Poor experiences in sending money abroad inspired Ismail Ahmed to build WorldRemit – now it’s on the verge of becoming a unicorn
A refugee from Somalia and a whistleblower at the United Nations, now an entrepreneur. Ismail Ahmed, the co-founder of online money transfer service WorldRemit, knows all about the money channels that migrants use when sending funds home. And he’s made it his aim to make remittances a smoother process.
In 1988, during the war in his homeland, Ahmed was smuggled out of Hargeisa, the capital of the self-declared but internationally unrecognised Republic of Somaliland, in a tipper truck. He eventually got to Britain and started doing odd jobs such as strawberry-picking in the summer, just to be able to send money to his family – who by then lived in a refugee camp in Ethiopia. The transfers were expensive and took months to complete.
In the early 2000s, Ahmed got a job at the UN as an advisor to regional transfer companies in East Africa. While there, he says he noticed corruption at the UN’s Development Programme for Somalia, with fraud often happening in the remittances programme. “I became a whistleblower and lost my job,” he says. In 2010, he received £200,000 in compensation from the UN for unfair treatment – and, having by then competed an MBA from the London Business School, used the money to setup London-based startup WorldRemit.
Nearly a decade on, Ahmed’s company now has almost four million customers globally, who send money from 50 countries to recipients in more than 150 nations. With nearly $375 million in funding, the company is soon expected to reach one billion dollar valuation.
It may look like any other money transfer service, but Ahmed, who moved from the position of CEO to non-executive chairman last year, argues that its business model is unique. Instead of sending funds only from bank to bank (which it also does) like digital upstart TransferWise or the traditional money transfer companies Western Union and MoneyGram, the transfers are also sent to a mobile wallet directly – with a smartphone.
While Western Union and MoneyGram have operated remittances services for years, they still rely on intermediate agents, typically corner shops, where migrants go to collect their cash. The agents are responsible for carrying out regulatory compliance such as Know Your Client identity checks, documenting every money movement.
WorldRemit, on the other hand, partners with local banks and mobile networks; in Kenya, for example, it is working with electronic wallet service M-Pesa, so that money can be transferred instantly to all customers. The recipient can retrieve the funds as a bank deposit into a local WorldRemit bank account, as mobile money, airtime top-up or as cash at a supermarket. The fees are two to three per cent lower than those charged by most banks. WorldRemit’s closest rival is Remitly, another digital-only company that specialises in sending money from developed countries to the developing world.
Digitalising remittances also helps safeguarding the industry against money laundering: in a market still heavily dominated by cash tracking criminal activity is very difficult. WorldRemit’s digital system checks users against international watchlists and sanction databases and analyses their behaviour to look out for suspicious patterns. Every transaction leaves a digital trail, making it easier to spot and source criminal activities and networks. “If a transaction is suspicious, there is a wealth of data to trace it back to a bank account, a card, an identity,” says Ahmed. “That’s coming a long way from agents, who can be untrained at best, and turn a blind eye at worst.” And, he adds, WorldRemit has never been fined.