Obi Emetarom discusses Zone’s role in leading Africa’s new decentralized payments era

Temitope Akintade
Obi Emetarom, CEO of Zone

Obi Emetarom is a serial tech entrepreneur focused on the African Fintech space. He co-founded Zone in 2008, and since then, he has been focused on building cheap, fast, reliable, and scalable payment infrastructure for Africa with blockchain technology.

In an interview with Technext, the CEO of Zone discusses his blockchain journey and what necessitated the rebranding from Appzone to Zone. 

According to Obi Emetarom, his foray into the blockchain world started when he and his team were experimenting with a B2C consumer-facing payment application. 

We had thought about innovative ways to make P2P payments much more user-friendly than they were.

As we were completing the application, we realized that we needed to process payments to the banks, which needed some type of integration with a payment infrastructure. However, we started seeing some gaps when we engaged the existing payment infrastructure providers.”

They started seeing gaps in onboarding friction, reliability and cost. They also noticed that the commercial model would seriously impede what they were trying to achieve. 

We then had to think of alternatives to traditional payment infrastructures since we could not set up our own at the time and were not even licensed. That was how utilizing the decentralized peer-to-peer architecture on blockchain came up as a suggestion and alternative to the existing providers running centralized networks.

At this point, we started to do a lot of research to understand how blockchain technology works, its value proposition, benefits, and functionality. This was as far back as 2018. Over time, we realised the full ramifications of how this new technology will transform financial services and the entire economy on a global scale.”

Obi Emetarom.

How Appzone rebranded to Zone

As Obi Emetarom and his team began to build the company, Appzone became known for several fintech products and for being a diversified fintech infrastructure provider. 

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However, as they dove deeper into the payment domain, it was realised that they were at an inflexion point in the transformation of payments, culminating in the complete digitisation of cash and the establishment of a fully cashless society. 

Zone Obi Emetarom

“We see this in the sheer volumes of payment transactions being processed in Nigeria and in the way mobile money continues to impact finance in other parts of Africa. What this points to is that we’ve gone past the old challenge of payment adoption to the new challenge of delivering quality payment services at scale.

We believe digital payments should be frictionless, borderless, and compatible with all forms and stores of money. Creating the infrastructure that delivers this value at scale requires a lot of focus. We also looked at some of the other payment infrastructure providers and realized that they are quite diversified and, therefore, a little distracted.

We decided to become the first pure-play payment infrastructure provider, so we focus solely on connecting the banks/Fintechs and opening up APIs for other financial service providers to process transactions. Because specialization breeds excellence, we want to focus on this narrow but high-impact domain and become the best at it.

To do that, we have carved out the rest of our traditional business into a separate stand-alone company, so it can continue to service clients and grow. This process resulted in creating two new brands- Zone & Qore. 

Obi Emetarom.

The decision to rebrand from Appzone to Zone stemmed from the fact that, beyond carving out the other operations, the firm wanted to adopt a brand associated with a new payment network powered by blockchain. 

We also want to be easily recognized for leading this new decentralized era of payments and financial services. We chose the name in particular because Zone was also the product name at that time, so we just inherited it as the company’s new brand name.”

Industry observers have noted a growing list of blockchain fintechs in Africa, and there are indications of little or no difference between Zone and its peers like Lazerpay, for instance. However, Obi Emetarom says the difference lies in how each company combines the use of technology. 

“Some might be building on existing blockchain networks like Ethereum and the rest, trying to use those solutions and smart contracts to create value. Others might be building custom, be-spoke blockchain solutions for corporate entities,” Obi Emetarom explained.

However, we are unique because we are a Layer-1 blockchain network, which means we control the ledger and the nodes that host the digital assets. We build and manage that network of nodes so products can be built on top of it as smart contracts. We build payment capabilities on top of this network, and – as part of our roadmap – third parties can also build on the infrastructure.”

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Obi Emetarom’s Zone claims to be the first Layer-1 blockchain protocol in Africa. 

The other thing that makes us unique is that we are regulated and licensed by the Central Bank of Nigeria, which means the nodes that make up our protocol must be regulated financial services [banks, fintechs, and microfinance institutions] for now. The contents of the chain must comply with regulations. This distinguishes us in terms of how we deploy blockchain technology.”

Blockchain in Africa and the future 

Having played a prominent role in blockchain adoption and usage in recent years, Africa is projected to be a potential hub for burgeoning technology. There are even indications that the continent is already embracing the blockchain revolution. 

Obi Emetarom, CEO of Zone.
Obi Emetarom, CEO of Appzone

On the subject, Obi Emetarom says Africa is just as ready for the blockchain revolution as any other technological revolution. 

In fact, Africa is usually more ready for these changes when you look at the continent closely. For example, if you look at the mobile phone adoption rate on the continent, you’d see it’s been faster than in the western world.

So far, cryptocurrency adoption has been similar. Why is that the case?  It’s usually because the legacy infrastructure in developed countries works just well enough to create inertia against change. But because of Africa’s general lack of infrastructure, adoption is usually much faster when new technologies are introduced on the continent simply because there’s nothing to replace.”

Obi Emetarom also says that many African countries still don’t have a payment system, so sending money across financial institutions might take days. In that environment, it’s easier for change to happen because there isn’t much legacy to replace. 

So yes, Africa is definitely ready for the Blockchain.”

2023 will be a defining year for Obi Emetarom and his team, with loads of exciting developments. 

We started with an in-country scope, focusing on enabling payments within the country across different channels like ATMs, POS, Web, and mobile. We’ve started with physical card channels to solve a major industry problem.

Initially, our priority was to focus on this because that’s where a huge chunk of value lies for banks, super agents, and merchants that lose billions annually while also incurring huge customer dissatisfaction. Now, we are extending the platform to support merchant and agent POS operations, where this problem is even worse.”

Obi Emetarom told Technext that Zone would extend to other payment use cases, such as funds transfers, web payments, and direct debit, which will also witness innovative enhancement. Subsequently, and subject to regulatory approval, it will also be rolling out our cross-border remittance use case, based on an innovative and trustless implementation of a stablecoin designed to serve as a settlement currency for transactions. 

Obi Emetarom. said, “With our cross-border offering, we will leverage the footprint of our existing clients in 33 African countries for rapid expansion. This means that participating financial institutions that join the network will not only process local transactions through local channels but also become part of a more extensive pan-African network where they can instantly send and receive money to and from any participating bank, irrespective of country.”

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Ultimately, they will be layering alternative forms of currency on top of our existing payment channels, specifically CBDCs and regulated cryptocurrencies.

“We are working closely with regulators as we go through this journey to ensure we achieve the right level of compliance and obtain the required approval from each regulator in each jurisdiction before we roll out. This way, regulators remain comfortable that the right controls and risk mitigations are in place,” Obi Emetarom explained.

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