A Journey Towards Financial Health for All

Celebrating Six Years of Kwara

Six years ago, we started Kwara. From a deep interest in Kenyan smallholder farmers to a fully-fledged digital banking platform serving over 230 credit unions, we have been on an incredible ride. Kwara today serves 200,000+ members across four countries and in 2023, had an annualized transaction volume of € 1BN. What has remained at our core, is our belief that financial health should be accessible to all, and credit unions are the fastest way to get there.

Today, we reflect on how this belief evolved into a fast-growing fintech company, with some of the world’s best talent. Rather than chronologically going through the different milestones we’ve achieved, we took time to reflect on the building blocks of Kwara itself. There are many cross-functional teams at Kwara, but we are a product company first, so let’s start there.

Product

Kwara’s start was marked by the key ingredient of any product: user research. Our CEO Cynthia conducted extensive research on how coffee farmers in Kenya could grow their fair share of the value chain. In that process, she found an impactful, hyperlocal institution: the credit union – aka the Savings and Credit Cooperative (SACCO). SACCOs, we found, provide hundreds of millions of people with fair financial services, mostly savings and credit services. Diving deeper, we saw multiple pain points that held SACCOs back from reaching their full potential. From observing staff work to chats with members about their SACCO experience, our team witnessed that manual, offline work led to many inefficiencies. Long wait times, limited transparency, and many paper forms made it difficult to access SACCO services. More existentially, this created a barrier for new people to sign up and start saving. This was the starting point of our product.

Rather than immediately building a core banking system for SACCO staff, Kwara took a different approach. While our initial user was indeed the SACCO staff, SACCOs are unique because members are the ultimate shareholders. 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, but the solution may lie outside of their daily work. Our product changes therefore often occur in the member-facing app, rather than just the core banking system used by staff. It’s working: SACCOs that only use Kwara’s core banking 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 84% 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. 

Engineering

As we grew Kwara, we faced difficult engineering challenges. The SACCO sector has been offline for decades. Being offline led to missing out on several banking services that require online integrations. As a result, the problem we had to solve required building deep, complex infrastructure, with many other players than just our own team. From credit scoring to mobile money, from bank integrations to cross-border payments, our engineering team had to work with many partners, to provide the members of our clients with a cohesive, complete value proposition.

An essential part of their success is excellent communication. Our engineers are not only technically some of the most versant in the industry (ex-AWS, Nintendo, Google, high-traffic APIs), they are also some of the strongest communicators. To integrate with existing infrastructure like payment services or banks, 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 partner discussions, 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, with a variety of people, has been a catalyst for many of the decisions we made. It has allowed us to administer more than $1 billion in annual transactions with a modest, lean engineering team.

Sales

Arguably, Sales is the engine of any commercial company. Sales at Kwara developed quickly. From the initial stages of founders selling to every client, we have built a well-oiled B2B 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 don’t need to reinvent the wheel. 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. One common thread we see across all good salespeople is a winning mindset and an eagerness to learn. A static mindset can be a death sentence if you sell a product that changes fast. We learned to actively interview for mindset, rather than test experience or skillset. This has brought our cost of acquisition payback period to top industry standards. 

The Sales Team at a team building exercise – preparing to target and close.

Marketing

We took our time getting marketing right. In many ways, we are still at the start of our journey. Primarily being sales-driven, marketing often had a supporting function at Kwara. This changed over time, especially as our vision developed: we want 1 billion people to use credit unions as their primary account. For that to happen, a direct-to-consumer marketing approach is needed. Kwara is a brand on its own, and we see this as a big plus for our clients. Comparably, AirBnB could create trust and transparency in a strange home, with the right brand (and product). We are often inspired by companies whose brand reflects their values and products, such as 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 adjustment 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.

Customer Success

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 departments. As we serve a financial institution, with senior board members, as well as the clients of our clients, the support requests may vary greatly. In addition, each client may be in a very different stage of experiencing our product benefits. 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 the problem gets solved. We found that, while we may 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.

Moments after a successful Customer Success Day at Kwara House

Operations

Operations covers 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. For HR, we hired too late. 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 not. We have built a team of Kwarans who can deal with uncertainty and take initiative themselves. Solutions are created and owned by the team, not just by founders. In that sense, the People function sailed with strong tailwinds.


With Finance and Operations, we have also fared well. We made 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 everything ourself. 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 making 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.

Kwara Co-founders [in green Kwara bombers] at Norrksen Accelerator final pitch

Lastly, we are a venture-backed startup. We are fortunate to be supported by some of the best investors, from all over the world. This has upped the 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 with us shows that, in some ways, they were different, too.

In Conclusion

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 reflect on how Kwara has changed in the world.

Co-Founder and COO David Hwan.

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