The journey so far: Dare Okoudjou, CEO, MFS Africa
Dare Okoudjou is the CEO of MFS Africa, a pan-African fintech company that connects mobile money systems to each other and to money transfer organisations, banks and other financial institutions. The company has offices in South Africa, Ghana, Cameroon, Nigeria, Mauritius and London.
1. Tell us about one of the toughest situations you’ve found yourself in as a business owner.
From our initial funding, MFS Africa grew quite fast. With our initial angel investment, we built a brand-new network that connected disparate mobile network operators and then experimented with using mobile money for insurance, loans, and other financial products to solve development challenges.
But once the initial funding dried up, we faced a very tough period in which I often struggled to pay salaries, and even the electricity at my home was cut off. To survive, we needed to focus on scaling the MFS Africa hub, narrow down our use cases to those that were simple and scalable, and find investors. Despite this pressure, I was hard-nosed about getting into the right partnerships with credible partners.
In 2014, we turned down an opportunity to be acquired by another company looking to enter our market. This acquisition promised a much needed (a true understatement) cash infusion to support the future growth of the company and would have positioned our story for global reach. It was a great opportunity on paper.
However, I came to the decision that this move was simply not right for the direction of the company at that time. I made this decision with less than two weeks’ worth of cash left in our account. The two weeks following the decision required a lot of determination, as we urgently needed to secure additional funding from a different source. Among other things, this situation, however, led to our partnership with Vodafone – a great moment for us and something I am proud of to this day. This partnership helped to raise our profile, our credibility, and massively accelerated the growth of the company.
Over the years, we have faced numerous challenges but none as existential as the challenges we faced in 2014.
2. What business achievement are you most proud of?
I think it was Steve Jobs who said, “You don’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward.” Looking back over my journey, I am proud that after having the experience of first receiving and then sending money as an African immigrant, I was able to see an opportunity and then use my education and work experience to solve that problem while creating a diverse and highly skilled largely pan-African company. This is a team of equally passionate people, many of whom are migrant workers who know the struggles of sending and receiving money from home.
A decade after we were launched in 2010, we operate in 35 countries, with more than 80 partners connected and over 200 million mobile money recipients covered. But we are not just making borders matter less for cross-border payments, but borders have not constrained the team we have built.
3. Describe your greatest weakness as an entrepreneur.
When you are an entrepreneur, optimism is a survival tool. But sometimes, that optimism can overshadow the difficult reality of certain situations. If I was to give my younger self – or indeed any entrepreneur – advice, I would say don’t rely solely on your inbuilt optimism. To be successful as an entrepreneur, you need to have the right balance between enthusiasm and pragmatism; you need to have an appreciation for the concrete facts while maintaining a vision.
The second piece of advice I would give to my younger self would be to surround yourself with more people who are different from you, whether that distinction comes from contrasting experiences or from having different points of view. When you have people from a variety of backgrounds, it encourages you to look at opportunities with a fresh perspective and find distinct solutions.
4. What conventional business wisdom do you disagree with?
Throughout my journey as an entrepreneur, I have been told several times to not ‘go it alone’. On the one hand, sometimes you need other people to bring outside expertise into decision-making and to get a different perspective, as outlined above. However, to forge a path of success as an entrepreneur, it is particularly important to stick to your vision and trust your own judgment. To make your vision a reality, you need to know when to trust your gut and when your optimism needs to be balanced out by other perspectives.
5. Is there anything you wish you knew about entrepreneurship before you started?
It is important to able to think on your feet, not just as an individual but also as an organisation. The ability to grasp and act on new ideas rapidly is key. Creating a plan for a new initiative is one thing, but executing it in the real world with all of its complexities and unpredictability is an entirely different task. Sometimes, you can end up going through a number of ideas without finding the one that gains traction.
A few years back, we developed a product that would enable people across Africa to buy pregnancy insurance easily, flexibly, and suited to their needs. It wasn’t right for our partners or us because we couldn’t give it the focus it required, and in the end, we had to close the business down, even though it was close to my heart.
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