The Zoona Story

There have been many ups and downs in our journey to building Zoona into what it is today. When people ask about some of our challenges, we usually laugh and reply; “there have been no failures, only huge learnings.”

Zoona’s roots can be traced back to 2007 when Brad Magrath sent that infamous text message to his brother Brett that said “Boet (brother), I have an idea that is going to be huge!”

The two brothers from Kitwe, Zambia were still broke and nearly broken from their first entrepreneurial ride that took their mobile airtime start-up from Malawi to Bangladesh before running out of cash and selling.

“One last time”, they said as they started again with nothing. They had no money, no team, no customers and no business plan – just a belief that they could combine technology and entrepreneurship to transform Zambia’s cash economy into thriving digital payments ecosystem.

Two years later, they had built a payments platform, secured Bank of Zambia license, brought on board a strategic corporate partner, and closed $200k of grant funding from USAID.

Meanwhile, Brad and Brett were watching M-Pesa’s consumer facing person-to-person business taking off in Kenya. Their original idea was focused on helping companies make payments to unbanked smallholder farmers, but they believed the M-Pesa model could be replicated in Zambia to help millions of people send and receive money when they need to most.

Early in 2009, Mike Quinn moved back to Zambia having completed his MSc in International Development at the London School of Economics and an MBA at Oxford University where he was a Skoll Scholar for Social Entrepreneurship. Although he grew up between Calgary and Vancouver, Mike’s heart was in Africa from the two years he spent in Ghana and Zambia as a volunteer with Engineers Without Borders Canada.

Mike convinced the recently formed Grassroots Business Fund (GBF) to buy him a plane ticket to go search for high impact entrepreneurs to invest in. On his first day in Lusaka, he was introduced to Brad and Brett who pitched their vision of creating a Cashless Zambia. Mike felt that they were underselling themselves and convinced GBF to invest.

A year later, Mike had joined the Magraths full time and persuaded Patrick Pichette, the chair of EWB Canada who also happened to be Google’s newly appointed CFO – to invest in the fledgling start-up. The trio grew in confidence but a few months later were still broke. That’s when Mike took the final leap as an entrepreneur by asking his parents to mortgage their home and wire $100 thousand to the company’s empty bank account. After that, Brad and Brett took the bold decision as founders to make Mike the CEO and their vision grew from a Cashless Zambia to a Cashless Africa.

While this was going on, Keith Davies was locked inside the investment banking halls of Citibank Johannesburg dreaming of breaking out to support the growth of start-up businesses making an impact in Africa. Keith had also completed his MBA at Oxford University with Mike, and had several years of investment banking experience in South Africa with Rand Merchant Bank.

Keith shared his vision with his friend Mike while watching a World Cup match at a Johannesburg restaurant, and Mike responded with the company’s acute need for a CFO. After a meeting with Brad and Brett, Keith quit his job, sold his house, and cashed out his pension. He deposited this cash directly into the Zoona Zambia bank account and then in his new role as CFO watched it disappear as he paid everyone’s backdated salaries.

Brad, Brett, Mike and Keith formed a team and set off on a mission to build a billion dollar business that could help communities thrive. Brad would build the culture, Brett would build the products, Mike would craft the vision and raise the money, and Keith would ensure we never ran out of it. The first few years were really, really tough, but they laid the foundations for everything that would happen afterwards.
As the years went by, the team expanded, the investment came, and the business started to take off. Despite the positive impressions from the outside, cracks began to appear on the inside as all the new people didn’t share the same history or fully understand what Zoona was all about. Brad and Brett had the idea to create a book about Zoona’s Founderisms – the informal ways of working that would lead to a thriving and everlasting Zoona culture.
Zoona means “Real”, and these Founderisms are the key to being real. Combined with our purpose and wildly important goals, they should anchor the Zoona culture long after the founding team is gone. Now that’s Zoona!

Interested in Working With Us?

We’re always looking for talented A-players to join our team and help change the world. We’re scaling up and this is your chance to join Africa’s fintech success story and make a difference.
Follow the link below to learn more about joining our team.