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Exclusive interview with remittances expert Ismail Ahmed, Founder and CEO WorldRemit

Wednesday 25 January 2017 | 12:09 PM CET

Ismail Ahmed, Founder and CEO WorldRemit: The remittance market is growing and will continue to do so as citizens become more global

As founder and CEO of WorldRemit, what was the main jumpstart that has convinced you to invest in the remittances industry?

Remittances are my life-long passion – not only do they comprise a booming global industry that will continue to grow as citizens become more global, but they hold a deeply personal place in my life.

After many years of struggling to receive and send remittances that took months to arrive to my home country, Somaliland, and carried exorbitant fees, I founded a small remittance company while completing my studies in London. Shortly thereafter, the UN began its first ever international remittance project, and I was asked to join as an advisor given my background in remittances.

I soon discovered widespread corruption and fraud among the high-level officials, and made the nearly impossible decision to blow the whistle on the UN. After four years, I was vindicated, becoming the first person to win this kind of case against the UN. I used my compensation money to fund the early stages of WorldRemit.

How would you characterize the current development of the remittances market?

The remittance market is growing and will continue to do so as citizens become more global. Despite the fact that total global remittances saw a slight downtick in volumes from 2014 to 2015, remittances have continued to steadily increase since the 1970s (except for a sharp downturn in 2009 around the financial crisis) and total remittance flows are double what they were 10 years ago, with 2015’s total being approximately $582 billion, according to PEW.

Can you disclose what is, and has been, the main provider of growth for the company in its global expansion quest?

WorldRemit has focused on creating strong partnerships with network providers in countries around the world, adapting to myriad infrastructures and regulatory environments in order to create lasting corridors. While others in the space have focused on fast, sometimes incompliant growth, WorldRemit’s strength comes from our deep understanding of our send and receive markets and the ability to create the right partnerships now that will endure into the future. We’ve just recently announced our launch in multiple hyper growth receive markets, including Russia, Uganda, Ethiopia, Pakistan and Bangladesh, to name a few.

What are the key challenges related to remittance transfers to and from Asia?

Asia is a major part of the global remittances industry, with flows in and out of Asia continuing to be crucial to the lives of people in many countries including the Philippines, China, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia. Many remittances customers are long standing users of money transfer businesses and are used to transacting offline at corner shops, or through informal channels.

A key challenge, which is also a significant opportunity for WorldRemit, is how to demonstrate to these users that sending money online is a cheaper, faster and safer option. We are finding that users of remittances services are increasingly tech-savvy, so we are confident that online conversion rates will continue to increase.

Speaking of the unbanked population receiving paper bills from across borders, does WorldRemit have any agenda to make electronic fund transfers a viable option to the detriment of the offline counterpart?

This is exactly the challenge WorldRemit is solving by focusing heavily on mobile money as a receive option for customers who don’t have a bank account. Today, more than a third of WorldRemit’s money transfers were received into mobile money accounts across Africa and Asia. Enabling people to send / convert cash to mobile money also means that they can send smaller amounts on a more frequent basis as mobile money removes the need to travel to a money transfer agent.

What combination of factors (indices) determine whether a market is ripe for investments in what holds to the remittances space? Is the same formula applied for both developing and developed markets?

Typically, the markets where WorldRemit has experienced the most rapid uptake are those where migrants and their families have been traditionally underserved by the offline remittance companies. Often it’s the smaller diaspora communities, for example West Africans living in Australia, who come to WorldRemit as a solution to their needs. Above all, the biggest factor for WorldRemit is mobile: today everyone has a mobile phone, and it’s the primary way people communicate with their loved ones back home.

It also represents an essential access point for people who can’t get to a physical agent shop. Our Filipino customers working in Norway’s off-shore shipping industry literally have no way to send money other than through their mobile phone. Likewise, in receive markets mobile money plays a huge role in giving people instant access to financial services without needing to make long journeys or leave the safety of their own home.

What are WorldRemit’s expansion plans for the future? Does it consider joining other industries like, say payments processing?

WorldRemit is focused on expanding our business to serve the most immigrants and their families that we can. We will continue to focus on safe, compliant and thoughtful expansions as we add receive countries around the globe. WorldRemit is looking forward to hitting our 50-state milestone in the US, which we are very close to with 48 states.

About Ismail Ahmed

Ismail Ahmed, born in Somaliland, Africa, was advisor to the United Nations, where he helped companies comply with tough new money transfer regulations introduced after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He uncovered widespread corruption within their remittance project and later became a whistleblower when he exposed this corruption. He later founded WorldRemit to create a safe, accessible way for people to send money to their loved ones abroad.

In 2010, Ismail founded WorldRemit, a remittance and money transfer app that is using technology to connect millions of people around the world to their loved ones abroad. Backed by VCs like Accel Partners and TCV, WorldRemit is available in over 50 countries to send and 125 receive countries, making it one of the largest providers of money transfer technology in the world.

WorldRemit is an online service that lets people send money to friends and family living abroad, using a computer, smartphone or tablet. It is a convenient, low-cost alternative to traditional money transfer companies that use high street agents and charge high fees. Money can be received as a bank deposit, cash pick-up, Mobile Money, or mobile airtime top-up. WorldRemit’s service is available to senders in 50 countries. We offer transfers to more than 120 destinations across Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia and the Americas.

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