June 16, 2021

The unifying language of tech: Connecting Kenya to Ethiopia

Maurice Omondi, software engineer at Tracom Services Limited traveled to Ethiopia to build merchant acquiring applications for Tracom clients.

Experts estimate that the amount of cash circulating informally in Ethiopia is more than that in circulation via banks. 

Blaming "cash hoarding" for placing undue pressure on the country’s economy. To increase the number of formal transactions, in August 2020, the Ethiopian government set a limit on the amount of cash a firm or individual could hold at any given time to 1.5 million Ethiopian birr ($42,400). 

But transitioning from a cash-based economy requires more than government policy and promoting digital payments. There must be an expansion of merchant acquiring solutions — applications that help merchants (shops, restaurants, hotels) process credit and debit card payments at the point of sale. 

Tracom Services Limited, the 100% Kenyan-owned payment solutions company over the last 13 years, has grown to become the leading payment solutions provider in Africa, expanding its services to 28 countries. Recently, they built two custom merchant acquiring solutions for two of its Ethiopian clients.

I spoke with Maurice Omondi, software engineer at Tracom Services Limited, about participating in Tracom’s Academy, building the merchant acquiring applications, and what Built In Africa means to him. 

Share your journey into tech? 

My name is Maurice Omondi, and I’m a software engineer at Tracom Services Limited. My first time touching a computer was during my first year on campus at Jaramogi Oginga Odinga University of Science and Technology. It was there that I developed an interest in computers and the desire to know how they work. 

During my first semester, I learned to type, and in my second, I got introduced to my first programming language, Java. From there, I began to learn the basics of programming and decided to pursue a Bachelor’s of Science in Information and Communication Technology, graduating in December 2018.

After graduating, I saw an advertisement for Tracom Academy to learn how to build advanced technology solutions. I applied, and in early 2019, I joined the Academy. It was a great experience and helped me grow as a developer because, for the first time, I was working on something that people use.

Yes, I already knew some javascript, but I had only applied it to completing classwork, but in the Academy, I was solving real problems. I learned more Java, specifically Spring Boot for back-end and the TypeScript based framework Angular for front-end. 

What did you learn at the Academy about building solutions? 

How to gather requirements?:

We built an internal solution, and in that process, I learned how to gather requirements. We started with interviewing Tracom employees to see what they were looking for in the solution. Then, we documented the requirements on a Functional Specification Document (FSD), a document designed to give an overview of how a software system, mobile app, or web app functions. 

How to build efficiently?: 

We were each assigned a senior developer who would assist us when we got stuck and review our code when we completed a task. There were some instances where I got the desired outcome, but I didn’t do it efficiently. For example, let’s say I was building a function that performs the task pay. Upon review, the senior developer would teach me how to do it more efficiently. 

Building a merchant application?

I recently came back to Kenya after spending the past 6 months in Ethiopia developing merchant acquiring applications from scratch for two of our clients. This solution will play a big role in aiding banks, as it reduces the amount of cash circulating informally in the economy by reducing cash transactions. 

Some additional benefits include the following:

Access to the unbanked: Transacting through merchants has proven cost-effective for customers, especially those who live in rural areas far away from banks. For banks, it allows them to increase their footprint at a much lower cost through their agents.

Product penetration: Other banking services such as bill payments can be added to improve the service offering.

Security: Increased security as people don’t have to carry cash.

Ease of purchase: Customers can shop at any time, and it supports most card brands.

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Building for Ethiopia? What it takes to build solutions for a different country.

The environment is different. Although Kenya and Ethiopia share a border, I found that everything is completely different, starting from the language they speak. In Kenya, we speak English and Swahili. In Ethiopia, they speak Amharic. Because of the language barrier, it took us a long time to get on the same page. I had to learn how to speak a bit of Amharic to know that when they say this, they mean that. Also, they were using technology to process their transactions that we’d never used before, so that was a learning curve as well.

My advice to developers developing a solution for a different country is to not rigidly follow the requirements that the business team shares with you. Of course, you’ll need the requirements for guidance as you build the solution, but you can’t be so rigid because it might not fully convey what the client wants. 

When there is a language barrier, sometimes clients can’t explain to you exactly what they want. A workaround is to do regular check-ins and show them what you’re building. And they’ll say yes, that’s what we want, or no, we want it to be like this. There were some situations where the requirements detailed what they wanted but did not correctly convey how they wanted it. In these situations, I would reconnect with the business team and let them know how the requirements have changed to ensure everyone was on the same page.

What can also help is research. Find out what technology or systems they currently use. It will give you a lot more information on how they want things to be done or at least how they’re accustomed to getting things done.

Tips for being a successful software developer in Africa? 

Technological skills: Developing your technical skills is a given. 

Soft skills: This is often overlooked, but how you talk to a client and gather information from them is important. As developers, we spend a lot of time on the computer and often prefer to develop our technical skills. Even for me, I initially thought I didn’t need to develop my soft skills, but I find they are very handy in this profession. When you’re dealing with clients, you have to be a good listener and have the patience to build the product successfully.

Built In Africa? What does that mean to you?

I was born in a village in Africa. I went to school in Africa. All the skills that I have acquired were in Africa, and the solutions that I’m building are for Africa. That, to me, is Built In Africa.

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