Simon Schwall of OKO tells us about the importance of crop assurance and the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Simon Schwall: It has been a special year for me personally as I became a dad also this year. So working from home was not necessarily a bad thing. We are also lucky to be based in Israel, so we are now vaccinated and we can see the end of the Covid situation.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded OKO.
Simon Schwall: I graduated from a top European Business School in 2011 (HEC Paris / CEMS) and started my career in Management Consulting in London. I was passionate about mobile technologies and digital content delivery so that’s what I specialized in. After 3 years of management consulting, I joined a mobile financial services start-up called BIMA, which provides microinsurance services to low-income people in emerging markets. I spent 4 years with BIMA as a local founder and CEO in Papua New Guinea, Fiji, and then Egypt. I then decided to create OKO to replicate this same model in the crop insurance domain.
How does OKO innovate?
Simon Schwall: OKO uses new technologies to automate insurance processes that were very labor-intensive previously. But instead of competing with existing insurance services, we decided to go for markets that were not served before because of the cost-constrained. More concretely for crop insurance, traditional insurers had to send an expert on site to create a personalized quote, have a network of agencies across the country to collect premiums, and then send an expert to verify the losses. All this being automatized and digitalized, new customers can be served, who were never offered insurance before.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business and how are you coping?
Simon Schwall: The pandemic has various effects: (1) our customers have changed their behaviours: Instead of growing cotton or coffee, for example, the small farmers that we insure decided to grow food to sustain their family, expecting scarcity and high prices. (2) Our sales team haven’t been able to meet cooperatives or organize large meetings. Our call centre was also closed and the agents had to work from home, in sub-optimal conditions (3) Our expansion has become more difficult as partners halted new developments and international travel was impossible
We adjusted to this new environment. Thanks to our digital processes we were in a better position to do so than traditional players. We hired new employees without even meeting them in person, which was scary at first but ended up working well. We also hope that this pandemic has shed the light on the fact that the most vulnerable populations are the most affected, and that micro-insurance needs to be a priority.
To some extent, the pandemic has also leveled the playing field for start-ups. Everyone is equal in a virtual setting, while in a physical world more money needs to be spent to gain attention (travel, booths, etc.)
Did you have to make difficult choices and what are the lessons learned?
Simon Schwall: We’ve had to limit our ambition a little bit. Stay lean and bite the bullet until things would be a bit more predictable. As a lesson learnt, the main thing is to adapt quickly, and not expect things to go back to normal.
What specific tools, software, and management skills are you using to navigate this crisis?
Simon Schwall: A lot of our work was already done remotely so we were familiar with Zoom, Google Meet, Slack, etc. But what we had to find new ways to create a team spirit. We used online games, organized weekly calls, shared informal news over different channels, etc. to keep everyone engaged.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Simon Schwall: Our competitors are other small and young companies that are innovating in this field. Some of them are a bit more established, but we are offering a different distribution model that is more efficient. It takes a bigger initial investment so it is also more risky, but we can already see that it offers us an unfair advantage with some clients.
Your final thoughts?
Simon Schwall: As an entrepreneur, change is an opportunity rather than a risk. Embrace change!