Ismail Ahmed escaped war and has gone on to build one of the world’s most trusted fintech brands

BY Preta Peace Namasaba March 22, 2024 12:19 PM EDT
Ismail Ahmed. Photo credit: Ismail Ahmed

Ismail Ahmed, the founder of $5 billion-valued Zepz (formerly WorldRemit) was born and raised in Somaliland. He had to escape civil war to fulfil his scholarship obligations in the UK. The challenges he faced growing up and as a migrant shaped the establishment and growth of his money transfer company.

Ahmed earned a scholarship to study in the UK from working for a World Bank agricultural development project in Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland. The outbreak of the Somali Civil War hindered his migration abroad. He had to travel for a month and a half to Djibouti and was smuggled out in a truck to the UK. One of the first things after arriving in the UK and starting university was send a majority of his maintenance fees back to his family. Ahmed was following in the footsteps of his brother and sister who had moved to the Gulf countries and sent remittances to the family.

“I did all kinds of temporary jobs to make money to live on, some of which, like strawberry picking, were really tough. This was when I learnt about the costs and inconvenience of transferring money abroad,” Ahmed said of the inspiration behind founding WorldRemit.

He took a job picking strawberries to fund his education. Ahmed describes it as the toughest job he’s ever done. He had multiple jobs so that he could earn money to send back home to his family. Sending money through traditional agents proved to be inconveniencing and expensive. Ahmed developed the concept of WorldRemit through his efforts of finding a better and more efficient way of transferring money.

While running a money transfer project for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Ahmed discovered corruption in Somalia’s remittance program. He confronted his boss with the information and lost his job uncovering the fraud. Ahmed submitted a report alleging corruption to the UN, with the UN ethics committee ruling in his favor. He received a compensation of £200,000 ($250,000) for the way he was treated after making the allegations.

He knew he wanted to invested the sum he had won as compensation but creating a product users could trust was the biggest challenge Ahmed faced.

“Building a money transfer service requires building trust – both among our customers and among partners like banks or telcos. We spent a lot of time at the outset explaining how only a digital service can enable money transfers fit for the 21st century – with great success: Today we work in close partnership with major banks and telco partners like MTN to deliver a convenient, secure, and trusted service all over the world,” he has said.

In the four years following his dismissal, Ahmed had come up with a business plan for WorldRemit (initially launched as AfricaRemit). The service would enable migrant workers to send money worldwide using a smartphone and app thereby eliminating the costly middleman. The compensation allowed Ahmed register his business. WorldRemit received £6.2 million (nearly $8 million) from early seed investors between 2010 and 2013. It raised £33 million ($41 million) in a Series A investment round and £82m ($103 million) in Series B funding.

As one of the first companies to move traditional migrant remittances online, WorldRemit faced challenges in getting people to trust them. Senders had gotten used sending money through physical locations and were suspicious of the information being solicited such as their date of birth. The startup had to individually phone customers, explain what was being done and reassure them that it was a mere fraud check. Partnerships with more prominent and established brands helped customers gain trust in WorldRemit.

In 2021, WorldRemit acquired Africa-focused remittance app Sendwave in a $500 million deal. Zepz was created as a parent company for the two brands. The company has over 11 million users across over 150 countries. It generated almost $10 billion of Gross Send Volumes and $338 million of revenues in 2020 alone. In 2021, Zepz raised $292 million in primary financing and reached a valuation of $5 billion. Ahmed serves as the Non-Executive Chairman, overseeing the strategic direction and governance of the unicorn company.