Your Brother in Congo Needs Cash Fast? She’s Got an App for That
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because MaxiCash is cheaper, faster and more convenient than the alternative.
By Nick Dall
Earlier this year, Brussels-based businessman Jose Kimpalou was traveling when he learned that his aunt had had a stroke back home in the Democratic Republic of Congo. “I wanted to send my uncle some cash,” he recalls before explaining that just a few years previously, he would have had to wait till he returned to Belgium, trek to a Western Union office and wait in line for the privilege of paying exorbitant fees. “With MaxiCash, I could do it all on my phone,” he says, “at a fraction of the cost.”
What’s more, Kimpalou continues, MaxiCash doesn’t only make senders’ lives easier. In Kinshasa — a city of 12 million residents with terrible traffic and “crazy” queues at banks — he explains, “You have to plan your whole day around getting money from Western Union.” With MaxiCash, Kimpalou’s nephew was withdrawing the cash from an ATM 15 minutes after it was sent.
Building the app was easy — compliance is the tricky part.
MaxiCash — an app that allows users anywhere to send money to recipients in DRC, South Africa and counting — is the brainchild of 34-year-old Tania Mukwamu, a Congo native living in Johannesburg who knows all about sending money back home. And she’s leveraging the knowledge and contacts gained from her day job at her husband’s fintech-focused software firm to make sure that MaxiCash works. “Building the app was easy,” she says. “Compliance is the tricky part.”
Soft-spoken but fiercely driven, Mukwamu, whose dad was an engineer for the national water company and whose mom worked for the central bank (catching money launderers, no less), describes a comfortable upbringing in the “bubble” of Kinshasa, a city that has been largely protected from the wars and coups that have plagued DRC since independence in 1960. After high school, she moved to Johannesburg and earned a diploma in retail business management followed by a degree in logistics and transport.
Her first “real job” was as a logistics coordinator for Nokia in Johannesburg. By the time she left the firm eight years later, she had become planning manager for West and Central Africa, married, had two kids (both boys) and opened (with her husband, Ruddy) an online store, Maxishop.
Things didn’t go according to plan at Maxishop, which shipped appliances and homeware to customers in the DRC. The store closed in 2012, but Mukwamu now sees it as the vital first step toward launching MaxiCash in April 2016. “We were carrying a lot of inventory,” she says postmortem, and only a “tiny percentage” of customers in the DRC were ready for an online shop.
MaxiCash — in which all inventory is virtual, and only senders (who tend to be based in first world countries) need internet access — neatly sidesteps both issues. But that doesn’t mean it’s been a smooth ride for the startup, which currently has just 2,000 private users (it also serves as a payment gateway for 200 online merchants) and is yet to achieve break-even.
MaxiCash may be much cheaper (end-to-end charges average out at less than 4 percent compared to 8 to 12 percent at Western Union) and more convenient than the competition (MaxiCash’s DRC banking partner has its own mobile money service that allows recipients to use their cash in a multitude of ways), but Africans “still heavily rely on money transfer services and mobile money,” says Cameroonian journalist Divine Ntaryike. Adegoke Oyeniyi, a West Africa business and media analyst for U.S-based AIM Group, is less concerned: “Francophone Africa is already used to mobile money, so an app shouldn’t be a problem.”
Mukwamu knows that first impressions can make or break a fledgling company, and she’s using her local knowledge to give people as many opportunities as possible to be wowed by MaxiCash. “It’s a volume game,” she says, not for the first time. The app enables senders to deposit money directly into NGO and church bank accounts (the latter has proved far more popular than the former, observes Mukwamu), to purchase cellphone airtime for recipients in over 30 countries, to pay school fees and, Kimpalou tells me, to shop online for groceries. It’s great, he says, to “know for certain” that his cash will be used exactly as he intended.
But changing public perceptions is only half the battle. Before MaxiCash could even start operating, the Mukwamus had to scrounge half a million dollars to deposit in a trust account, and satisfying international Know Your Customer requirements (banking and anti-money-laundering regulations) was onerous. But, as predicted by Oyeniyi and confirmed by Mukwamu, regulatory compliance hurdles are the main reason recipients can only be in DRC and South Africa so far. Africa’s fragmented politics mean that “you basically start from zero,” she says, in each new country (with the exception of Economic Community of West African states). With that said, the software work that Pluritone has done with African banks and governments puts them on the inside track and has ensured that compliance “gets a little bit easier every time,” says Mukwamu.
In recent months, Mukwamu has been summoning all her “superwoman powers” (a term used by her longtime friend and new MaxiCash user Fina Linga) to expand the brand’s footprint, and she is confident the service will be available for recipients in “Ghana and most East African markets” by the first quarter of 2019.
Next stop? “Nigeria, of course.” In spite of being a regulatory nightmare and a hot spot for fraud, the country is the continent’s biggest economy, a fact the out-and-out entrepreneur cannot ignore. “It’s a volume game,” remember?
- Nick Dall, OZY Author Contact Nick Dall