What’s the inspiration behind Asaak?
I was born in America to Bangladeshi immigrant parents. When I was a child I frequently traveled to my ancestral home. On my visits, I witnessed both the devastating effects of poverty and the power of finance to overcome its challenges.
I also had the opportunity to travel to Africa. On my first trip to Uganda in 2015, I was astounded by the reach and impact of the country’s mobile money system, which allows people to send and receive money instantaneously through cell phones. I was inspired to see farmers in remote villages transacting digitally in seconds. However, the banks were lagging far behind the business community in digitization—business owners still had to trek all the way to town and wait in line at the bank in order to deposit cash at the counter. More importantly, they often had to wait over six weeks just to get a decision on their loan application. This didn’t make sense to me.
Income inequality is an enormous global challenge that has only worsened because of COVID-19. We hope to make a dent in this problem by allowing Africans to affordably acquire productive assets and graduate to the middle class.
Why did you decide to start your own company?
I began my career at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, where I worked on critical issues such as creating stress testing models to ensure that "too-big-to-fail" banks would not fail again. The Fed graciously sponsored my Master’s studies at Columbia, where I joined the nonprofit Engineers Without Borders for an agriculture project in Uganda. That's where I met my now-business partner Edward Egwalu. While in Uganda, Edward and I saw farmers in remote areas struggling to access credit even though they owned productive businesses. We recognized an opportunity to use cell phones to bridge the financing gap and reduce poverty.
In June 2016, I founded Asaak and moved halfway around the world to Uganda. We’ve since provided loans to thousands of microenterprises that would otherwise be left off the financial grid.
How did you get this idea off the ground in Uganda?
In 2019 I traveled to Hangzhou, China to attend an Alibaba Business School fellowship program for African startups. There I met my good friend Nick Kamanzi, who was the Head of Fintech at SafeBoda at the time. SafeBoda is the biggest ride-hailing app in Uganda and has a particular focus on motorcycle taxi (“boda”) drivers. They wanted a financial institution to provide motorcycles on credit for their fleet of boda drivers.
Nick invited us to the SafeBoda Academy in Kampala. This is where we had the chance to talk to boda drivers at length about their financial challenges. We learned that over half of Uganda’s 1M boda drivers are forced to rent a motorcycle because they can't afford to buy one. We saw an opportunity to become the first fintech startup to enter the motorcycle lending space, and with our data partnerships and streamlined lending platform, we quickly established the fastest turnaround time and highest credit quality in the industry.
Financial problems in developing countries are more interesting to me personally because so much has not been built yet. This means that as a startup, we have the chance to write the rules of an entirely new financial system. In the US, there are thousands of companies similar to Asaak providing asset financing—the market is quite saturated. In Africa, there are relatively few competitors.
Also, the impact of a dollar is much larger outside of the US. This allowed me to start Asaak five years ago with just $20,000 of savings. We are now a $10M+ company with over 30 full-time staff and thousands of customers. This would have been much harder—or maybe impossible—in the US with the same starting capital.
What’s been the #1 (or two) top challenge(s) you’ve faced while launching your company?
Maintaining a strong company culture while scaling and opening new branches. For early-stage startups, it is hard to invest time into developing culture, policies, and procedures when product/market fit has not been found yet. On the other hand, if a strong culture is not established, the startup can never mature and scale its business model. Now that we've achieved product/market fit and strong commercial traction, we are ready to tackle the challenge of developing a focused company culture across multiple geographies.
Have you learned anything new or surprising about yourself through this process?
I used to be poor at speaking persuasively and I still have much to learn in this regard, but I learned early on that nobody invests in a startup after hearing a neutral, objective, and scientific sales pitch. Certainly, a pitch should be grounded in facts and the company’s provable traction, but it also needs to be packaged as an exciting narrative or nobody will pull the trigger on investing. When people invest in a startup, they often do it based on intuition and gut feelings, rather than numbers.
Certainly, a pitch should be grounded in facts and the company’s provable traction, but it also needs to be packaged as an exciting narrative or nobody will pull the trigger on investing.
You are a part of Inclusive Fintech 50. What has that experience been like?
Being a young company in a highly competitive field, we were honored to be given this recognition. Before we started Asaak, we looked carefully at the lending models of other African fintech startups and decided to build something different. Some African fintechs charge up to 300% APR for digital credit, but we are proud to be recognized as one of the responsible and sustainable lenders in our industry.
What’s your team culture like?
We are a mission-driven team fully convinced of both the social impact and profitability of our business model. We are a blend of many cultures, with employees in Kampala, Soroti (Eastern Uganda), Ghana, and California.
What is your superpower?
I have been blessed with ADHD, which is a superpower for entrepreneurs. Before startup life, I used to work as a data scientist and a quantitative researcher. My jobs required 8-10 hours of sitting down and crunching numbers per day. The work was quite interesting as I am a quantitative thinker stimulated by math problems, however, having the same daily routine for years was a struggle.
As a startup CEO, I have never had two days in a row that look the same. Fintech CEOs are expected to be knowledgeable about finance, law, operations, engineering, human resources, and many other things. Having such an array of challenges to work on is the best food for my ADHD brain. I am lucky to have a job that matches the way my brain naturally works.
What’s your kryptonite?
By nature, I shy away from conflict and tense interpersonal situations. Situations like this are unavoidable in business, so I am learning to embrace them. The American style of direct and straightforward communication is usually not the best approach in Uganda, so I’m also learning how to resolve conflicts in varied cultural settings.
Do you have any other hobbies/things you like to do in your spare time?
I speak 7 languages, including 2 Ugandan ones, and am always keen to learn more (I hope to be fluent in 10 languages someday!). As a foreigner living here, being multilingual helps me to quickly connect and build trust with new people. I am proud to have personally pitched many boda drivers in the Luganda language and have even convinced a few to finance motorcycles through Asaak.
Are there any apps or gadgets that you can’t live without?
Ugandan bottle opener. A few lucky early investors on Republic will receive one of these from us!
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received?
From my college friend who now manages a prominent crypto hedge fund: “Investors don’t invest in a discrete data point, they invest in a trend. You have to build your case to investors over time by showing continuous and sustained traction.”
If you could give yourself one piece of advice 5 years ago, what would it be?
Startup life is dynamic. Don’t over-stress about today’s problems or you won’t have time to tackle tomorrow’s!