Chris Folayan is the Head of International Growth for Interswitch, an African-born multi-billion dollar fintech business. Chris is an award-winning serial entrepreneur who has started, built, and exited multiple businesses globally. He was recently named one of Africa’s most influential people in 2022. Born and raised in Nigeria, Chris started his first company before he turned 8 years old and has been passionate about building businesses, fundraising, mentoring, and expanding companies globally ever since. Chris is an author, mentor, inventor, and public speaker and sits on several global boards. A graduate of San Jose State University, Chris is an out-of-the-box thinker who is always looking to help everyone succeed.
Your background is full of impressive contributions, from childhood efforts in entrepreneurship to building one of Africa’s largest e-commerce platforms (MallforAfrica). Could you tell us more about your journey from serial entrepreneur to leading Interswitch Group’s global business efforts?
I was born and raised in Nigeria and started a recycling business with employees at the age of 7 (having noticed a lot of tires, plastic bags, and bottles on the side of the street). After high school, I came to the USA and got online for the first time in my life, loved it, and jumped into software development in awe of all that could be done – I self-taught myself over twelve computer languages in two years while attending college. I started a company at the age of 19 that worked with major Fortune 500 companies to develop products, websites, and mobile applications that could help enhance those companies. The serial entrepreneur bug really grew at this point. Understanding business problems and ways to improve them via software, applications, and games, which my company sold to businesses, became a very lucrative opportunity.
My interest kept progressing into this notion of ‘how can you fill a customer-focused cavity to grow a business and how can you look at different products and services and expand them on a global basis?’ instead of being a single-market-focused business. Little did I know back decades ago, I would be at the cutting edge of the global expansion of technology, cross-border trade, and global fintech. My next global mindset endeavor was filling the cavity of global shipments and the ability to purchase cross-border commerce for Africa. At MallforAfrica, we built the largest African e-commerce platform in Africa at the time, developing everything from a cross-border payment solution to a delivery solution that worked with US and UK retail stores all from scratch. What started in a garage grew into warehouses across 2 continents with over 20,000 square feet. We ended up having over 16 billion items on our platform, working with over 250 retail stores, and servicing over 85 countries globally. So, we took that concept built for Africa into Latin America, the Middle East, the Caribbean islands, etc. It became a massive eCommerce powerhouse and one of my greatest accomplishments.
Towards the middle of building MallforAfrica, I also started mentoring and helping serial entrepreneurs worldwide expand their idea outside their region or focus. You can say it’s a passion of mine to help companies see beyond their own borders. If you tie my career together like a web, it’s more of helping companies determine what they do well, trying to find what cavity they can fill, and expanding globally. This is exactly what has brought me to Interswitch Group, which has brought me on board to help them as their Head of International Growth to explore how we can take the amazing fintech tools we’ve built across Africa to different markets globally. My focus is to help Interswitch grow globally by finding the right strategic partners who want to explore the African fintech space with a seasoned, well-established billion-dollar company. With an array of products, Interswitch is the best company any successful business would want to partner with when expanding into Africa. The same goes for our strategies to work with global companies and develop our products and services internationally.
Since 2002, Interswitch Group has been a pioneer in the African payments ecosystem. For those who may not know, please share more about Interswitch Group and what you are building as the Head of International Growth.
Interswitch just turned 20 last year, and we are so proud of all we have accomplished in transforming African payment processing. We are an established fintech company that originated in Nigeria with products that span across 21 countries within Africa. We have over 50 million credit cards and credit card tokens issued. We run multiple thousand transactions daily on our rails and power payments for thousands of businesses across the continent.
We are known for our significant focus on credit card and payment switching, transaction processing, and bill payments. We have our card scheme and have gone into different niches where finances are needed: We have jumped into some retail platforms, have projects in the healthcare industry, work with governments, and we’re doing work in transportation, to name a few areas. Wherever financial transactions are needed, we jump into that space with a full end-to-end toolkit to support our customers.
We have everything from a credit card with our card scheme called Verve to the payment rails and the switching systems that allow our credit cards and others to transact on the continent. We do everything in the fintech space within the continent and have a considerable stake in the underbanked and transactional markets within Africa.
What markets are you most excited about as you continue international expansion efforts, and what types of partnerships would you like to build? What should startups and corporates know about partnering with or working with Interswitch?
Our mission is to create technology solutions that connect and empower individuals, businesses, and communities to Africa. If that’s a business you are involved in, we want to talk to you. If your business is considering entering the African market and you deal in the fintech space, everything from software to switching systems, bill payments, e-commerce transactions, payments, blockchain, financial inclusion, etc. — these are the kinds of partnerships that we’re looking for in North America and beyond as we grow externally. We would love to be that partner who takes you into the continent and gives you the support you’re looking for to achieve more than you ever expected.
What is your perspective or outlook on payments innovation, and what trends or innovative models are you most excited to see in the next few years?
Blockchain would be the big one for us. Africa is jumping on that with full force. For example, we have partnered with the Interstellar Foundation to take that to the next level. I’m excited about the ability to utilize blockchain for everything transactions related, from country to country, from person to person, B2B2C, using the blockchain environment and the capabilities that come with that. Everything from speed, fraud reduction, and the ability to query the system will be vital to growing the African economy with credibility and safety at the forefront of all we do. We will see many more blockchain-enabled platforms in the fintech space, and at Interswitch, we want to lead the way.
What is one key piece of advice you’d like to give peer C-suites when building innovation strategies to create long-term value?
My advice to CEOs building any company, regardless of whether you are building an innovative or just a traditional company, is to focus on customer service. Most leaders don’t pay enough attention to their customer service department. In my view, that department should report directly to the CEO in every organization. Direct contact with customers is much better than any survey you can put out there, and listening to your customer service team is key for any organization to succeed at a high level.
Your customer service team will have complete visibility of everything going on; you can find out everything about your company, your competitors, and your next product just by listening. Customer service has the answer to what you’re doing right, what you’re doing wrong, and what you can improve. They also have all the eyes and ears on your past, your present, and your future. No business succeeds without customers, and paying attention to them is key to keeping your business innovative and around for years to come.
As noted in a recent ParTech report, The African Tech sector was one of the very few, if not the only, VC markets to boast net growth funding in 2022. What are you most excited about regarding the globalization of African Tech? What motivates you to contribute to this story?
Africa has seen massive growth in investments, and that’s due to a big reason. It’s because investment risk used to be high on the continent, but this has dwindled significantly. More companies investing in the continent are seeing their returns multiply significantly more than any other continent. The governments has been doing considerable work in providing the infrastructure needed for businesses to thrive and improving the environment to encourage investments that will ultimately come in and improve the livelihoods of its citizens to enable them to do better. If you take a snapshot of the infrastructure as a whole on the continent and the willingness of the government and the people to make positive changes towards educational, transportation, security, regulatory, and communication improvements, you will notice a massive change. And that’s why most investment firms are looking at Africa for key investments.
What motivates me and draws me to Africa is not just because I’m from there, but it is also extremely exciting to watch the continent I grew up in grow and thrive. Everything I’ve done for the past decade has focused on improving the continent and the well-being of its citizens directly or indirectly. And it’s a narrative I want to be part of my legacy. I am interested in doing anything and everything to help impact positive stories that come out of the continent and show people that Africa is open for business and investments. It’s a market that they should not ignore and a market that can turn out significant revenues and multiples that no other continent can.