May 21, 2021

How BACE Group is Building Facial Recognition Tech for Africa

Charlette Desire N’Guessan, CEO of BACE Group, the Ghanaian digital identity software company using facial recognition and AI

The digital transformation of businesses has increased personalization and accessibility to many services. Not without side effects, “going digital” has opened the door to cybercrime. 

According to Cybersecurity Ventures, the damages related to cybercrime is projected to hit $6 trillion annually by 2021. To be proactive, some companies are choosing to identify and authenticate customers during onboarding. 

KYC (Know Your Customer) is where the identity of a customer is verified and validated. Then, authentication is where the customer’s identification is confirmed, often using biometric authentication techniques like a fingerprint, facial recognition, or voice recognition.

In many African countries, a flawed identity scheme and lack of infrastructure has made “going digital” challenging and continues to limit access to services. 

BACE Technologies Limited, a Ghanaian startup, is creating unique digital identities using facial recognition and AI to overcome these challenges. With BACE, customers can apply to online services and get verified remotely in real-time.

Founded in 2017, BACE is a digital identity software company that enables businesses to optimize their identity management platforms and KYC process. With the BACE API, businesses can easily check if an ID is valid and verify identities with facial recognition.

I spoke with Charlette Desire N’Guessan, Co-founder and CEO of BACE, about the value BACE provides to the marketplace, their journey after MEST Africa, and her thoughts on building a more connected Africa.

Meet Charlette Desire N'Guessan

I’m from Ivory Coast, but since 2017, I’ve been in Ghana, and I’m currently the CEO of BACE Group. We are a software company, and we built an API that operates as an identification system for businesses to verify their clients remotely. We started the company in September 2018 and launched our commercialization phase a few months ago.

My general STEM interest started young, my father is a math teacher at a university in Ivory Coast, and I’ve always been good at math and science. I didn’t know I would be in tech, but what ultimately fostered my love for tech is how you can apply it to any industry, whether it be medicine, finance, or agriculture. This freedom to learn, create, and innovate excited me.

Post high school, I went to university, where I studied electrical computer science. After my first two years, I decided to specialize in software engineering because of my cybersecurity interest. I noticed that if I wanted to be good at cybersecurity, I’d need some coding skills.

After university, I got involved in the tech space in Ivory Coast. I had a tech blog where I talked about leadership, cybersecurity, and entrepreneurship. I also started some projects with the hopes of becoming a tech entrepreneur, but they never became official businesses. 

Then, MEST came to Abidjan to recruit francophone people from Ivory Coast. I applied and became part of the first group of francophones in the program, of which I was the only woman. 

MEST gave me the opportunity to come to Ghana and get involved in a different ecosystem, learn English, and leave my comfort zone. I learned a lot from MEST, and I met my co-founders there as well. We all had a similar vision and interest and ultimately decided to find a way to apply tech to the financial services industry. 

What value does BACE API provide to the marketplace?

We didn’t start with the idea. We began by studying the local market. We talked to banks, fintech companies, and some online businesses, and through those conversations, we noticed that they were having a huge challenge with cybersecurity. 

Banks, specifically, were spending a lot of money on KYC (Know Your Customer) requirements because very few people have IDs in Africa, making it difficult to verify someone’s identity. Also, some customers lived too far from the physical bank location and didn’t have an address, making it difficult to onboard.

When we thought about how to solve this, our initial idea was to build an application. However, we soon realized that wasn’t the best solution because banks already had existing apps, and it’s unlikely they or their customers would want to move to a new app.

That’s when we acknowledged it was best to provide an API as it’s much easier for any existing platform to integrate with us while still addressing their problem. 

Now we provide a digital identification system that businesses, especially financial companies, can use to verify their clients remotely using facial recognition and AI technologies. 

Choosing the Right Tech Stack

One of the questions people often asks us why we are using facial recognition instead of fingerprints, which is more popular in Africa.

Despite its popularity, fingerprint requires devices. You have to purchase the needed equipment, and then your clients have to make physical contact with the object. We wanted to avoid that as it’s more costly and less scalable. 

Also, we believe that facial recognition is a more natural process. When you go to the bank to open an account, you provide the bank teller with your ID card or documentation, and then the bank teller looks at you and checks the image on the ID to confirm that it’s a match.

They don’t say, “Give me your finger so I can check if this is you.” No, that’s’ not how the process works. Moreover, we wanted to bring this natural process to the digital experience; that’s why we chose facial recognition. 

Also, it’s worth noting that our product is an efficient response to the impact of COVID-19 on businesses. With our product, businesses can now authenticate and onboard new or existing customers without having to show up in person. The whole process is transparent, secure, remote, and digital. 

Since graduating from MEST in 2018, what are some of the challenges you’ve faced building BACE Group?

I’d admit that we are lucky to be part of the MEST ecosystem. We’re in an environment where everyone is building startups, so it’s much easier to overcome challenges than people without this support system.

On the business side, since we’re doing something that is not popular in Africa and targeting financial institutions, who are careful about security, we did face a lot of challenges. Plus, we’re a young startup with young people, so it was not easy to get clients initially.

To overcome these challenges, we had to build trust, which has been a long journey. The first step to building trust included routinely connecting and engaging with banks to ensure they understood what we do and felt involved in the process while we built the product.

The second step was ensuring that the product worked and was secure. We invested a lot of time in product development so that when people used our product, it worked. 

Lastly, winning competitions like the Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation has given us visibility in the market. It helped people become aware of what we are doing.

What it takes to build successful software solutions in Africa 

A strong team is essential because your idea is sure to change and evolve, but the only way you can pivot is if your team is strong. This means you have to maintain good relationships, even during times of conflict in the team. 

Second, don’t start with an idea; focus on the problem and understanding your market. This will make it easier to find the right solution and technology to apply to the problem. 

Don’t overlook the importance of deciding which technology to use. In our case, we used AI and facial recognition, but you can’t apply these technologies to every problem. You have to consider your target audience and the problem you’re solving.

Third, get involved in your ecosystem and make sure that people understand what you do. There is no point in building a good product, and nobody is using it. The goal is to build solutions that solve specific problems that people use.

Lastly, even when you cut your finger, keep going. Launch the product. Start the business. Don’t wait to be perfect. Just start.

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What advice do you have for other women in tech?

I know that it’s a little bit harder for women in this industry because there are not a lot of us, and women often face discrimination. My own experience working with my team has been good so far, maybe because our relationship started as a friendship. And even with our friendship transforming into a business relationship, I’ve always been allowed to contribute and be myself.

I feel lucky to work with men who understand that it’s not about being a female. It’s about what you can bring to the team. And like everyone else on the team, I had to earn their trust. And them making me the leader demonstrates that they trust me. 

But I do understand that it depends. I’ve been in a room of men where they overlooked me and made sexist comments like, “what are you doing here?" Or, "are you sure you’re a part of the company?” Only to find out that I’m the CEO. 

I don’t want to say that the problem is the tech industry itself because the real problem is the mindset and education of some in the industry. You have people in tech who want to make sure that women feel comfortable sitting at the same table as men, and you have some people who feel that we don’t have a place there. And my message to those people is, sorry because we’re not going anywhere.

Moreover, the best advice I can give to my sisters in tech is to not allow anyone to stop you from chasing your dream. Continue to invest in your education, grow as leaders, expand your network, and always remember that technology is not about gender but about skills and passion.

Thoughts on tech in Ivory Coast

The tech ecosystem in Ivory Coast at the time when I was there was ok. We didn’t have a lot of successful businesses and startups, and there was a lack of opportunity and financial support in the ecosystem. Likely because the political climate made Ivory Coast unattractive to investors. Yet, people were still trying to build software products and bootstrap. 

When I moved to Ghana in 2017, I saw a big difference; Accra had a more active tech ecosystem. I read about and met a lot of entrepreneurs who were doing great. Also, Ghana is an anglophone country, and we can’t overlook how anglophone entrepreneurs have access to more opportunities, investment and can more easily scalable their business in new markets.  

Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of local businesses in Ivory Coast get involved in the global marketplace, and as an Ivorian, I’m proud. And with local entrepreneurs making an effort to serve quality products and compete on the global market, the Ivorian market is getting more attractive.

Collaboration between Francophone-Anglophone tech ecosystems: Building a more connected Africa 

If you’re in a francophone country and want to go to an anglophone country or vice-versa, you have to be willing to leave your comfort zone. Deciding to leave your country of origin to go to a new ecosystem by yourself is a big decision and shouldn’t be overlooked. 

Realize that you don’t pick up from where you left off when you move. The markets are different, so embrace that you’ll need to learn and educate yourself on a new market.

Also, I believe there are a lot of ways people can collaborate between the francophone and anglophone markets. Since being in Ghana, I’ve done my best to facilitate those connections. 

I’ve talked to a number of startups and businesses in Ghana about how they can get into the francophone market and then connected them with some existing companies in Ivory Coast. 

We all don’t need to build the same products. There doesn’t always have to be a francophone and anglophone company doing the same thing. We need to find ways to collaborate because, as the saying goes, we can go further together. Collaboration is key to Africa rising.

So if you are a startup and want to provide your services in Ivory Coast, Togo, Senegal, or any francophone country, it’s possible. You just need to build the connections. 

Built In Africa? What does that mean to you?

To me, Built In Africa means there is more work to be done. We have a lot of opportunities in Africa that people have yet to explore. And it’s not about getting people from outside to do it for us because we can do it for ourselves, as long as we come together and engage around these opportunities. 

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