Tebogo Mokwena, the multipotentialite solving some of Africa’s problems 🌍
Tebogo is an avid technologist at heart, with a triple major under her belt — computer science, biochemistry & genetics. She has always been passionate about creating new things. She began her career as a software engineer at one of South Africa’s largest asset management firms- McKinsey & Company. There she built a customer-facing platform that allowed everyday people to buy and manage their assets. This experience provided her with a solid foundation in building and ignited her curiosity in the financial services sector, where she desired the flexibility to solve problems using technology.
Tebogo had the opportunity to be involved in the development of two digital banks from the ground up in Indonesia, which quickly gained a million users within the first year. She then applied her learnings to build another digital bank in Nigeria before the surge of digital banks in the market. One of Tebogo’s proudest achievements is creating something that continues to thrive in a different market.
Motivated by her belief in the potential of data-driven solutions to address customer needs, Tebogo made the decision to pursue a Masters in Machine Learning in Switzerland. Recognizing the emerging possibilities in this field on the continent, she saw an excellent opportunity to enhance her existing experience and skill set. Prior to embarking on her Masters program, Tebogo met the two co-founders with whom she would later establish Akiba. They were exploring the concept of building a digital bank and needed a tech-savvy individual to lead the development, particularly leveraging blockchain technology. Tebogo recognized the gap in the market where few fintech companies were addressing the issues of financial literacy and access to financial services in South Africa. This realization ignited her passion for Akiba, prompting her to make the leap into entrepreneurship.
Join us on this journey as we learn more about Tebogo’s building journey
How did you come up with the name, “Akiba Digital”?
We named Akiba Digital in the era where everyone was naming adding ‘ly’ to company names and the era where people used swahili words to name their companies. We couldn’t find anything with ly but we found a word in swahili which is Akiba and means savings and that was one of the products that we put out. It stuck around and was easy for anyone to remember.
In a one-liner, what problem is Akiba Digital solving?
Making credit more accessible to customers who have been previously excluded by the credit bureaus and credit invisible for a long time, including small business & customers who are either unbanked or underbanked.
What do you love about building Akiba Digital?
I get to learn every day. We have been doing this for 4 years, different models. Flipped things upside down. It never truly feels like we have arrived. With over 10,000 merchants or small businesses under our belt and over 200 lenders, it still feels like there’s so much about this problem that is yet to be solved. I love that I get to learn every single day from our customers, the market, and my team members. With those learnings I get to choose what to do with it. So I can put it into action to either optimize, move a little bit faster, or do something a little better. Ultimately, have that impact because a little bit more of the society gets to access finance better and has an effect on the economy whether directly or indirectly.
If you were not building Akiba Digital what would you be doing ?
Chances are I’d be building something else that solves a problem on the continent, maybe not fintech, probably healthtech. There is still a possibility of me building a few other things on the continent. I’m passionate about building solutions.
What is that one piece of advice you’d give to aspiring founders?
My general advice for any aspiring founder would be to build a business that solves a meaningful problem rather than building to attract capital. We are at a point where markets have flipped and a few other things. If you were to devote yourself to something that takes up so much of your time, do it because you have the passion and not because you want to make money from it. As a continent, we need people who care about building solutions that will benefit us as a society and move us forward; rather than people who will take advantage of the market and make more problems than we already have.
How do you measure success as a founder?
Personally, I measure success by the number of people that I have directly been able to impact positively; whether that’s one or two of my customers or my whole team or just someone on the streets. I know we aspire to get these many customers, but for me, a true success story is when I have had a conversation with a customer who now believes they can actually achieve a lot more growth than they had initially thought they could because of that conversation and learning my story.
When people come into Akiba Digital, I don’t necessarily want them to stay forever. I think as we may want to retain good talent, my way of measuring success is how well I enable that person to want to do something bigger for themselves. That may mean having to leave to build their own company or taking a leap in whatever else that they may be passionate about.
What would you say is the most important when it comes to building a sustainable business?
There is a difference between a passion project and a business. Ultimately, a business needs to make sense, the unit economics have to add up, there has to be an element of scalability etc.
In making a business sustainable, you have to see how it can run itself without any external injection of capital at some point and hopefully that point is in the future rather than after 10 years.
For me, a sustainable business means a business that the market will always need, and because of that need and the core problem it’s solving, it will inevitably generate revenue that is sustainable enough for it to run on its own. But also have enough impact that it will continue creating a market for itself.
Did you encounter any unexpected lessons when you set out to build that you had to learn on your own, without prior guidance?
Yes. One of the biggest learnings for me still is sales. Learning that you never stop selling and never really know how to sell until you start selling. Sales is actually a lot more than telling customers how great you are but rather understanding the value that you can enable for them. A lot of times, we are told to sell features and products but what we really need to learn is that we are selling value creation. How much impact can this have for you as a customer? Do I actually believe that my solution or my product can enable you to get that kind of growth/return?
Another thing I had to learn was hiring. There is a term that I learnt- Culture debt. Culture debt was something I had to experience. You can only experience it to fully understand it. But it really means that one bad hire will create so much debt for the company because so many other people that come or have interacted with that one. There will always be a transfer of whatever impact of that bad hire is for years to come. Bad hires create a lasting culture debt that multiplies when there are more of them, making it impossible to fully rectify their negative impact on the overall culture. For me, the biggest learning was- taking time in hiring was very important, especially key hires. I had to personally be involved in making sure that there’s a culture fit. There are times when we even have to make a decision to hire someone who has a better culture fit over a better skillset. We have discovered that someone who is really good at their job but is absolutely horrendous to work with is going to have a worse impact on the business than someone who may not have all those skills yet but is willing to learn. The latter is usually a better culture fit. The point of it is to try and reduce that culture debt.
Fundraising is hard. Some people think being a founder is all about fundraising. It’s also not something that I enjoy doing; I would rather engage with customers than be selling to investors. That’s probably one of the reasons why I would want to build a business that is sustainable than something that will always be dependent on external investment.
What do you do to get over a bad day?
I think mentally, I have day-to-day habits that prepare me for any day. I just choose not to take anything personally which is why it’s so hard for me to define what a bad day is. There are bad experiences in a day, but it’s so hard for a multitude of bad occurrences to actually make it a bad day for me. So, I think it’s just the mindset of how I deal with things.
How do you deal with burnouts?
I have noticed that burnouts are a little bit inevitable in most cases. I try to create cycles where every three months, I try to take a break and pause. In trying to make that sustainable, I try to keep my weekends or at least take time off on most weekends just to not do any work. It’s not always possible but I think I’m getting a lot better at it and if not every 3 months, I try to really take a pause for a few days and reassess. When I started being very strict about it, I realized that it actually allows me to be a lot more productive because it gives me more focus time, and more time to rethink certain strategies, and to reflect on certain decisions. Having that more frequently means that I can at least start being a lot more productive in the business as well, which is a win-win.
I think just balancing it out with habits works too. I don’t believe in being a one-dimensional person where everything is work, work, work. Balancing that means having time to read, meditate, workout, be with people that I enjoy spending time with, painting or doing anything creative and really just doing things outside of just being on my computer or working all the time.