8 Lessons from Zoona, an African Fintech Startup


During his visit to Kenya in July, President Obama reiterated his belief in entrepreneurship as the “spark of prosperity” – in Africa in particular. As an Accion Ambassador this summer, I found no shortage of young Zambians and Malawians who share this ideology. So why aren’t there more young business owners in Africa? I spoke to Brad Magrath, one of the two Zambian brothers who founded Zoona, the mobile-payment startup that offers entrepreneur an opportunity to provide money transfer and other payment services to low-income consumers – while earning commissions and creating employment. Brad explained how he and his brother managed to empower more than a thousand emerging young entrepreneurs on a continent that is supposedly hostile to new businesses.

1. It’s not about the idea; It’s about the execution

I find that many of my peers – both in Zambia and back home – think they have what it takes to run a business but are waiting for the “big idea.” Brad and Brett Magrath’s first entrepreneurial attempt was a positive role model comic-book character; their second was a startup in Bangladesh; their third ended in a hairy border crossing with a shoe box…but that’s a story for another day. Just as they thought they might have to give up and go back to their office jobs, the idea for Zoona was born. Don’t waste time trying to think up the next Airbnb, Uber, or LinkedIn – if you think you want to start a business, just do it.

2. Scarcity is the mother of innovation

Many of the budding business owners I have spoken to here think they need to go back to school or get more capital before they can follow their dreams. But according to Brad, there is never an excuse for not making a minimum viable product and testing your business theory.

Talk to potential customers, create a low-tech prototype, find a cheap way to prove that people will be willing to pay for your product or service. Worry about investment later.

3. In Africa, raising capital is not the magic bullet

The first investors in Zoona (including Accion) were American, not African. Brad has a firm theory that, in the United States, investment is more risk-tolerant – people will evaluate your company based on what they think it will be able to achieve. In Africa, investors want to see proof. They want to see revenues and a team with a demonstrated ability for execution.

4. Earn the right to say no

It took 18 months from when Brett and Brad decided they should be “investor-ready” to when they accepted their first investment. They focused on building revenues, then formed an independent advisory board so they could practice producing monthly financials and reports for potential investors. In doing so, they earned enough working capital and experience to be able to turn down any “paper tigers” – funders who only want to add you to their list of investments but are not willing to go through the door with you. Make sure investors are absolutely aligned with your values.

5. Have values

As much as your business might take new forms over time, you need a “true north” that will help you to avoid bad decisions. I’ll admit, when I first read Zoona’s six core values (on the posters, on the website, and just about everywhere you turn in each of their offices), I didn’t fully appreciate how much management relies on them to inform decisions. Then Brad called me in front of a white board on my third week, gave me a pen, and asked me to list my first impressions of Zoona according to these six headings. The Zoona management team did not just pick six words they liked – they picked the six things for which they wanted to be held accountable. You can’t have values that sit on a poster on a wall; you have to create behaviors and habits that constantly reinforce them.

6. Surround yourself with people that share those values

As important as leadership is, there is no doubt that Zoona would not be where it is today without the outstanding commitment of its staff. Some of my colleagues have been here since the beginning and have told me incredible stories about the days when their only “salary” was a promise of great things to come. Others came as volunteers in search of an adventure, caught “Zoona-itis,” and never left. Zoona fosters a culture of what they call “A-Players”: top performers who live by Zoona’s values of entrepreneurship and integrity. No entrepreneur can make it alone – you need to surround yourself with a committed team willing to create and build alongside you.

7. “You have to go from a skateboard to a car”

On my first day, Brad announced this to a room full of Zoona staff and I had absolutely no idea what was going on. Despite their sky-high ambitions to “dominate” Africa, the Magrath brothers also believe in incrementalism. Businesses need to find out what their core is and get really good at it. Don’t try to build a car from scratch; build your skateboard into a scooter, your scooter into a bicycle, and your bicycle into a motorbike, then build your car.

8. Having said that…one day you’re a chicken and the next day you’re feathers

Zoona moves incrementally, but, boy, does it move quickly. Brad told me about Mixit (who?), the original instant mobile-messaging service, which stood still for too long and was overtaken spectacularly and brutally by WhatsApp. This is particularly true for businesses in the tech world; hence Zoona knows it has to continue to grow, innovate, and disrupt aggressively. You have to be agile, manage change, and stay ahead of the crowd, but relish competition.

It is hard to summarize the recipe for creating Zoona, but I appreciate that in creating a successful startup, the Magraths are not kicking away the ladder. At the very core of its being, Zoona is about training and equipping emerging entrepreneurs. Without any capital investment, a young Zambian or Malawian can become a Zoona agent – and a self-employed business owner – overnight.

Since my project is about creating entrepreneur-training tools, selfishly, I’d prefer if our agents remained lifelong Zoona business owners. But if one or two of the agents using my tools became an African Mark Zuckerberg or Richard Branson, well, I guess that would be pretty cool too.

Accion Ambassador Kirsty Gray deployed to Zambia, South Africa, and Malawi to work on an insights and agent reactivation project with fintech startup Zoona.

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