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 Network, Accion 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.
Group CEO, Zoona
Follow me on twitter @ZoonaMike