Ahead of the curve (AOTC): How did the idea of Mama Money start?
Mathieu Coquillon (MC): I was disillusioned with corporate life and I’d taken a sabbatical to travel around Africa – hitchhiking and taking public transport.
I met Raphael on a
beach in Mozambique. He was on his way back from Afrikaburn in South Africa and
he offered me a ride in his van. During our road trip, we became friends.
At the time, Raphael
was working for the UN’s World Food Programme in food security camps in Rwanda,
Malawi, etc. He saw first hand how people in the camps relied on families in
other cities or countries to send them money – and how that extra dollar or two
helped them buy better food.
About a year later,
we got to talking about the growing trend of remittances or sending money
across borders. We started looking into the high costs of remittances in South
Africa, which were the most expensive in the world.
We saw an opportunity
to start something that would make it more convenient and less costly to send
money across borders. More than that, it was an opportunity to use technology
to solve the challenge of migrant workers wanting to send money home to their
families. The idea for Mama Money was born.
AOTC: What was the hardest part of starting your business?
MC: When people heard
we were taking on the banking world, they thought we were crazy. What kept us
going was blind faith in our business idea. But, it was tough at the beginning
– we were using our own money with little outside investment.
Our first hurdle was securing a money-transfer license, which was an 18-month long process with the SA Reserve Bank. It was filled with unknown factors that we weren’t always prepared for.
The second challenge
came in late 2016, early 2017. We had a close call when Zimbabwe – our pilot
corridor for Mama Money – faced a liquidity crisis and it looked like the
country would run out of US dollars.
We realised that we
needed to pivot and look at other countries and markets. We were fortunate in
that we were agile and small enough to do that and expand our corridors into
Nigeria, Malawi, Ghana, Kenya, etc.
There have been many
hard lessons along the way. As an entrepreneur, you learn that it never really
gets easier – you simply face different challenges at different stages of the
AOTC: Why was it
important that the business fulfilled a social need and didn’t just make a
MC: I think the
financial crisis in 2008 forced a lot of people to think about how we do
business. We couldn’t carry on in this crazy capitalist mode forever.
I think it was a
generational thing too, in that younger people are looking to have a purpose
and find meaning in their work and want to give back.
The concept of a
business with a strong social ethos isn’t a new one, but I think it took the
global crisis to make it more prominent. For us at Mama Money, it was important
that we used technology for good, to solve a real problem in a sustainable way.
We realised that
sustainability could come from minimising profits, so our success didn’t come
at the expense of our customers. And as a by-product, we could make a living
from the business, so we were happy.
So, yes, it was probably a combination of the after-effect of the global crash and a generational influence too.
AOTC: What three
qualities do you think a successful entrepreneur needs?
MC: You need to be a bit naïve. In a strange way, I think it helped that we weren’t experts in the financial field – it may have stopped us from even pursuing the idea of money transfers.
You need to be resilient. You’re going to get knocked down, time and again. You’re going to have doors shut in your face, but you must get up again and keep knocking.
You need to be an
eternal optimist. You must believe that things are going well, that your idea
is going to work.
AOTC: What advice
would you give to someone looking to start a side hustle or a business?
MC: You need to commit 100% to it. If you are serious about it, you need to be totally committed.
You also need to
understand that it will take longer than you anticipated or planned for. Don’t
think it will all come together in six months – it usually takes three to five
years before you see a return on your investment.
You must surround yourself with people who have complementary skills and attributes, people who share your long-term goals and values. Mama Money has about 100 full-time employees in Cape Town and more than 1 500 self-employed subcontractors (and it’s always growing!) who act as our marketing agents across Africa. We all share the same social vision.
AOTC: Do you have a
motto you live by?
MC: I don’t really,
no, but I do believe in keeping things quite simple. Treat everyone with
fairness and kindness. I think this falls in line with the ethos of our social
AOTC: Last thoughts
for budding entrepreneurs?
MC: We seem to live
in a time that celebrates only how much capital start-ups raise and not how
much income they generate or their sustainability.
I don’t believe valuations should be a metric for success. With Mama Money, we decided not to follow the venture capital route, but to rather look for investors that would give us the skills and help we needed to stick to our own agenda.