Interviewed By Emmanuel Daniel
Andrew Takyi-Appiah, managing director and co-founder of Zeepay, discussed efforts around promoting financial inclusion through his venture Zeepay, the only currently existing non-telco fintech player to receive an Electronic Money Issuer (EMI) or mobile money license in Ghana.
He described an average African user as highly dependent on a mobile device for accessing financial services. Takyi-Appiah also talked about how an innovative yet simple platform built on the over-the-top (OTT) instant messaging service players such as WhatsApp could offer the scale to penetrate millions who do not have access to formal financial services across the African sub-continent and help transform its payment ecosystem.
In this RadioFinance session, emphasis was given to Africa’s status as leading continent for money-mobile services, and a pre-existing and well-established interoperable financial system infrastructure in Ghana could usher an all-inclusive growth in payments.
The following key points were discussed during the interview:
The following is the edited transcript of the session:
Emmanuel Daniel (ED): Andrew Takyi-Appiah, thank you very much for joining me in this conversation. And it's good to see you again. I'm very excited about the work you're doing, Andrew, because you are an entrepreneur, putting in place a payment infrastructure on an existing ecosystem that is probably not very well understood outside of Africa.
And when people outside of Africa think about payments in Africa, we only think M-Pesa and the various banking payment networks. This is going to be an interesting and long conversation partially to help people outside of Africa to understand Zeepay and the landscape in which you operate, but also to explore some of the business decisions that you've been able to make or you're making in order to grow your business and to work closer with the banks and with the telcos. So as a start, give us a sense of Zeepay.
Andrew Takyi-Appiah (ATA): I actually liked the comments you made, which is the fact that we're trying to build on to an existing ecosystem. So that's exactly where we came into market. Zeepay is an inclusive platform designed in such a way that we'll be able to bring all the different parts of the ecosystem together into one single platform to transact. What we do as a fintech originally is to enable remittances to be paid in to mobile wallets, across all wallets in Ghana, going through our standard, which is our Zeepay wallets. What we also do is to aggregate the bulk payments to make it possible for government and aid agencies to reach everybody in the country where they need to make payments to them. Then we also make it possible for peer-to-peer payments across multi network.
African payment and remittance ecosystem is worth $250 billion and has more than 80 wallet service providers
Now, let me also talk about the African ecosystem slightly in a different way which will give you a better understanding of the ecosystem in Ghana. Globally, everybody wants to transact using just only card rail on just including Visa, MasterCard or Kenya Pay. The African ecosystem is a lot more robust, as we have omnichannel rails. When it comes to wallets, we have about 80 angel wallet providers in the continent. Zeepay, MTN, Orange Money, Move, Africash, Airtel Money, AirtelTigo and Tigo etc. So we have multi players in the market and these wallet are instruments. So now and I have web legislative instruments that I set up for payments, its wallet, cards, cheques and cash. So these are the only four instruments that the law recognises to be used for payments. These instruments we build ourselves. So today, our rails are not just card rails, but they are all these four rails plus a bank account.
So all of a sudden, when you're on a platform like Zeepay, you have access to wallets across 23 markets in Africa. You have access to about 20 million bank cards on the continent using Visa Direct. You have access to bank accounts, either through the Visa Direct annual, or switch by switch across markets. Now this is what really a payment ecosystem should be like and that's the robustness of our ecosystem. It’s just unfortunate that a lot of time, everybody just talks about the card rails and M-Pesa. The African payments ecosystem is estimated to be $181 billion. Add remittance, which is about $70 billion. So it's a very big ecosystem. And the key players of the ecosystem include the likes of Ghana, Kenya, and Uganda. Ivory Coast is picking up significantly and has started to look quite exciting. Mozambique is beginning to look exciting as well. So these are the key market players in the ecosystem.
ED: Let me tell you what the ecosystem looks like from outside of Africa. The first thing that is very interesting is the number of wallets that already are in Africa.
ATA: There are around 50 million wallets globally and Africa's wallets closer to 90% of the global wallets.
ED: I'm very curious to drill down on what we mean by wallets. I'm sure that each of the wallets want to dominate their own little ecosystem. It may be loyalty. It may be spending. It may be retail locked into specific relationships and so on. And the fact that there are still players who think that they can play the wallet game. The second dimension is the fact that regulators like in Ghana have been imposing interoperability from the beginning. So you actually operate in an environment where there is incredible interoperability. And when there is interoperability, am I right to imagine that Zeepay sits on top of the wallets? The values that you provide, are they on top of what the other wallets do?
ATA: So Zeepay is actually the only licensed wallet at the moment in Ghana. We are a full wallet with a full complement service and we sit on interoperability. It's interesting, that we are the only platform that has both the back-end and the front-end of interoperability. So with our back-end, we can move money to all networks or wallets or bank accounts, etc. But on the front-end, our consumers can do the same as well. Because we have one simple belief, that is, financial inclusion will only be attained through an inclusive approach. So let's first be inclusive and give the consumer the choice. That brings the efficiency to the ecosystem, and the consumer will stay with us.
ED: Can you place wallets in terms of where it operates from something like M-Pesa? For example, M-Pesa operates on a device and it's not necessarily a wallet. And there's another dimension that people outside of Africa would find very interesting is the role of the telco players. It seems to be that in Africa, the telcos are successful. They are players in the payments space. They have successfully monetised the relationships they have. There are many countries around the world where telcos tried to get into payments, and never get off the ground.
ATA: When we talk about wallets now, possibly EMI wallets, it's basically a digital wallet attached to your phone number, which allows you to do cash-in, which means receive money into your wallet, allows you to cash out, which means taking money out of your wallet, allows you to do a peer-to-peer transfer, which is to move money from one point to another point, and then allows you to receive your remittance in your wallet. So these are sort of the basic, then on the back of the basic will be airtime. So you can purchase airtime, you can actually send people airtime. Then you can start to do other things like micro-insurance, lending and buy micro loans etc. So that's a full complement of a wallet. M-Pesa does the same thing. Zeepay does the same thing.
In the banking ecosystem, what we have in the ecosystem, from a retail perspective, is your traditional retail bank. Then, in your traditional retail bank, you have math, you have the HR lines or wealth management, then after HMA, you have your mix segment, which is usually premium. Then after that you have your mass market. So after the mass market business, which has failed considerably, especially in all African continent, because the African banks could just not reach the critical mass, they could only reach up to the middle premium. So you find that every customer will be multi banked by five banks, a common practice which is wrong. So then we had financial inclusion, which you could not integrate into banking. So in there, we ended up with mobile financial services which is basically what we providers of wallets do. We the providers of wallet become that critical mass platform that is enabling the bare bottom of the base to have access to funds in banking system, to access to financial instruments, which in this case will be a wallet. It's called mobile financial services (MFS).
Why few markets don't have a wallet, or they failed on it, could be because of the three reasons. The first reason I think is maybe they do not have a strong critical mass, they have a need because their card business is strong. Some markets are card markets. If you go to Latin America, that’s a strong card market. Or if you go to United States of America, this is a strong trade market. That's why you find prepaid cards being sold on the streets. If you come to our part of the world, because we're not card people, we’re mobile people. An average African has a mobile phone, it's easier for this to grow faster. In the continent. When it comes to mobile financial services, we have Zeepay which is the only independent, non-telco led MFS. Then you have Airtel Money which is obviously telco-led. There’s MTN Mobile Money which is telco-led. Vodafone Cash which is also telco-led. What makes us powerful is that our platform, all you need is an active phone number. You don't need a SIM card to be onboarded. So all of a sudden, every telco customer is my customer. So I'm able to onboard more wallets than they all would ever be able to onboard, which is probably what the future of mobile financial services looks like.
ED: Now, what you've just described is incredibly amazing and incredibly sensitive, because it's not necessarily a formula that can work in every country. The countries which are well banked do not need this layer. And yet in Africa, you have the telcos which perfected the wallet model dominating, especially countries which are in the lower end of the per capita GDP, and then having different rates of success when they move into countries with a higher level of GDP. So something that might work in Kenya may not working in Ghana or may not work in South Africa. You're actually talking about a very incremental difference in the space that you're in. So for Zeepay, what's your critical success factor? Is it functionality? Is it interoperability given the fact that you actually serve in micro finance, the small ticket value customers?
Zeepay’s multi-layered open interoperable platform has made receiving remittances convenient
ATA: What we did is we identified the gap in the market. Now the gap in the market at the time was a bridge between the diaspora and the locals and the distance. So before we came into disrupt bank your average remittance receiver would have to travel 50 to 100 miles to be able to pick up their cash in the hinterland and more money went to the hinterland than it came into the cities and urban areas. We said we're going to build a bridge between the diasporas and these guys on the local end by making it possible for them to be able to receive their money, and collect it from the agent network. And then we build an interoperable platform that is able to cross every single network without being on board. So what makes us powerful than others is your average MoneyGram customer can send money straight into a Zeepay wallet. The MoneyGram receiver will then walk into any agent network including Airtel, Zeepay, Vodaphone or MTN and withdraw their money. So all of us adding on a layer, on a layer, on a layer above the ecosystem. And therefore we built an invisible bridge, with the help of some form of artificial intelligence, to be able to reach everybody. So that's really the edge we have. In terms of functionality, we're also a single source. So on our network, you can buy airtime for everybody else. So it just makes sense to be on our network and be able to do everything than to be only on MTN and only have to buy MTN airtime only.
ED: Is that a function of marketing? Or is that a function of technology?
ATA: It’s a function of both marketing intel and market penetration, which is all one, and then also technology. I don't think it’s a function of robustness of technology rather it is a function of agility of technology. The more agile the technology is, the better it is. You see, a lot of time people think that single loops are the answers, but no, single loop is only a monopoly. When you have an open platform, you're more likely to sustain the game, which is what we've done, basically. So we're just an open platform that allows everybody to come on board and you give the consumer a lot more choices.
ED: Everyone would come on board, if it's free. What's the revenue model for what you do? Because the moment you start charging a fee, you need to pay a cost. Each customer that comes on board is a cost to you. So, how do you amortise your costs?
ATA: First of all, I've seen networks that charge fee, and have not seen any uptake. All they've seen is volume. When you're working with the bottom of base, that's where the money is, and the money is at the bottom of the barrel. But at the same time, that is why it's perceived to be the most difficult. And we don't offer the service for free. We actually charge from 5% to be able to transact on our network. We’re 1.5% cheaper than everybody, we also charge for termination. So every time the NGOs terminate onto our platform, they pay us for that. Then we also make settlement margins.
So in essence, we got a mixture of revenue including airtime, loans, etc. And that's really the model you want to run. What you now want to do is once you've got the model, you go to the critical mass. Today, we have about 2 million users and we're growing. I mean, this year alone, year to date, we have done about 400 to $401 million which represents about 11% of the total remittance to Ghana alone. We do 23 markets in Africa and out of the 23, we have nine very strong and active markets. Ivory Coast is our second active market, shot up significantly, looking very exciting for about the last eight weeks.
ED: One thing I noticed about remittance and payments in Africa is how they discover, I call them, invisible rivers, from Ghana to Tanzania and so on, that nobody would have imagined existed in the past. So I'm actually curious like when you say pan African how did you choose your markets? What's common about these markets? Are they the more developed ones where the regulation maybe is a lot more developed? And is FX a source of income as well?
ATA: FX would always be a source of income. We call them settlement gains because we're wholesaler. We don't do price discovery, but we settle in wholesale. So we make margins on wholesale. And to take the two steps back to your question, you cannot almost get a right. That's not a science per se to choose the market. But definitely one of the things I make as move is where remittance is going. So we follow the money. According to the SME, remittance is the fastest way to grow mobile money. As we follow the money, sometimes we get it right, sometimes we got to wait.
Then the last thing you do is regulations because regulations in Africa are not homogeneous. What Ghana will be flexible about, Nigeria will not be flexible about at all. So what you do is you first focus on wiring patterns where there's a mobile money optic, then you also focus on where there's a lot more diaspora outside. When you've got this model, right, then you open up the ecosystem. When you open up the ecosystem, sometimes you win. Sometimes you will not. I'll give you an example. We opened Uganda before Zimbabwe. We thought Uganda would be the next bright market for us at a time of opening Uganda two years ago. We didn't see the way we wanted to see things. We expected 40K to 100,000 transactions a month, Ghana will only do about 30 to 40,000 transactions. Then we immediately opened Zimbabwe. And gosh, Zimbabwe crashed overnight. Then we did Ivory Coast. Then we went into Mozambique. We went into Mozambique, because there are a lot of Southern Africans who move out of Mozambique into the southern part of Africa to work. A lot of Mozambiquans are in Portugal, even in the United Kingdom, there are lots of Mozambiquans in South Africa. Then we also uncovered that the Mozambiquans youth tend to be a lot more upwardly mobile, using mobile money, needs, they tend to be the bulk of the population. So we hit the data as well. And guess what? It's been a success overnight. So it's really a very subjective conversation. But sometimes we get it right. Sometimes we don't. But what matters is that you have active business, then you grow the ecosystem.
ED: Coming back to your income source, which of the income source is the most important to you? Are you a deposit-taking institution, so that in itself would be an income source for you? And the loan business, for example, and its potential for being an important source of income.
ATA: So the top line income comes from commissions and fees. The second top line is settlement, then the last would be all other income which includes funded income. Now, back to the lending model. Obviously, lending in our part of the world is by algorithm. So how many who does most receipts, who does most transactions, and a few other things go into the algorithm? But we have a slightly unique approach to doing this. An approach we use is that you don't want to just lend to anybody. You want to be able to lend and collect back. So the best approach is partnerships. So we have a partnership with a few sort of authorised players that we can work with to do that. Then you asked, are we deposit-taking? We are deposit-taking to an extent when we have an instrument as the consumer is the one who decides how he wants to retain that instrument.
ED: I'm actually trying to place you exactly in that dimension. You're not a neo-bank in the European sense and you're not a micro finance outlet in the Asian sense. And when you say that you use an algorithm, how close is that to maybe the peer-to-peer lenders in China who have had relationships with supply chain networks, for example, and they actually use data such as who you have in your mobile phone as friends? Is the credit scoring model, something that you've been able to play around with?
ATA: For the credit scoring model, there are many types of algorithms that are on the plate. And for us, today, it's locked down on the remittance, the receiver, and how often they receive and which networks they receive and their behaviours. But I think it goes beyond that. And I then like the Chinese model, it's a very good one, the ones that ultimately we would want to adopt. What I've come to realise, it's about finding the right partnership, because when you are able to find the right partner so you can build the right future and the value chain, and be able to upgrade it.
ED: How much of a co-founder were you with Zeepay? Did you start it yourself or were you investing into an existing platform? Just that relationship part of it, what's your role in Zeepay?
ATA: I'm actually the majority shareholder. I'm also the managing director. And I founded that six, seven years ago.
ED: It's not a model that you would have carried through a banking system, right at that point. And bankers were not interested in micro payments and small value payments at that point.
ATA: There is always a problem with bankers in our part of the world. A lot of time we don't see. There's a high sense of obligation thinking that everything tied to financial services belongs to banks. But let me tell you the scariest thing. We all thought that retail banking will die maybe 20 years down the lane. But in COVID I can tell you for free. I mean, this is nothing. But retail banking, will not survive in 2021. And all banks will have to change their model in our parts of the world, especially Ghana, Nigeria, and Uganda. I mean, Kenya is gone. Let me tell you why I'm saying this. Today, we do micro payments, we do remittances, and we do nano loans. We do peer-to-peer transfers, we do SME payments. We do micro insurance. We do some amount of form of pensions. That is all retail banking. And we do it at a lower cost overhead.
I have a total of about 32 staff across the world. Seven close to 2.5 million consumers. My gross profit margin is consistent 86% year on year, even in the dark days. The simple reason is why we have a lower and cheaper cost overlay compared to the banks, compared to all the robots platforms that they put together, which never work. By the time they finish building all these demilitarised zones, that's so light, that's so heavy, and they are not able to do much. Whereas I can come into market and outsource my security to CrowdStrike, which is what I do. And when I finish outsourcing my security to CrowdStrike, I’ve peace of mind then I can focus on innovation. And I'd like to host my services in cloud with DigitalOcean, which is one of the best platforms you can find, very agile. I'm just saying that the cost efficiency is so high. My cost margin to serve a single customer is just about 10 cents.
ED: Give us a sense of the technology investments that you do. How much of the functionality is done in-house and how fast is it and therefore who is your competitor? Because the barrier for entry will therefore be quite low.
ATA: The barrier to entry is very high. Regulatory capital alone is about $5 million. One makes you successful as a fintech, if you can build a back-end with the right framework. If you build a framework that is like a proper real switch, then you can put your agile so you're able to pile on to it. But if you build a very rigid, single handed, single line framework, then you have to patch or rebuild again. So what we did from day one is learn from the mistakes of everybody. We just built a multi framework, multilayer back-end, which allows us to play on to the real easier, then we built a simple front-end to be able to carry it. Today, we run payments via WhatsApp. We're looking to become the biggest player on that side.
ED: Is that a WhatsApp platform or is it you using WhatsApp platform?
Zeepay runs payments on instant messaging platforms like WhatsApp
ATA: We are using WhatsApp rail to call up transactions, which is really what it is. It's a lookup feature. USSD, WhatsApp, other apps, these are lookup features. You're using these to call up transactions. NFC is also a lookup feature and so is QR code is a lookup feature is that being received what the world is not smart at? It's finding the simplest way to call up a transaction.
I'd say it's about how you can innovate a simple platform. So we use two factor authentication, one time passwords as part of the security control. Then we have the encryption and decryption protocols. So it's about allowing a multilayer protocol on your platform. Financial inclusion will come through an inclusive approach, not a single loop. So if they make a mistake and go for a single loop, it's going to bite them in time. At the end of the day, the concept of WhatsApp is not proprietary anymore.
Today, anybody can come up with their chat platform. WeChat is not a WhatsApp platform. If you do that, and you're not careful, what you find is, you find markets adapted to their own channels. But I think that they are smart, and I think you'll get it. Maybe these are sort of localised demonstrations they're doing. Everybody does demonstrations, but I think in time, they will realise that it makes more sense to drive critical with players like ourselves who just drive it in for you. The concept of Visa Direct, Visa Bill, who gave it us and we populated it in the world.
ED: Now why are you doing that, because Visa, as far as it can, wants to preserve its original intermediation model with being an interchange? You are an interchange to some extent, but less of an interchange than Visa and Visa is expensive on top of that. The universe that you are creating, Visa never had that universe because they were expensive. And here you are going out and collecting the mass market?
ATA: It's an interesting point you've made. In financial inclusion, you need an inclusive model. Rails will differ, people will try different rails for different reasons. What I think is happening and will ultimately happen is that you'll find that Visa will eventually acquire a wallet provider and play the wallet game with that provider. Or build their own wallet which they've done through their virtual card system. But for what I see, Visa would always be a partner.
ED: What do they provide you because Visa as a model just does not have a wallet? In fact, every proposition that Visa creates is basically reimagining the physical card in the digital space and that's it. And it just can't imagine another universe and doesn't want to in fact. The whole idea of Visa is to destroy the wallet model that you have. Because yours is a very incremental ecosystem, just one step outside the ecosystem and your model doesn't work. So you're in a very sweet spot. Visa needs you, don't they?
ATA: Visa needing us is pretty clear which is why they open up Visa Direct to us. Let me tell you the benefit of our Visa Direct. Unfortunately, apart from our wallet system which can take you to all wallets across the continent, Visa is the only player that can take you to all bank accounts via Visa Direct on the continent from a single source. So I see it more of a collaborative effort. I think they have a lot of respect for us, and we definitely have a lot of respect for them. And we'll see how the partnerships will pan out. But as it stands today, we are the key player if you want to grow the model, you come to us we grow with you.
ED: What about the other remittance players? Everyone from Western Union to the new models of the old game, which is TransferWise, for example, who's trying to revolutionise, but at the end of the day, they're no different from MoneyGram, and so on. In your original relationship with MoneyGram, what was the value that you were providing? And how do you view the remittance players, the ones that desperately need to revolutionise and the new guys like TransferWise?
ATA: What we do, which is beautiful, is that we give everybody digital distribution. So, in the money transfer business, you have three players. That's what I call the traditional MTOs, without mentioning names. Then there are the middle players who have come in, by virtue of providing an app which is free, etc. Then we have the mom and pops or what we call the corridor specialist. They are small players, as a single family, they've been doing this for 30 years, every month, people will leave them checks, and then they do the cash and transfer on their behalf, etc. All of these guys are exposed to one thing - distribution. They need to fly into Africa, and go and see everywhere good data and every single bank to be regulated, and to push traffic through. Yet when they come on my platform, they have a single access point to a single API, which gives them multiple markets. I've done the regulatory work, and I build distribution for them. So, all of a sudden, the mom and pop has the same leverage as the big player or the app player. And that's the magic we bring to the microsystem. We make distribution very efficient for them, and very easy. And these guys love it. So for us, the game is this digital distribution, helping to build and expand an ecosystem that existed but nobody knew about.
But at the same time, you need to run faster because the rules are running after you. Being that ubiquitous platform and the ease with which you created it, it can easily be created by other players. So how do you keep the barrier of entry higher for your competitors? If you look, one of the things we do is efficiency in service delivery while available 24 hours and our wallets are agile and affordable, so consumers love it. We have a lot of retail promo we spend back into the ecosystem. Every year, we process two to three million dollars in revenue. You can be sure that a good one million dollars will be spent on ecosystem. We give free airtime. We do things that make the consumer happy and comfortable. Because for us, we didn't come into this space to be rich. We came into this space to solve a problem and in solving the problem we will become wealthy. We actually just finished putting up our corporate building, a state of the art corporate building right in the heart of Accra cantonment.
We're just not changing payments. We're changing our lifestyle. So we raised $250,000 few years ago. We bootstrapped it, today everything's internally generated funds. We've grown. We are a classic model or classic story of a local company that can grow in an enabling environment. And thanks to this present administration of Ghana, the governor, they've been put in very enabling policies and have allowed local companies to grow and thrive.
ED: How sensitive are you to interest margins like if the interest rates start to decrease dramatically? In Africa, the interest margins are much wider that in itself is a differentiator. And why certain models work better in Africa than in markets where the interest margins have collapsed completely. So does that work in your favour?
ATA: Any way the market goes will always work in our favour because we make a margin on top of price. So whatever the price, we will make a margin. Now the beauty is that because we have a multi-layer product focus, we're able to survive. Because if one will have one product on this side, might not have another product on that side, and you complement together to grow. And we've just scratched the surface. So there's so much to be done. We are the payment partner for MasterCard for government of Ghana, for the COVID-19 payments in Ghana. Absolutely phenomenal and it's exciting to see all these initiatives going through our platform. Everyday there's a different initiative and there's a different conversation.
ED: Yours is a model that originated in Ghana, which is arguably a middle income country in Africa and stable with the regulatory aspects. At the same time, you meeting a need where the banks haven't gone into. So if Ghana was a little bit more developed, maybe, the business model that you have may not have taken off because the banks would have met that. So would you say that you might be on your way to becoming a bank yourself?
ATA: I think the one thing that we will become is a financial services supermarket. Whether it will be a full capital adequacy bank, or a sub tier bank like a neo-bank, I don't know. But one thing I know is that we're going to be a financial services supermarket.
ED: When we talk about the neo banks in Europe, the one thing they do well is they onboard very quickly, doing 60,000 new customers a month. The thing they don't do very well is that the balance sheet doesn't look profitable, because it's the onboarding aspect of it. And in the end, they find themselves competing with traditional banks.
ATA: I'll tell you why - because they are only running on the Visa or MasterCard rails. They don't have a multiple layer socket which would give them that agility. That's one. Secondly, when it comes to onboarding, it takes me less than five minutes to onboard a customer. We're the only platform that does self-onboarding. You don't even need to go to an agent, you can onboard yourself. We've got a full compliance, proprietary platform we built ourselves right from scratch, which does everything. By the time you finish entering the info in our platform, we have your ID details and we have your storage in our system. But that doesn't answer them. The reason why their balance sheets are weak is because they don't understand the balance sheet in the first place.
In financial services, the money is made on the balance sheet and not on the P&L. So if you can onboard and it's not on the balance sheet, then you don't make money. If you can onboard and transact, and it's not on the balance sheet, you've not made money. You need to be able to move liability. You need to be able to move assets. So if you bring in remittance or if you bring in payment, you need to be able to monetise the payment as it goes through ecosystem. How do you monetise it? You monetise it by commission. You monetise it by wholesaling so that you make a margin on it. And then also, don't forget that there are negative interest rate regime. These are markets where you can’t make funded income. So they have to be innovative. We are licensed by FCA. And we're just waiting for a few approvals. We've done an acquisition. Once approvals come through, the next thing we're doing is going in there to set up an immigrant focus bank that's focused on immigrants and running that channel through the diaspora right through to Africa. And we teach them banking.
ED: And are you funding it organically?
ATA: I don't know if that will be funded organically. But right now we're waiting for regulatory approvals. But yes, acquisition was funded organically. We've grown. We've had a phenomenal growth. We have an exciting balance sheet. The last I checked, our balance sheet has moved from last year, about 11 million to about 33 million balance sheet size. So it's a functional growth and we got to keep growing. You can only keep walking.
ED: How much of your motivation and inspiration is Chinese? The wallet platforms here are really super developed. Although it's a very highly localised platform. How much of what you've achieved, can I say, is original? And how much of that is something that you've either copied or you open sourced it from what's out there?
ATA: Everything we've built so far is proprietary. I'm actually the designer, my company. So I design and other people build. And what we are about to do is definitely layer it on and we're looking at a few things. I'm also one firm believer in modular systems. I don't believe in hardcore and everything. So I think that we've reached a point of scale. This is the point where we're going to do a lot of partnerships. This is the point where we're going to layer it on with a few modular platforms. One of the things I'm eyeing is WeChat, and the concept of WeChat is pretty simple. But sometimes it's best to partner and just grow it faster. Now you asked what part of us is Chinese. I think everything about us is African.
You made a point at the beginning of this call, which I like, is the fact that there's so much happening in our ecosystem and the world doesn’t know about it. If you come into the Ghanaian ecosystem, you'll be amazed at the amount of development the wealth that is sitting here, that is proprietary. Hard thinking and a lot of hard coding, although I am not a big fan of hard coding. What I think is that the disruptors will come to the gate. I think we’re invincible force for disruptors. We're moving and we'll move right a heartbeat. We're going to get persistent intelligence onto our platforms. We're going to get artificial intelligence onto another layer. So we're going to make it a lot more agile. And we're not just going to be the disruptive gate of the banks. We're going to go into other markets, bigger market. I think that the next layer of dominance will come from Africa and that can be driven by the fintech ecosystem.
ED: A lot of your evolution has been on the top of the mobile device. And what is your sense of how the platform industry will evolve and what game you want to play in it?
ATA: I think that there's going to be an explosion over the next 10 years. Based on what knowledge when we launch into 5G. When that explosion happens, IoT might change the game. Because what it is today is you need to be able to do notification. So you need an active phone number, but maybe 5G and data and the likes of WhatsApp will bring a new realm. The whole idea of over the top (OTT) will bring another realm where you can still be able to push it up. In WhatsApp messages, some form of messages enable you to transact because the power or the force behind the star wallet is a fight that you can receive a message or a notification. But if IoT can be stronger, then IoT gives a lot of competition to the networks. And it changes the game. And it's how enabling regulations would also help that transformer ecosystems. But one thing I can assure you about Africa is, we will leapfrog everything. So when we do 5G, I think things will change. When they change, will we be there? Yes. And that's why largely we’re building our platforms towards OTT. So that we are able to be a layer above the existing sockets.
ED: Some people looking at what you're doing might say that your volume is still, by national size, I think is good, but by the kind of scale that you have in countries like China or some parts of the West, it's a proof of concept. Would you submit that what you're doing is actually a proof of concept?
ATA: I want to wish them well and now I'll tell them to keep watching us. Our first year, we did 385 transactions. So even in 2016 I can do 385 transactions and come to what I'm today, then it's only a function of time. Time is a semblance of many things. But one thing I know is we're going for global dominance. One day I know, we will control this market, and possibly a good part of Africa.
ED: Do you even bother with areas like blockchain, for example? Is that your area of interest?
ATA: Let me tell you that blockchain is a big hype. And open ledgers for document management, I think, it's a wonderful thing. But to say that you're going to use an underlining asset called crypto to change the world, it's around. It's around as a dark realm and it won't take over the world. If anything will take over the world are the wallets. If your card could not dominate the world, you want to dominate the world in the latter end of the 21st century is with wallets. Because we move with our phones. Today, with my phone, I never have cash. I just need an invite. The scary thing about Zeepay is that I can even fund my wallet with a Visa card. So if I'm stuck somewhere, I just have to find my wallet and I transact on it any merchant ecosystem.
ED: What happens if the Ghanaian Central Bank invests in central bank digital currency? Would that wipe out your business?
ATA: I think it's a good idea and I'm waiting for that because that will be the last push to interoperability. We need a digital currency, which is not a mask, not a mirror, but the same as a currency in the market. So if you issue 200 million in circulation, maybe 10 million will be digital and the remaining 190 will be cash, whatever format is. What it means, all of a sudden, is that electronic money will come into the capital market. And so all of a sudden, if I have 20 million excesses in my wallet overnight, I can trade it, especially because I'm a licensed intermediation player. So I think it's a necessary thing. And if the government is looking at it, I think it's a wonderful thing. I can also assure you is that in the history of Ghana, this is probably the most innovative, forward thinking, forward looking government regime we've got. We've got the best governance you can ever find. They're always five steps ahead of the game.
Okay, it's scary when a regulator can think into the game. It's scary for a player because then they can control you. But at the same time, if you look at them, on the flip side of it, they actually enable the market to grow. We have about $35 billion going through electronic wallets, we need to bring it into the capital markets. It's a critical conversation. When it comes into the capital market, you also play, make it another playing field. This is economics 101. So that's my view on it. Good for business, not bad for business.
ED: How has the pandemic changed things for you? And how is that influenced any of the thinking that you're going through and the decisions you're making after the pandemic is over?
ATA: I'm sad to say but the pandemic, I haven't seen it as a drawback. I've only seen it as an opportunity for good. We've grown phenomenal. Our growth on top of traditional growth has been about 76% join the spirit, which is phenomenal. We've done the most acquisitions, the most strategic moves, and we've been able to do it in 2020. So it's really been a wonderful year. The lockdown effect and the post lockdown has only improved business, which is a shame, though. But what I've always told everybody is that the essential workers were never going to hit. And they were the core when it comes to remittance. And that group of people have always mattered. We've just never seen them that way. And so they have grown my business. And I reward them every year.
ED: Actually, just give us some big numbers again. How many customers do you have? What is the average transaction size?
ATA: We have about two million users. The average transaction size is in the range $120 to $150. We are looking to close the year at about $500 million total process volume. In number of transactions, we're probably closer to about 2.8 million. 2020 was a year of sprint for us. And 2021 the sprint two and sprint two is just finishing what we started.
ED: Are there any regulations that you're looking forward to in Ghana? If you were to influence regulation, what would you pay most attention to?
ATA: I would have asked every ministry, every municipal to have an open API. That's all we need for the uptake. Once they have open API's with their bank accounts integrated onto these open API's then anybody can process any form of payments on their behalf. And then you open up the ecosystem and it becomes more efficient. At that point you have efficiency.
ED: The questions I've asked you are questions that I've been asking all around the world. And to be able to get the answers from you in Ghana, it just thrills me and helps me put in perspective my own understanding of how payments is evolving, how financial services is shaping up, and where the disruption will come from. And it's very interesting that you are creating that disruption while in the market. Thank you very much, Andrew.