Interview: Ugandan techie develops homegrown quick-pay service for Africa’s diaspora

Teddy Ruge - Remit.ug
Teddy Ruge – Remit.ug

Ugandan serial entrepreneur Teddy Ruge has launched a homegrown quick-pay service that targets the diaspora and aims to compete with industry giants such as Western Union and Moneygram. His project, Remit.ug, provides Ugandans living in the diaspora with the ability to send money to loved-ones using an African service, thus helping to boost the economy during the actual transfer process. Born in Uganda and raised there, Kenya, and the “belligerent state of Texas,” as he calls it, Ruge studied at the University of North Texas before heading home to help build Africa’s tech capacity.

AfricanBrains spoke with Ruge this week to discuss his latest start-up, Remit.ug.

AfricanBrains: How did you end up a technology entrepreneur?

Teddy Ruge: My background is in advertising. I’ve always considered myself a technology enthusiast. I began to get excited about technology in Africa when I started tracking and writing about the undersea cable projects in 2008. I knew that technology was going to be a game changer for the continent with the increased mobile connectivity and mobile broadband. There were just too many opportunities not to jump in. Really, I don’t think one grows up thinking, “I am going to found a start-up.” It is something that just occurs naturally when someone is inclined to be a contrarian and a problem-solver. I am on a mission to demonstrate everything that Africa can achieve. I can do this with the ventures that I’ve chosen to be a part of.

AfricanBrains: How would you describe your start-up, Remit.ug, in under 50 words?

Teddy Ruge: Remit.ug is a remittance transfer service built by Redcore Interactive that offers real-time credit-card-to-mobile-money transfers from all over the world to registered mobile-money users in Uganda. Remit’s advantage is that it the fastest, cheapest, and safest way for Uganda’s diaspora to send money home.

AfricanBrains: Could you tell us a bit about Remit.ug and your plans for developing the company?

Teddy Ruge: I initially started thinking about the idea behind Remit.ug while living in the diaspora – of leveraging mobile-money payments to capture remittances. I floated the idea by a few people. One of them was Stone Atwine, who was working in Nairobi at the time. We agreed that something had to be done, but we sat on the idea for a couple years. Earlier this year, I was in Uganda and he called me up. It seemed that two of our colleagues were struggling with the same problem. We met at a bar in Kampala and I sketched the framework of how I thought that it should work. They smiled and nodded in agreement, and I was astounded that all four of us were on the same page. The next day we started to build the company.

We haven’t made a huge push to market the service yet because we are working on adding user features and improving security. We opened up the service by invitation only and it has been growing slowly by word of mouth. So far, about 70 users have issued over 200 successful transactions. Each transaction has been a learning experience because they’ve all helped us to improve the system. It was important for us to launch early and iterate with lightning speed.

AfricanBrains: How do you plan to market Remit.ug in Africa and internationally?

Teddy Ruge: Well, if you look at the numbers, it is clear how the strategy will unfold. The Bank of Uganda estimated that 40 percent of the remittances received in 2012 were made by Ugandans living in other African countries, and 60 percent were made by Ugandans living outside the continent. Statistically, we see this as a tie. An interesting figure that we pay attention to is that Uganda’s continental diaspora accounts for just 27 percent of all the remittances received. So, the big money originates from off the continent. The African diaspora sends about $60 billion in total to the continent, but pays an unfair $7 billion in fees. So, the clear strategy for us is to compete on speed, price, and trust.

Our target audience is in fact the African diaspora, but we are narrowly focused on building a solid platform using our core audience of Ugandans in the diaspora. There are 1.5 million Ugandans in the diaspora today sending home nearly $1 billion per year. We think that this a great audience for us to start working with. Most of these Ugandans live in the United States and the United Kingdom.

AfricanBrains: What makes you different from other quick-pay services?

Teddy Ruge: This is an African-built technology solution, leveraging what we see as our mobile-first advantage on the continent. If it works in Uganda, it will work elsewhere as well. Our goal is to build the fastest, most secure end-to-end transaction engine in the remittances game, which will allow us to pass on the efficiency to our customers as savings. We know that they work hard for their money and we want to see them keep as much of it as possible.

AfricanBrains: Why does Africa need its own quick-pay service?

Teddy Ruge: There are 750 million mobile devices in Africa that, for primarily, serve as the first computing device of most Africans. The first screen to Africa’s digital highway, so to speak. M-PESA in Kenya opened the door to leveraging the mobile as a payment platform. Credit cards are reserved for those who already have means. Mobile money is democratizing, bringing digital banking to the masses.

Fast forward a few years when the regulatory environment allows for the interoperability of payment services between networks and borders, and you will truly have a digital economy on your hands. From north to south, we could have payment services that were born here, leveraging the fact that mobile payments are second nature to most Africans. We want to be here at this intersection of digital commerce and this rising continent. I would be lying if I said that we didn’t want to power Africa’s digital economy. At the core of who we are at Redcore, this is a mission that we want to accomplish.

AfricanBrains: What steps have you taken to evaluate your business model?

I’ve always thought that the most successful companies are the ones that build solutions for problems that they actually face. As a person living in the diaspora, this is something that I’ve wanted to build for about seven years now. I’ve made enough costly and painful trips to Western Union during emergencies – often having to wait until morning because there wasn’t a convenient location near me. I knew that it could be done better. So, when the stars aligned and I ran into three other guys who wanted to solve the problem, it was a fortuitous alignment and we just went for it.

AfricanBrains: Apps4Africa founder Jon Gosier told African Brains earlier that he is a backer of your start-up. Have you secured financing from any other individuals or organizations?

Teddy Ruge: Besides our own investments, we haven’t yet secured additional investments. We still have some more work to do to prove ourselves, but we have a lot of interest in the wings. Attracting investments to Africa isn’t easy. You have to prove that you can put on your big boy pants. It takes a savvy investor with a keen eye who can see opportunity where no one else is looking. Jon is someone who has his ear to the ground on what’s happening on the continent and his insight, leadership, and guidance means a lot.

AfricanBrains: How would you persuade our readers in the African diaspora to use Remit.ug as opposed to services like Western Union or Moneygram, which they are accustomed to and trust?

Teddy Ruge: Our threshold is to ensure that sending and receiving money using our platform never takes longer than five minutes. That’s five minutes from your wallet to your recipient’s digital wallet – no matter where they are in Africa. We can do this faster if you are already registered. First-time users need to register, but even then we think that we are far cheaper, faster and more convenient than Western Union or Moneygram.

AfricanBrains: How is business going for Remit.ug? Is it meeting expectations?

Teddy Ruge: Remit.ug is in open beta and far exceeding our wildest expectations. We take feedback seriously and scrutinize the user interface on a daily basis. I am a heavy user of the platform. In a way, it is satisfying my needs as a user, but I also see where we can make improvements and that’s a great position to be in. We are building something that we want to use and adding features that we need.

AfricanBrains: What is the technology behind Remit.ug?

Teddy Ruge: All I can tell you is that it is a lot of blood, sweat, and tears. Sprinkled in with a little digital ferry dust APIs. We can’t share more than that at this point, unfortunately. But I will add that we have some really talented people behind the scenes (some of Africa’s smartest digital minds, in fact) making this happen.

AfricanBrains: Could you talk a bit about some of the daily challenges that you face as the [1] cofounder of an African start-up?

Teddy Ruge: I think for me the biggest challenge is staying motivated against all the hurdles that you run into with an African venture. It is a long and slow slog through difficulties. I am keenly aware that it will take 3-4 times longer to achieve what I want to accomplish, but that knowledge doesn’t always stop me from wanting to pull out my dreads and throw in the towel.

When I look at the company from a day-to-day perspective, my task is to remember the big picture. The only way to fail is to give up and quit trying, and I can’t let that happen. I won’t let that happen.

AfricanBrains: You’ve started a number of Africa-based ventures. Could you tell us about them?

Teddy Ruge: There’s a lot to cover. Right now, I am winding down my first initiative, Project Diaspora. It was a great platform for exploring the role of the diaspora and adding our voice to the global development discourse. I saw an opportunity with the rise of social media to engage other members of the diaspora on the future of our continent. A lot of my current collaborative efforts came from Project Diaspora.

Out of that came Uganda Medicinal Plants Growers. I saw an opportunity to add value and export “agricuetical” ingredients used internationally in the beauty and pharmaceutical industries. We are building up an out-grower model, where we buy raw materials from farmers, lightly process them, and export the finished product. We would like to move at least 1,000 Ugandan farmers into the middle class by 2020 via this model. Agriculture is hard, but we are dedicated and committed to a longer vision.

Villages in Action is a development platform that I started as an initiative to ensure that everyone at the “last mile” has an audible voice in their own development in 2010. I got tired of our villages being talked about as faceless statistics in international development agency reports. They have talent, vision, and solutions. It is time that we saw, heard, and promoted local efforts. We are gearing up for a major discussion on post-2015 Africa to explore how local communities envision themselves beyond 2015 and what their role is in that vision.

Jon (Gosier) and I also got together to cofound Hive Colab, the first incubation and co-working hub in the country. It is now synonymous with technology in Kampala. We very much wanted to raise the visibility of all the talent in Kampala. We are excited with what our entrepreneurs are working on. Five years from now, we’d like to think that we kickstarted a major segment of Uganda’s digital economy.

AfricanBrains: What have been your “most educational” failures as a start-up founder?

Teddy Ruge: I can’t really point to any one thing as a major failure. I think that one can succeed with start-ups in Africa if one has the right mindset. This includes knowing that you are going to have setbacks, that things aren’t going to run as smoothly as you expected, and that things are certainly going to take three-to-four times longer than you anticipated to get up to speed. So, what you would call “failures,” I’d categorize as “expected speed bumps.” They could run the gamut from financial shortages to something as innocuous as extended electrical blackouts that disproportionately disrupt the flow of business.

AfricanBrains: What is your vision for the future of technology in Africa?

Teddy Ruge: I would like to see an Africa that is self-aware, cognizant of its worth, talents, and enormous potential. I’d like to see an Africa that is solidly in charge of its own development – writing, innovating, inventing, and building its own solutions to its very unique problems.

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Marshall Comins has played every role in media development over the past decade in the post-Soviet region from editor and reporter to founder and publisher. Today, he is the chief of staff and head of online operations with Amsterdam Group Public Relations Inc. Prior to joining Amsterdam Group, Marshall served as a style editor with the Russian state information agency where he worked on online news and government projects. He is the former publisher of the Krakow Post newspaper and online platform, as well as the founder of IPaidABribe's Ukraine-based initiative, Dav Khabara. Marshall studied strategic studies and international economics at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C.