Ever wondered what day-to-day life is like at the helm of one of South Africa’s most dynamic fintech firms? We speak to Jody Baumgarten, the chief financial officer of the online lender Wonga, a firm that is leading the online lending sector and striving to make a positive contribution to the financial landscape in South Africa.
How it all began
Jody joined Wonga in 2011 after leaving the global investment holding company Dubai World Holdings. Originally a subsidiary of the UK Wonga group, he went on to buy Wonga South Africa with two of his colleagues. He has had several roles since then but is now settled as the CFO, where he is responsible for the finance, planning and collections elements of the operation.
At the heart of the online lender there is a data-driven approach and a commitment to being fully transparent about the cost and terms of its loans. It was always a goal of Jody and his team to create a lender that helped its customers to make responsible borrowing decisions.
As Jody explains, “As co-founders, we saw the need in the market for a locally owned and managed online lender that could provide short-term finance to customers who were facing financial challenges. We wanted to offer a service that was accessible and responsible and was committed to financial inclusion.”
How do you keep up with the pace of technological change?
The incredible rate of technological advancement in the fintech sector is an opportunity but also a challenge. New technology allows Wonga and other firms to offer better products and reach more customers, but there’s also the constant threat of new entrants to the market who are capitalising on new advancements to do things differently.
The emergence of useable AI and machine learning are a case in point, but Jody has assembled a team that he is confident can help to keep Wonga at the forefront of technology.
“We have focused on a few critical capabilities and taken on a rapid adoption approach. That allows us to integrate with specialists in various technological fields and focus on what we are really good at.”
How do you see the fintech sector evolving over the next few years?
Digital uptake in South Africa has typically lagged behind much of the developed world. However, after the pandemic, more and more people have been willing to carry out important activities such as accessing short-term credit online. The National Credit Act has certainly helped with that by creating a fairer playing field for borrowers. There has also been an increase in the number of people with access to online devices.
Something else Jody has noticed in Wonga’s customers over the last six months is the damaging effect runaway rates of inflation are having on people’s finances.
“Lots of people are really under a lot of financial stress at the moment and it’s something we, as a society, desperately need to get to grips with. As a responsible short-term lender, we hope to be a part of that.”
And how do you relax away from the fintech world?
Away from his fast-paced professional life at the helm of a fintech, you might think Jody would like nothing better than putting his feet up in front of the cricket. However, this is his opportunity to take on a different type of challenge.
“I really love setting myself a physical challenge that seems out of reach, and then spending a couple of months training for it. I have completed challenges like Ironman, the Absa Cape Epic and a solo mountain bike ride across Rwanda. With proper training and the right mental attitude, there’s very little that you can’t overcome.”