Six years ago, we incorporated Kwara. From a deep interest in Kenyan smallholder farmers to a fully-fledged digital banking platform serving over 230 credit unions with 200,000+ members across four countries and in 2023, had an annualized transaction volume of € 1BN, it’s been an incredible ride, and we are just getting started. What has remained at our core is our belief that financial health should be accessible to all and that credit unions are the fastest way to get there.
Today, we reflect on how we turned this belief into a fast-growing fintech company with some of the world’s best talent, clients, and partners. Rather than chronologically going through the countless milestones we’ve achieved, today, we reflect on the building blocks of our organization.
There are many cross-functional teams at Kwara, but we are a product company first, so let’s start there.
Kwara’s start was marked by one of the cornerstones of any product: user research. While conducting extensive research on how coffee farmers in Kenya could grow their fair share of the value chain, we found an impactful, grassroots institution: the credit union – a Savings and Credit Cooperative (SACCO). These institutions are the farmers’ first line of defense and provide hundreds of millions of people from any background with fair financial services. Credit unions are the hyperlocal financial institution that already provides financial services at the last mile. Diving deeper into these community-owned banks, they shared several pain points that hold them back from scaling. From sitting in offices and observing staff work to talking to members about their SACCO experience, we saw that manual, offline work led to many inefficiencies. Long waiting times, limited transparency, and many paper forms made it difficult to access SACCO services and, more existentially – created a barrier for new members to sign up and start saving.
Rather than immediately building a B2B back office system for SACCOs, Kwara took a different approach. While our initial user was the institution’s staff, SACCOs are unique because members are the ultimate beneficiaries. Therefore, we always kept the long-term view that if we could make the members happier, the SACCO would be more likely to grow and succeed. In our product development, we thus took an atypical approach. The board and staff may experience pain or see an opportunity, but the solution may lie outside their day-to-day work. Our product changes often occur in the member-facing app rather than just the operating system (OS) used by staff. It’s working: SACCOs that only use Kwara’s OS grow membership by 28% year on year (compared to the global average of 8%), whereas those that use our OS plus mobile apps grow by 85% YoY. Kwara has consequently become the market leader for credit union software in Kenya, and we firmly believe that our member-focused product approach played a crucial role in getting there.
As we grew our company, we faced increasingly difficult engineering challenges. As the SACCO sector has been offline for decades, they missed out on several services that require online integrations. As a result, the problem we were solving involved deep, complex infrastructure problems. From credit scoring to payments, from bank integrations to cross-border payments, all facets of fintech are relevant to provide the members of our SACCOs with a cohesive, complete value proposition.
An essential part of our success so far is excellent communication. Our engineers are not only technically some of the most versant in the industry (ex-AWS, Nintendo, Google, high-traffic APIs), but they are also some of the best communicators. To integrate with existing infrastructure like payment services or banking engines, we often need to understand more than just technical fit with a partner; we need to understand company fit. Engineers at Kwara think holistically. They are actively involved with partners, even when we discuss commercials. In turn, they explain to the rest of the team why partnering versus building is better, including from the user and company’s point of view. The ability of engineers to listen and speak clearly about complicated infrastructure has been a catalyst for many of the decisions we made and has allowed us to administer more than $1 billion in annual transactions with a modest, lean engineering team.
Arguably, the engine of any commercial company, Sales at Kwara, has developed quickly. From the initial stages of founders selling to every client, it has become a well-oiled sales machine across all five regions of Kenya.
While we have continuously adapted to our sector, Sales benefits most from existing best practices. To grow the team’s skills, create a healthy, competitive environment, and maintain accountability, we learned that you shouldn’t reinvent the wheel, especially for B2B sales. Some companies that have inspired us include SalesForce, Hubspot, and Oracle. We have taken many of their rituals and made them our own.
Of course, the right people still trump any ritual or process. We have gone through various sales personas to get to the right people at the right time. However, we see a common thread across all good salespeople: a winning mindset and an eagerness to learn. A static mindset can be a death sentence with products that change fast. Therefore, we learned to hire for mindset first rather than experience or skillset, bringing our payback period to top industry standards.
We took our time getting marketing right and are still at the start of our journey. Primarily being sales-driven, marketing often had a supporting function at Kwara. This changed over time, and as our vision is to get 1 billion people to use credit unions as their primary account, a direct-to-consumer approach is increasingly needed. Kwara is a brand on its own, and we see this as a big plus for our clients. AirBnB could create trust and transparency in any stranger’s home with the right brand. We are often inspired by companies whose brand reflects their values and products, like Wise, Revolut, Patagonia, and On. Closer to home, brands like Paystack, PiggyVest, and Sandstorm also embody similar values, such as user delight, accessibility, and a deep commitment to delivering value to humanity.
With marketing, the devil is in the details. The difference between good enough and exceptional can be the replacement of a single word in a tagline. We learned to get better at this by involving a more comprehensive range of team members, from junior to senior and from sales to engineering. In addition, we have learned to let the customer speak for us. Whether through client forums or recorded videos, the customer’s words speak volumes. Rather than inventing campaigns, we synthesize and orchestrate the input of our entire community into the ever-evolving Kwara brand. There is strength in numbers, and we know we will succeed once Kwara’s brand is associated with financial health in every household.
While Customer Success developed later in our journey (we first needed enough clients!), it has been one of our business’s most versatile and dynamic parts. As we serve the institution and the members, the challenges or opportunities may vary within one department. In addition, our clients may be in very different stages of benefiting from Kwara. While some have doubled their revenue with new digital loan products, others are still learning to add a deposit in our OS rather than Excel.
What makes it work is a cliché. It is, of course, being user-obsessed. While this value extends way past the Customer Success team, the single-minded desire to make our users happy is what drives any solution. Processes, tools, and policies make most things scalable, but for an individual user and individual problem, what matters most is that customer problems get solved. We found that while we set different targets for customer satisfaction or cross-selling each year, building a team of people with genuine care gives clients a human and solution-oriented experience.
Here, covering People, Finance, and Operations. For People, similar to Sales, there are best practices to adhere to. A strict separation between People Strategy and HR is critical. For People Strategy, we hired excellently early. What made some of our early mix-ups acceptable, though, was a stellar team of Olympic athletes. While startup experience may be limited in our markets, the startup mindset is different. We have found Kwarans who can deal with uncertainty and change and take the initiative themselves. In that sense, the People function sailed with strong tailwinds.
With Finance and Operations, we have fared well – making the hard decision to implement solid reporting structures from Day 1. We are supported by dedicated accountants and excellent support staff. Making the numbers and operations work requires diligence, structure, and hard work. Luckily, working hard and long hours is simply a choice, and we have chosen to do so. Of all the great, complicated departments at Kwara, Finance and Operations has always been open for business. And if we work every Sunday to get our stuff in order, that gives us 52 extra work days in the year. That is nearly two months extra on most of our competitors, just by choice.
Management & Fundraising
Amidst all the developments these last years, our management team had to grow too. Not just in numbers but also individually. Internally, a growing team and client base meant we needed to think in systems and first principles rather than trying to solve things ourselves. Externally, with highly turbulent times across the world’s economic and political climate, we had to make hard decisions to adapt. We partnered with the right players at the right time and said no many times more. While we could have waited longer in some moments before a decision, we generally believe that our experience in previous ventures, combined with great advisors, has yielded the optimal choices with the information at hand.
Lastly, we are a venture-backed startup. We are fortunate to have some of the best investors from all over the world back us. This has increased quality and speed across the organization. Fundraising can be challenging, but our most significant learning has been to raise ahead of the curve. We zig when people zag. Venture capital can play a crucial role in winning the market fast. Like with any sales motion, we tried to stand out. From our niche market to our founders, from our client growth to our team maturity, we showed investors why we were different. The fact that they chose to ride along with us shows that, in some ways, they were different, too.
Looking back at these last six years, we cannot be grateful enough for the people who have supported us. Our clients, Kwarans, partners, investors, friends, and family have all put down a piece of the jigsaw puzzle we have dedicated our lives to solving: financial health for all. As we look to the future, our ambition is that another six years from now, rather than reflect on what has changed at Kwara, we will reflect on how Kwara has changed in the world.
Co-Founder and COO David Hwan.