is critical for any entrepreneur. But the most important thing is passion. Because when the days are hard and things are not happening, you should be to be able to get up in the morning, and say, “I want to do this. This is what I want to do. I want to find a way. I’m going to trudge through this and keep on innovating and thinking through things.” And it is that passion that drives you and makes you persistent and persevere.

Miller: I love that particular point about passion.

Oruwariye: Thank you.

Miller: I want to switch over to the topic of gender diversity. I read articles sometimes that say there aren’t enough women in FinTech. But we hosted our first Making Finance Work for Women FinTech Innovation Challenge this year, the majority of the applicants did have women in the C-suite. I’m curious what you’re seeing when you are out there talking to other FinTechs. Are you seeing women leaders around the table discussing these issues, coming up with new ideas, creating new FinTech companies?

Oruwariye: So, I will say there’s always room to have more women at the table. I think all over the world, even in America. Not just in FinTech, in all of finance, which we know certain sectors there have been a dearth of women, but generally in business as a whole. I remember about five years ago, when I went for one of my first competitions, there were just very few women. And every year I keep on seeing more and more women. The approach I see with women is usually from a services perspective, with a FinTech being an enabler. For men it’s more the FinTech to the services. So very interesting. But I’ve seen more and more women at the meetings I go. But there is always room for more improvement.

Miller: I think that’s so interesting, though, the point that you’re seeing the men and women coming from a slightly different perspective around the table. What do you think we need to do to get more women in financial services more broadly?

Oruwariye: I think some of that has already started. I know there’s a lot of funding targeted at women. I think one of the things I would love to do is really the mentoring and creating the space to encourage women to do this. And the data has shown that when women are involved in this, there’s more successful outcomes. Coming from Africa, you really have to get men involved because I don’t think it’s just a woman issue. So, getting men to buy in, to make the space safe enough for women to participate is key as well.

Miller: That’s really interesting and a helpful insight, and I think your point in particular about men and making sure that they’re engaged in this and understanding the value is going to be critical in order to accelerate this even further. I always like to ask couple of questions at the end of a podcast, and the first is very simple. Is there a motto you live by?

Oruwariye: I always came from a perspective of servant-leadership wrapped around integrity. I felt that if I treated you the way I wanted to be treated, 95% of the time it will work. And I’ve just tried to live by that. In organizational context, really that servant-leadership. To lead not just by example, to lead by culture, to lead by modeling, to lead knowing that I do not know it all, and creating that safe space. Bringing the diverse voices in my leadership has been instrumental for me.

Miller: I think that’s perfect in its simplicity, but as you say, sometimes it needs to be reminded in order to do that. And my second question I always like to ask more out of selfish reasons: do you have a favorite book?

Oruwariye: This year, actually, there were a couple of books that struck me. There was one I read called The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle. He looks at culture within organizations. And how very successful organizations have a strong culture and really talks about how do they build that culture, and how do they sustain that culture. And it’s very interesting. It is not hard science. It’s not data or numbers. It’s really just being human beings.

Another book I love was the Radium Girls. And it’s post-industrial America when they had the radium, that chemical they used to illuminate in those digital watches. And for me, it was about the women that did this work. But their perseverance and their tenacity. These were simple women from all over the country, took on big organizations, with little education, made lasting changes to occupational health laws in this country. That tenacity and perseverance from those women left me clapping at the end and joyous that we did it again!

Miller: Those books sound amazing. I am so glad I asked you that question because I’m going to put them on my list for my next series of books to read.

Tosan, I just want to thank you so much for today’s discussion. I think your passion for your work, both on the medical side and then creating this amazing company, MaTontine and really trying to make the world a better place day in and day out is just so apparent. And you’re such an inspiration to all of us at Women’s World Banking that have gotten to know you over the last couple of years. Thank you very much for your time today.

Oruwariye: Thank you.


This episode was produced by Jessica Bodiford. For more podcast episodes and to learn more about Women’s World Banking, visit