What most entrepreneurs don’t achieve in a lifetime, he did in just over a decade. Mohammed Dewji single-handedly turned his father’s trading business into Tanzania’s largest import-export group. He grew Mohammed Enterprises Tanzania (MeTL) 30-fold and increased revenues from $30 million to $1.1 billion, by diversifying into everything from cement and real estate to energy and mobile telephony. The man claims to be worth at least $1.3 billion; as the company is not listed, it is difficult to make an independent estimate.
It’s not surprising that many have a hard time imagining the humble beginnings of Dewji. Legend has it that his family, who stem from Gujarat state in western India, were blown in a dhow across the Indian Ocean, landing in Zanzibar with very little. They moved south and his grandmother opened a small trading shop out of their home in Singida, a poverty-stricken town in central Tanzania. In this simple house, built from sand and mud, Dewji was born with the help of a midwife from around the corner.
“That wasn’t very smart. My mother and I almost died because I had the umbilical cord wrapped around my neck,” he says.
His father, Gulam Dewji—who had, by the mid-1970s, turned his mother’s shop into a flourishing import-export business— was able to send his six children to good schools. First, in Tanzania’s third-largest city, Arusha, later in the capital Dar es Salam; in their free time, Dewji and his siblings played tennis and golf.
“My father spent a lot of money educating us. He also believed sport creates discipline. He didn’t want us to just play a sport for fun. He wanted us to push ourselves. We probably have a thousand trophies at home that we won,” he says.
Until this day, there is almost nothing Dewji undertakes as a hobby. He either aims for success, or doesn’t bother. And so, he plows millions of dollars into Tanzania’s national soccer team, the Taifa Stars, instead of being content watching the odd game or kicking around a ball on a Sunday.
“I have no moderation. My wife always complains. She says, ‘Mohammed, why don’t you do things in the middle?’ It’s either very much or nothing at all,” he says.
His favorite sport has always been golf. Dewji spent many afternoons on Dar es Salaam’s golf course, not only because he was good at it, he had a three handicap, but also because he realized, from early on, that many high-profile business deals are concluded on the world’s 18-hole courses.
“I already liked to network as a very young guy. I was told that the golf course is a good place to meet important people. So I started playing golf. At one time, I even wanted to become a golf professional,” he says.
When his father saw that his son showed potential, he enrolled him at the legendary Arnold Palmer Golf Academy in Orlando, Florida, where Dewji also attended Saddlebrook High School. A few years later, when it became clear that Dewji wasn’t going to make the cut as a professional golfer, he decided to study international business and finance with a minor in theology at Georgetown University, an elite tertiary institution in Washington D.C. The University has a long list of alumni: former American President Bill Clinton; former Philippines President Gloria Arroyo and Jordan’s King Abdullah.
During his time at Georgetown, Dewji learned what he says were key lessons in leadership.
“Georgetown really molded me. It took me a step forward. I understood that you need to be dreaming, but not daydreaming. You need to try to dream a reality. Then you have vision,” he says.
Pietra Rivoli, deputy dean of Georgetown University’s school of business, who taught Dewji international finance, remembers him as a student with boundless energy.
“While other students tried to stay awake through discussions of exchange rates, Mohammed would stay after class to talk about how the readings might pertain to the Tanzanian shilling, and how Tanzania could address its economic challenges. Even at the age of 20, or so, he was thinking about how to improve life in his country,” says Rivoli.
Dewji never questioned whether he should return to Africa, after graduating in 1998. He joined his father’s business, which had by then become a million dollar trade and transport group, as chief financial controller. Five years later, at the age of 29, he was promoted to managing director, after expanding his father’s business swiftly.
“I went into manufacturing and value-addition. I built a distribution system and created branches,” he says.
Today, MeTL Group is buying and selling more than 200 commodities in east, central and southern Africa, from sugar to rice, salt, fertilizer, second-hand clothing, motorcycles, bubblegum, yeast and ballpoint pens. The group also exports 50 of its own brands, taking advantage of the fact that Tanzania borders eight countries.
“The goods that I am mainly dealing in are FMCGs [fast moving consumable goods]. It’s goods that touch people’s lives, that are needed by the common man,” he says.
The distribution of FMCGs is not easy in a vast country such as Tanzania, which measures one million square kilometers and where 80% of the population lives in far-flung villages. But with more than 100 trade outlets countrywide, MeTL Group has managed to undercut multi-national giants such as Unilever and drive them from the market.
“I have a big basket of goods. I have warehousing and logistics. I have over a thousand trucks. It’s all complimenting each other. It’s very difficult for people to come from the outside and compete with me,” says Dewji.
He invests in whatever sector he sees opportunity and growth potential. Or to say it differently: the only two industries Dewji is not involved in are beer and tobacco.
Agriculture is another key sector for MeTL Group, with 50,000 hectares of arable land, it is the largest private landowner. The company employs 24,000 people, making it the country’s biggest employer. Dewji’s sisal farms, tea gardens and cashew fields are good money makers. Nearly all the cashew kernels are shipped to the United States.
Always thinking two steps ahead, Dewji has been planning how to profit from his land, as Dar es Salaam, a city of 4.4 million people, grows quickly. He is turning a 17,000 acre plot, which he bought cheaply several years ago, 25 kilometers outside the capital, into a dry-port with an internal container depot. A railway connection will feed into Dar es Salaam’s massive harbor, which is slowly, but surely, running out of space. It will, of course, also generate huge profits.
Since MeTL Group already contributes 3.5% of Tanzania’s GDP, according to Dewji, it is fast outgrowing national boundaries.
“If you compare, for example, Tata and the MeTL Group, we are like Mickey Mouse. But if you look at their contribution to India, vis-à-vis my contribution to Tanzania, mine is bigger. You end up competing with everybody in your own country, and I don’t think that’s healthy. It’s a risk area. It’s a good time for us to replicate what we are doing in Tanzania in other countries,” he says.
A workaholic at heart, Dewji rarely thinks small.
“Slowly, slowly, I am planning to take on the whole continent. I am very bullish,” he says.
His five-year plan is to turn MeTL Group into a $5 billion empire.
“We have to constantly revisit our visions, because we are outgrowing them so quickly. Who would have thought we could turn our business from $30 million to $1.1 billion in only 12 years? I believe that by 2018, we will be a $5 billion business. Easy. It’s a no-brainer. If you look at the business we are in and the growth potential that there is, it’s amazing. My philosophy as a businessman is not to be satisfied with what I have got, but to always work harder to achieve more,” he says.
The MeTL Group, with Dewji at the helm, has expanded so drastically that it has outgrown the coffers of Tanzania’s banks. Dewji has found a solution. He goes to one of the continent’s powerhouses, South Africa, to finance new ventures. Most recently, he secured a $100 million syndicated loan through a grouping of banks.
“If I think of a top African businessman, Mohammed comes to mind. He works very long hours, is always on the move, has an eye for opportunity and a very good business sense. He is levelheaded and pays extremely close attention to detail,” says Helmut Engelbrecht, head of investment banking in Africa at Standard Bank, one of the financial institutions working with the MeTL Group.
Every venture Dewji pursues, links closely into his country’s national policy. When Tanzania’s government launched a national strategy for economic growth and poverty reduction in 2005, that was geared toward entrepreneurship, Dewji saw opportunity.
“I bought a lot of sick industries, including soap production, grain milling, rice and sugar blending. I also went into the edible oil business and the textile industry,” he says.
He first expanded MeTL Group’s edible oil refining capacity from 60 to 600 tons. This year, Dewji almost quadrupled the business when he purchased an additional 1,650 ton refinery, increasing his output to 2,250 tons of edible oil. It comes as little surprise that he has caught the attention of some of Africa’s wealthiest investors.
“I am being approached by many big boys, by multi-national companies that want to partner with me or buy me out. But I am not ready to sell yet. I can see so much more opportunity for growth. I don’t want to be paid based on what I am earning today, because I can see the tremendous potential. I am always looking five to 10 years ahead,” he says.
Another ailing sector Dewji tried to resuscitate is Tanzania’s textile industry. Knowing that the east African nation is the continent’s third largest cotton producer, he decided to buy and refurbish four run-down mills: three in Tanzania and one in Mozambique. His next steps will be into Zambia and Malawi, he says, considering Ethiopia as a potential fifth standpoint.
“We were quite lucky. Tanzania’s previous, socialist government had invested hundreds of millions of dollars in infrastructure to build textile mills. But under socialism everything collapsed. So we were able to acquire these industries very cheaply. Obviously the machinery was all run-down, the technology obsolete. We had to rehabilitate the mills by investing in top European and American machinery,” says Dewji.
He has turned MeTL Group into sub-Sahara Africa’s largest textile player, integrating the entire value-addition chain from ginning to spinning, weaving, processing and printing.
“This year, we are going to produce more than a hundred million meters of cloth. That is more than 2,500 times the circumference of the earth,” says Dewji.
Due to his entrepreneurial vigor, Tanzania is able to compete with the world’s largest and cheapest textile producer, China—at least within its own borders where government policies, including import tariffs on textiles and a standard value added tax (VAT) of 18% help protect the industry.
“Today, overall textile production is cheaper in Tanzania than in China. Labor is competitive in terms of pricing. Tanzania’s big advantage is that we have cotton, while China has to import cotton. So they cannot compete with me in my market,” says Dewji.
His success speaks for itself. This year, he will earn at least $85 million after taxes, he says.
“People often ask me: ‘Who is smarter, you or your father?’ I ask them back: ‘Is the person who goes from zero to 10 smarter, or someone who goes from 10 to a thousand?’ Obviously, it’s much easier to go from 10 to a thousand than to start from zero. So I believe that my father is much smarter than me,” he says.
Nothing could be further from his mind than taking it easy.
“People in Tanzania look at my wealth and think I must be sunbathing and playing golf all day. But I work really hard. I put in a hundred hours a week. It’s a never stopping game. You can never say, ‘I’ve worked hard enough now’,” says Dewji, who has 60 divisional board meetings every month, or two per day.
Every morning, Dewji—who lives with his wife, daughter and two sons in one of Dar es Salaam’s exclusive neighborhoods—starts work at 6AM, spending the first hour responding to emails and reading commodity reports. He runs meetings until lunch, by which time he has already put in almost seven hours of work.
“When I feel my energy levels starting to drop, I drive to the gym near my house. Every day, I run three kilometers and lift weights. I like to keep fit,” says Dewji, who is slender and the proud owner of a six pack.
After gym, he goes home for lunch and to play with his three children, for 15 minutes before he returns to the office until late at night. The only day he takes off is Sunday, when he spends time with his family.
“Until about four years ago, I also used to work on Sundays, until my wife almost divorced me,” he jokes.
Dewji is not only growing his own empire. He is putting Tanzania on the map, making sure the east African nation—which boasts the continent’s third largest gold reserves, as well as recently discovered uranium and gas reserves—will become one of Sub-Saharan Africa’s big economic players, alongside South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana and Kenya.
Already, Dar es Salaam is the second fastest-growing African city after Lagos. Tanzania, which boasts an average of 7% national economic growth over the past decade, has become one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. According to the World Bank, Tanzania’s per capita GDP more than doubled from $730 in 2000 to $1,500 in 2012.
“There’s no doubt that the country’s purchasing power is increasing,” says Dewji, who believes the whole of Sub-Saharan Africa, which currently has an overall growth rate of 4.8%, could achieve double-digit growth figures, if countries are well-governed, politically stable and attract investment.
As if Dewji didn’t already have enough on his plate, he is also in politics. The decision was made when he visited Singida, where he grew up, after returning from the United States. As he walked the city’s streets, he encountered an old man who was scooping yellowish water out of a dirty puddle. It was drinking water for his family.
“A lot of people die from water-born diseases in rural Tanzania. But every life has the same value. So I decided to run in the next elections to change the dire situation these people live in. I was 24 years old. My parents thought I was crazy,” he says.
Whatever Dewji sets his mind to, he turns into a success. In 2005, he was elected as a member of Parliament in the National Assembly of Tanzania. Five years later, he was re-elected in a landslide victory with 80% of votes. Not being a fan of politicking, Dewji, who is fluent in English and Kiswahili, says he decided to put his own spin on the role of an MP.
“I don’t really have time for politics. I don’t go to Parliament, and I don’t get involved in national politics, because I don’t want it to conflict with my business interests. All I do is serve my constituency because I believe people see hope in me,” he says.
He puts his money where his mouth is. Every year, he donates $500,000 of his own money to help the people of Singida. In the years Dewji has been representing the central Tanzanian district, the number of people with clean water has increased from 23% to 75%, while the number of secondary schools from two to 18.
“I studied theology as a minor because I feel that religion is complementing me. It makes you strive to become a better person. I am very conscious of everything I do. If you get too engrossed in making money, you lose focus on life. Life is very short. I don’t want to die with all this money,” he says.
In the meantime, he is a man who can afford to look good.
“I have a huge wardrobe of suits and over 200 glasses. I like to match the frames with my glasses. I like to match the frames with my suits. At the moment I am not very happy with my brand, because they have stopped distributing color frames, which means I can only wear black suits. You have to live well, but you don’t have to live lavishly to the extreme. You need to be humble. I could buy a plane, a Rolls-Royce or a Bentley. But I don’t. If drilling a borehole costs $20,000, you tell me to buy a watch for $20,000? To make a decision that has an impact on people’s lives is a one-second decision for me. If you get too egocentric, you lose your vision. It deceives you.”
So speaks the Tsar of Dar.
Forbes Africa | 8 Years And Growing
As FORBES AFRICA celebrates eight years of showcasing African entrepreneurship, we look back on our stellar collection of cover stars, ranging from billionaires to space explorers to industrialists, self-made multi-millionaire businessmen and social entrepreneurs working for Africa. They tell us what they are doing now, how their businesses have grown, and where the continent is headed.
Since its inception in 2011, and despite the changing trends in the publishing industry, FORBES AFRICA has managed to stay relevant, insightful and sought-after, unpacking compelling stories of innovation and entrepreneurship on the youngest continent, in which 60% of the population is aged under 25 years.
Many of those innovations have been solutions-driven as young entrepreneurs across the continent seek to answer questions that have burdened their communities.
Always on the pulse, FORBES AFRICA has chronicled and celebrated those innovations – prompting the rest of the globe to pay attention and be fully engaged.
A prime example of this is the annual 30 Under 30 list, which showcases entrepreneurs and trailblazers under the age of 30 from business, technology, creatives and sports. In 2019, we had 120 entrepreneurs on the list, finalized after a rigorous vetting and due diligence process to well laid down criteria.
We have always maintained the highest standards of integrity in all our reporting.
As we transition into the next milestone, FORBES AFRICA reflects on the words of civil rights activist Benjamin Elijah Mays, who once said: “The tragedy of life is not found in failure but complacency. Not in you doing too much, but doing too little. Not in you living above your means, but below your capacity. It’s not failure but aiming too low, that is life’s greatest tragedy.”
With the transformation in the media landscape, the recent awards given to the magazine for the work done by a hard-working, determined and youthful team, serve as a reminder that we are doing something right.
Early this year, FORBES AFRICA journalist Karen Mwendera received a Sanlam award for financial journalism as the first runner-up in the ‘African Growth Story’ category. In January, FORBES AFRICA’s Managing Editor, Renuka Methil, received the ‘World Woman Super Achiever Award’ from the Global HRD Congress.
In reflecting on the last eight years, this edition revisits a few of the strong, resilient men and women who have graced our covers.
For some, fortunes have literally changed, as witnessed in the fall of gargantuan African empires such as Steinhoff. Of course, there have been massive moments of triumph too, which have seen some new names feature on the annual African Billionaires List. There have also been moments of tragedy with former cover stars passing away.
Africa is ripe for the taking and is seen as the next economic frontier. The unique position the continent finds itself in will no doubt give FORBES AFRICA plenty to report on. Here’s to more deadlines and debates for the next eight years.
– Unathi Shologu
Having A Ball With Data
Stephan Eyeson started a basketball business at the age of 19. That venture failed, so he tried the data business instead. He is working and playing hard.
First, the facts.
Africa has a data problem. For all the talk about data being the new oil, the continent comprises about 12.5% of the world’s population but only accounts for less than 1% of research output, according to global information and analytics firm, Elsevier.
And Survey 54, an AI mobile survey platform solving the problem of data collection on the continent, wants to offer a solution. Founded by Stephan Eyeson, Survey 54 focuses on providing good quality data essential for governments and private businesses to accurately plan, fund and evaluate their activities.
READ MORE | Owning The African Narrative
“Data in Africa is such a prevalent problem, in a sense of when you are going to start up a business, it is hard for you to get consumer data on say ‘how many people eat out in Lagos every day? what is the transactional value? what are the types of things that people eat? what do they want to eat etc?’ All these things are available in the West but for people who want to move into Africa for business, how do they get their data to make their decisions and how do we make it really easy for them and not just for a startup but for even governments and larger businesses,” says Eyeson.
Fresh out of a master’s program in innovation and management from Loughborough University in the United Kingdom (UK), Eyeson joined Survey Monkey, an online survey development cloud-based software as a service company, as part of the team responsible for building their enterprise function in London as well as looking after customers in the EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa). After learning the ropes, he decided to branch out to start his own company to offer a more robust and tailored solution for the African market.
“For people who want to move into Africa for business, how do they get their data to make their decisions and how do we make it really easy for them?”
“The problem around data in Africa and emerging markets is a massive one. So, for us, it’s about how do we become a data platform not just for a company but for governments to help them understand their people easier.”
Data is the first step. Then you need intelligence around that data to enable you to make objective analysis that will shape your decision-making process, as well as provide the foundation for policy-making and budgeting.
“Instead of hiring an agency to go to Ghana and do a face-to-face interview, for example, we look at how governments can get mobile data faster and then how they are able to manipulate that data to get the results they need,” says Eyeson.
Due to the dearth of knowledge, Eyeson’s unique understanding for the data space is relied on by many startups and larger businesses who depend on his expertise to drive results in Africa.
“Stephan has great expertise in strategy and high-level corporate business development. Survey 54 has and will be instrumental for companies to make decisions within Africa and emerging markets, making it easier to use and understand consumer data. A platform like Survey 54 is essential for companies operating on the continent,” says Nana Adomako, head of UK & Ghana growth at Taptap Send.
Born to Ghanaian parents in London, Eyeson’s first stint at entrepreneurship began in his early years at university, when his dream to become a professional basketball player was shattered.
“I had a scholarship into America for basketball and that scholarship was taken away due to some technicality with my results so I couldn’t go and so I started a basketball business instead when I was 19. It helped Americans play in Europe and Europeans play in America. I made the system easier. So, players paid a monthly fee to get seen and coaches paid to get access to talent.”
But unfortunately, the business failed to take off because the market was not big enough for Eyeson to remain profitable.
The data business, on the other hand, is huge: worldwide revenues for data and business analytics are forecast to reach $189 billion this year and $274.3 billion by 2022, according to technology market research firm IDC. Even though Survey 54 is in its first full year of business, the company has already secured contracts with multinationals like Colgate, amongst many others.
READ MORE | A Germ Of An Idea
“I was one of Survey 54’s first clients and it has been a pleasure watching Stephan grow the company into what it is today, working with some of the world’s largest brands.
“There is a significant lack of data in the region so the need for a sophisticated data insight product is essential and I believe Stephan’s mission-driven leadership style will enable the company to become one of the largest software businesses driving investments to the content,” says Yvonne Bajela, Principal and Founding Member at Impact X Capital.
The company has recently secured a spot on the coveted Startupbootcamp platform in Cape Town. While Survey 54 is trying to secure a first-mover lead in data on the continent, challenges remain. As the company scales, they will need to overcome the language barrier across the African continent and learn to interpret data by bringing the cultural context into the surveys organizations are seeking.
Eyeson has his eyes set on moving into the US markets as a long-term plan, but for now, the goal is transferring the abundant and ubiquitous asset of data in Africa into millions for his startup.
The $100 Trillion Opportunity: The Race To Provide Banking To The World’s Poor
Companies like Tala are at the forefront of the race to deliver rudimentary financial services to the 1.7 billion people on the planet who lack even a bank account.
Two years ago, Amylene Dingle lived with her husband and 7-year-old daughter in Payatas, an impoverished Manila neighborhood with the largest open dump site in the Philippines. Her husband worked on the security staff in a government building, earning 4,000 pesos a week, the equivalent of $80. She had always wanted to start a business, but she was unemployed, had no money saved, no credit history and couldn’t get a credit card or a bank loan.
Dingle’s fortunes took a dramatic turn after she responded to a Facebook ad for Tala, a Santa Monica-based startup that makes small loans through a smartphone app. After granting Tala access to her phone, through which the app cleverly parses mobile data to assess a borrower’s risk, she got a 30-day, $20 loan. She paid 15% interest and used the money to buy cold cuts, hamburgers and hot dogs. She marked them up 40% and sold them door-to-door, earning $4 in profit after paying back the interest and a small processing fee.
Today Tala lends Dingle, 42, $250 a month for her now thriving food business. Her $70 in weekly profits have nearly doubled her family’s income and funded their move to a two-bedroom home in the quiet, clean Batasan Hills district. Tala is thriving, too. Founded in 2011 by Shivani Siroya, a 37-year-old former Wall Street analyst who had worked at the United Nations, it has raised more than $200 million from top U.S. investors, including billionaire Steve Case’s Revolution Growth fund. With estimated 2019 revenue of more than $100 million, Tala is valued at close to $800 million.
Companies like Tala are at the forefront of the race to deliver rudimentary financial services to the 1.7 billion people on the planet who lack even a bank account. Providing them with the basics of credit, savings and insurance is one of the great challenges and opportunities of the century. With access to the financial system, people can buy a car or a home. They don’t have to resort to loan sharks if they face a medical emergency. They are happier. They live longer. They are more productive, and their increased productivity will help lift their nations out of poverty. Serving the unbanked will generate some of tomorrow’s largest fortunes. It is both capitalism’s moral imperative and the route to one of the most significant untapped markets.
While the unbanked pay for everything in cash, an even larger swath of people, the more than 4 billion “underbanked,” may have accounts but struggle to make ends meet, racking up steep fees when checks bounce and resorting to high-interest alternatives like payday loans. Traditional banks alone could boost annual revenue by at least $380 billion if they turned all the unbanked into customers, according to a 2015 Accenture report.
The multiplier effects are staggering. The GDP of emerging-market countries would surge $3.7 trillion by 2025, or 6%, if they adopted a single innovation—switching from cash to digital money stored on cellphones, McKinsey estimated in 2016. Diego Zuluaga, an analyst at the Cato Institute’s Center for Monetary & Financial Alternatives, has studied the likely effects of full financial inclusion: “If we were to give the unbanked and underbanked in the developing world the same kind of access to credit and investments that we have in rich countries, you could easily create an additional $100 trillion in financial assets over the next 50 years.”
Tala founder Siroya was raised by her Indian immigrant parents, both professionals, in Brooklyn’s gentrified Park Slope neighborhood and attended the United Nations International School in Manhattan. She earned degrees from Wesleyan and Columbia and worked as an investment banking analyst at Credit Suisse and UBS. Starting in 2006, her job was to assess the impact of microcredit in sub-Saharan and West Africa for the UN. She trailed women as they applied for bank loans of a few hundred dollars and was struck by how many were rejected. “The bankers would actually tell me things like, ‘We’ll never serve this segment,’ ” she says.
Where banks saw risk, she saw opportunity. For the UN, she interviewed 3,500 people about how they earned, spent, borrowed and saved. Those insights led her to launch Tala: A loan applicant can prove her creditworthiness through the daily and weekly routines logged on her phone. An applicant is deemed more reliable if she does things like regularly phone her mother and pay her utility bills on time. “We use her digital trail,” says Siroya.
Tala is scaling up quickly. It already has 4 million customers in five countries who have borrowed more than $1 billion. The company is profitable in Kenya and the Philippines and growing fast in Tanzania, Mexico and India.
Rafael Villalobos Jr.’s parents live in a simple home with a metal roof in the city of Tepalcatepec in southwestern Mexico, where half the population subsists below the poverty line. His father, 71, works as a farm laborer, and his mother is retired. They have no credit or insurance. The $500 their son sends them each month, saved from his salary as a community-college administrator in Moses Lake, Washington, “literally puts food in their mouths,” he says.
To transfer money to Mexico, he used to wait in line at a MoneyGram kiosk inside a convenience store and pay a $10 fee plus an exchange-rate markup. In 2015, he discovered Remitly, a Seattle startup that allows him to make low-cost transfers on his phone in -seconds.
Immigrants from the developing world send a total of $530 billion in remittances back home each year. Those funds make up a significant share of the economy in places like Haiti, where remittances account for more than a quarter of the GDP. If all the people who send remittances through traditional carriers, which charge an average 7% per transaction, were to switch to Remitly with its average charge of 1.3%, they would collectively save $30 billion a year. And that doesn’t account for the driving and waiting time saved.
Remitly cofounder and CEO Matt Oppenheimer, 37, was inspired to start his remittance service while working for Barclays Bank of Kenya, where he ran mobile and internet banking for a year starting in 2010. Originally from Boise, Idaho, he earned a psychology degree from Dartmouth and a Harvard M.B.A. before joining Barclays in London. When he was transferred to Kenya, he observed firsthand how remittances could make the difference between a home with indoor plumbing and one without. “I saw that $200, $250, $300 in Kenya goes a really, really long way,” he says.
Oppenheimer quit Barclays in 2011 and together with cofounder Shivaas Gulati, 31, an Indian immigrant with a master’s in IT from Carnegie Mellon, pitched his idea to the Techstars incubator program in Seattle, where they met Josh Hug, 41, their third cofounder. Hug had sold his first startup to Amazon, and his connections led them to Bezos Expeditions, which manages Jeff Bezos’ personal assets. The fund became one of Remitly’s earliest backers. To date, Remitly has raised $312 million and is valued at close to $1 billion.
Oppenheimer and his team can keep fees low in part because they use machine learning and other technology to bar terrorists, fraudsters and money launderers from transferring funds. The algorithms pose fewer questions to customers who send small sums than they do to those who send large amounts.
Remitly transfers $6 billion a year, serving senders in 16 countries, including the U.S., Australia and the U.K., and recipients in 45 nations. In the first half of 2019 it added 15 receiving countries, including Rwanda and Indonesia. The company is not yet profitable, but last year estimated revenue came to $80 million. Oppenheimer sees a huge growth opportunity. Fewer than 1% of the world’s 250 million immigrants are Remitly customers.
In 2012, Dorcas Murunga lived in Gachie, a crime-ridden neighborhood on the outskirts of Nairobi. She earned $80 a month babysitting and cleaning houses, and her husband made $120 installing elevators. He covered most of their expenses while she struggled to save money. Whenever she had cash, she says, she spent impulsively on clothes, junk food and alcohol. She managed to put aside the $5 minimum balance required to open a savings account at Equity Bank of Kenya, but she had a hard time coming up with the $3 monthly fee. To make a deposit, she took a bus an hour each way and waited in line for an hour at the bank. She closed the account after just one year.
Like most Kenyans, Murunga was already using M-Pesa, a service created by Safaricom to send money via text message. In 2012, Safaricom, a subsidiary of British telecom giant Vodafone, introduced M-Shwari, a savings account and loan service it integrated into M-Pesa. Two years later, it started offering an account that locked up a customer’s funds for a fixed period at a fixed interest rate.
Determined to improve her finances, Murunga committed to saving $1 a day through her locked account. When she got the urge to buy vodka or a pair of shoes, she says, she’d make deposits through her phone instead. She cut her spending by two thirds, to $10 a week. By 2016, she was saving $300 a year. She had started a business making handbags, and the savings helped pay for design courses. She has invested in real estate with her husband and says she spends more than $200 a year helping friends and family.
The spark for M-Pesa (pesa means money in Swahili), the first mobile money provider in Africa, came in 2003 from Nick Hughes, a Vodafone executive who managed a five-person team tasked with creating wireless products with a social impact. Hughes’ idea: set up a digital money-transfer system that would operate through personal cellphones.
Since M-Pesa launched in 2007, it has exploded in size and popularity. Kenyan taxi drivers complain when riders try to pay in cash. Ninety-six percent of Kenyan households now transact through M-Pesa. Before M-Pesa, only 27% of Kenya’s then 38 million people had bank accounts. Kenya’s population has since risen to 51 million, and 83% have checking or savings accounts. The service has spread to eight countries, including Egypt and India. Sending less than 50 cents is free. M-Pesa charges 1% to 2% for larger amounts. Through its various subsidiaries, M-Pesa generates some $840 million in annual fees for Vodafone.
The adoption of M-Pesa has had a tremendous impact on Nairobi’s startup scene. Durable-goods providers have introduced pay-as-you-go plans that bring in millions of new customers. For example, three-year-old Deevabits, based in Nairobi, sells $80 home solar systems in remote villages with no access to electricity. All its customers use M-Pesa to make an initial deposit. They pay the remainder through M-Pesa in 50-cent daily increments over eight months. “The presence of M-Pesa has transformed how business is done in Kenya,” says Deevabits founder and CEO David Wanjau, 32. “We couldn’t operate without M-Pesa.”
Dixie Moore used to strain to make paychecks last to the end of the month. A 25-year-old single mother with two small children, she earns $12.25 an hour as an assistant manager at a Bojangles’ fast-food restaurant in Canton, Georgia. In 2011, she was paying $30 a month for a Wells Fargo checking account, but when a bounced check and multiple overdraft fees left her with a $1,200 negative balance, she lost the account. She regularly paid up to $6 to get her paychecks cashed. “I was stuck between a rock and a hard place,” she says. Then a friend told her about MoneyCard, a Walmart-branded product offered by Pasadena, California–based Green Dot, the largest provider of prepaid debit cards in the U.S. Now her employer deposits her paychecks directly onto the card, and she uses it to pay for everything from groceries to dentist appointments. “It has really been a blessing,” she says.
Green Dot offers a financial lifeline to people like Moore. Until she started using the card two years ago, hers was among the 7% of American households—representing some 14 million adults—that get by entirely on cash. Founded in 1999 by a former DJ named Steve Streit, the company initially focused on teenagers who wanted to shop online. But seeing a larger opportunity, in 2001 Green Dot shifted its focus to adults who were using the card because they had bad credit or couldn’t afford commercial bank fees.
One advantage of cash cards: When users spend all the money on their card, it’s like running out of paper cash. They avoid overdraft fees that can run as high as $35 for a single infraction. The cards also make it possible for users to buy online.
Streit, 57, says that nearly 40% of Green Dot’s 5 million customers were previously unbanked.
In 2007, he struck a deal with Walmart that was a boon for the chain’s then 130 million customers: a cash card with a monthly fee of just $3 (today it’s $5). That’s down from the nearly $8 monthly fee paid by users who bought their cards at stores like CVS. The surge in Walmart card sales helped make up for the shortfall from the lower monthly charge.
In 2010, Streit took the company public. Though Green Dot generated revenue of $1 billion last year, its stock slid 40% this past August as it lowered its revenue expectations, citing the increase in well-funded competitors entering the market. But bad news for Green Dot is good news for America’s unbanked. Smartphone-based cash offerings from venture-backed startups like Chime, a six-year-old digital bank based in San Francisco, and digital-payment company Square’s Cash App are signing on millions of customers.
Harvard Business School professor Michael Chu, a former partner at KKR who cofounded Mexico City-based Compartamos, Latin America’s largest microfinance lender, says the opportunity to serve the underbanked in the U.S. is “huge.” But paradoxically, the richest nation on earth poses some of the greatest barriers to financial-inclusion innovators. A patchwork of state laws intended to protect borrowers from predatory lenders and federal laws that guard against money laundering requires startups to navigate through a maze of red tape.
Another problem: The technology that transfers funds between U.S. financial institutions is old, slow and expensive. While M-Pesa zips mobile money across Kenya in seconds at virtually no charge, an electronic fund transfer from Miami to New York can take two days and cost as much as $40.
But in the grand scheme these are minor obstacles. The Fed has promised to build a new and improved U.S. transfer system by 2024. Entrepreneurs will lobby—or innovate—their way around the bureaucratic barriers. After all, there are billions of dollars to be made—and countless lives to improve.
Additional reporting by Anna Corradi.
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