Celebrating Africa’s Fintech Genius, John Obaro, at Three Score

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By Bekeme Masade

For a man who would neither toot his own horn nor pay a trumpeter to sing his praises, it is not so surprising that John Obaro, Nigeria’s Fintech tycoon, recently reached the diamond age of 60 without creating a fuss about it. Obaro, the ‘Consummate Innovator’ who has used his ingenuity in software development to set Nigeria on a better path. A man of distinction and extraordinary depth like him deserves to be celebrated daily. Obaro’s name is one of the firsts that come to mind when we list software doyens in Nigeria. His company, SystemSpecs, which he founded in 1992, blazed the trail in Nigeria’s Fintech landscape with the introduction of Remita payment software in 2006. Years after, Remita, is putting West Africa in the spotlight for global recognition in Fintech.

John Maxwell once wrote that “Success is…knowing your purpose in life, growing to reach your maximum potential, and sowing seeds that benefit others.” John Obaro has sown seeds that have benefited not just others in his immediate circle, but an entire nation. Yet, his influence grows daily across the continent as Remita makes bigger inroads in Africa’s Fintech space. This man with an unassuming personality, has been very instrumental in pioneering Fintech innovation in Nigeria. Still, Obaro would rather let his success make the noise.

John Obaro proves to a large extent that the way we conceive the future sculpts the present. His company, SystemSpecs, saved Nigeria from near-collapse; the uncelebrated heroes behind the Nigerian government’s Treasury Single Account (TSA). SystemSpecs’ breakthrough product, Remita, is a household name, not only as the Fintech infrastructure supporting the TSA, but also as a technology solution for several state governments, large companies and individuals, who simply have all their accounts at their fingertips through its app version.

Obaro’s success wasn’t a day’s journey. When he started out, he was selling computers for a living. “I started my career in the 90s. For briefly six months, I was supposed to be selling computers. I realised that I wouldn’t do well selling what I don’t know, so I decided to leave to practice my craft, which was software development”, he shared recently in an interview with ThisDay Newspaper.

Unwaveringly convinced about this dream, he moved to United Bank for Africa, and from there joined the International Merchant Bank (IMB). As Obaro would later explain, “I was being promoted almost every year or every other year. The money was good. For a young man I had all the perks of office, the fully serviced duplex in Victoria Island, five minutes from work, you know, every young man would love that, but I didn’t see my future doing something repeatedly, so I took the plunge and left.”

Obaro risked his well-paying job as head of ICT in IMB and began a brave quest to set up his firm, SystemSpecs. The plan was to make SystemSpecs a “strictly software house focused on the delivery of extremely innovative and globally competitive solutions from out of Nigeria.”

Given that every decision comes with fresh hurdles and peculiar problems, Obaro’s decision to start up his company met with some challenges. Despite his close connection and knowledge of the Nigerian banking system, all the banks he approached for capital summarily shirked him. At last, one of his friends gave him the sum of N200,000, trusting in Obaro’s integrity and vision. As at then, ICT was not what it is today. There were only a few people making use of computers. But Obaro’s venture ostensibly became greater. The timing was perfect. Obaro opened up the frontiers of technology adoption in the financial sector, developing software to boost the efficiency of human resource and financial operations.

When John Obaro started SystemSpecs, which has become the continental reference point in e-finance, the company was just an added reseller for SunSystems, an accounting package developed by Systems Union, UK, now known as Infor. But with sheer imagination, combined with focus and adroit execution, Obaro has transformed SystemSpecs into a home of the best software solutions in Nigeria, indigenously developing a payroll and human resource management solution, HumanManager, which has revolutionised the Payroll and HR processes of several organisations and has been a market leader for over 20 years.

With the number of innovations recorded, we can say without being accused of frenzied exaltation that John Obaro is clearly holding Africa’s baton on the track of global financial intelligence. The company grew from offering payroll services, to transmission to the banks, to bulk payments and then single payments, and today, SystemSpecs is a full-blown Fintech organisation.

For Obaro, it may not have been something to crow about when former President Olusegun Obasanjo in his book, The Presidential Legacy, acknowledged SystemSpecs to be the solution provider of the Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System (IPPIS) which was behind the over N400 million that was saved from payroll applications on salaries, and over N200 million that was recouped from net savings in his administration. Indeed! Not many people even know that this legacy project by the Obasanjo administration which pioneered the physical verification and biometric data capturing system of bonafide members of staff in all ministries, department and agencies to control payroll fraud, was facilitated by SystemSpecs.

With Remita as the infrastructural powerhouse for the Federal Government’s Treasury Single Account programme, the current government has saved over N700 billion from unprincipled bank charges, and has recouped over N8.9 trillion in cash inflows. For the first time in the history of Nigeria, the government can determine its cash balance across all ministries and departments with the aid of Remita Technology. There is no doubt that all of Obaro’s achievements are larger than how he rather chooses to promote them.

Obaro’s persona has become a strong leadership reference point, such that he is one of the few individuals that were used for an academic case study by the Lagos Business School (LBS). The LBS case study did provide some handful insight about the rising challenges John Obaro encountered, both during his startup days, up till this point where he has raised SystemSpecs to be Africa’s e-payment leader.

Obaro was honoured with ‘Leadership in Technology Award’ by the Africa Forum in Scotland. He was also immortalized with a research lab named after him. In 2018, he emerged as the ‘ICT Man of the Year’ at Beacon of ICT Awards, while his company SystemSpecs also bagged the ‘Software Company of the Year’ at the same event. He was named among the 50 Most Influential Nigerians in 2017 by BusinessDay Newspaper. In 2015, he emerged winner of ‘Engineer Simeon Agu Prize for Best Software Entrepreneur’ at the National Information Technology Merit Award (NITMA) organised by Nigeria Computer Society (NCS).

Under his good leadership, SystemSpecs has garnered several awards, some of which include ‘Most Efficient e-Revenue Service’, ‘ICT/Telecom Company of The Year’, ‘Online Payments Processing Company of the Year’, ‘E-Payment System of the Year’, ‘Software of the Year’ and was listed in ‘Top 50 Technology Companies in West Africa’.

The lesson to learn from Obaro’s is not mainly about his breakthrough in the world of e-finance and technology in general, but the fact that he is such a positive influence on people who come across him. Several people can testify about his chest of inspiring influence which he spreads through his engrained humility.

His generosity was recently shown in Kano State where his company, SystemSpecs, donated a social welfare centre to help improve the wellbeing of patients at the Aminu Kano Teaching Hospital, and renovated two classroom blocks at Dandago Special Primary School to, according to him, “increase the capacity of the school authorities to provide quality education for children with special needs”

You might also find it unbelievable that Obaro does not believe in compromising integrity and character, especially judging by the fact that it is hard to do business in Nigeria (both private and public sector) without getting your hands soiled with corruption. As a matter of fact, his inflexible stance on integrity has become one of his travails throughout his professional journey.

John Obaro is one of those few that can be characterized under John Maxwell’s maxim as “one life influencing another”. Coincidentally, both Maxwell and Obaro bear the same first name. And hopefully, someday, John Obaro’s narrative of innovative leadership would be used as one of John Maxwell’s case studies in exemplary leadership.

As John Obaro hits three score years, he deserves some praises for his outstanding achievements, innovativeness, out-of-the-box problem-solving skills, and leadership qualities, which continue to keep SystemSpecs in a position of relevance 26 years after, despite the proliferation of younger Fintech firms.

His commitment to transforming the financial and human resources sector in Africa is second to none, and his patriotism in helping Nigeria steer towards accountability is legendary. We wish him many more years of ground-breaking exploits as he continues to inspire the next generation of innovative leaders in Africa.

Cheers to an Innovator Extraordinaire and Fintech Gamechanger at 60!

– Masade is the chief executive of business sustainability outfit, CSR-in-Action

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