Ismail Ahmed, the founder of one of the world’s leading online money transfer services, speaks to Euronews at Web Summit in Lisbon about growth, entrepreneurship, and the pleasure of sending cash back to the family.
Scrolling through his phone after our interview, Ismail Ahmed – originally from the self-declared Republic of Somaliland – proudly shows the latest transaction through his app, sending 300 dollars to his nephew earlier in the day. “I’m probably one of WorldRemit’s biggest users,” he grins.
Ahmed’s app has grown rapidly since he founded the firm in 2009, swelling to over 3.5 million users today and aiming for 10 million users by 2020. The concept is simple: if migrants want to send a few hundred or a few thousand euros, dollars, or pounds back to their family in their country of origin, then it will be easier and cheaper through their smartphone app or website.
Mr Ahmed was in conversation with Euronews’ Jeremy Wilks:
Can you give us your elevator pitch for WorldRemit?
“World Remit is transforming the way people send money back home, we’re making sending money as simple as sending an instant message. We’re enabling migrants from more than 50 countries, mainly Europe, north America, APAC region, to 147 countries.
How did you get into this business?
“I come from a country where remittances account for as much as 40% of GDP. Before I left my home town in Somaliland we used to receive remittances from the Gulf, so before I came to the UK to study I had first hand knowledge of the costs and inconveniences of receiving remittances.”
“When I came to the UK I became a sender, and I had a first-hand experience of what hard work migrants go through when they want to send money back home. In my case that meant a three hour return trip to the place that allowed me to send money back home. It was that experience that led me to set up this business.”
Is sending money still difficult for migrants?
“It is still difficult to send money. Nine out of ten migrants are still going to the corner shop to send small amounts of money back home. Remittances are still one of the largest frontiers of the internet. But it’s changing fast now because of smartphones and because of services like WorldRemit, which is making sending money easier, low cost and faster.”
How is the market evolving?
“If you look at how families of migrants are receiving remitances, it is still largely cash. We’re one of the few companies that is also digitising how people get their money. When we started, 100% of our transfers were cash pickups on the receive side. Today only one third of our transactions are cash, the other two thirds are instant credits to bank accounts or instant credit to mobile money accounts. A mobile money account is mostly in Africa, where the mobile number becomes the account number, and when people receive the money on their mobile phone they can use that to pay for goods and services, and it’s one of our fastest growing channels in terms of digitisation.”
How do you attract new users in a market where people have their habits and like to stick to them?
“I think what can attract users is the extensive network of partners in each of our receive markets. If you take the Philippines, which is one of the largest ‘receive’ markets for us, we have about ten or so partnerships, with the biggest banks, the biggest retail networks, and Philippinos know that we are working with partners that they trust. They are the same partners that they were using then they were sending cash, and so instead of sending cash they can use our app. It’s the same in countries like Kenya, Ghana, and Colombia. So it’s those partnerships, and the licences we obtain for example in the US, where we’re licensed in 50 states.”
Where do you see market growth now?
“Until now our business was about sending remitances from developed markets to developing countries. Because of digitisation now we are starting sending money within and between developing countries, particularly in Africa where we recently launched the intra-Africa transfers. Because of mobile money, we don’t need to collect cash, so it’s easier to do a digital cashless service for consumers in Africa. Another case is small businesses that want to buy goods and services from Asia, whether it’s India or other markets. So we can allow an east African small business to instantly send money to a bank account in India, instead of those businesses relying on legacy banking and SWIFT systems which could take days.”
Are you going to go for an IPO, and if so when are you going to do it?
“Our business is still growing, we’re still at the early stage of our growth, so at some point in the future I think we will consider IPO, but at the moment the focus is to continue to scale our business. You asked about how we grow our business, and I think brand awareness is key. Last year we sponsored Arsenal, and the reasons is a lot of Africans follow Arsenal, and that awareness is really helping us accelerate the growth of our customer position.”