An International Entrepreneur Emerges
A telltale sign that the future for Firas Ahmad ’95 would involve international work was his pursuit of a bachelor’s degree in foreign service, which he completed at Georgetown University in 1999. Less predictable was his becoming an entrepreneur with multiple companies — a journey with many twists and turns along the way that began at Harvard, while studying for a master’s degree in public policy.
“I had ‘normal’ jobs up until grad school,” said Ahmad. Then he took a class on technology and emerging markets with a professor who started a company in Bangladesh that grew to become the biggest provider of telecommunications services, in a country of 166 million people. “The company’s commercial success was based on expanding services to remote areas of the country, where competitors assumed there was no market,” he explained. “This idea sparked my interest in learning more about how to build enterprises in emerging markets.”
When his professor started another company in Bangladesh, called Emergence Bioenergy, Ahmad was intrigued by the concept — converting cow manure into electricity. “It sounded like a relatively far-fetched idea with limited chance of success, so naturally I signed on as the first employee and started traveling back and forth.” Eight years later, the board of the company made the decision to close. “At the time, we were still in pre-revenue startup mode. Whatever equity I had became worthless. In hindsight, I was naïve about the whole thing and probably should have left sooner. At this point in my life, I had two small kids; my wife and I suffered through a few years of financial instability, and I didn’t have much to show for it, except perhaps a set of lessons learned. However, lessons learned don’t pay bills, so I was fully prepared to throw in the towel and go back to the regular job. The problem was that I was eight years into a failed startup, which means eight years behind from moving up the corporate ladder. Not a good situation.”
However, his firm belief in the idea of converting waste to energy led him to co-found Grassroots Energy, Inc. in India with a former colleague, from his earlier years in Bangladesh. They adapted the previous business model, focusing on the farmlands and providing energy where there was limited access. “We applied for a grant with a revamped concept,” he said, ”and were able to raise enough money to get it back off the ground.”
That same year, 2015, turned out to be a turning point for Ahmad, when he connected with a friend from his Georgetown days whose family operated a large manufacturing conglomerate, Azam Group, based in Tanzania. While his colleague continued to operate Grassroots Energy, on the ground in India, Ahmad started a consulting engagement with the Azam Group, where he was tasked with identifying possible technology-oriented business opportunities — from energy to telecom to payments, all focused on the East Africa region. “After about a year or so of analysis,” he elaborated, “I was increasingly convinced Tanzania was on the edge of a massive digital transition and mapped out a system of businesses we could build to ride that wave. My friend was intrigued and willing to invest in the concept. At this point, we started building them out, starting with payments processing and then moving into logistics, mobile payments and e-commerce.”
The duo proceeded to co-found two companies — AzamPay and Sarafu. AzamPay is a payments aggregator for the East Africa region, similar to Stripe in the United States, that helps companies pay and get paid digitally, connecting the end user or business to different payment networks. It is currently operating in Tanzania and Rwanda. Sarafu, which means “exchange” in Swahili, is an e-commerce platform for small retail shop owners in Tanzania to purchase their supplies digitally, and it is similar to a small version of the Amazon sellers marketplace. Ahmad described the process: “I set up my own warehouse and stocked products from many different manufacturers and started delivering to the retail shop owners, providing certain guarantees in terms of delivery time, customer service and price transparency. We processed payments through AzamPay to better manage the end-to-end ordering experience. We started operations on Sarafu, in Q4 of 2018, with about 50 customers. By Q3 of 2020, we had over 6,000 customers on the platform with the rate of growth picking up each month.”
Ahmad’s newest venture is AzamPesa, a mobile money company based in Tanzania that allows customers to store and exchange money on their mobile phones. The business is another part of the overall strategy to build out a digital payments and commerce ecosystem in East Africa. The need he aims to fill came from recognizing that “in East Africa, most people don’t have access to credit cards or banks. The dominant mode of digital payment (non-cash) is mobile money, and the better we can manage the end-to-end transaction experience, the better we can service our customers. AzamPesa allows us to reach the average consumer in a way AzamPay and Sarafu do not.” Co-founded in 2019, the company is currently in the planning stages, with the goal to launch in 2021.
The common thread across all of Ahmad’s businesses is adapting technology to address local problems in emerging markets, with an eye toward scaling the solution. An essential aspect to that involved his observation of the markets in different countries, paying particular attention to how people transacted and made decisions. “People in developing countries face a unique set of problems that anyone growing up in the U.S. would likely never encounter,” he said. “At the same time, technology to solve these problems is widely available but not necessarily adapted to the specific context of these regions. For me, the coolest thing about working in these markets is bringing a technology that fundamentally changes how a market or an industry works. For example, in the U.S., many people buy stuff with a credit card. Now, with Apple Pay or Android Pay, you can link your credit card and tap your phone on the terminal instead of swiping the card. Not a big deal; it's not radically changing anyone’s life. However, in a place like Africa, imagine you wanted to send money to your parents in another town. Before mobile money, this would require you to take a bus and drop cash off at their home. No one has a bank account, and the post office doesn’t work. However, with a mobile money account, you can send money from your phone to their phone in a few minutes. In one case, using a phone to pay makes a marginal difference; in another case, it makes a world of difference.”
Today, Ahmad manages his ventures from his home base in Bethesda, Md., where he lives with his wife, a filmmaker, and their three children. Although he travels frequently to the countries where the companies are located, he strives to maintain a balanced work/family life. When he does travel, he says he does it “with the intent to absorb the country context and ground reality. I try to expose myself to as many conversations, people, experiences and discussions that allow me to validate the business model or approach. It’s also equally important to build relationships with employees and partners.”
Reflecting on his entrepreneurial journey, he stated, “There was no plan for me to end up where I currently am. If I were to sum up the factors that led me down this path, I would focus on two things: my creative interest in solving problems in emerging markets and that I fostered and maintained a set of relationships with individuals that helped position me to execute on this interest when the opportunity arose. Each specific company started because I found a partner who I trusted and who also trusted me. If there is a lesson here, it’s that sincere friendship can sometimes lead you to different opportunities you could never imagine.”
The peaks and valleys of his experience have brought him a unique appreciation for the meaning of a quotation he recalls by Mike Tyson, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” The main takeaway message for Ahmad — “Life is not very predictable; it can take you sideways very quickly. How exactly will you respond? No one plans to fail, but I don’t know anyone who succeeded that did not, at some point, fail. The successful ones tend to keep their composure and figure out how to make things work while balancing competing interests. In my mind, the key to this is to have a vision for what you are trying to accomplish. Any specific plan can always be scrapped, but if the vision is sound, you should find your way there after overcoming adversity.”