When I meet Julian Kyula in his office at the penthouse of the International Life House, smack in the middle of the bustling Nairobi central business district, I cannot make up my mind whether I should address him as pastor or by his surname because rarely do you meet a church minister who doubles up as a shrewd businessman.
Obviously exhausted after a long flight from New York, Kyula tells me he needs to beat the annoying Nairobi traffic jam to be home with his family in around an hour, so we get down to our interview.
In the world of mobile commerce Julian Kyula needs no introduction, he is the co-founder and CEO of MoDe, a company he describes as disruptive by nature. MoDe is a nano-finance company that lends credit, as low as 50 cents, profitably through mobile phones.
“When you are in need of cash at 3AM and you cannot access the ATM, or you run out of internet bundles somewhere in Africa, or want a bus coupon or need to buy a day’s worth of electricity in a prepaid facility, that is when MoDE steps in,” he says.
For a company in its third year of existence, having successfully completed its first financial transaction in September of 2010, MoDe has done admirably in the mobile money arena. By June this year, the company was handling 500 million transactions, each ranging from 50 cents to $10 and serving 105 million customers across the 17 African countries it operates in and recording over $750 million in sales revenue since its inception. MoDe is also making inroads in the Asian markets, making it among the top global FinTech companies.
“We have opened new offices in Delhi and Mumbai and we plan to go for the American market by opening offices in the United States in 2014,” says Kyula.
“We believe we are at the forefront of building one of the largest FinTech businesses globally and what is so exciting is that the next big thing is coming from Africa. This will boost our efforts as we seek to deepen partnerships with the United States and Europe as we chase for opportunities in that market,” he says, struggling to hide the smile on his face.
MoDe has partnered with the giant mobile telephony service provider Airtel group, and MTN in the African market, with intentions to hit 13 more markets before the end of the year.
Whenever conversations about the African telecoms sector are held, Kenya always features largely due to the success of M-Pesa, the mobile money transfer system. However, the Kenyan telecoms sector is one that has evolved faster than the legislation designed to regulate it and Kyula knows this too well, observing that when he started there were all kinds of licenses required by the government, most of which were unnecessary.
“Legislation should enable business, it shouldn’t be an impediment,” he says.
Getting over the challenge of cumbersome regulations was the first hurdle in Kyula’s quest at providing nano-finance. Next was to convince a mobile service provider with a significant subscriber base to take a chance on a little-known outfit.
Airtel was an obvious choice for Kyula despite it being the second largest service provider in Kenya after the dominant Vodafone powered Safaricom. Airtel has an impressive subscriber base in West and Central Africa and it has a footprint in India and other emerging markets, exactly what Kyula was looking for.
“If you want to build something that is global you must work with a partner who can take you outside the continent and Airtel was willing to do that for us,” he says.
Looking at the dynamic nature of mobile money innovations in the recent past, one would wonder just how relevant a company like MoDe will be in the next five to ten years.
“We do understand that problems surrounding the access of credit in Kenya, Singapore, Vietnam or America are similar and we are preparing ourselves by spreading our geographical risk by being in as many markets as possible.’’
Kyula’s strategy seems to be working for the company.
“Look, when you stop innovating you begin to die,” he says as he moves towards a trophy the company won at the IBM global entrepreneurs award.
In 2012, Kyula was IBM’s Africa Entrepreneur of The Year, the IBM Latin America Entrepreneur of the Year as well as the recipient of the African Leadership Network Of Top 12 Companies.
Kyula’s share in MoDe stands at around $85 million, however, his total investment portfolio and companies in agriculture, equity investment, and real estate seated on his firm Kyula Holdings, give him a total net worth of $115 million.
So when Kyula, or Coach as he is fondly referred to by his employees, is not jumping into planes to close deals halfway across the world he is busy preaching at his local church called The Purpose Centre. One would wonder how he is able to balance both worlds.
As opposed to a businessman who moonlights as a pastor, Kyula claims to be a pastor who moonlights as a businessman. He insists that church and business are two worlds that can complement each other if the right balance is achieved.
“My best decision and my worst mistake is failure. I was naïve when I was much younger to think that when you are upset with someone you go ahead and compete with him,” explains Kyula.
“There is no better school than failure, you just have to pick up the pieces, take time to recover, reassess, reconfigure, rest and revive. These are my five ‘R’s of life.’’
For an entrepreneur who has experienced significant success and wealth, you may wonder what is left on Kyula’s bucket list.
“The one thing that I want to be able to achieve is to shift the dimension of how we look at those at the bottom of the pyramid. I would like to innovate something that shakes the way businesses look at people that are underprivileged. I want to be able, in my lifetime, to have a million children in Africa going to school because I lived,” he declares.
To this I say amen.