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Mukuru perseveres to become African fintech powerhouse

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A combination of resilience and robust digital technologies resulted in tech start-up Mukuru emerging from humble beginnings to becoming one of Africa’s fintech powerhouses.

So says Sandy Rheeder, CIO of Mukuru, one of Africa’s largest remittance service providers.

Mukuru was launched in the mid-2000s. As Zimbabwe went through hyperinflation, the platform enabled customers in the diaspora to send fuel and grocery vouchers back home via SMS. Eventually, Mukuru started offering money remittances.

The company was founded by Zimbabwean entrepreneur Rob Burrell, who is also an up-and-coming musician, with a number of entrepreneurial attempts under his belt.

According to Rheeder, while many view Mukuru as a technology company, its business is centred around helping people at a very personal level.

“From humble beginnings in a London flat in 2005, to African fintech giant in 2020, Mukuru’s journey has been one of turning challenges into opportunities for innovation – continuously motivated by a desire to improve the daily lives of its loyal customers.”

Today, she notes, Mukuru has 60 partnerships in place worldwide to enable more than 100 brands to provide cash-out points.

It has more than 800 Orange Booths (cash collection points) across Southern Africa, and an established footprint in Asia.

“With over two million registered customers and more than 40 million transactions having taken place, Mukuru has highlighted how anything can be achieved if there is commitment, coupled with being agile, resilient and responsive to changing market requirements,” comments Rheeder.

Catching global attention

The company recently caught the interest of global remittances giant WorldRemit to forge a partnership to bring world-class financial services to Zimbabweans and generating new synergies for African financial inclusion.

The partnership enables WorldRemit customers in over 50 countries, including the UK, US, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Europe, to send money to their loved ones in Zimbabwe.

“In essence, Mukuru has harnessed robust digital platforms in a complex African context to innovate and provide a critical service to many communities,” Rheeder says.

“And while technology will always be an important enabler, for Mukuru it is about delivering a service to customers where they are – and finding the best and most robust solution available.”

She explains that when Mukuru launched, its founders worked with developers to build a platform that would enable family and friends in the UK to send fuel coupons and groceries to families struggling in Zimbabwe.

Although the text-based technology it used had a low barrier to entry, she notes, the service was only usable from the UK. In addition, Mukuru offered an international calling card option to Zimbabwe – allowing loved ones in the UK to call internationally.

“The story in the early days was not one of smooth sailing. For example, database failures put the business at serious risk and threatened future plans. While others may have given up, Mukuru was completely invested into its vision, and everything was rebuilt within six weeks.

“From inception, Mukuru has had a resilience and can-do spirit that has become the interconnecting thread in everything the company does.”

Rheeder points out that by 2009, Zimbabwe had ‘dollarised’ and Mukuru saw an opportunity to start sending cash from the UK and Europe.

According to Rheeder, the following year would be the pivotal turning point for Mukuru, as it launched financial remittances from Africa and moved its head office to South Africa, creating a joint venture with a company called Inter-Africa to build the Mukuru known today.

At the time, she notes, people were reliant on an informal market to send money back home, but Mukuru wanted to change this – even though it meant its technology would need to evolve to integrate with Inter-Africa’s branch network environment.

Sandy Rheeder, CIO of Mukuru.
Sandy Rheeder, CIO of Mukuru.

African expansion drive

“As the business grew, it started expanding into new African markets and used technology as the means to help people in their own journeys to financial inclusion. To this end, it established an agent army that uses an Android app to assist customers where they live.

“Instead of being inhibited by compliance requirements, it is also an enabler to grow key services. Agents visiting customers can verify their physical address and can also check passports and asylum papers.”

By 2015, Mukuru had added a customer application to its offering that now included branch and agent services as well as a USSD self-help channel critical for the customer base.

Says Rheeder: “Because many of its customers were unbanked, it introduced the Mukuru Card – a simplified money account that gave them electronic access to financial services such as salary deposits, savings and withdrawals from banks and retailers.

“When Zimbabwe encountered another cash crisis in 2017 and banks were unable to service customers, Mukuru launched its now well-known Mukuru Orange Booth network that took over the cash logistics system.”

She explains that this meant people could still receive cash when they needed it most. “It even started getting its own licences to become a financial services operator in many countries, so it could overcome the issues, from stifling its growth and negatively impacted customer service.”

Right partnerships

Throughout this journey, Rheeder says, the company has continued managing the scale of its operations by partnering with the right organisations and putting in place more innovative technology that could help facilitate this growth.

For example, she says, instead of investing in bulky on-premises servers and hardware, Mukuru had the foresight to harness AWS stacks and the benefits of scalable cloud computing platforms – enabling the company to be flexible and responsive to its users and markets.

South Africa’s national lockdown has resulted in the company launching key self-sign-up platforms as well as Mukuru Groceries. It is also fast-tracking customers into a digital-first world, and moving them on a financial journey towards accessing a digitised wallet, for example.

“Mukuru’s journey has illustrated that success does not happen overnight, but rather requires grit, resilience and determination to harness the challenges, learn from them, and use them as leverage to provide services that customers want and need,” says Rheeder.

“It is not about the technology, but rather about designing robust solutions that address critical pain points – and empower people on their financial journeys.”

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