Mr Isaac Were as captain in the Army, shortly before resigning his position to move to Uganda.  PHOTO/COURTESY


Tech developer simplifies financial access for SMEs

What you need to know:

Mr Isaac Were, the founder of Zimba Technologies, offers tailored software solutions to Savings and Credit Cooperative Organisations and microfinance institutions. 

From Eastern Uganda, just outside Mbale, in a small village, Kachonga, next to Kamonkoli, Mr Isaac Were, the founder of Zimba Technologies, had no telling how his life would play out.

Orphaned at seven, he and his brothers found a new family with American missionaries. He lived with his new family in Uganda for five years before relocating to South Carolina in 2004. This shift opened doors he could scarcely imagine as a child in Mbale.

Mr Were’s journey took him from the humble beginnings of a village boy to the prestigious halls of the United States Military Academy at West Point, where he pursued mechanical engineering. Following his studies, he dedicated six years to serving in the U.S. Army, focusing on logistics and recruitment. The end of his military contract brought him to a crossroad, prompting him to contemplate his next steps.

Conceiving the idea
In 2016, shortly after his university graduation, Mr Were visited Uganda for the first time since leaving. This trip reignited his connection to his homeland. After completing his military service, Mr Were moved back to Uganda in 2022. This challenged the common apprehensions faced by many immigrants in the U.S., such as the fear of failure or the uncertainties present when starting a new venture. Mr Were was undeterred. 

“Despite all these fears, I found no comfort in holding back. I have always been the kind that follows through when I set my mind on something, regardless of the negative perceptions. It helps me avoid living with regrets,” he says.

However, Mr Were had to convince his wife to get aboard his ship. The issues lay around uprooting the family but also bringing her and their two children to an unfamiliar territory. 

“I mentioned to her that it would be an exciting adventure, promising that if it did not suit our family after a year, we would return to the US. Her transition to Uganda turned out to be smoother than we expected. Being from Jamaica, she noticed several similarities between Jamaica and Uganda, which I believe helped her adjust so well,” he says. 
With that, Mr Were can smile, knowing that they are here to stay to build the business.

Culture shock
Despite Were’s Ugandan roots, his return was met with some cultural readjustment. He quickly learned that Ugandan business culture valued relationships above all, a departure from his expectations. 

Even simple tasks, like registering a business or opening a business bank account, proved to be more complex and required navigating unexpected demands.

Mr Were’s entrepreneurial spirit was first ignited when he established an ice cream parlour and bakery for his sister in Uganda, who was struggling to find employment at the time. 

“I enjoyed the process of having an idea and seeing it through execution. I always knew I would return and do something on a much larger scale, I just didn’t know when,” he says. 

This experience, coupled with the challenges and opportunities presented by the Covid-19 pandemic, led him to explore more significant ventures.

After meeting a software engineer who shared his vision, Mr Were identified a technological gap in the financial services provided to small businesses by Savings and Credit Cooperative Organisations (SACCOs) and microfinance institutions (MFIs). This realisation laid the groundwork for Zimba Technologies, aiming to enhance the efficiency of these institutions through tailored software solutions.

Building a team 
Initially, Mr Were had a development team in Europe building the platform and later changed to a US-based developer. However, after moving to Uganda, he was determined to employ Ugandans and contribute to the local economy. Moreover, the engineers would better relate to the problem the company was trying to solve. 

While many novice software engineers answered his calls for workers, he needed a team lead. He met a young ambitious and talented man who had just graduated with a Computer Science degree. After three months of orienting him, Mr Were noticed that he had aligned with the mission hence starting the work. 

Zimba supports one of its customers - New Line Busega SACCO at their Annual General Meeting. 

However, three to four months later, the diligent, time-conscious person started slackening. It started with not being punctual, and prolonging task delivery time, until he finally said he wanted to leave the company. That was not before sowing discord in the team, trying to delete the source code.

“While I had no problem with him leaving, how he went about it was disturbing as he set the project back by six months and nearly destroyed the company,” he says.

At this point, Mr Were had invested all his savings -$100,000 - an equivalent of Shs388 million, into Zimba and started to question his decision. Choosing to keep at the journey, he borrowed some money, and found a more experienced and committed lead engineer. 

“This difficult time was a blessing in disguise because it taught me many valuable lessons. It also allowed me to meet Brian, my lead engineer, who has done wonders with our product. It also forced us to completely rebuild our platform, making it a whole lot better,” he says.

This challenging experience served as a powerful lesson on the complexities of managing a business and people.

“It led to a significant transformation in how Zimba approaches security, employee engagement, and operational processes, which strengthened the business,” Mr Were says.

The new platform was completed in October, 2023 and in the past few months have on boarded more than 30 institutions.

These include DuckHill Microfinance, which has 35 branches across the country, and Nyota SACCO (previously known as Nabugabo Spare Parts SACCO). 
Mr Were believes Zimba’s banking platform will simplify the work of SACCOs and MFIs across the country.
The biggest expenses are operations in the form of salaries, hosting and storage, and system security.

Platform pricing
Understanding the diverse needs of these institutions, Zimba has structured its pricing to cater to different scales and requirements.
•Silver package: Offers core features such as loans, savings, reports, and SMS for institutions aiming to digitize affordably. It starts at Shs3m.

•Gold package: Adds a mobile app for loans, payments, and statements, plus field agent support for real-time tracking. Ideal for enhancing engagement and efficiency. It starts at Shs6m.

• Platinum package: It has customised solutions including special features and server setup, tailored to unique institutional needs. Pricing varies with customisation.

The biggest expenses are operations in the form of salaries, hosting and storage, and system security.
However, to avoid adopting every update that comes regarding core banking systems, Mr Were and his 20-person team does a lot of research to ensure that what they are adding to the system is necessary to their clients.

Looking ahead
Mr Were’s vision for Zimba Technologies is ambitious, aiming for international recognition in providing core banking systems. His immediate goals include establishing Zimba as a leading name in Uganda’s financial technology sector and expanding into other East African markets.