The Interswitch I Saw

When I learnt that Interswitch was going to host the October edition of Developers Parapo at the Co-Creation Hub, ostensibly to tell us about “the Interswitch we don’t know”, there was no way I wasn’t going to show up. Of course, those who had read my “disrupt Interswitch” article on TechLoy assumed I had come with pistol magazines full of critical ammo. On the contrary, I had genuinely come to listen. And listen, I did.

As I sat there looking at the slides and doing my best to follow the obligatory company background spiel, I couldn’t shake the distinct impression that we were in a textbook “us against them” scenario. The humans from Interswitch In the red corner, and what you might call angry developers in the blue corner. This was no surprise of course, considering that up till now, the company hasn’t bothered to get chummy with the rest of the ecosystem.

By the time the Interswitch team had gotten a ways into their presentation, we did learn something which some of us might not have known prior to that event. These Interswitch people are actually, well,  “people” — not horned, trident-wielding creatures, whose sole purpose in life is to make online payments difficult for the rest of the ecosystem. From watching their interaction with the developers, I could easily imagine how they go to work from 9 to 5 like everybody else, to build a business, make a profit, and collect a paycheck at the end of the month. While all that squishy humane stuff doesn’t change the  issue at hand, that they preside over a product that should work a hell of a lot better than it does now, it still counts for something. Humans, not Vs, work at Interswitch.

But after listening some more, I came to yet another conclusion, which by no means excludes the first. As far as customer affinity and empathy are concerned, these Interswitch people are no better than Commander Data (pictured above — he’s the sentient android in Star Trek that desperately wants to be human). The way I see it, that’s the only reason that justifies how their presenter could go on to tell us, unapologetically, that N150k shouldn’t be too much for any “serious Nigerian entrepreneur” to pay for basic WebPay integration. Of course, he was rewarded with a collective guffaw from an incredulous audience. Like me, every other developer in there must have been wondering if these people actually live in the same Nigeria we live in.

At some point we were told that of the 900+ merchants that have obtained WebPay integration (seriously, just 900?), a mere ten are responsible for 90 percent of their transaction volume, among whom I surmised are airlines and the bigger e-commerce players, DealDey/Konga , Jumia, et al. Am I alone in wondering if this statistic is something Interswitch should be proud of? I’m guessing those were the kinds of people the presenter meant when he alluded to “serious entrepreneurs”. Businesses with millions of dollars in venture funding.

There’s clearly a communication disconnect here. Or the way I prefer to describe it, an empathic disconnect, between Interswitch and the developer/merchant community on the other side of the payments equation. Maybe developers/merchants can’t appreciate what goes into creating and maintaining the whole payments getup, whether it’s the elaborate song and dance routine required when obtaining the necessary licences, or the sheer cojones it takes to maintain some kind of working relationship with 19 cantankerous banks. But how Interswitch can even think that there really are just 900 serious online entrepreneurs in the whole of Nigeria is beyond me. They obviously haven’t run into any of the multitude of “unserious” Nigerian netpreneurs — app developers, local e-commerce/e-tailers, service providers and more — who have elected to have their customers pay directly into their bank accounts or even receive actual cash, because they simply couldn’t justify subscribing to a technically cumbersome online payments product that carries an elitist (some would say outrageous) price tag.

In fairness, Interswitch must have their own problems, just like any other business concern. This is Nigeria, after all. I can understand how peculiar issues of technology and infrastructure, cultural potholes, inadequate financial policy/regulatory frameworks, and dealing with apathetic, stick-in-the-mud financial institutions might have forced them to make some hard choices in the design and deployment of their products. These will no doubt impact their operating efficiency, product experience, and the cost at which they’ll feel comfortable rendering their services. We can all relate to this. Nobody’s in business to “sell groundnuts” or recycle cash. We’re all here to make money.

But the fact remains that up to this day, electronic payments in Nigeria remains a holy black box of sorts, and its guardian is Interswitch. At least, that is what it looks like. Since developers have no idea of what’s going on behind the scenes, they’re genuinely appalled when Interswitch demands almost $1,000 for online payments integration.

For these people, it’s not enough to come and tell them about the Interswitch they don’t know. It’s not enough to come and tell us that you’re human. You don’t get to complain about being misunderstood or mistaken for aliens until you –

Get down out of your air-conditioned spaceship and into the trenches with the entrepreneurs, devs and merchants at the grassroots. Or you could invite them into your air-conditioned spaceships, after profuse assurances that you won’t abduct them for transgenic experimentation. Maybe if you got a bit closer, you’d see how charging N150k indirectly ensures that many good ideas never get past the development phase, because after writing the code and signing up a bunch of people, there’s still no easy way to take their money online. Get an empathy chip, I hear they’re good for feeling what people are feeling.

Start talking. Or at least speak a language humans can understand without the help of a tricorder. Toss the canned, PR vetted answers and tell us what’s really up with payments in Nigeria. Open the black box, spare us the negativity distortion field (online payments in Nigeria is so fucking hard, only us can do it). Enlighten us about all the cultural, policy, and technical nuance that pervade the industry. Start a blog about payments. Create dedicated developer resources that are constantly updated.

Become open about the problems. Don’t pretend that your technology doesn’t suck when it does — even Sean Barton says so, and he’s not from here, so we can safely rule out Nigerian “hating”. Professing attention to user experience and technical feedback from developers without corresponding action just makes your nose grow longer. If you know how to ask, you might find that there’s a whole crowd of talented developers willing to lend their knowledge and time to help make your product better. Why would they do that? Simple, because it helps them too.

Sell us on your vision for the payments ecosystem. Hopefully, you have one. Help the rest of us understand why things are the way they are, where they need to be, where you’re going within the broader context of electronic payments, and what role you’ll play to help enable that layer of value exchange, the oxygen that e-commerce and the rest of the tech ecosystem desperately needs to survive. If people buy it, they’ll queue up to beam aboard your payments spaceship, and talk less of disrupting Interswitch.

That’s enough pontificating for now.

From the Interswitch I saw that day, my impressions are a mixed bag. As far as I could tell from the presentation and subsequent discussions. they remain unapologetic about their pricing. Whether I’ll be corrected on that score remains to be seen, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. However, the company appears to be making a fresh commitment to the ecosystem, as well the technical aspects of its service.  Convening the Developer Parapo meetup was a good start, even if I think it was mainly a reflexive/defensive maneuver in response to muted grumblings that were threatening to become a loud clamour, punctuated with the dreaded “D” word — disruption. We were told that Interswitch is working hard to clean up its codebase, release developer tools and pilot a number of products that developers can actually use. There’s talk of a QuickTeller API hackathon. We’ve been told to expect an ongoing partnership between Interswitch and Co-Creation Hub with a view to facilitating a deeper relationship with the developer community. We’re waiting. We’re watching. With keen interest.

Even with an underwhelming product, Interswitch is currently the only way, the truth, and the life of online payments in Nigeria. Whomsoever wants to facilitate electronic transactions for their business or websites must go through them. They obviously want things to remain that way, which is why they came to preach their gospel at the hub. If Interswitch really didn’t care about what the rest of the ecosystem thinks, they wouldn’t have gone to the trouble. Is it the fear of disruption? Or the fear of missing out on obvious future opportunity? I wouldn’t know. But I know that a gospel is only as strong as its believers. At least they now acknowledge that the ecosystem can only be ignored at their own peril, and they want its goodwill.

Developers and merchants and the rest of us on the other side of the online payments equation? We can do Interswitch a favour, keep an open mind and observe subsequent developments dispassionately. Maybe with time, and some mutual understanding, online payments will become a joy to implement. Maybe Interswitch and developers will eventually scale their differences and start playing nice together. Maybe we won’t have to bring up the dreaded “D” word for a while yet. Maybe.

[images via and via]