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Founders Everywhere: Tiernan Kennedy
Tiernan Kennedy is the co-founder & CEO of Umba, an African digital bank, offering financial services to its growing customer base.
Welcome to Founders Everywhere, where we highlight the incredible people behind the companies we’ve backed at Everywhere Ventures, a global pre-seed fund supported by a community of 500 founders and operators.
Umba means to grow or to create in Swahili, which is exactly what co-founder and CEO Tiernan Kennedy aims to do with digital banking across Africa. Umba launched in Nigeria in 2021 and in Kenya in 2023, via the acquisition of an existing Microfinance bank. Their digital platform offers access to a wide range of banking services, including account management, payments, loans, savings, and more. They believe in the power of financial inclusion to drive economic growth and are committed to providing innovative solutions that empower both employers and employees to achieve financial stability and reach their full potential.
Tiernan is from Ireland and spent some time in Kenya in 2010, just a few years after the launch of M-Pesa, a mobile phone-based money transfer service. He saw firsthand how it was transforming the nation and revolutionizing digital payments. Despite Kenya being a world leader in digital payments, access to banking services lags behind. People may have a digital wallet, but they’re missing out on earning interest, affordable credit options, and other other basic financial services. Fast forward to a couple years ago, where Tiernan recognized how a great product could really solve this problem and have a positive impact not only in Nigeria and Kenya, but across the African continent.
What is Umba’s North Star?
We believe that everyone deserves access to efficient, transparent, and affordable financial services, regardless of background, location, or proximity to an urban area. If you've got a phone, you should be able to have a bank account, no matter if you're in Eldoret, Kisumu, or Nairobi. It should be possible for everyone, but unfortunately it isn’t as most banks require a branch visit. We are driving towards lowering the costs and increasing the reach of banking in Kenya, Nigeria, and hopefully a few more markets.
Tell us about some recent milestones Umba crushed.
Our biggest milestone was going live in the market in Kenya on the 1st of April this year. It’s a big deal because to give an example there are 400+ microfinance bank licenses in Nigeria and there are only 14 in Kenya. We’re also one of the only players doing digital banking, which is a huge opportunity.
The other milestone is that we launched asset financing in Kenya. It’s our first time doing asset financing and it’s been doubling every month since June. It’s exciting to enhance our product portfolio with a mix of short-term and long-term offerings. This is a great feature for customers, as they are able to get credit for lower rates.
How does Umba inspire “customer love”?
We design all of our products with the user in mind and transparency is huge. We make sure people know what is going on with their money including interest rates and fees. Our product is also very easy to use. From face scanning, to automated transaction monitoring, to the security features, it’s all very seamless.
What sets Umba apart from competitors?
We've got a couple of advantages:
Pan African focus: Number one is we started out as a Pan African company, which a lot of companies haven’t done. We didn’t build the business for just one market.
Hyper localized approach: Despite serving multiple markets, we have embraced a hyper-localized strategy. We have some shared resources like technology and financing, but sales, marketing, and even engineering are adapted to meet the specific needs of each market. We recognize that African countries have distinct financial ecosystems and preferences, such as the types of payment methods and banking systems. Our core banking system is similar in the middle, but at the edges is very, very different.
Technology Adaptation: Our technology is adaptable to accommodate differences in currency, national ID systems, and payment methods across various African countries. We are prepared to support multi currency operations and anticipate the need to work with multiple languages in the future.
Regulatory Compliance: Unlike some competitors who operate without regulatory approval and later seek forgiveness, Umba chose a regulatory-centric approach. We have obtained licenses and ensure that we’re compliant with local laws and regulations. This has allowed us to avoid issues with regulators that are harder to fix up the road. Taking this approach in Kenya has really paid off in the long run. We are a deposit taking bank that’s regulated by the Central Bank and this has allowed us to offer a full product suite in Kenya including savings and deposit accounts, compared to Fintechs that cannot hold customers deposits.
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