By Olivia Chow
Thunes offers a global platform that provides seamless transfer of funds between payment systems in more than 100 countries and 60 currencies. The company was born last year as the cross-border payments offspring of TransferTo, which was established in 2005 beginning with a mobile top-up and rewards business that has become the other offspring, DT One. However, the Thunes network is certainly not an infant with TransferTo starting the business in 2016, the business in 2018 seeing nearly 900% growth in revenue and processing over $2B worth of transactions.
Their vision is to enable a world where emerging and developed markets have seamlessly interconnected payments. To further make this a reality in Africa, Sandra Yao brings her expertise as Director of New Business Development at the National Bank of Kenya and Head of Orange Money at Telkom Kenya to the position of SVP Africa at Thunes. She’s also agreed to be one of the judges for the RemTECH Awards 2020 and discusses with us how she views the African money transfer landscape.
While working as the Director of New Business Development at The National Bank of Kenya (NBK) you set up the Chinese Business department. Can you speak more on the role of China in the Kenyan economy when you were setting this up and how it’s evolved today?
This is a very broad topic, so let’s focus on the work we’ve done at NBK and why we decided to set up the Chinese Business department. There is a large Chinese community in Kenya, with a healthy split between private businesses and large corporate entities. We wanted to help them not only with their banking needs but to build a bridge between the two communities; to forge a better connection and create a sense of belonging for the Chinese community living in Kenya. Our mission was: “To be the enabling bank for Chinese to do better business in Kenya”.
Today, China has grown to become Kenya’s largest trade partner and bilateral lender. This demonstrates the trusted partnership between the two countries, and in my opinion, the Chinese community in Kenya will continue to play a significant role in the country’s development from a strategic and long-term perspective.
You also set up the Innovation and Digitization Center while at The National Bank of Kenya. I hear you were able to implement a culture that further embraced innovation. Would you agree? And do you have any stories about how you were able to do this?
We wanted to disrupt the ‘old’ way of banking and it started with how we perceive ourselves as a bank. At the time, NBK was thought to be traditional in its technology and approach. We changed this by disrupting the way we were managing the business, and creating a culture that encouraged innovation and creativity. This renewed approach allowed us to attract new market segments and capture the attention of new customers such as the art community.
NBK was also the first and only bank to develop second-generation smart digital driving licenses with the National Transport and Safety Authority (NTSA). We aimed to be the bank that listens, and that started with putting the customer back to the center of everything we did and creating innovative solutions that benefit the communities we serve.
You’ve since started working for TransferTo and their subsidiaries still in Kenya. Tell us about your role there. And what inspired your move into the private sector?
I was hired to establish TransferTo’s presence in Kenya, creating business engagements in East Africa as a starting point. As the business in the region grew, I had an opportunity to manage the whole of Africa to further strengthen our presence and focus in key African markets. I’m proud to say we are leading in this space, and we aim to be the gateway for any payment company in and out of Africa. In 2019, the company rebranded to Thunes, focusing on cross-border payments and supplying smarter payment solutions for emerging economies, including in Africa.
I have always worked in the private sector before joining NBK, so this felt like a natural move. I particularly like the startup culture of TransferTo; as someone who likes to roll up her sleeves and get things done, the environment here allows me to grow as we work to build payment solutions to connect Africans across the continent, and Africa to the world.
Concerning African cross-border payments and innovation, what do you think should be discussed more?
The payment industry is a complex ecosystem. To overcome this, we need to adopt a harmonized regulation approach to embrace innovation, interoperability and infrastructure building. Currently, the cost of cross-border payment remains the highest in sub-saharan Africa. With a shared infrastructure and interoperability across various payment platforms, we can then enhance intra-regional trade and business activity in Africa.
Presently, Thunes has established 35 intra-African corridors and continues to grow our presence globally. Our partners include leading mobile operators like M-Pesa, MTN, Airtel Money, Orange Money and Tigo Cash.
How has COVID-19 impacted remittances in Africa that you think will have lasting change for the industry?
As Africans still rely heavily on cash transactions, cash-based money transfer operators (MTOs) have experienced major challenges brought by COVID-19. We are living in unprecedented times, and we don’t have enough data to understand the long-term impact. Certainly, it has spurred cash-based agents to evolve and turn to digital financial systems including mobile wallets; we have seen how critical the use of digital solutions has become the link between the population and broader financial inclusion.
We have seen a steep increase in intra-African payments via mobile phones compared to traditional ways of remitting funds. This is largely due to the government increasing transaction limits as well as allowing higher transaction frequency. Zero-fee transactions offered by some African mobile wallet providers have also helped communities to adopt these new services.
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