Building A Billion Dollar African Company
Ken Njoroge and Bolaji Akinboro’s quest to reshape Africa’s Fintech industry
Cofounders Ken Njoroge and Bolaji Akinboro are on quest to build a billion dollar African company built by Africans, in 2018 the company reached a major milestone when they landed $47.5 million in funding- a land mark transaction on the African fintech space. The milestone is a culmination of the company’s aggressive fund raising efforts which have seen the company make over 400 pitches for funds to scale its business. This milestone was an affirmation of the success of the company which has grown to become a leading pan African player in the payments processing space. The company whose idea was birthed in 2002 first launched a ringtone service in 2004. From that time the company has grown to become a leading African digital payments company which works with more than 90 banks in over 11 countries serving over 100 million. How did the founders of Cellulant build what has become a successful African company which is attracting global attention?
The company’s two cofounders, Kenya’s Ken Njoroge and Nigerian Bolaji Akinboro, met at a dinner and were both intrigued by the question of how to build a world class billion dollar business in Africa by Africans for Africans. They also addressed the question about whether one could be involved in the telecoms and payments sectors without a heavy investment. When they looked at the telecoms space, they saw companies which were world class and employed Africans but were not necessarily African companies. So using a serviette they mapped out their vision of what their company would look like, essentially scribbling the company’s mission and business model on a serviette. They wanted a business which was founded on values, innovation, and which would outlive them as the founders
In the first phase of developing their business they set up operations in Uganda and Ghana. They choose to locate the business in these two locations as this is where they had been stationed prior to coming up with the idea of setting up Cellulant. In 2003 they launched their first service selling ringtones. They would later find that music was not very profitable as most of the revenues accrued to the telecom providers. This led them to re-think their business model to see how they could work with the banks, a move that would lay the foundation for the company’s foray into payment’s processing. With their business beginning to gain some traction, they decided to strengthen the governance system of the company. In 2004 they started to get a board started and after they laid out the vision. To do this they tapped leading Kenyan business man, Dr Sam Kiruthi, to see how he could help them set up the governance system for the company. After listening to their vision, Dr Kiruthi requested to meet the company’s team members without the two cofounders
He found that the team was passionate and committed but that the company lacked the systems to run as an organised company. Dr Kiruthi decided to mentor the team and asked for their first board meeting at which he pointed outed the areas in which the company needed to strengthen its governance systems. Thus very early in the development of their company two co-founders ensured that they laid the foundations of a strong governance system that would provide the basis for the company’s growth The company then began to move towards moving into the payments space with a focus on mobile banking. They began to engage with the banks to move the mobile banking vision of the company. Coincidentally Kenya’s mobile banking platform, MPesa was also just taking off and gathering traction. The banks didn’t initially buy their vision of mobile banking and rejected their ideas. However, one executive at Standard Chartered Bank decided to take a chance on the duo and gave them a chance to send in a proposal for a $9,800 contract. This ended up with them building a mobile banking service for Standard Chartered. With the coming on board Standard Chartered Bank, other leading banks such as Kenya Commercial Bank, EcoBank, Ecobank, and Barclays Bank began to get on board and started to sign up for the company’s service.
Having developed a client base of banks which had operations in different African countries, the company then set in motion its pan African expansion drive. To execute this strategy the company took a simple but effective approach. It took product managers and sent them out in the countries where their clients had subsidiaries or operations. The product managers each had essentially a multinational client in each country and were tasked to look for other in-country clients locally. This strategy resulted into the company developing a footprint of 14 countries on the African continent making the company the largest payments processing company on the continent. The company is now currently taking a new look at its vision and its original intention of building a billion dollar business. Given what the company has accomplished so far, it is clear that the company’s prospects are bright. In testament to its success so far the company has garnered several recognitions which include being recognised as one of the continent’s three fintech companies on KPMG’s top 100 global fintech companies .
The company has now grown to become a leading home-grown African payments company. It is has also rolled out new product platforms which it hopes to scale via investment. These include Agrikore a mobile blockchain based platform which has served more than 7 million farmers across Africa by connecting them to the markets and helping them to sell their products to buyers more seamlessly. And in typical Cellulant fashion, the company has now set the audacious of connecting more than 100 million consumers with services that are relevant to their daily lives.