Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Learnings from the Girl Effect Accelerator

Mike sharing the Zoona story
Zoona was recently selected by the Unreasonable Group and Nike Foundation for the Girl Effect Accelerator because of the impact our business is having on girls and young women in Africa. Girls in Zambia and Malawi are able to get jobs as Zoona tellers, become business owners as Zoona Agents, and develop into entrepreneurs as Zoona Aggregators. These opportunities enable them to re-invest their income back into their children’s education (when they choose to have children), creating positive ripples across their communities.

This is the Girl Effect in action, and we believe that Zoona has the potential to multiply this many times over.

Last month, Lelemba Phiri and I had the privilege of attending this two week accelerator program at Campovida, two hours north of San Francisco.

If I could sum up our experience in one word, it would be: “accelerating”!

Despite the relaxed camping environment with shared tents and outdoor showers, the two weeks was packed full of mind altering conversations and business building activities. Check out this great video summarizing the experience.

The quality of the other entrepreneurs was phenomenal, and we felt humbled to be in their presence. The other participants are truly taking on the world’s toughest challenges – and succeeding. And all of them are real businesses that are growing incredibly quickly. The cohort had operations in 30+ countries and averaged $2.2 million in revenue last year. Each of these ventures deserves a mention and all the support we can give them!

Marketing guru Seth Godin teaches all
Bridge International Academies
Jayashree Enterprises
Green Light Planet
Off Grid Electric
Eco Fuel Africa

Despite our differing geographies and industries, I was astounded by how we were all facing similar business challenges. From raising capital to building a team to achieving focus to scaling into new markets, all start-ups have to overcome the same hurdles around the world. These challenges – and our perseverance to overcome them – are what connect entrepreneurs together. I learned so much from this group and am proud to call them all friends.

We were also humbled to receive so much advice and coaching from an astonishing set of mentors that came to stay with us during the program and help us work on our businesses. Some of the key highlights include:

Entertained by Michael Fitzpatrick
Tom Chi, a co-founder of Google X that designed Google Glasses and driverless cars, shared a rapid prototyping framework designed to help our business learn 10X faster.

Jeff Hoffman, founder of, helped us craft a brand message to lead our growth as we scale into new markets.

Seth Godin, taught us the secret of marketing by distilling it down to its most simple form: “people like us do things like this”.

Michael Fitzpatrick, one of the world’s top cellists, mesmerizing us with sounds in a private concert.
Great support from Google's Patrick Pichette

Patrick Pichette, the CFO of Google and a huge Zoona supporter, drove 3.5 hours (each way!) to visit for an afternoon and shared insights into how to build a culture of A-players.

The program culminated with each company presenting to an audience of 600 people at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco. This was a fabulous experience and one that helped spread the message that entrepreneurship can be a tremendous force for good in the world.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Trying to Scale Excellence in Africa

My big mouth and me. I do one blog about the importance of scaling excellence and then a mate of mine and entrepreneur I admire asks me for some insights on how best to do it. Serves me right but in the interests of sharing and starting a good conversation.

So let me be upfront. I largely have absolutely no idea but this is what we are trying.

  • ·      Accept upfront that great ideas are by and large worthless. The value in Africa is the team and the ability of that team to execute. Capital in Africa follows traction not concept
  • ·      We as Africans need to stop assimilating risk – we need to celebrate not cut the tall poppies. Rather then seeing someone stumble go “see I told you they were running to fast” rather go and pick them up and say “that was brave now just go and try again with what you have learnt”
  • ·      Keep an open mind. Often we are so busy in the doing – we miss the wood from the trees. We need to re-structure our work calendars from 100% the chaos of today, to 30% today and 70% the future – you can not create the business of tomorrow or you are being obliterated by the business of today
  • ·      Be disruptive. Just because it is, does not mean it should be
  • ·      Be brave – sometime you just have to trust your gut as there are not enough data or reference points to be sure you are right
  • ·      Appreciate it is a global village – if you are standing still you are going backwards at a rate of knots
  • ·      Hard work, hard work, hard work – I like to watch the Yoda clip from Star Wars: Do or do not, there is no try
  • ·      Dream big, surround yourself with good people, have fun and get just get stuff done
  • ·      Always ask and challenge your model – are we delivering value that someone is willing to pay for
  • ·      If you cannot explain what you do in a simply way, you do not know what you are trying to do well enough. Forget the elevator pitch – find a kid and tell them what you do – if it is simple and they understand you are golden
  • ·      The customer is everything – repeat it until you can no longer see anything else in your vision. Plot every engagement you have with them and then establish what are the two or three things that are most important to them – not to you, but to them and then just focus your best efforts and people and those few things until on what matters to them you are exceptional at
  • ·      Start from the bottom and the beginning but at every step of the way meets the customer expectations. So maybe you want to create a car – rather start with a skateboard and re-iterate and improve the model till it grows up to be a car but make sure it was an awesome skateboard that improved. Do not dream of building a great car but give the customer a useless car as version one
  • ·      Slow down to speed up, start with your actual existing processes, get visibility, make incremental improvement – and then get ahead of the curve
  • ·      Surround yourself with A Players and invest in their growth and development but also set expectations and make sure they have absolute clarity on what is expected of them and the need for them to set up and be accountable and take ownership. If they are the right people you need to then get out of their way and let them be awesome. If they are not the right people then you are in big trouble. Whatever time you personally are spending on recruiting talent – increase it by 400%. Getting the right people into the company is critical. Donald Trump might be able to go “ you are fired” – we do not have that – so just understand the absolute technical debt of poor performers in your company and just absolute get the talent pool into your business as a hallmark of excellence. When someone starts at your company you need to know they will be an A Player in the environment and culture of your business. Remember an A Player in one company might not equal and A player in yours – hire for culture and fit – and focus on future potential in your company and not past performance in another
  • ·      You must create, live and breathe your company values and beliefs. These are not just for the wall and dusty storerooms, but need to be yours and the business compass and guide in every big decision you make or the company your make. Your staff and customers need to know these and see by your actions that you are accountable to them. As you scale and pressure mounts these need to be your cornerstone to keeping you grounded – and as your time gets further away from the coalface what the business stands for is felt
  • ·      Foster communication channels for good stuff to happen. It is not about everyone agreeing but having a voice. Seek out the quietest voice in the room. But once everyone has spoken decisions then needed to made and supported and driven – regardless of whether people agreed, if they have ben heard they must then jump onboard
  • ·      Focus on two or three big things. You cannot be great at everything. Chose two and three and then strive for excellence at those and only those. Find the “choke point” for your customer – the thing they value most and then make that your center of excellence
  • ·      Learn the power of the word no and create a system that makes is easy for you to go: that is not my core, that is not what will make us excellent – and because if I do it – it will slow down my journey to excellence – so no I cannot take that project
  • ·      Generate cash. Given the cost and scarcity of good growth capital, grasp that turnover is vanity, profit sanity and cash reality. Get enough cash and runway for your business – and making smarter decisions gets easier
  • ·      Be resilient as the continent we call home – if this was easy everyone could do it
  • ·      Share – this is something that is new to us – lets create a growing entrepreneurial community rather than isolated secrets of success
  • ·      Truly embrace – the one-day chicken, next day feathers. There is no way you have ever made it – the moment you stop focusing and improving or thinking you are a bwana you are dusted
  • ·      Even if you are a goldfish in a shark tank – just decide to be the shark. Someone is going to win why not us
  • ·      Get consistent in delivery – excellence is not a one off – it is being able to do something on repeat over and over again well
  • ·      Invest in yourself. If Usain Bolt and the best sports teams in the world have coaches – then surely so should you and your teams. Statistically the best investment you can make is education – so invest in educating and growing you and your team
  • ·      Grasp that to scale excellence we as the founders and leaders are often the bottleneck. We need to move from being doers to enablers. Be prepared to unlearn your own skills and re-learn the skills that a growing business needs
  • ·      Spend your time on the most important things as our time is the most important resource we have
hHope there might be some value in the read - Sahle kahle Brad

Monday, November 10, 2014

Zoona Joins the B Corp Movement!

Zoona is thrilled to announce that we are now officially a Certified Benefit Corporation – the first company in southern Africa to receive such recognition. There are over 1,000 Certified B Corps in 34 countries from over 60 industries. Zoona is proud to now add Zambia, Malawi, and South Africa to that list for the first time, and to join a community of companies who have committed to be both the best in the world and the best for the world.

What does it mean to be a Certified B Corp?  For Zoona, it means that we are able to prove to the world that Zoona is an awesome company that’s delivering great value to our employees and our agent network, and as a result to the communities they serve. As our CEO Mike Quinn said, “Joining B Corp is a great way to show our commitment to use business to help emerging entrepreneurs grow.  It's also a critical step towards our goal of becoming the most trusted money transfer service in our operating markets.”

We are proud to be part of the movement to bring high standards of accountability to companies in Africa and worldwide, and are confident that this accountability will help to ensure that we are able to empower emerging entrepreneurs and to continue to improve as we expand to new markets.

The B Corp assessment process evaluated Zoona on our commitment to our employees, customers, ethical standards, and to environmental protection.  Now that we’ve completed the assessment (with a rockstar above-average score, we might add!) we have a framework to measure our success against rigorous values and responsible practices as we scale as a company.  The framework ensures that we are delivering value to all of our stakeholders: our investors, agents, individual customers, employees, and to the broader community.

We shall strive to grow as a business with our values at the forefront: Integrity, Fun, Entrepreneurship, Commitment, and Togetherness and Being Real so that we can help communities thrive!

In other words, Zoona is awesome!

Rwanda Reflections

I have just spent a pretty special week in Rwanda and thought I would share some insights.

First Impressions of Rwanda

So my brother and co-founder of Zoona and I ended up going to Boarding School from 7 years old in SA and ended up swapping parents and holidays in Singapore and Zambia for our childhood. Having spent time in Singapore as a kid, Kigali bought back a lot of the same memories. On the surface very clean, efficient, and gearing for growth with a big sense of community and purpose – in fact both cities are the only ones I have been in that I have not seen a single piece of litter, anywhere. Below the surface though, you sense an underlying current that the option of towing the line is not really up for debate.
This time last year I was in Mauritius and the Minister of Commerce publically stated his government had Rwanda on their radar as one of the countries that could compete on their national strategies, and having been there I could see why. There is a real commitment and positivity towards investment and growth.

Sharing is Caring

I had a really good conference with Omidyar team and investees. The key difference was that it was driven and focused on sharing and solving problems. Often these events focus on a few smart people talking down to you – which can be pretty draining. This event just put issues on the table and open and transparent conversations followed.
My key takeaways were: be excellent at your core, scale excellence, get focused, attract and maximize talents of A players, and, get serious about your personal and business flow and development as an entrepreneur. These are all key challenges and opportunities faced by so many businesses.

Playing it forward

I was invited to the IT tech hub and got to present to some up and coming tech entrepreneurs from Rwanda, Egypt and Nigeria. Really enjoyed the event and it was awesome to share the Zoona stories and all our ups and downs and to really sense the positive impact on some young talent. Mentorship and sharing small success stories like ours can help create more and more people who are committed to change in Africa.

Hitting a brick wall

While we were in Kigali we spent an afternoon at the Genocide Memorial. Like many of us I have been fortunate and blessed to have a pretty normal and even privileged life.
The visit to the memorial was something that had a profound impact on me. In brief, 700,000 men, woman and children were systematically and brutally murdered, mutilated and raped in a blink. The memorial was set up to remember, respect and reconcile. When I walked out at the end, going through the child chamber, the only words that I can use to describe me was...I was an empty shell and really felt my soul was crushed.
For the rest of the day and night I felt really lost. The next morning I started to feel my batteries recharging. Sitting in a room with all the other Omidyar investees it was just so clear that good people trying to do good things is all that really matters. I know we rightfully talk about bottom line and revenue growth...These are all so key and critical but so too is the impact a business can have.

I really am humbled and celebrate the impact we, as a team, have in Africa. The more we grow and scale, the greater that impact will be. So as much as we are motivated and driven by our business success we should also know that the positive impact Zoona has on individuals, communities and countries, and maybe one day a continent, is certainly something to ponder on.

Friday, October 24, 2014

GSMA Mobile for Development Impact publishes Zoona case study

GSMA Mobile for Development Impact supports the digital empowerment of people in emerging markets through its Mobile for Development resource. It is a central platform of data, analysis and insight used to inform investment and design decisions for mobile services. Check out what they have to say about Zoona by viewing the full case study here.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Extending reach: Mobile money in rural areas

This month, Zoona is mentioned in Jennifer Frydrych and Hege Aschim's report on the progression of Mobile Money in rural areas. Key findings show that Zoona's success is largely due to nurturing and growing relationships with local emerging entrepreneurs. Read the full article here

Monday, October 13, 2014

Zoona attends the Global Youth Economic Opportunities Summit

More than 74 million young people worldwide are unemployed.  This massive number presents both a challenge and an opportunity for the private companies, non-profits, governments, academics, and funders who are focused on creating opportunities for youth globally.  This week, Zoona joined 450+ of those most interested in creating sustainable change for youth at the Global Youth Economic Opportunities Summit in Washington, D.C.

The Summit was a great opportunity to learn how Zoona’s support for emerging entrepreneurs in Africa connects with the larger picture of support to youth entrepreneurs globally.   At Zoona, we have created at least 750 new jobs in Zambia through our agent network, and recently partnered with the National Youth Council of Malawi to recruit and train over 80 young people to manage Zoona agent locations in Malawi.

Our agents are empowered to manage their own business while receiving financing, marketing, and training support from Zoona.  Training is critical to their success; yet, it’s also a challenge, and to meet this challenge we are constantly learning, updating and modifying our training program.  Therefore, we were interested in much of the work presented at the conference on enterprise development, including the Enterprise Your Life approach to building life skills presented by IFAD, Making Cents, and Silatech.   This approach highlighted how important life skills are for youth in business.  For example, if a young person doesn’t think that she can say no to adults, she won’t say no when an adult asks her to buy something on credit, even if she would prefer not to take this risk with her business.   Considering these type of life skills, as well as considering how young women and men may respond differently to the demands of running a business, help us to build a comprehensive approach to our training program.

As Zoona rapidly expands, we will continue to integrate lessons from the wider industry as we create more and more opportunities for young people in terms of both employment and ownership.  We’re particularly excited to learn more at the Nike Foundation/Unreasonable Institute Girl Effect Accelerator next month.

For more on how Zoona is empowering youth through our agent network, I highly encourage you to listen to our agent tell you in their words by checking out these testimonials. 

Monday, October 6, 2014

Zoona has been invited to the world's first accelerator program dedicated to benefit millions of girls in poverty

Zoona has been selected to the Girl Effect Accelerator, the world’s first accelerator dedicated to benefiting girls in poverty. The program is being launched as a partnership between The Nike Foundation and Unreasonable Group. Beginning on October 31st, just outside of San Francisco, this exclusive 2-week program will bring together 10 companies that are positioned to impact the lives of millions of adolescent girls living in poverty with world-class mentors, strategic financing, and an access to a global network of support.

“Today, less than two cents of every international development dollar goes to girls – the very people who could do most to end poverty,” says Shaifali Puri, executive director of global innovation at the Nike Foundation. “As long as girls remain invisible, the world misses out on a tremendous opportunity for change.”

Zoona has been selected to participate because the Girl Effect Accelerator selection committee is convinced that Zoona represents one of the 10 most promising startups in the world positioned to empower and impact girls across emerging markets in Africa.

“We aren’t working with your typical Silicon Valley startup in this program,” says Daniel Epstein, who is directing the Girl Effect Accelerator and is the founder of the Unreasonable Institute and Unreasonable Group. “The 10 selected ventures currently operate in over 30 countries and averaged over $2 million in revenue last year off of customers living on less than $2 a day.” According to Epstein, “We are hedging our bets on true “black swans:” startups who have significant market traction, are working in the fastest emerging markets of our time, and are positioned to measurably benefit millions of girls in poverty. The team at Zoona is exactly the type of venture we are privileged to be working with.”

During the program, the entrepreneurs will be meeting with 20 renowned mentors including Jessica Jackley, co-founder of, George Kembel, founder of the Stanford, Seth Godin, serial entrepreneur and author, and Paul Polak who has uplifted over 20 million people from poverty. 

“We are launching the Girl Effect Accelerator as a real-world experiment to better understand the impact that entrepreneurs, investors, and business can bring to girls in poverty,” says Puri. “Today there are over 250 million girls living in poverty. Every year, more than $120Bn is spent in international development assistance, yet this system has yet to produce the game-changing results we all desire for girls and the world. This program is designed to bring new problem solvers to the table: entrepreneurs.”

According to Epstein, “The Girl Effect Accelerator aims to spark a conversation around how business investors, and entrepreneurs can put a positive dent on history. Zoona serves as a prime example of a venture that is solving problems we didn’t think were solvable, in markets most don’t yet consider to be markets, with technologies we didn’t know existed – profitably. Each of these selected companies shares a common eagerness to experiment in what it means to measurably benefit millions of girls in poverty.” 

The accelerator will conclude with a Culminating Event at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco on November 11th. And if you are an investor and you have questioned why entrepreneurs aren’t solving harder and more meaningful problems, you may be interested in attending the private investor gathering on November 12th.

For more information about The Girl Effect Accelerator, and to sign up for the culminating event on November 11th and the private investor gathering on November 12th please visit:

About the Girl Effect
The Girl Effect is a movement focused on the unique potential of adolescent girls to end poverty for themselves, their families, their communities, their countries and the world. Created by the Nike Foundation, in collaboration with the NoVo Foundation, United Nations Foundation and Coalition for Adolescent Girls, The Girl Effect is fuelled by hundreds of thousands of girl champions who recognize the untapped potential of adolescent girls living in poverty.

About Unreasonable Group
The vision behind Unreasonable Group found its roots at the Unreasonable Institute, an international accelerator for early stage entrepreneurs who leverage business to tackle major social and environmental challenges that Daniel Epstein founded in the summer of 2010. Epstein later founded The Unreasonable Group with the goal of launching a portfolio of companies that will together support the next generation of entrepreneurs aimed at leveraging profit to tackle seemingly intractable social and environmental problems.

About Nike Foundation
The Nike Foundation leverages the power of insights, innovation and inspiration to stop the cycle of intergenerational poverty. As a company, Nike believes in the power of human potential. At the Nike Foundation, we invest exclusively in what we see as the greatest source of untapped human potential in the world today: adolescent girls.

10 Selected Companies
  1. Bridge International Academies: The world’s largest and fastest growing chain of schools. Educating over 100,000 children for an average of $6 a month.
  2. Eco-Fuel Africa: Converting agricultural waster into clean, inexpensive, cooking fuel for Africans. Supporting over 500 women entrepreneurs and ensuring thousands of girls stay in school.
  3. Embrace: Empowering mothers who are not able to access traditional healthcare. First product is the world’s most affordable ‘infant warmer.’ More than 20,000 mothers in poverty have already benefited from this life-saving technology.
  4. Eneza: Fastest growing mobile education app in Africa.
  5. Greenlight Planet: Sold over 2 million solar home lights to off-grid families, and continuing to skyrocket distribution and reach.
  6. Jayashree Industries: Making radically affordable sanitary pads to prevent health complications and school dropout amongst girls. Over 1,500 women owned franchises.
  7. Paga: #1 mobile payments service in Nigeria. Over 1.8 million users.
  8. Off-Grid Electric: Using mobile phones for a pay-as-you-go service to electricity for families in extreme poverty. Electrifying over 1,000 homes with solar each month.
  9. Soko: Giving disadvantaged women and girl artisans in Africa the ability to sell directly to international customers through their mobile phones.
  10. Zoona:  Fastest growing and #1 mobile money operator in Zambia with a mission to help businesses grow.

Friday, June 27, 2014

The Zoona story: Empowering MSMES via Mobile Money Transfer in Zambia

In 2007, I experienced a turning point in my life. I was completing a theoretical master’s degree in Development Management from the London School of Economics following three years of volunteering in Ghana and Zambia with Engineers Without Borders Canada. I was hungry to get back to Africa as a social entrepreneur, but deep down I felt that I lacked the experience and expertise in business I would need to have the impact I craved. A friend referred me to the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship at Oxford’s Said Business School, and the moment I opened their webpage I knew I wanted to be there. I applied and was extremely fortunate to be selected as a Skoll Scholar.
The year at Oxford was game changing in so many ways. I shook hands with the visiting President of Ghana in my first month, became friends with some of the most accomplished and talented people I had ever met, built a business network to draw on in the future, and filled my brain with knowledge on topics such as venture capital, organizational design, and social enterprise business models. I also got engaged to my wonderful wife Isabelle, thanks to all of the Oxford fancy balls I took her to!
I also came up with an idea. I would start a business connecting real entrepreneurs in Africa with impact-focused venture capital funds in Europe and North America. I made a business card with the name “African Enterprise Partners” and the logo of a baobab tree and started handing it out at every opportunity. One of my professors of a social enterprise class, Kim Alter, helped me refine the idea into a pitch and introduced me to the Grassroots Business Fund (GBF). Shortly after finishing my MBA, I was back on a plane to Zambia on a GBF consulting contract in search of my first investment deal.
My very first day back in Zambia, I was introduced to two entrepreneurs who also happened to be brothers. Brett Magrath sat quietly while Brad sold me on their start-up mobile payments business that was about to launch called “Mobile Transactions”. They had had built a mobile payment platform from scratch and wanted to empower micro and small businesses in Zambia to process mobile money transfers for the 85% of Zambian consumers that don’t have bank accounts. They were motivated by making money, but the social mission was central to their vision.
I spent the next two months emphatically selling the investment opportunity to GBF, which closed when the Fund boldly invested $200,000 of convertible debt into a business with only three months of revenues. They asked me to source new deals for them but my mind was made up that I was going to work day and night with Brad and Brett to make our business successful. And we had BIG dreams right from the beginning. When I stood in front of both brothers at our first ever strategy meeting and asked them what our vision was, Brad immediately replied, "Breakfast with Bill Gates". We decided we should tone it down and be more realistic so we settled on a "Cashless Africa."
For the first three years we were constantly out of cash. I tapped into my Oxford network and recruited my MBA classmate Keith Davies to join the team and manage our finances while I went out to raise more investment. In early 2012, we closed what was the first ever international venture capital round in a Zambian start-up. The Omidyar NetworkAccion Frontier Investments Group, and Sarona Asset Management Fund put in nearly $4 million of equity, the proceeds of which have helped to put the company on steroids. 
We rebranded to "Zoona", which means, "It’s Real" in a local Zambian language and is one of our core values. We have built a customer base of 500 agent outlets that service 500,000 unique consumers and process $25 million per month in transaction value. And we are growing rapidly: our headcount has increased from 44 people to 75 in the first half of 2014 alone as we gear up for expansion into new markets.The early days were exciting and we always thought we were on the verge of taking off. I remember how exhilarating it was handing out fliers in front of the government-owned post office in downtown Lusaka, which had a monopoly on the money transfer industry in Zambia, when Brad was placed under “citizen’s arrest” by the manager for attempting to steal their customers. So we set up one of our first agents 20 meters away. Five years on, that outlet now processes over $400,000 per month in transactions and is owned by a 24 year old woman named Misozi who operates an additional eight outlets, employs 14 people and earns over $9,000 per month in commissions. The social mission has become reality.
Our biggest challenge now is to prove we can do this at scale. Our vision is to build a billion dollar pan- African business that proves entrepreneurship can have social roots that make a big difference to people’s lives, while also making money. Zoona’s core purpose is to help small businesses grow. We want to become the best in the world at providing business solutions to micro, small, and medium enterprises in Africa that unlock their latent potential. Our mobile payments platform has evolved from money transfers to other transaction types, including payments from retailers to suppliers. We also provide affordable working capital finance and business management tools to our agents so that they can grow their businesses sustainably. Many of our agents are people under 30 years old who are first time entrepreneurs themselves and are creating jobs, servicing their communities, and helping their economy grow.
As Steve Jobs once famously said, "We’re here to put a dent in the universe. Otherwise, why else even be here?" My job at Zoona is to make sure we do just that.
Mike Quinn
Group CEO, Zoona
Follow me on twitter @ZoonaMike