Being ambitious is great. However, making that ambition a reality is one of the biggest challenges many people are currently facing. This is not the case for Elizabeth Rossiello, the CEO and founder of Bitpesa, one of Kenya’s leading digital payment platforms. She was ambitious and her dreams come true. She is presently living the dream. We interviewed Elizabeth and she told us about BitPesa, BitPesa’s recent expansion to Ghana and much more. Excerpts.
Can you please introduce yourself?
I am Elizabeth Rossiello is the CEO and founder of BitPesa, a digital foreign exchange and payment platform for frontier markets. Founded in 2013, BitPesa was the first company to leverage digital currency to significantly lower the cost of making remittance and business payments to and from sub-Saharan Africa, as well as the first blockchain company to be licensed by the UK’s Financial Conduct Authority. BitPesa is now a market-maker in every major African currency and facilitates payments into G20 currencies directly.
I expanded the company from Nairobi, Kenya to operations in 8 markets across Africa and Europe. Before founding BitPesa, Elizabeth was a rating analyst for microfinance institutions across sub-Saharan Africa, consulting for Grameen Foundation, Gates Foundation and the Acumen Fund, as well as working with regulators and policy-makers on legislation for financial innovations. Elizabeth sits on the Investment Committee for Bamboo Capital and the World Economic Forum’s Future Council on Blockchain. She holds an M.A. in International Business and Finance from Columbia University.
What is the motivation for setting up BitPesa?
After working as a rating analyst with some of the biggest microfinance institutions across sub-Saharan Africa, as well as with investors in the space such as Grameen Foundation, Gates Foundation and the Acumen Fund, I saw the difficulties small financial institutions faced finding liquidity in local African currencies. I repeatedly saw funds and institutions have to exit the market because of FX loss or lack of local currency infrastructure. It seemed like such an obvious problem that someone had to be solving it. I was also working with regulators and policymakers on legislation for financial innovations, but that wasn’t enough for me– I knew that I had to do something out of the box and urgently. In 2013, cryptocurrency had just started taking off and I knew that it was the right tech solution for this problem.
How will you describe the reception in Kenya and Nigerians so far?
Kenya is where we started and definitely where our roots are, but our vision is not only Pan-Africa but to facilitate business for all frontier markets. Nigeria is one of our major markets already, and we’re very excited to grow our footprint in West Africa with Ghana.
You have just launched an office in Ghana. What prompted the decision to go to Ghana? What plans do you have for the country?
Having expanded from East Africa across to West Africa in 2015, BitPesa remains dedicated to facilitating intra-Africa trade by increasing the ease and speed of doing business in Ghana. Since Nigeria is a very important market for BitPesa already, Ghana was a natural choice for expansion, as these are the two largest economies in West Africa.
What are some of the challenges of running your startup?
As with any innovative technology, there are always early adopters and sceptics. All disruption comes with naysayers, and in our industry, we find that the loudest are the ones that are most threatened. We are a complementary platform that can add value to traditional players like banks, telcos and corporates. We want to work with these institutions to show them how to incorporate blockchain technology and connect more easily with smaller companies or global entrants. We are trying to push forward a new technology in business, as well as new business models, which are underlying structures and tools that in fact, these traditional companies can, in fact, integrate, rather than seeing it as a threat. Gradually with the right information and forms of collaboration, we feel these companies will realize that when the tide rises, all the boats rise, and it creates value for everyone in the chain.
Do you think Africans have embraced the idea of using platforms like yours to perform transactions?
Having performed hundreds of millions of dollars worth of transactions, we know that Africans have embraced using our platform. Our customers deserve superior products and an easier way to grow their increasingly international businesses. In fact, Africa is known for leapfrogging, and we think this is why they have truly embraced our platform.