Five minutes with Mathieu Coquillon of Mama Money

Career | Entrepreneurship

Mathieu Coquillon, co-founder of Mama Money with Raphael Grojnowski, chats about his journey as a social business entrepreneur.

The idea was born during their road trip through southern Africa five years ago. Today, it has given rise to an international money transfer service that is available in almost 20 countries.

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.

Simplicity is key to Mama Money’s solution.

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 journey.

Sharing the Mama Money story at Investec Tech4Good event, held at Investec Private Bank in Cape Town.

AOTC: Why was it important that the business fulfilled a social need and didn’t just make a profit?

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.

Read more: Investec Young Professionals Revolution.

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 business.

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.

Read more: Entrepreneurs – Lessons to my 25-year old self

Mathieu Coquillon was a speaker at Investec’s Tech4Good event. 

Mama Money is the world’s first social business for remittances and allows cashless money transfers from South Africa to Zimbabwe, Ghana, Tanzania, Uganda, Ethiopia, India and Nigeria. 

Pictures: Courtesy of Mama Money. Text: Investec Private Banking Staff Writer.

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