For years, Danson Muchemi hardly clocked more than six hours of sleep on any given night.
But then a freak accident earlier this year left the JamboPay boss bedridden for weeks, and forced him to slow down and reflect on the 11-year journey that built him a business empire.
From his hospital bed, time could not have moved any slower for the man who started a multi-million-shilling e-payment services firm from a cyber café. Back in those days, he would operate from a computer that he rented for Sh4,500 a month.
“Those weeks lying in the hospital made me connect with things beyond the balance sheet,” he said.
Muchemi, who now carries a striking scar on the right side of his head as a result of the accident, described it as the final drop in a bitter cocktail of politics and legal battles that nearly killed JamboPay.
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Two controversial legal battles involving City Hall and the National Hospital Insurance Fund (NHIF) have been a prickling thorn in JamboPay’s flesh.
Muchemi, who is the director of Webtribe, JamboPay’s holding company, said since the cases started in 2017, the brand has been significantly hurt.
The bad press has seen revenues drop by more than half as clients flee.
“When your brand is affected, more so in our space, you get a direct hit on your bottom line. I lost opportunities, revenue and time,” he said.
“That impact was bigger than Covid-19’s impact on our business.”
He added that growth at the firm, which he started as a 24-year-old, has also been halted.
“Prior to this, JamboPay was growing 300 per cent year-on-year for seven years. Not only did we stop growing, but we clawed back the gains.”
Last month, the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) dropped charges against Muchemi in a case involving the alleged loss of Sh1.1 billion at the NHIF.
Muchemi’s name was also removed from the list of accused persons in a Sh357 million graft case against Nairobi Governor Mike Sonko.
The dropping of charges in the two cases has seen Muchemi become a prosecution witness, but he denies claims that he ‘snitched’ to save his skin.
“Not entirely true ... we challenged the decision to charge us. We had back-to-back meetings and we were able to explain and demonstrate no wrongdoing even before the trial began.”
Now Muchemi believes that with the controversial cases over, it’s time to rebuild his business.
“I believed I’d overcome because I was certain of our innocence,” he said.
The JamboPay boss said the investigations were in “good faith” and in “public interest” and had led him to better appreciate investigative agencies such as the ODPP and Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI).
Muchemi said as a result of what he has gone through, he now understands the procurement process better and is still willing to continue working with the government despite the anguish caused by the cases.
“When I participate in a tender, I will be keener … and not only be happy to win a bid but also be sure it’s done properly,” he said.
“I was psychologically battered when this happened, and the good side of that is I got to understand the things I never bothered to think about, including the role of private citizens in fighting graft. As a business, we need to be ready to have to walk through fire and have to do right and do it consistently. Otherwise, we’d still be in those charges.”
On rebuilding the business, Muchemi said there are plans to list at the Nairobi Securities Exchange (NSE) in the next four years, targeting to raise Sh9.6 billion.
He said the company also plans to diversify into financial services, including digital insurance and money transfer, as well as expanding operations across Africa with new products.
The plan to list has seen the firm embark on a business restructuring process meant to strengthen corporate governance ahead of the planned initial public offering.
JamboPay is also in talks with investors to inject more cash to revamp its technology and the marketing of its products.
The firm recently ventured into e-commerce, targeting small and medium enterprises, farmers, and vendors through a platform known as the JamboPay Market.
Shoppers can order products from genuine producers, farmers, and vendors securely through the platform and have the products delivered to their homes or offices.
Working with City Hall has been one of JamboPay’s biggest achievements, but the contract was riddled with controversy, including claims that the company won the tender unscrupulously.
JamboPay supported the city’s eJijipay platform on which the county collects parking fees, land rates and other fees, with the firm taking 4.5 per cent of the cash transacted.
Last year, Muchemi said the company would not renew its contract with the county government owing to bad politics and negative publicity the brand was attracting.
He, however, said he has no regrets over how things panned out, saying it was a good challenge.
“Moving a city form cash to cashless transactions is a big thing. It was a good challenge and helped us measure our skills, capacity and resilience,” said Muchemi.
“It used to take 90 days to obtain a licence. We digitised and moved to 30 minutes… that’s huge.”
He said the deal also helped in environmental conservation following the removal of paper tickets and also created jobs, with 47 per cent collections happening on agency points.
On the run-ins with politicians, he said they put him in “unfamiliar territory.”
“There’s a lot of politics. I’ve learnt that you can’t run away from it, and it sometimes hurts noble causes,” said Muchemi.
Despite severing ties with City Hall, JamboPay still provides services to other counties such as Meru, Bomet and some State parastatals.
He said after the accident, he’s adopted a new mantra of doing business with a “purpose.” Previously, he’d work up to 20 hours in a day, putting his health at risk.
And despite his firm having business continuity plans, lying on the hospital bed helped him put a lot of things into perspective.
“I had to think business beyond myself,” said Muchemi.
He said he had to appear in court for the cases despite his bad health and also had to deal with threats to his business. At one point, investigators had attempted to access his firm’s data servers.
“It was a painful moment balancing the legal burden with the business,” said Muchemi.
“The accident left a mark. I realised that the body is the most important asset you have as an entrepreneur.”