On the move

Though his work involves a lot of travel, Schwall is happy to come home to Tel Aviv. “I had always thought it would be great to live in a city on the beach,” he says.

WITH WIFE Shira. (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Simon Schwall had already lived many places when he met his Israeli future wife, Shira, in the Pacific island nation of Papua New Guinea.
Born in his father’s native Luxembourg in 1986, he moved with his family to his mother’s home country of France at the age of 12 and later attended the prestigious business school HEC Paris. He did a semester abroad in Singapore and, after graduation, worked in London for two years and then in Dubai for a year.
When the management consulting company for which he worked was acquired by a large accounting firm, Schwall looked for a position in the emerging field of mobile money technology, which allows people without a bank account to transfer money and pay for goods and services using their phone.
“I saw the impact it had on people’s lives and that fascinated me,” says Schwall.
He found employment with Swedish micro-insurance company BIMA opening new markets for mobile-based insurance products. The job was supposed to be in the Ivory Coast but instead he ended up as country manager in Papua New Guinea, where he launched a mobile life-insurance product that was so successful it was expanded to Fiji with the support of the United Nations.
In 2015, Schwall was introduced to Shira Refael, then working in the country temporarily for an Israeli agricultural technology company. They hit it off and began dating.
“Papua New Guinea is very dangerous; there is a lot of crime and kidnappings,” Schwall says. “One night, we got held up at gunpoint by car thieves.”
Schwall managed to get out of the car, but his girlfriend did not – the thieves drove away with her. He alerted the authorities and jumped into a pickup truck with a policeman using the car’s GPS tracker to locate it. By the time they did, however, Shira was no longer in the car. She was found after a three-hour search, alive but traumatized after being sexually assaulted.
“That’s what made her come back to Israel and I came with her to be by her side,” says Schwall. “I was also traumatized by what had happened. We went to therapy together and separately. A few months later, I went back to Papua New Guinea for six months to attend to my business and hand it over to a successor. During that time, I came to peace with what happened because I couldn’t live in fear all the time.”
The terrible incident, he says, “changed my life, but not only for the worse. It raised my awareness of the situation of women around the world and of survivors of sexual assault. I became more aware of what women go through and how to prevent rape.”
It also sealed his relationship with Shira, now working as an art director and laying the groundwork for a book and an art exhibition about what she endured, which she described in an interview with the Israeli women’s magazine LaIsha.
However, getting married was not a simple affair because Schwall is not Jewish. The couple was joined in a civil union in April 2016, and Schwall will seek Israeli citizenship at the end of the required five years of residency.
“I believe we will stay here and start a family here,” he says.
IN OCTOBER 2017, he left BIMA to start his own business. “I saw the business environment in Israel was good for entrepreneurs. I saw many people working in startups or creating startups and there are many incubators and accelerators to support them, so I felt I could do it too.”
His startup, OKO (the name of a West African god of agriculture) uses mobile and satellite technologies to bring crop insurance to emerging markets, offering cover against drought and floods.
Schwall started OKO in TheHive, a five-month accelerator for immigrant entrepreneurs run by Gvahim, an affiliate association of the Rashi Foundation. He won the demo day competition for his cohort, winning back the program’s NIS 5,000 fee. He then further developed the business at Barclays’ accelerator in Israel for fintech startups and Barclays became one of OKO’s shareholders.
“We launched our first pilot in Mali with local communications provider Orange and the insurance group Allianz,” says Schwall. “Now we have 450 farmers insured with our service. Many of them never even knew what insurance was before. We have even paid claims to farmers who had losses. We’ve proved farmers are interested in insurance and can pay for it and manage it through mobile phones – even without internet or a smartphone.”
OKO recently introduced a fully automated product and signed a three-year partnership with Allianz to offer more insurance products. “We also plan to launch commercially on a much larger scale in October in Mali,” says Schwall.
OKO is supported by Grand Challenges Israel, a joint incentive program of the Israel Innovation Authority and MASHAV, Israel’s Agency for International Development Cooperation, encouraging research and development of innovative technological solutions to global health and development challenges in developing countries. OKO was chosen to represent Israel at the 2018 UN World Summit Awards in the “inclusivity” category and won a prize from Orange in France for its work in Mali. Schwall hopes to introduce it soon in several other African countries.
Though his work involves a lot of travel, Schwall is happy to come home to Tel Aviv. “I had always thought it would be great to live in a city on the beach,” he says. “There are not many cities on the Mediterranean where you can have an exciting career. Tel Aviv is a vibrant tech scene but also on the sea, so people are relaxed. I find the combination really enjoyable, but it does come at a high price because of the cost of living here.”
Schwall has a brother in Australia and his parents are still in France. “We were raised in a way that we were always moving from place to place and we don’t feel home in any particular place. Because of that, my parents are happy that I am closer than I was in Papua New Guinea. They would prefer to see me more often but they understand I am looking for adventures and new experiences.”