Three and a half years ago, two men embarked on a project that would see the growth of a unique and convenient financial technology platform.
The two, Dr David Wachira and Hempstone Maroria, came from different professional backgrounds.
Their meeting was a chance encounter that would birth Waya App, a digital banking and money transfer app for Africans living in the US.
It facilitates not only digital banking but also cross-border money transfers.
At the time, Dr Wachira was working for the World Bank which he had joined in September 2013 and had risen up the ladder to serve in senior roles.
He had been a public finance and government specialist in Africa, Europe, and Asia, drawing from his rich academic background in finance and public management.
Before joining the World Bank, Dr Wachira, who has a PhD in Public Administration and Management from the University of North Texas, lectured in various US universities including Southern Methodist University (SMU), the University of North Texas and Wiley College.
This year, Dr Wachira quit his job at the World Bank to concentrate on the start-up.
On the other hand, Maroria was a Kenya-based entrepreneur and innovator, having created various technology-based products and solutions in Africa through his technology company.
His firm’s aim was to address various consumer challenges using technology as well as enabling corporates in Kenya and sub-Saharan Africa to leverage technology and innovation for growth.
Hempstone, who schooled at the Dedan Kimathi University of Technology, is an experienced professional in fintech, mobile payments, e-commerce and disruptive technologies, with skills in software product and platform design and development.
Before venturing into entrepreneurship, Maroria worked as a software engineer and product officer in global and pan-African organisations.
The start-up idea
Maroria was doing research and development on financial services, targeting the global freelance community owing to the challenges that he was facing when getting paid by his clients in the US and other parts of the world.
His business partner, Dr Wachira was facing various challenges as an immigrant when banking and sending money back home, a process he described as tedious, inefficient and expensive.
The two entrepreneurs met in December 2018 and exchanged ideas which eventually led to the formation of Waya, a US-based financial technology company in November 2019.
“We met by chance but kept in touch and continued to exchange ideas on how we can unlock these challenges that other immigrants were facing when banking and sending money back home.
“At the time, I was purchasing a property in Thika Greens and had been sending money consistently over 18 months, and it was a cumbersome process. The process of sending money is riddled with many inefficiencies. For example, I would never know when the money was arriving or how much was arriving due to the fluctuating exchange rate,” Dr Wachira said.
“A lot of the information needed, such as the conversion rates between banks, was unavailable when sending money from my dollar account in the US to a Kenyan currency bank account. This got us thinking strategically about how this issue affected immigrants and their efforts to send money home.”
It was at this point that he started looking for a solution. He conceptualised the solution on paper - a platform to make transactions efficient and reduce inefficiencies.
“I reached out to Maroria and shared my idea. Surprisingly, he was also working on an identical solution from a technology standpoint. We were both blown away by the similarity of ideas and decided to partner and work together to actualise our ideas,” he said.
This conversation with Maroria led to the company’s formation in 2019. They then structured the company and got the necessary intellectual properties and trademarks in place.
The duo also pursued the necessary registrations and operating licenses in the US.
“We are currently licensed to offer digital banking services in the US. From checking accounts to virtual and physical cards, bank transfers and other payment services. We worked hard to ensure we had the regulations in place before we rolled this out to the public. Once these regulatory frameworks were in place, we started building the Waya App,” he said.
One of the reasons their first step was getting the licenses in place was because they wanted to provide a platform that had integrity for immigrants and having a company that complied with all the laws as required by the federal government.
In Dr Wachira’s experience, many immigrants are often exposed to fraud when sending money home and dealing with apps that are not licensed and regulated. The Waya App needed robust integrity, remarkable frameworks, and a solid foundation.
“We want immigrants to access banking services, transact and move their money with the confidence that our platform has the right legal framework to operate, particularly in the US, where we operate; we did not want any shortcuts on this issue,” he stated.
IBM accelerator incubation opportunity
In September 2019, Waya was selected for the IBM Hyper Protect Accelerator Programme alongside 14 other start-ups globally.
The start-ups were selected from over 50 countries, including Canada, Germany, India, Ireland, Kenya, Pakistan, United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom and the United States.
Waya was the only start-up from Africa to benefit from the opportunity. Maroria noted that the programme offered the business access to mentorship with IBM, other partners and engineers early on.
“We were introduced to the international global start-up environment where we got to interact with other entrepreneurs, learn different factors needed to run a tech start-up, and the IBM incubation was a pillar when it came to mentorship,” he said.
The opportunity gave them access to partners and has been instrumental in Waya’s technology journey as IBM assigned engineering teams to support our development teams.
Waya app is also hosted on the IBM cloud infrastructure, which is one of the most secure cloud infrastructures out there, especially in terms of privacy and data security, Maroria said.
The Covid pandemic had an unexpected impact on Waya’s development. On one hand, it slowed down their efforts to get the Waya Product up and running, but it also created more time for Dr Wachira and Maroria to fully transition and work on the business full time.
“Initially, there was a lot of uncertainty at the beginning of the pandemic on many things and industries, but it led to a demand for digital financial services. Remittances, as an example, were expected to plunge in 2020, according to a World Bank Report, but remittance volumes worldwide increased.”
“Many people resolved to use digital platforms to access banking and other financial services, which highly motivated us to continue building and closing the partnerships we needed to make Waya’s dream a reality,” Dr Wachira explained.
For Dr Wachira, the remote working arrangement he had at The World Bank gave him time to moonlight and work on the Waya App. And though it led to 16-hour days, it allowed him to take on a more active role in its development and growth.
“In 2022, as we neared the rollout of Waya, we started discussing how I would join Waya on a full-time basis. We had already started to transition with Maroria becoming a full-time employee in 2021. I would later join him and the rest of the staff in July this year,” he said.
He noted that the decision to leave the World Bank for the start-up did not happen overnight, and it took time to convince his co-workers and family to ease into the transition from the World Bank position.
“I have been working in development for the past nine years, and this is different, but still on the same aspects of developing communities.”
“The World Bank and IMF have researched how immigrant remittances can drive development in countries, and therefore, this is no different,” Dr Wachira said.
Launch and future
As the company holds its official launch in Washington, the Waya App due is driven by two main issues which include addressing immigrants’ challenges in accessing banking services and sending remittances back home.
“While we started Waya as an idea to focus on remittances, we realised that immigrants only send about 5 to 10 per cent of their income back home. Ninety per cent of their income remains in the countries where they live and work,” said Maroria.
This 90 per cent, he adds, significantly constitutes the economies of the countries where these immigrants live and work.
“For example, in the US alone, immigrants contribute over $1.3 trillion to the US economy. At the same time, remittances sent globally by immigrants stand at over 600 billion dollars, with remittances sent to Africa standing at over 50 billion dollars,” said Maroria.
“Our goal, therefore, is to help immigrants access embedded financial services where they live and work, like opening checking and savings accounts, accessing loans and credit, transacting with each other, paying bills as well as getting other banking services using their mobile phones.”
Dr Wachira described a vision for Waya to grow into the largest immigrant-centred digital bank as it grows its remittance offering, which he noted is just a feature within the Waya App.
“We want to lower the cost and increase financial inclusion for immigrants around the world, with a specific focus on Africans living and working outside their home countries,” he added.
The company, therefore, addresses the growing demand for frictionless digital payment and banking services targeting African immigrants living in the US and, soon, in other countries. The founders also highlighted that Waya App would soon be available in Africa to address the problems for immigrants in Africa.