MFS Africa’s Coming to America

As a kid, I watched “Coming to America[1]” dozens of times. At some point, I could recite all of Prince Akeem’s lines and would even fantasise about my first trip to America. When I finally made the trip, it was nothing like that — but a stranger still asked me if I ever thought about pursuing a career in boxing. He went on to give me his business card and just walked off. I kept the card for a long time. You never know, I told myself…

But my story with America is somewhat more complicated than Prince Akeem’s.

I am Beninese by birth, African in my heart, and French by association. And all these make a lot of things about America suspicious to me. Since that first trip in 1998, I have constantly been fascinated and frightened by America. Fascinated by the unmatched optimism of the American people, their faith in a better tomorrow, their unyielding belief that they, too, can make it to the top, regardless of their current condition, their hardworking culture, the engrained self-reliance, the eternal pursuit of happiness and the storytelling. I am also frightened by the systematic racism, the individualism and egocentrism, the broken healthcare, and the perpetual cycle of violence.

So, it was with a lot of mixed feelings that earlier this year, I went to Tulsa, Oklahoma, for the first time to meet Bob Merrick, the founder of GTP, and his team. As background, a few months earlier, we had signed a terms sheet to acquire GTP.

Here’s the backstory. In 2019, MFS Africa concluded an agreement with Visa to connect our MFS Africa HUB to the Visa Network to enable card issuing at scale. But implementation proved to be a slow burn. In January 2021 we were still distance away from monetization. GTP has been a partner of ours on that journey and the more I spoke to Rich Bialek, GTP’s CEO, the more they appeared to be a way to accelerate. Rich made the trip to Joburg couple of times and in July 2021 he introduced me and Filip Nilsson, MFS Africa’s Head of Corporate Development, to Bob. The conversation moved rapidly from figuring out how to partner to accelerate card issuing at scale, to seizing the opportunity right in front of us — combining the companies. Our interactions were all online until I made the trip to Tulsa in February this year.

When I finally met Bob, we talked a lot.

Mostly we traded stories. The stories of how he first built FSV Payment Solutions and sold it in 2012 to an American bank, retaining the rights to the IP for international markets. How he thought “international markets” meant Latin America until fate put Serge Doh and David Dearman on his path and led him and his team to find their first client in a place they could never have placed on a map — Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. I told him about my own story from Benin to founding MFS Africa in South Africa, my dream of a world where borders won’t matter when it comes to payment, and my deep-seated belief that Access is the only currency that truly matters, everywhere. We talked about big pictures and small details, but no matter where we started, we always ended up with the main question: can we get the chemistry between the people to work? Across the distance between Tulsa and Africa, across the usually underestimated culture gap between America and the rest of the world?

By the time I boarded my return flight, I had the beginning of the answer: it’s not about whether we can make it work. It is about how we make it work because the world needs what we can build together.

Bob and GTP have come to Africa. Over the past ten years, they have built an impressive business supporting 80+ banks across 34 African countries from Tulsa, Oklahoma. And many, including myself, didn’t notice them at first. For years now, the growth of mobile money across the continent has made it easy for many players to dismiss the importance of cards as a payment method, especially outside of big markets like South Africa, Nigeria, and Egypt. The reality is large digital merchants who are betting part of their future on African consumers have become increasingly familiar with mobile money. A case in point is the Spotify launch across the continent last year, which we powered in partnership with dLocal. But for every Spotify, thousands of Funky Amigos will probably never accept Orange Money as the payment method in the Central Africa Republic. But why should the one improbable Finish music fan in Bangui be denied Access? That is why card issuing at scale and interoperability between cards and mobile money is so crucial to the future of African Fintech’s revolution. And that is why this acquisition is so transformative.

Our guiding belief is that African consumers and businesses should be able to make payments to any destination, offline and online. We have always known that to make borders truly matter less, we had to connect mobile money to the rest of the world; card networks appear today to be the most efficient way to do that, and the launch of the Mpesa Global card last week with Visa goes a long way to underscore this belief. We have long imagined a world where mobile money users can have a card attached to their mobile money account and get access to all the world’s possibilities. Our acquisition of GTP accelerates our path toward that vision.

Along with the acquisition of BAXI, which strengthened our Offline Merchant Acquiring capability, GTP enables us to move our stack a lot closer to a complete omnichannel Pay-in & Pay-out network — making borders matter a little less.

But for all of this to work, MFS Africa too, needs to come to America. For good.

Our story will be incomplete if Africa remains a distant exotic land for most Americans and American businesses, if they remain unable to fully connect to our Network of Networks to make money move to/from Africa as simple as making a call to the continent. That is why I am so excited about MFS Africa’s Coming to America. I expect it to be full of surprises, laughter, and disbelief on both sides. But I also hope that at the end of it all, it will be a beautiful meeting of hearts and minds that will genuinely make borders matter less.

It’s been a truly thrilling two days since we made the announcement. I have been overwhelmed by the pride the whole African tech ecosystem has expressed, the excitement of our partners and the encouragement we have received from the whole industry. But as I write these lines, my heart is mostly full of gratitude to all the Americans who came to (MFS) Africa and contributed to making us what we are today. Julie Neogy, Rachel Balsham, Carina Rumberger, Rebecca Noyes, Iris Zielske, Kelsay Lewis, Frannie Tyner and Meghan Taylor have all, in their own ways, laid the tracks that have now led us to America. I hope this deal makes it a little easier for them to explain to their families what they are doing in Africa and how important it is for America and the world that they continue doing it.

America, here we come! Our heads full of dreams! Here us too, in the pursuit of happiness.

[1] I have to say that I refused to watch the sequel that came out last year by fear of seeing it killing my memories of the original one. And according to many of my friends, I was right. So, all my references are limited to the OG.

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Dare Okoudjou

Dare Okoudjou

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Dare is the Founder & CEO of MFS Africa, the largest digital payments hub on the continent.