Mobile money: Coura Sène, at the crest of (the) Wave

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Top 50 tech champions

By Quentin Velluet, Quentin Velluet
Posted on Monday, 2 May 2022 13:11, updated on Tuesday, 3 May 2022 12:15

A French-trained engineer, the regional director of American start-up Wave in the UEMOA zone embodies Senegal's success on the pan-African tech scene.

This is part 7 of an 11-part series

At 45, she describes herself as shy, but manages her media exposure with great skill. Coura Carine Sène, Wave’s regional director for the West African Economic and Monetary Union (UEMOA) has become, despite herself, the embodiment of her country. This is a Senegal that has been gradually earning its credentials on the pan-African tech scene. And the company Sène runs in four countries raised $200 million in its first round of financing, in September 2021.

“I overcame this handicap when I arrived in France to study after high school,” she tells us. “I was no longer in the family cocoon, so I had to open up to others.” On the campus of Polytech Lille, the future engineer in statistics and computer engineering found courage and inspiration in her main role model: her mother Hélène Tine. This former activist for the Alliance of Progressive Forces (AFP), the party of Moustapha Niasse, and a former deputy, ran in early 2022 for mayor of Thiès on the ticket of the Wallu Senegal coalition.

“She is a strong woman, daughter of a peasant, Serer and Christian, who has made her way in the male environment of politics to become spokesperson for her party, without ever taking the easy path,” says Sène of her mother.

Dual culture

A female black engineer in a world of white men, Sène managed to make a place for herself in the French computer industry, despite being “at the crossroads of many minorities”, to borrow a ten-year-old quote from Senegalese scientist Rose Dieng-Kuntz – another of her role models, an artificial intelligence and web pioneer.

Nine years spent working on digitalisation for the insurance group SMA from 2003-2012 forged her knowledge both of business and of management. During that time frame, she obtained French nationality and gave birth to three children, alongside her husband – also Senegalese, with a similar academic and professional background.

The life of this binge reader – although she admits that she no longer has much time to devote to this pursuit  – seemed to be set on immutable tracks: a family, a good salary, a home in Plessis-Robinson (a quiet suburb on the outskirts of Paris), a job in the 15th arrondissement to which she drove her car…But doubts began to arise as her children grew up. What would she be able to pass on to them from her native country? Would they be able to find their place in France without truly having a sense for their dual culture? How could she make herself more useful to Africa?

Back to her roots

In 2013, she convinced her family to return to Dakar. “Coura is a very honest, reliable and dynamic woman,” says Sébastien Vetter. This Frenchman based in Dakar got to know the executive in 2015 when she worked for Aviso, the consulting firm he created before founding Wizall, a mobile money platform geared toward business and institutional clients.

As a consultant, the former student of Dakar’s Cours Sainte-Marie de Hann developed an expertise in mobile money, an activity that was still new at that time. She was introduced to the sector by accompanying the launch of Wizall in Senegal.

On behalf of Orange, she then put together the regulatory files for the granting of licenses in the various countries of the UEMOA. She then joined Omar Cissé, whom she helped to define the first business model of payment solution aggregator InTouch. “This required integrating financial skills, risk analysis, product understanding and operational activities,” says Vetter, who points out that few people in West Africa have such a comprehensive knowledge of the environment in several countries.

This particular ease, coupled with nine months of intense operational experience at InTouch, are the two assets that the Franco-Senegalese manager brings to the American start-up founded by Drew Durbin and Lincoln Quirk. “The Americans give us carte blanche. In reality, they are very removed from the operational side of things and focus on the product, taking into account our recommendations,” explains Coura Sène. It is this type of listening and this desire to understand the usage on the ground that convinced her to join the brand with a waving penguin logo over a blue background.

With Wave, this avowed feminist also benefits from a confidence that has allowed her to build a very feminine team around her, including Stéphanie Sarr, product manager and former Aviso consultant. And when the start-up is attacked, as it was recently by Alioune Ndiaye, general manager of Orange Africa and Middle East, who accused Wave of having destroyed 20,000 jobs in Senegal, it is Coura Sène who leaps to defend her record.

A dreamer anchored in the world

“Coura is a very honest person, dutiful and very dedicated,” says Omar Cissé. “Piloting the operational side of InTouch took over her Saturdays, Sundays and evenings, because the weighty position required her to manage a large team. We asked too much of her, which led to her departure,” says Cissé, who nevertheless is on good terms with his former employee, who recently enabled him to integrate Wave into the payment solutions he aggregates for Total service stations.

Although she left InTouch to avoid a burnout, she is still busy at Wave. Sène spends her rare moments of calm playing board games with her teenagers and – just like any good introvert – dreaming.

Like a fantasy, the desire to write runs through the head of this admirer of Fatou Diome. “I envy writers, because they have the freedom to be outside the world,”  she says. For the time being, this woman who is just delighted to “see the ocean every day” is ensuring that she remains anchored in the world, even if the wave on which she is riding keeps getting bigger.

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