On a weekend not long ago, after a long flight back home, I was desperate for some good home entertainment; watching my favourite TV show. I returned to find my pay-TV subscription had run out.
Weeks before, that would have meant the end of my intended relaxation – the vendor, where I live, isn’t open that late. Minutes after that thought of the past, I made the all-important renewal of subscription, without setting a foot out of my home.
How I could renew the subscription that late, without moving an inch out of my home, traces back to Curtis Vanderpuije, an MIT-trained mechanical engineer and his team of fellow MIT-trained partners’ bold decision to leave their comfortable lives in the West, to come “home to solve problems”.
I was lucky, the company they founded in 2012, expressPay, was started to solve problems like mine. Since its start, expressPay has been providing a convenient and secure way for Ghanaians to pay bills and purchase other services online.
It has gathered merchants on one side, and electronic payment methods on the other side. When I needed to make the payment that night, I paid online with my Ghana-issued Visa ATM card, something most people with bank accounts have, but grossly underuse – most just use it to withdraw cash from ATMs.
If I didn’t have money on my Visa ATM card, I could have fallen on MasterCard, American Express or any major international card network. Better still, I could have made the purchase with the increasingly popular mobile money offerings by the telcos.
You could be paying your ward’s school fees, paying for hotel services, buying fabrics, paying for your internet, buying airtime or even paying your church tithes within minutes of downloading the expressPay mobile app or signing up on the web.
New merchants are coming on board, and it is only going to get merrier. The slow acceptance is encouraging, as I learn, when Curtis said that not too long ago, “we went to a prospective merchant’s office fifty times in the same year, just to get them to come on board”.
For somebody who’s spent most of his life before the business preparing for such an opportunity, the initial reluctance of local businesses to sign on wasn’t deterrent enough. In fact, his career choices prepared him for such a venture.
After his mechanical engineering master’s at MIT, he worked for Bain & Company in the USA as a management consultant, making a living by helping businesses function better.
There, he thought up an idea to make payments back home in Ghana simpler and better, but soon realised he wasn’t sufficiently knowledgeable about the electronic payments market to effectively tackle it. He put it on hold for a while.
Not long after, he was offered a job at Visa – the global cashless, card-based payment service. He seized the opportunity and moved to Visa.
He worked on Visa teams in some of the most important emerging market economies in Africa like Kenya, South Africa and Nigeria. All this while, his plan spurred him on to learn all that he could.
Conception of idea
Increasingly, he couldn’t rest anymore, knowing the difference the idea could make. He discussed it with his co-founders, William Tetteh, Kojo Hesse – both also MIT alumni – and Kwei Hesse, who had schooled and lived in Canada.
Kojo had already moved to Ghana and seen the potential. It wasn’t long before the rest quit their jobs and moved to Ghana as well, regrouping in Accra, the city they knew so well when they were a boyhood group in their senior high school days.
They wouldn’t wait for anybody else to decide to bring the huge benefits of cashless payment systems to the people back home in Ghana. It is the kind of problem that Curtis admits would have made life easier for him and one that he couldn’t wait for others – particularly, foreigners to determine his fate on.
“We want to solve our own problems. We were very comfortable living and working abroad but for me, and I think the rest of my partners feel the same way, we have major issues here that we need to solve and if we don’t solve them we are going to wait forever and no one is going to solve them for us.
“You are going to wait for the West to determine what your fate is going to be,” he bemoaned. “I think eventually we need to all get more involved, to get things solved right and I think that’s what it is.”
They ploughed their savings into the venture and hit the ground running. Now, Curtis is CEO of expressPay, leading a team of 15 based out of Haatso in Accra.
Gradually, they have received re-assurance, most importantly from users of expressPay, through the take-up of the service. The app has been downloaded a good number of times by mobile users on the local Google Playstore and the Apple App Store.
For now, the focus is on increasing the number of Ghanaians that pay their bills and buy services through expressPay. Very soon, customers would be able to transfer money to each other.
The technology is ready, and if Africa came calling now, they would be ready for that expansion too. There is caution though not to rush things.
When Curtis and the team were leaving their lives abroad to return home to an uncertain future, even to provide a solution to a problem that everyone knew existed, their friends and families were a bit uncomfortable.
Today, they are the ‘chief evangelists’, having experienced first-hand expressPay’s difference. Then they asked why they would leave ‘the good life’ to come home, now it is ‘what took you so long’.