Innovating to Drive Financial Inclusion in Africa
Drew Durbin '04
By Rita Deurdulian
In ninth grade ethics class at Potomac, Drew Durbin ’04 was tasked with writing a life goal. He thought about it briefly before stating that he wanted to create a product that would help improve the lives of a million people. “When I realized that such a thing was really possible, I was immediately drawn to the idea,” Drew says.
Now, he has surpassed that goal as an entrepreneur who is changing lives in Africa by providing innovative solutions to global economic challenges.
Described by his former teachers as a problem solver, Drew acknowledges that a solutions-based mindset has shaped his career. Having identified a need, he made the decision to move to a new country, rather than trying to solve problems from a distance. That move made all the difference. “Always get on a plane to solve the problem,” he says with a smile.
Though he is only in his 30s, Drew has started four ventures aimed at addressing basic needs in Africa, with the two most recent, focused on financial services, each scaling to over a million people. His current company, Wave, is “building extremely affordable and inclusive financial infrastructure” in markets where the majority of people do not have access to banks. Wave raised $200 million in Series A equity funding at a valuation of $1.7 billion in 2021 – West Africa’s largest-ever Series A funding round – to scale the company’s operations from Senegal to other parts of the continent.
Now living stateside, Drew looks back on his decision to move to Africa and describes two different phases. Initially, he spent time in Africa while attending Brown University and then moved to Tanzania immediately after college. Having become interested in startups and been involved with an Engineers Without Borders project during his student days, he says, “I decided that I wanted to explore social enterprises, and I figured the best way to do that was just to jump in and try.”
His first two ventures involved building handcarts and solar cookers made from recycled materials. While neither came close to the scale Drew hoped for, he learned valuable lessons in the process of launching these initiatives. He reflects, “I loved entrepreneurship – the traveling, working on the ground, making an impact. In global development you get to work directly with the people you’re trying to uplift.”
Drew periodically returned to the U.S. to generate support for his nonprofit efforts. He quickly saw that sending money to Africa via Western Union and MoneyGram was “insanely expensive.” Drew talked to Africans living in the DC area and realized that they had the same problem. In response, he partnered with Lincoln Quirk, his hallmate from freshman year at Brown, to found Sendwave – a service that enabled instant, no-sending-fee remittances to be sent from mobile phones in the U.S. to phones in Kenya, where mobile money capability was already fairly widespread. The business took off and within six months Sendwave was the largest remitter to Kenya in the world, saving users an average of 7% per transfer.
Lincoln and Drew quickly recognized that financial infrastructure on the receiving end of money transfers was lacking in other parts of Africa. So Drew moved back, this time to Senegal, with the goal of providing financial services for everyone in a given country, rather than just those Africans who were living abroad and trying to send money home. He says, “We thought that would be the most impactful. We wanted to solve the big, hard infrastructure problem.”
To focus fully on domestic money transfer in Africa, Drew and Lincoln sold Sendwave to WorldRemit for $500 million in early 2021 and spun out Wave, a mobile money company fully focused on enabling basic money transfer and banking services in Africa.
What is Mobile Money and How Does it Function?
Different from mobile banking, mobile money is an electronic wallet service that allows users to store, send, and receive money independent of bank accounts, using smart and basic-feature phones. The technology, which stores funds in a secure electronic account linked to a mobile phone number, is an increasingly popular alternative to bank accounts in Africa. Most mobile money services allow users to purchase items in shops or online, pay bills, and top-up mobile airtime.
The mobile money concept was originally introduced in Kenya by Safaricom in 2007. Sending money to a relative was a big issue then because the population in the region had a low rate of banking. The new electronic option provided a safe, quick money-transfer solution for unbanked and underbanked people. Drew saw the desirability of both making these basic mobile services available in other parts of Africa and expanding the range of services that could be provided via mobile money apps.
Now, according to TechCrunch, Wave is “disrupting the mobile money industry.” Wave’s platform is akin to PayPal, but using mobile money accounts, rather than bank accounts. It relies on an agent network that uses cash-on-hand to service customers, serving as the mechanism for depositing and withdrawing physical cash.
Customers register for the Wave service with authorized agents – often retailers such as grocers, bakers, barbers, and butchers – then deposit cash in exchange for electronic money. Once registered, all transactions are completed securely by using a personal identification number, and both parties receive a text message confirming the transfer of funds. The recipient receives the electronic money in real time, then redeems it for cash by visiting another agent.
Fostering Financial Inclusion Across a Continent
When mobile money succeeded in Kenya, it lifted about a million people out of poverty. Yet, in spite of the expansion of telecom-led mobile money services beyond Kenya in the following decade, most Africans still lacked access to affordable ways to save, transfer, or borrow the money needed to build businesses or provide for their families. Drew explains, “Because these telecoms were often monopolies, they charged exorbitant prices for basic money transfer. By contrast, we created an extremely affordable financial infrastructure and, on average, our prices for these services are 80% lower than what the telecoms were offering.”
He characterizes Wave’s goal this way: “to create a radically inclusive and extremely affordable financial network.”
Wave now offers financial services and products directly to more than 10 million customers. Drew reflects, “We’ve grown from being in one market, Senegal, to five more: Ivory Coast, Gambia, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Uganda. This was a natural geographic expansion, but it’s rewarding to see, especially when the initial product we offered was basic in comparison to what we can provide now.” He explains that the original product provided simple money transfer and basic banking services – similar to depositing and withdrawing money from a bank’s ATM. But now, especially in the company’s more mature markets, the product provides a wider array of services, including merchant payments, savings, credit, and international money transfers in partnership with other industry partners.
Drew notes with pride, “Due to Wave’s unique business model, we are now able to offer free bill payment, withdrawals, and deposits, and transfers at just 1%, making these services accessible to millions who might not have access to banks or be able to afford pricier alternatives.”
Drew believes that access to convenient, affordable financial services is one of the most important ways to support economic development around the world. He says, “Money is in constant motion. If we can help people move money more efficiently and at a cheaper rate, it makes a huge difference in their lives.”
Serving the Community, Sharing His Passion
Having lived and worked in Africa for 10 years, Drew has formed deep ties to the communities there. He observes, “Living abroad taught me empathy and understanding for the day-to-day challenges of the people we are trying to serve.”
Drew adds, “There is definitely a sense of adventure when it comes to living in another country and culture, but there are costs too, like being further away from family. Wanting to solve problems was the ultimate driving force for me in moving to Africa. Sure, there are challenges, but that has never diminished my drive to be there for the people we are serving.”
Last spring, Potomac’s Alumni Office and Upper School Career and Professional Skills Committee welcomed Drew as a Career Lab speaker. Career Labs are interactive, student-led discussions that focus on a variety of professions and industries, from finance to engineering, computer science, medicine, journalism, the arts, and more. Drew shared his experiences and insights on everything from opening his first startup to the music he listens to. Importantly, he challenged the students to think about college as “a giant petri dish” within which to incubate their interests and determine how they might align with various career paths.
When choosing a path that aims to improve the lives of others, Drew advised, “Focus on an area where you want to make an impact and one that you are passionate about.” He told the students, “I’m really big on trying to work at the intersection of what you truly care about and what is practically achievable. It’s all about trying things out to see what works and what doesn’t. Sometimes you have to take the leap and find out early on whether a path or an endeavor works for you.”
He reflected, “No matter what path you choose, I think one of the most important skills is problem solving. Many professions have a clear roadmap, but in entrepreneurship, there is none. The field is wide open for you to be creative and innovative, to solve problems and bring your vision to life.”