Kabirou Mbodje says he knows what ails Africa: a lack of integration. “This is the key part of the problem in terms of developing on the continent,” says Mr Mbodje, the founder and chief executive of Wari, a money-transfer company, and at 53 one of the most prominent Senegalese business people of his generation.
“This is the key part of the problem in terms of developing on the continent,” says Mr Mbodje, the founder and chief executive of Wari, a money-transfer company, and at 53 one of the most prominent Senegalese business people of his generation.
“Africa is 54 countries. We’re talking about a billion people, a huge continent, 30 currencies. Why it is not prosperous is because we’re not integrated,” he argues. “We are small countries with no effect on a global scale [ . . .] If we don’t aggregate those markets together, we will not have leverage.”
His company, claims the French-born chief executive, is key to that integration. “That’s what Wari is all about.”
The group was founded in Dakar in 2008 and now has more than half the country’s money-transfer market. It processes at least 1m transactions daily in 60 countries, allowing customers to pay bills and school fees, and transfer money worldwide.
Mr Mbodje says Wari can become an African version of MasterCard and Visa — a neutral platform that will harmonise commerce across the continent.
“We are trying to just put, let’s say, a bridge between everybody in an agnostic way, where you can be a telecom player, you can be a bank, you can be an insurance company, you could be a mom-and-pop shop,” he says. “You have access to the whole global African market without having to move from where you are.”
For now, the barriers to commerce in Africa are such that even trading with businesses in Gambia, a country that Senegal surrounds, is difficult.
“I have no link from here to Gambia,” he says. “If I want to transfer money via my bank account, I have to use [Belgium-based] Swift. We’re talking about 200km from here. Why would I go to . . . Belgium to use a service to do something that is next door? Those are the kinds of problems we need to solve. And we need to do it by ourselves.”
Mr Mbodje has come up against multinational companies trying to stake a claim in Africa by launching money-transfer businesses. “Total [the French oil group] have tried; they failed. Banks are trying; they fail. Other people will try eventually and they will also fail.”
To expand Wari’s footprint, which is so large in Senegal that people say simply “Wari me money”, Mr Mbodje last year announced a $129m plan to buy Tigo, the Senegalese mobile telecoms operation of Stockholm-listed Millicom. The deal would give Wari access to the mobile money market that is dominated in west Africa by France’s Orange, Senegal’s biggest telecoms operator via its joint venture Orange Sonatel.
Millicom cancelled the deal in July, saying the business would be sold instead to a consortium that includes Sofima Ltee, Teyliom Group and NJJ Capital, an investment vehicle controlled by Xavier Niel, the French telecoms billionaire.
Wari is suing Millicom in Senegal and filed for international arbitration in Paris, after Senegal’s President Macky Sall issued a decree approving the initial deal. Millicom did not respond to a request for comment but has filed its own arbitration request against Wari.
Mr Mbodje argues that there are problems around access and fairness. Senegal offers only three telecoms licences, so companies can prioritise their mobile money products on their systems, he claims. “A telco is a tube, it’s just an infrastructure, it’s like a road, and it should be open for everybody. The builder of the road, they should not be able to say, oh, only the red cars can run on this thing because I have red cars.
“So you partner with the telco to offer the service, which we are doing in several countries, but it’s not enough,” he says, adding that companies need to be “part of the telco ecosystem” to build a global business.
Mr Mbodje says support from the Senegalese people has been robust, and the dispute has at times been framed as the local champion pitted against foreign players.
“They have this spirit now: I will not call it nationalism, but they understand now that it has to come from us.
“That’s why you have 99 per cent of the population behind Wari when it comes to that case, and I think the administration sees it,” he says.
“We are not ready to accept that we will sacrifice a local entrepreneur versus some foreign company — even though everybody is welcome because it’s how you create an ecosystem — but you have to take into consideration that you cannot build a country without its own sons.”
Article source: https://www.ft.com/content/c37a8ea6-2ea6-11e8-97ec-4bd3494d5f14