Interview: Kipochi founder Pelle Braendgaard


Globally the growth of mobile devices has been nothing short of a revolution, and Africa is no different in this regard.

Last year the GMSA reported that sub-Saharan Africa is among the fastest growing mobile markets in the world, with annual average growth rates averaging 44% in the past 11 years.

It also stated that sub-Saharan Africa has the highest levels of mobile internet usage worldwide.

“3G penetration levels for the region are projected to grow by about 46% in the period to 2016,” revealed the report by the GMSA.

It is for these reasons that Danish born Pelle Braendgaard was motivated to launch his mobile money service – Kipochi.

Kipochi is an African startup that has taken the concept of transferring money among mobile phones global by enabling handsets across Africa and even parts of the world to become bitcoin wallets.

Kipochi is bitcoin wallet technology where users’ mobile numbers become their account numbers. Bitcoins can then be sent and received across borders, with only the US not being able to use the Kipochi service.

ITWeb Africa assistant editor Simnikiwe Mzekandaba took some time to chat to Braendgaard to find out more about the man behind the mobile money service that is fast-gaining popularity in Africa.

SIMNIKIWE MZEKANDABA: What were you doing before you decided to launch Kipochi?

PELLE BRAENDGAARD: I was doing some consulting for people in Silicon Valley - working in the startup space but I stopped that to start Kipochi.

SIMNIKIWE MZEKANDABA: How was Kenya an interesting destination to come to and set up your business?

PELLE BRAENDGAARD: It has a lot of similarities to what is going on in Silicon Valley, there are a lot of start-ups here, there are a lot of incubators and there’s obviously M-Pesa which is the future and there’s already the infrastructure here and people have the knowledge of mobile money and it makes it easier for us to explain what we are doing. In the US people don’t get the concept of mobile money and it would be a hard subject to explain in the US to people and in my country Denmark as well but it’s easier here than internationally.

SIMNIKIWE MZEKANDABA: What then was your motivation to launch Kipochi?

PELLE BRAENDGAARD: The real motivation for Kipochi is that I feel that there are too many barriers to entry into the world of payments and financial transactions and the having a much more democratic form of payment could pretty much make a difference in the world. Some of the co-founders have a lot of experience of the African market and Africa is the obvious market for Bitcoin and I think it can really make a difference in a lot of countries in the region.

SIMNIKIWE MZEKANDABA: And how has the response been like since you’ve launched Kipochi?

PELLE BRAENDGAARD: We’ve been trying to limit the growth a bit intentionally because we want to make sure we scale up with it. The response has been really good people are impressed by it and people talk about it on the radio here and in newspapers and a lot of people on the streets have heard about it.

SIMNIKIWE MZEKANDABA: How many users have subscribed to use your service?

PELLE BRAENDGAARD: We are not willing to go on the record just yet – at some point we will have a public announcement of our statistics.

SIMNIKIWE MZEKANDABA: How many people do you have working for you?

PELLE BRAENDGAARD: I’ve got four other co-founders who are mostly the people who are financing it, but they also give a lot of good advice and have a lot of experience of doing business in Africa. And I’ve got a couple of project managers from Kenya, a couple of developers and it’s been great working here.

In the US it’s very rare to see software developers that are female out here there’s a large female software developer population – it’s refreshing to see that. We’ve got two on our team. In the six years of working of at Silicon Valley I only met two female software developers.

SIMNIKIWE MZEKANDABA: How would you describe your starting process of Kipochi?

PELLE BRAENDGAARD: The main hurdle that we’ve experienced is that we wanted to get off the ground a little bit slower, I know this might sound strange because with technology it would be a good idea to have quick growth but with this kind of product I would prefer to take things slowly. Because people know about it it’s been kind of hard to hold back, we’re finding that we have to work a lot quicker than we would have wanted to.

SIMNIKIWE MZEKANDABA: Looking at the mobile industry in Africa within the technology space, what are your thoughts on that?

PELLE BRAENDGAARD: Everything is mobile here and it’s quite exciting to see how mobile works in African technologies. It also has a different and much wider audience reach.

SIMNIKIWE MZEKANDABA: Expansions - What are your plans?

PELLE BRAENDGAARD: We’ve already pretty much launched worldwide as we are a web based product, our USSD service can only be done on a country by country basis unfortunately but our mobile web based product is available worldwide everywhere except the US. And what we are trying to do is look at the areas where there is interest and place some focus on those areas – in Africa we are looking at the region as a whole, but we’ve had some enquiries from southern Africa, North Africa as well as East Africa but our product is available everywhere.

SIMNIKIWE MZEKANDABA: What do you think about the technology startup space in Africa?

PELLE BRAENDGAARD: I think there is a lot of potential here and there’s a lot of startups working on great problems and great solutions – I’ve mainly lived here in Kenya but I know that there are a lot of issues for example it’s hard to accept payments across borders that’s a major issue and again that’s an issue that we are trying to solve. I know startups in Kenya who would love to sell to customers in Tanzania and Uganda, and Rwanda but they can’t because of the current payment infrastructure. It’s pretty much the largest issue.

SIMNIKIWE MZEKANDABA: How is Kipochi setting itself apart from the rest?

PELLE BRAENDGAARD: Basically with our focus on Bitcoin, we are unique in the region. Using Bitcoin we don’t have to partner with specific countries; many different people can use our service as a whole and we aim to offer financial structures to anyone using Bitcoin.

SIMNIKIWE MZEKANDABA: What do you like to do outside the office?

PELLE BRAENDGAARD: I like to travel – I like music, I already knew something about African music but I really enjoy all kinds of music. I’d like to travel around Kenya and elsewhere in Africa – but I haven’t had the time to do that since I got to Kenya.

SIMNIKIWE MZEKANDABA: And what words of advice would you give people looking to have their own tech startups?

PELLE BRAENDGAARD: I’d look at real problems people are having – maybe within ones neighbourhood, I would try to focus less on the trend startups news from Silicon Valley and look at real issues around where you live. And just get started try it out. I also think people should start learning to programme something even if they are not planning to be fully fledged developers, its very good for a start-up or entrepreneurs to know what his programmers are up to and understand what is going on.