Over the last decade, digital payment methods like mobile money have transformed sub-Saharan Africa. In Ivory Coast, 75% of the population owns a mobile money account, compared to only 20% of people with a bank account and a debit card.
While mobile money is the most accessible way to make digital payments within country, it’s still limited because it’s not an acceptable payment method for most international platforms. To drive financial inclusion in Africa’s vast underbanked markets, startups are giving people access to formal payment methods.
In recent years, virtual debit cards have grown as a solution for the unbanked to access products and online services unavailable locally. In Francophone West Africa, PayQin is the leading fintech startup providing this service.
Founded in 2017, PayQin is a cross-border payment startup that operates a comprehensive e-wallet. With PayQin, customers can fund their e-wallet with mobile money and use debit cards and cryptocurrencies to make cross-border payments.
I spoke with Fabrice Amalaman, CEO of PayQin, about what led him to create PayQin, their partnership with Flutterwave, and their recent investment of $350,000,
How did your journey lead you to create PayQin?
I'm Fabrice Amalaman; I was born and raised in Ivory Coast. When I was 20 years old, I moved to France to attend university, where I studied banking and finance. After graduating, I went to work for BNP Paribas at their headquarters. Although it was my dream to work at a bank, I didn't find it interesting anymore after two years. I then switched to wealth management consulting but left that soon after because it also didn't fulfill my desire to make an impact. Wanting to start something meaningful, I decided helping Africa would be at the center of my next venture.
Before starting PayQin, I was aware of the problem with payments in Africa. When I was young, on several occasions, I wanted to pay for something on PayPal but couldn't with my local card. And when I was studying in France, friends and relatives in Ivory Coast would send me money through Western Union to buy goods for them on Amazon and eBay.
I saw an opportunity to use technology to help people purchase what they want online. We launched PayQin in 2017, and in 2018 we got into the Wise Guys Fintech accelerator program. We moved to Sweden because they give us an office at Swedbank's headquarters for six months and all the resources to build our MVP.
After gaining some traction, I moved to Ivory Coast. It didn't make sense to stay in Sweden running a business in Africa. We also wanted to build a team with African talent. Today our operations, customer support, and development team is based in Abidjan.
What opportunity did you discover that inspired PayQin?
The initial idea wasn't to build a wallet with a card. It was to build a marketplace, put products from the US and Europe on the marketplace, and allow Africans to purchase them using local payment methods like mobile money.
After a few months of building, it began to sink in that this was a huge business. We overlooked that as a marketplace, we were responsible for adding the 10,000+ products and shipping them. It became apparent that although technically we could build the marketplace, we didn't have the resources to run it effectively.
Unwilling to give up on the issue, we continued to brainstorm new approaches to helping people buy products online. Instead of building a new marketplace, we decided to give people the means to make purchases online. With a card that works intentionally, they can purchase what they want.
Growing PayQin to 70,000 users.
We have 70,000 users in 4 countries: Ivory Coast, Senegal, Mali, and Cameroon. How we built our platform has allowed us to expand quickly. To launch in a country all we need to do is plug into the mobile operators. Once we connect to the mobile operators, people can fund their cards and cash out.
To scale quickly, we didn't go directly through the mobile operators. Instead, we partnered with local aggregators who gave us access to the different mobile operator APIs. Integrating with one mobile operator takes time and comes with a lot of paperwork. And Ivory Coast has 3 mobile operators, Senegal has 2, Mali has 2, Cameroon has 2, which means going through 10 integrations.
We'll secure our own agreements at some point, but we're concentrating on growth for now. We want to expand to Benin and Togo next because we get a lot of requests from people there who want to use our platform.
Share your partnership with Flutterwave.
Flutterwave is one of the first fintech companies in Africa. When we were thinking about starting PayQin, they were already operating in Nigeria. What they are doing in the English-speaking countries, we're building for the French-speaking countries.
When we were looking for a partner to issue cards on our platform, no company in the US or Europe was willing to issue us cards if the end consumer was in Africa. We spent six months to a year looking for a partner.
In Africa, Flutterwave was the only company that had the technology at the time. We partnered with them, and now they've become a big brother to us. Our partnership is strong. Our teams talk every day.
Value of collaboration within the fintech space.
It's easy to say I don't want anybody to go into my space. I want to do it alone so I can have the entire market. But can you capture 100% of the market share? No, it's not possible. By collaborating, you can still benefit without being in the market. Flutterwave is present in the regions we're in because of us.
And above all, what fuels the partnership is our commitment to the people. We know it's something people need, and we know we cannot solve the problem alone. This is the mindset of Flutterwave. They built their platform in a way that people can use it to build upon. They could have said we want to do it alone, but they built it and provided APIs for other companies to use. We both recognize that the problem is so huge that we need to collaborate and allow each team to solve their part of the problem.
The current state of fintech regulation in Francophone West Africa.
In the French-speaking countries in West Africa, there is no specific status for fintech companies. There is an electronic money issuing status, but it's for mobile operators.
In Ivory Coast, the minister of economics is proactively reaching out to all the fintech companies. We have monthly meetings online to discuss the industry and how to set regulations. They know fintech companies are important and recognize that we are adding progress to the economy by helping people do things faster. We're currently working towards finding a solution that gives us the proper status and defining the conditions fintechs will have to meet to obtain that status.
The good thing is that they are not blocking anything or saying we don't have the right to do this. Recently, I saw a speech from the head of the central bank, and he was encouraging people to innovate when it comes to financial services. They are open to new things, but as I mentioned, there is no legal status for fintech. We are operating as a tech company and have partnerships with licensed companies and some with banks to make everything work.
Tips for founders in the diaspora.
Build a team on ground:
I knew somebody locally working at a startup, and he had experience hiring and managing people. He helped us out a lot. I didn't struggle at all. I let him know what we needed from a talent perspective, and he took care of the rest. So my recommendation is to find someone on the ground who can help you build your team. Don't try to do everything yourself. Find the key people.
You can raise money in two ways. You can send cold emails to investors saying, hey, this is my business, and that you're looking to raise some capital. The smarter way is for someone to give you an introduction to an investor.
If you take this approach to fundraise, you have to build your network, increase your network, and maintain a good relationship with your network. We send an email every two months saying, this is what we're doing, this is how revenue is growing, and this is the problem we are having and how we're solving it.
If you send regular updates that discuss where you are today and where you are planning to be in two months, people will know that you need money, even before you ask them. Also, remember transparency and consistency are the keys to building trust.
Accepting the administrative slowness:
In Africa, you can plan to do something in one month, and it might take you four months to navigate the bureaucracy. For example, incorporating a company in Ivory Coast can take you some 1 – 2 months. But if you want to incorporate a company in London, you can do it in 3 hours, and the same day you can open up a bank account. That's the difference. Keep that in mind as you are building.
Built In Africa. What does that mean to you?
I'm a tech evangelist and believe the Internet and technology will change Africa. When you look at ride sharing to delivery apps, they're changing how people move and eat. Technology is even changing the way our economies work.
Built In Africa to me means built for us by us. On social media a few years ago, I saw a guy from Norway go to some African country and bring water to a village. When I saw it, I thought, is there nobody in this country to bring water to these people? Why did it take someone from Norway to do it?
Technology has empowered us to solve our own problems. With tech, you can have a significant impact without the need to have some of the infrastructures our countries lack. As a tech founder, I'm proud to be part of creating the future of Africa.
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