How Jennifer Barassa built one of Africa’s top advertising agencies

Top Image has expanded to Ghana, Uganda, Côte d’Ivoire and Tanzania. The agency is also set to start work in Mali, Rwanda and Ethiopia. Surprisingly, this expansion has been driven by the growth of mobile money in Africa.

Top Image began working with Kenyan operator Safaricom months before the launch of the now hugely successful mobile money transfer service M-Pesa. The agency was tasked with the job of recruiting and training agents about the then new product that would allow people to transfer money via their mobile phones.

Many traders could not take a day off work to be trained and so Barassa introduced a strategy she had used while working at Kodak: training traders over the counter.

“Michael Joseph (former Safaricom CEO) gave us a target of 1,200 agents [over 12 months] and at the end of the year we had brought in over 1,400 agents,” she explained.

Top Image continues to work with Safaricom on the project and has contributed to growing the number of M-Pesa agents from the initial 165 to over 65,000 today.

Thanks to that success, Top Image has been contracted by other companies rolling out mobile money services across the continent, such as MTN, Visa, and Orange.

Outspoken and a go-getter

Barassa added that her personality has contributed to her success in entrepreneurship.

“I am good at my job,” she said. “A lot of women never like to shout about their accolades… If you are good at something, say you are the best and prove it. I am very outspoken. People say I am full of myself. I am very aggressive, I am a go-getter. I will tell you exactly what I feel without shying away. Maybe I also have a lot of confidence, and I don’t apologise for it.”

Some of the challenges Barassa faces include finding suitable employees and dealing with long payment lead times.

“We also have corruption where brand managers and marketing managers collude with people who are willing to give kickbacks. They lock out people like us who are professionals but are not willing to bribe in order to get a campaign project,” she added.

These challenges notwithstanding, Barassa continues to excel in business. Top Image was ranked second in the Kenya Top 100 Mid-Sized Companies survey in 2009. Last year, Barassa was named the East Africa Business Woman of the Year at the All Africa Business Leaders Awards (AABLA).

She urges aspiring entrepreneurs to invest in ideas they are passionate about and surround themselves with positive thinkers.

Entrepreneurship, Barassa said, has taught her to manage her finances well.

“My fear has always been to die poor,” she noted. “I cannot die poor. I have seen people who were so successful and their businesses have gone down and now they are begging and they are so miserable. That has been my fear. I go to work so that I can retire comfortably.”