ASTANA – Will Aston has formed two companies within the Astana International Financial Centre (AIFC), becoming one of the first businesspeople to cooperate with it. He spoke about the advantages of working at the centre and the services it provides and evaluated Kazakhstan’s potential in an interview with The Astana Times.
Ozara Services, a consulting company built on experience from similar jurisdictions, is Aston’s first venture in the centre. He has also formed Ozara Finance, an Islamic fintech organisation developing and proving a platform for Islamic investment and finance cooperatives.
“We provide business advisory services to help companies that may be applying to the AIFC. Also, we are providing business advisory in terms of ongoing operational activity,” he said.
“The second service we have is the programme of implementation and major projects. We have extensive experience in leading and delivering major programmes. The third area is digital transformation. I think there are a lot of opportunities in Kazakhstan and within the financial services sector for digital transformation. These are the three services that our consulting business offers,” he added.
At this point, the companies have enough clients.
“We have work underway for Islamic fintech. It received financial services permission to be able to operate in the regulatory sandbox and now we are engaging with the agricultural sector to be able to build up and prove that platform. We will work on that for two years. We are going to work with people in the sector and international agencies. We want to be able to help the growth of the sector, to be able to prove the platform, make sure that products work and make sure they work within the context of Kazakhstan. After the two-year period within the sandbox, we will be seeking to roll out and operate a platform on an ongoing basis,” said Aston.
He finds Kazakhstan’s potential to be very high.
“The fundamentals are good from the perspective of development; the human capital and talent are better than in other jurisdictions where I have worked. If I compare with, for example, the United Arab Emirates, then I can say that the quality of the individuals is very high. They are well-educated and very capable. They are also very young and that’s a huge benefit in terms of longer term potential,” he said.
“But it also means that there is a challenge in terms of getting the right mix of international experience to work with the very capable, young talented people in Kazakhstan. I think the real question is actually how you execute – what capabilities you need to be able to actually deliver on the promise. I think it requires the ability to bring the best international experience and practically make that work. Another challenge is making sure there is actually visibility and transparency of how things are done. I think the centre is going to be pivotal in enabling more international investment to come in. The foundations for the centre are there. It is now down to executing with transparency and visibility and, if that’s done, I think the promise will be fulfilled,” he added.
Aston’s staff works in Kazakhstan and the U.K., and he has already evaluated the expat centre operation.
“The expat centre was very useful for me. Obviously, as a foreigner coming to Kazakhstan who doesn’t speak much Russian and doesn’t speak Kazakh, the expat centre has been very helpful in actually enabling me to get all the things done with my visa application and making sure it was all correct. I didn’t know what I needed to do in terms of my visa, exactly what needed to be done for company bank payment. The expat centre helped me and actually did the form-filling work with me, to make sure that all sorted out and was right the first time. It was not necessarily part of their job, but they have been extraordinary helpful in making sure that it’s been as easy as possible for me to be able to get everything sorted out,” he said.
Aston feels AIFC’s Bureau for Professional Development is very important as well, due to the need to ensure things are operating to the highest international standards.
“That means the opportunity is particularly for local people to be able to get the right qualifications, as well as gaining experience. I think the educational work of the ongoing professional education of the bureau is absolutely foundational. That will certainly be the case as we roll out the platform for Islamic investment and finance cooperatives, because those are member institutions and the customers running it, so making sure that we have the appropriate professional training foundation is really important for us,” he added.