In our end of year series, we are profiling five Africans who are set to make a big impact on the African continent in 2021. First in our series is Dare Okoudjou, a Johannesburg-based Beninese pioneer in mobile money. His fast-growing company, MFS Africa, is known for its digital payments hub, which now connects more than 200 mobile wallets across Africa.

MFS Africa recently announced that it had signed a partnership agreement with Xoom, a popular PayPal service. The idea is to tap into the growth of mobile money across Africa and offer secure and convenient mobile money transfers to six countries on the continent. The partnership will enable Xoom’s 250 million users in Europe and North America to send money to people in Cameroon, Ghana, Rwanda, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

Dare Okoudjou wants to help give Africans control over their finances

Why did you launch MFS Africa?
I grew up in West Africa and remember the days when even making an international phone call was an unpredictable process. Now, we take our fast and easy communication for granted – but we cannot say the same when it comes to our finances. As I know from my own experience of living and working abroad, sending and moving money within Africa can be expensive and difficult – but it doesn’t necessarily have to be like this. Some entrepreneurs have an idea for a product and build a business around it. I had an idea for a change I wanted to see in the world and built a way to get there with a business.

Having worked as a telecom engineer, I understood that the same tech we use to catch up with friends and family could be used to move money. International remittances were inefficient globally, but they were most inefficient in Africa. Even now it can cost 9% per transaction, but our mission and reason for being is to reduce that as much as possible. The difficulties that came with moving money around were still vivid memories for my family and I. That’s why I could understand what a huge impact it would make.

How do you define financial inclusion in Africa?
For us, financial inclusion is about giving as many Africans as possible, regardless of location or background, control over their finances – and that means the power to easily take part in a wide array of financial transactions. Whether you are a business owner who needs to purchase stock from abroad, or a consumer who wants to purchase goods from another market, or even someone who simply needs to send or receive remittances – you should be able to do that quickly and safely.

Africa is in the midst of its renaissance and every African is contributing to the continent’s changing face. It’s vital that those people are given the financial freedom and control they need to grow as individuals but also to enable communities across Sub-Saharan Africa and beyond to thrive. MFS Africa already links over 200 million African wallets from across the continent – the power to purchase is the power to grow.

Africans have a love-hate relationship with telcos. How do you partner with them?
We are a digital payments hub, a network of networks, if you may. We connect a number of networks to other networks, within the mobile money/cross border payments sector – whether these are mobile network operators, telecommunication businesses, or mobile money wallet operators. As a hub for these digital payment providers, we help connect all of these players to lots of other networks in the hub.

African telcos have been at the forefront of bringing basic financial inclusion to more African consumers. As such, customers will have more intimate relationships with telco providers and thus more vibrant. But without telco providers who have created the many mobile money networks across the continent, we would not have an African fintech ecosystem with so many more possibilities for more consumers.

For a while, telecommunication providers existed as lots of closed-loop networks, with no way for users on one network to communicate with users on another network. This stifled the ability for users to use their mobile money accounts to their fullest potential. We are the people in the middle, connecting all these networks into an all-encompassing ‘network of networks’. But the telcos provide that alternative and accessible store of value, on which value added services can exist.

What does the Xoom deal mean for the future of MFS Africa?
The Xoom deal represents our standard operating model. We connect money transfer companies from around the world, helping them to expand their coverage in Africa through a single integration. Although the Xoom deal is a key milestone, such a partnership highlights our ability to enable these kinds of solutions, solutions which meet the mobile-first needs of Africans and make borders matter less when it comes to finance.

By adding Xoom, with its strong capabilities and multinational customer base to the hub, and enabling their users to connect to other networks and other networks to connect to their users, we strengthen the African mobile money ecosystem by creating more possibilities for sending and receiving money across borders.