On January 18, Mr. Andrew Takyi-Appiah, MD and co-founder of Zeepay, one of Africa’s fastest-growing fintechs,
graciously sat down with the Trade Mission’s staff for a frank, fascinating, and enlightening discussion
about his and Zeepay’s story, the future of Ghanaian fintech, and Israeli Innovation.

Please tell us a bit about your and Zeepay’s story.

Well, for me, this is my fourth startup, after several failures. It’s important to understand that, for perspective, success isn’t automatic or overnight. 

My first startup was when I was an undergrad, it was an online platform for renting rooms for students.
It had potential, but it didn’t do well, as I hadn’t the foggiest idea of how to run a business. 

After that, I moved to the States and started kentefabrics.com, which was very exciting and very successful. I was selling kente stoles to universities for their graduations, I had some investors, got some accounts, and at one point got a very big account – a huge leap for me. In one move I went from 2-3000 USD transactions to 30,000 USD transactions. But it turns out you have to pay the supplier, and it took my customer six months to pay. By that time all was gone, my bank accounts were closed, and that was that.
So I learned about concentration risk, how important it is to dilute your portfolio. 

Then, when I came to Ghana I said, enough is enough, I’m going to start something solid. I hooked up with an old-timer and went into the water business.  I invested a lot, but I was losing so much money, that one morning I just woke up and walked away. I lost so much, but I learned so much.
I learned about people, I learned about how the Ghanaian workforce works, crucial lessons.

You failed once, twice, three times. What caused you to try yet again?

I have been able to evaluate all areas of failure and the specific causes of those failures. The first one, I was clueless about money, I didn’t know how to keep the money that came and reinvest into the company. In the second one, I didn’t know how to manage concentration risk, and I didn’t understand the concept of supplier management, and in the third one, I learned about human resources. So I felt each time that I had learned something, which will allow me to forge ahead and integrate those understandings into a better attempt.

Israel has this wildly successful startup scene, “nation of innovation”. One of the factors that are credited with fostering the “innovation culture” in Israel is the high tolerance of failure in Israel which stems partially from the norms ingrained during mandatory military service in the IDF of constant reflection and analysis of success, as well as of failures.  

Yes! It’s true. The thing with a tolerance of failure is, to what extent do you tolerate failure? To what extent do you know, that if you fail- it doesn’t mean that you are bad or useless, rather it means that you just need to rise again? It depends on your ability to know yourself, to understand your failings, to correct what you can, and to know, based on your sharpened sense of your strengths and weaknesses to choose your sector, your business, and your product more precisely. 

I think that the Israeli culture is very forthright, not a lot of airs, and that lends itself to the ability to successfully and efficiently go through the trial and error process to quickly refine your offerings. It gives you certain agility to constantly review and refine.

Well, in the vein of overcoming challenges and creating growth,  it is interesting to draw comparisons between Israel and its booming start-up scene, and Ghana and its rapidly growing fintech scene.

So they say…but I don’t think there is a rapidly growing fintech scene in Ghana, do you know why?
We don’t have an ecosystem, we’re not building ecosystems, we’re building competing platforms.
It’s not going to work, eventually, most of the players will drop and single entities will rise, and we won’t understand why. It’s because we don’t have an ecosystem. 

An ecosystem is when you have different players who have different consumption needs and different outputs, and complement each other – that is an ecosystem that will thrive. We must work on developing a proper ecosystem in Ghana.
I think it’s possible, I try to encourage it. It’s why I have been pushing for a fintech association for all these years. If you have an association, you start to see the bigger picture. You then go to meetings and you meet a guy with a data centre and a guy with a regtech, and you say ok, can I use your system or platform. The different players in the ecosystem begin to strengthen each other and help each other grow.
Whereas if I have to build everything in-house, by the time I’m done I’m down to zero on the dollar, and I’m about to crash. 

Please tell us about your relationship with the Israel Trade and Economic Mission in Ghana, and your experience doing business with Israel.

Well, our experience has been very positive.
First of all the Trade Mission has helped expose me to the Israeli ecosystem and vice versa. It has given me important insight and a good understanding of the Israeli ecosystem. Through the Trade Mission, I’ve had an opportunity to interact with my peers, to meet people like Rewire, and Zota for example, who are doing similar things. Those interactions were very useful, to meet people who are in a similar space doing similar things, to see their business. It gives you confidence, to continue what your doing, because you meet others, you see the players in the Israeli ecosystem, doing similar things, you see a pattern, and you see that you are on the right path. The Trade Mission has helped me to connect with the Israeli ecosystem and to see the patterns there, to see that I am in good form.

The Trade Mission has also brought us to interact with companies that are different from us, to gain insight into different revenue models, to see how different companies are taking different approaches to the monetization of their platforms.

These interactions set the stage for collaborations, which are an absolutely-necessary thing.
For example, I remember I had met a strong company in Israel through the mission that does payments. Afterward, I was on an investor roadshow, and I saw that one of the investors actually funds that Israeli company that I worked with, it gives you a lot of confidence to say, you’re on the right track, you’re talking to the right people, you’re connected to the right place and part of the right cohort.
I really like how the Trade Mission was able to connect us to really good people, to the right people, which helped us gain confidence, and standing, which is all certainly very beneficial.
Because of the Trade Mission, our company is now plugged into the Tel Aviv ecosystem and all that that has to offer.
You know, I was quite humbled, but I go to meetings, and they don’t start without me, but that’s because of how the Trade Mission plugged me into the scene, they had me speak at Fintech Week TLV, and that helped them see me as the guy to talk to for collaborations and things. That is all part of that power of network, association, and collaboration. That which the Mission is building here. It’s not always about dollars, but it’s about connections, ecosystem, legitimacy – real long-term value, that’s a big thing. 

What do you find unique in working with Israelis?

Well, I’ve worked in over 50 countries, so you know – I have some perspective. 

But I’d say that working with Israelis is very exciting and very insightful. They are very advanced and very driven. What I also find interesting is the cultural difference.
Israelis are always very defensive, which is not surprising given their history, with everything they have been through. However, because of that, there can sometimes be misunderstandings. When you are trying to collaborate or build a bridge, they can sometimes get defensive; whereas being an African, we often coil up. If we don’t understand, we coil up. So you can imagine – one is all defensive, one is all coiled – there is not going to be progress.
I’ve matured enough and have had enough experience with Israelis by now, to know that it’s not a problem, but that’s exactly where the Trade Mission was often key, they would step in and understand how to bridge the communication so that a good deal wasn’t lost just because of something that was simply lost in the translation. 

On the flip side, I also find that there are many similarities between us. I like to close deals immediately, I don’t like to waste time, if I see a good thing, I want to close it; and they are very similar.
In that sense the Israelis are good to work with, you can get to the point, and find the solutions you need without too many complications. 

What do you think the Israeli ecosystem can learn or gain from Ghana?

I think Israel has a lot to gain from Ghana, we call it APM’s-Alternative Payment Method’s. I think that they are busy chasing crypto. Crypto is a sovereign asset. You cannot have a sovereign asset in a sovereign state and that’s why I think crypto is not going to work.
However digital wallets will work, with electronic money in them. Whether it’s central bank digital currency-CBDC or the mobile money approach that we have in Ghana. I think the moment the Israelis really come into this space, the world will join. Everybody copies from Israel, they are the center of innovation, 90% of technology developments are coming out of Israel. So in my opinion, they need to turn that fire onto digital wallets and CBDC’s and stop chasing crypto. 

Well, Ghana is a world leader in mobile money, number 2 in the world?

Yes, that’s what I’m saying, once we figure it out, other APM’s won’t exist anymore.
Right now in Africa out of a billion people, we have 529 million wallets but only 35 million cards, so digital wallets are going strong, and it will make cross-border payments easier, and it will make EFT’s more efficient. So I hope to collaborate more with Israelis on this, I think they can help bring it to the next level.

Fascinating. Any last things you’d like to share with us, tips for other startups and fintechs here in Ghana?

Sure, there is another important lesson I’d like to share, I’d like to talk with you about the valley of death.
If you go through the stages of a start-up, first you have the seed funding, then you start to buy, then you start to build your platforms, then you start to hunt talent (that is when everyone makes a big mistake, they start to look for big talent instead of developing talent), and all this time your funds are dwindling. Then you hit zero, you’re in the red, you start hitting problems. You’re working hard, you’re gonna get your first breakthrough soon, but you’re getting scared.
We call this the valley of death. A lot of fintech’s, a lot of startups don’t understand the concept of the valley of death. So they get into this game, and they just assume the curve will go up, but they see the curve go down low, plummeting, real low, and they freak out. They call mom and dad, they call friends, and they always get the best advice; “son, why don’t you shut down and come home?”
But here lies the mistake,  this is the point where you need to fight it out because if you fight it out here, you’re made, by the time you come out of the valley of death you’re fearless.

To go back to Israel, I think that is some of what makes Israel tick, why they are churning out so much innovation, because God knows they have been through the valley of death – too many times, and they have become, fearless, resilient, and resourceful.
Here in Africa, we too have been through our struggles, our hardships, and we need to get into that space where we are rising up, where we become fearless creators.

You know, I’ve seen you talk about the new African that must emerge, it reminds me of the terminology that they used when Israel was established by a ragtag group of refugees from the Jewish diaspora after 2,000 years of persecution and exile. Similarly, they talked about trying to create a new Jew, one that is independent, resourceful, tenacious, and creative…

Yes! The new African should look at you guys. You see, there is a desperate need for a new African, because if you look at things – how things have been running – those are old Africans, thinking short term, taking for ourselves, thinking just to survive, just trying to squeeze everything to get more for ourselves.
But the new African walks down the street and he asks himself, how can I create something, make some pickings to sell to 20 people, who will sell it on.  I’ll make money, they’ll make money – that’s creating ecosystems. The new African understands the importance of multiplying themselves, of thinking long term. Of course, long-term thinking doesn’t mean slow, we’re the fastest-growing continent, some of the fastest-growing economies, but it means to think in terms of long-term business growth, long-term gains, sustainability. Essentially we’re talking about growing ecosystems, that is exactly the long-term thinking I mean.
However it’s happening fast, and I think when we connect ourselves with Israel’s ecosystem it’ll help us make it even faster.

For more information on Israel’s fintech ecosystem, Israel fintech solutions, or future fintech events and delegations please contact our lead on the fintech sector, Ms. Maame Yaa Owusu-Amoah.