Exclusive Interview: Meet Ismail Ahmed, CEO of WorldRemit

Ismail Ahmed is the CEO of WorldRemit, a multi-million dollar company on a journey to reinvent money remittances globally, and drive mobile money technology in Africa. In this exclusive interview with Africa-OnTheRise below, he talks about a recent $100 million investment from TCV and his plan to drive business growth in Africa.

  • Nice to meet you Mr. Ismail Ahmed. So we know you are the Founder and CEO of WorldRemit, but can you tell Africa who you are and what your story is really?

Great to meet you, too. I grew up in Hargeisa in Somaliland where I worked on an agricultural development project financed by the World Bank. I came to the United Kingdom on a World Bank scholarship to study economics at the University of London. I then worked as an academic researcher at the Institute of Development Studies (University of Sussex) before joining the United Nations Development Programme on remittances. My work at the UN ultimately inspired me to set up my own online money transfer business.

  • You have worked with the United Nations, World Bank development project and you have over 20 years’ experience in international remittances, what would you say was your biggest inspiration for founding WorldRemit?

Most people still rely on brick-and-mortar agents when they send money to friends and family back home. With that in mind, I found my biggest inspiration for an online-business like WorldRemit in other industries such as travel which went online in the late 1990s: So many people are happily shopping online or booking travel online, that it seemed only logical that to build a dedicated online money transfer service.

  • So, Accel invested what is reported to be one of the largest ever Series A funding rounds in Europe, $40 million. What do you imagine Accel saw in WorldRemit that resulted in such a commitment?

As an online-business with robust compliance platform, we are able to largely eliminate risks associated with traditional money transfers. On top of that, we are providing inherently better customer service than any of our brick-and-mortar competitors. I think that our investors at Accel and most recently TCV, who invested a further $100m in WorldRemit in February, were very quick to realise the unique market position we are carving out for our business. Their high-value investments are testament to our strong business proposition.

  • You uncovered corrupt practices in the UNDP Somalia Remittance Programme. You provided information on how the corruption could prevent remittance companies from complying with international regulations on money laundering and the funding of terrorism. Now, beyond creating WorldRemit as a solution to international remittance issues, what other solutions, ideas or policies perhaps, have you promoted or sponsored to tackle these issues?

There are now a number of commendable initiatives which have gone some way in putting ethics and transparency on the public policy agenda. I support some of these initiatives. In the remittance business, we are active in the efforts aimed at breaking the prevailing duopoly that led to the $2 billion “super tax” on remittances to Africa.

  • You first left for the UK on a World Bank scholarship and then worked for some time as an academic before founding WorldRemit, how has this affected your perception on Africa?

Being able to come to the United Kingdom as a student has given me a sense of opportunity. I was fortunate to do research on African development issues and remittances. You see, my origin and identity always relate back to the projects I take on – be that in academia or now at WorldRemit.

  • With your work with development agencies (regional and global), your work and experience in business, money transfers and mobile money technology, especially following the recent partnership signing with telecoms giant, MTN, what is WorldRemit’s big plan to drive business growth in Africa?

You have already hinted at it. No technology will have as massive an impact on the African continent as mobile banking. Only one in four people in Africa currently has a bank account – but almost everyone owns a mobile phone. For us, it is a no-brainer that Mobile Money services will significantly drive financial inclusion and at the same time create vast new business opportunities. Working with MTN to send money to their mobile wallets across Africa was a major step in that direction, and we will continue to expand our relationships with telcos and Mobile Money services.

  • A lot has been said, and continues to be said about Africa’s rise, with reports of agricultural development in Nigeria and improved governance in Tanzania and Ghana, and so many others of such reports; what is your view on these reports? Do you agree that Africa is indeed rising?

Yes, absolutely. In my experience, Africa has an enormous appetite to seize on opportunities created by new technologies and scientific advances. Mobile technology is but one example – and will have an impact both on governance and rural development: There already are pilot schemes for mobile government-to-person (G2P) payments and mobile farming insurance policies. It’s exciting just to imagine where these trends are taking us.

We have already spoken about the impact of mobile wallets on financial empowerment for “unbanked” people in Africa. In fact, the Gates Foundation only recently published its “Annual Letter” pointing at the huge potential this holds in store for a continent that is on the rise. I share with Bill Gates his conviction that technologies will not only improve financial inclusion, but will also revolutionise learning and education as well as entrepreneurship in Africa.

  • How would you say young Africans in the diaspora can contribute to Africa’s rise and general development?

I would say that the opportunities for entrepreneurship in Africa as well as in the diaspora have never been bigger.

What should Africa look out for from you? What is the next big thing that you are working on right now?

Since we received our first major investment from Accel last year, we have become the number one provider of money transfers to Mobile Money in Africa. In the year ahead, we will use our latest funding from TCV to serve even more countries across Africa where the duopoly of traditional money transfer operators still continues to cut into the money transfers of hard-working migrants.

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