rmed with a passion for problem solving and a gift for enabling others to share her vision for the future, Hilda Moraa has built solutions in last-mile logistics and fintech. Today, she heads up the digital financial marketplace she founded, Pezesha, which she hopes will bring a bold, positive impact to Africa’s SMEs.
Where did your career begin, and how did it lead you to start your own business?
My background is in tech, in software engineering. For me, studying software engineering was about more than just doing a course. I knew that I wanted to be an entrepreneur and was motivated, even then, by looking around and identifying problems, then finding the solutions.
I was placed at Coke for my industrial attachment, which ended up being a full-time job opportunity in the distribution department. I was very lucky – I had wanted to work with the company and I helped to solve their “last-mile problem” with their distribution system in Kenya. I came out of working at Coke having learned about a lot of problems that needed solutions, and I knew that those solutions could impact lives. At that point, I felt that I had achieved what I had wanted to achieve at the company, and I wanted to start my own business. I quit my job and told my boss, “I’m going to start a business.” My boss’s response was, “Are you crazy? You have a job! You have a salary!”
But you did it anyway!
I quit my job, and I started my first business. Wezatele is a mobile-based innovation provider for supply-chain and last-mile distribution logistics. It was a combination of everything I’d done: last-mile solution implementation, business support, research, business development and market expansion. I was leading a team of ten people. I couldn’t raise money at that point, but it’s valuable to find the right people, the right teams, people who believe in what you are doing.
We were asking ourselves how we could grow from the one thousand merchants on the platform. It was clear that credit was becoming an essential component – big financial institutions were not interested in providing this to the small enterprises that needed it. So, we got partners who were interested in working with us, and it was well timed. Jumo (formerly known as AFB) was exploring innovative ways of using customer data, and the relationship was a good fit.
At this time, you were a member of the founding team of iHub Research, part of Nairobi’s first innovation hub, iHub. How was your time there?
This was still the beginning stages of innovation in tech in Kenya, and I met the founder of iHub, who invited me to join them. It was another case of “let’s solve your problem.” As well as being responsible for iHub Research’s core objectives and strategy, I led the innovation and ICT entrepreneurship projects from proposal writing to implementation. So, I found that I was not just building a startup, but also helping to build other people. At iHub I met like-minded people.
Your research and recommendations on various models of innovation hubs in Africa are extensive. If you could share one key finding with someone in the early stages of establishing such a space, what would it be?
Having been a part of those hubs, and my startup growing out of that, I think a key thing is how we measure success. It’s not in the amount of events we create, it’s in how much we help the entrepreneur sitting in that space to succeed – whether it’s supporting them through industry expert mentorship, peer-to-peer mentorship or connection to investors. My advice is that the incubation space’s success lies in the success of the startups they have incubated, so they should focus on nurturing and growing those businesses. If they succeed, then the hub can also grow, as the same people will come back and invest in the other startups and it becomes a network effect.
Even if you cannot understand what is unfolding right now, have an unshakeable sense of trust that the reason that this is happening is because circumstances are rearranging for your higher good.
You’ve spoken about your affinity for identifying and solving problems. In addition to the credit provision that you’ve mentioned, what problems did you set out to solve with Pezesha?
We’re building a digital infrastructure for financial services. There is KYC (know your customer) as a service to lenders, and there is credit scoring as a service. By analyzing data, we help financial institutions to have a holistic view – that matching layer is where our marketplace kicks in. In addition, we also provide financial education to ensure responsible and purposeful lending that leads to financial health and prosperity in the end.
What’s your favorite thing about the company culture of Pezesha?
The fact that we are working with young people who are hungry and driven to change the world. It doesn’t have to be in a big way, but even in the smallest way makes a huge difference to someone’s life, be it our customer, partner or community that we impact.
How do you think your tech background has shaped the way you do business?
All of my financial background is through experience, and I think that my more formal tech background gave me the advantage of being able to understand a problem from start to finish with a holistic lens. I don’t think there’s a formula for which one should come first, but sometimes it is a struggle for those from the world of finance to understand where tech and finance meet, and this is something to consider when finding the right team members – they might be theoretical, rather than practical. But, with time, they can learn to get to that balance. It’s a learning curve!
What are some of the factors that have enabled your success?
I have a gift for convincing partners, employees and customers to join me in believing in a vision or mission and executing it. In most cases, I might not know what the outcome will be but the belief gets me closer to the mission and vision and it ends up happening with hard work, dedication and passion. Day to day, a key factor is a to-do list to help me to achieve goals quickly and to know which daily tasks I need to prioritize. I’ve invested in an ergonomic chair to ensure I am always comfortable and in good posture while working. I also drink lots of water to stay hydrated, and I cannot work with noise or loud music – I get distracted – so there has to be silence to allow me to think deeply as I work.
Could you share a story of a challenge, failure or setback that you learned from?
I wrote it in my book, A Kenyan Startup Journey. Basically, I am not attached to my ideas or innovations. If it does not work, and data and customers say so, then I’ve learned to let go. I had to do this learning and relearning in my first company and now, it taught me a lot and matured my leadership skills. It either works or doesn’t – and if it doesn’t, learn from it, as that is the path to success.
The next step for Pezesha is moving into a new market: Ghana. Could you tell us about that?
The UNCDF has supported us to launch in Ghana to continue with our work of impacting more underserved SMEs. Ghana has already been a hub for fintech – it’s really well set up with really good policies, really good frameworks, and we want to extend our value proposition to SMEs in Ghana. We’re talking already of mobile penetration going deeper than it was before, and there are a lot of statistics that can tell you that Ghana is the right place to go. In terms of SMEs and financial access to working capital, we’re talking of an estimated $4.8 billion, so it’s really a big opportunity. We want to go into West Africa, and Ghana is the first place. We have strategic local partners, and that’s why it’s been very workable for us.
What makes Kenya, and Nairobi in particular, special for entrepreneurs?
We are the Silicon Savannah, defined by the growing number of fintech businesses and startups, the government’s ICT agenda, the growing number of innovation spaces – including restaurants turned into hubs – M-Pesa powering the infrastructure of many fintech ventures and companies innovating to solve relevant problems in the society or their community. It’s the young people driving this change for a better Kenya.
What advice do you give to young entrepreneurs starting out?
Really put your energy, mind and effort into the right things. Part of that is investing in yourself: it’s not just investing money; it’s more about being intentional about your growth and purpose, your personal self, learning new things. Once you create this rhythm, then success is possible. Entrepreneurship is hard and sometimes things don’t go according to plan, but do you give up? No. Even if you cannot understand what is unfolding right now, have an unshakeable sense of trust that the reason that this is happening is because circumstances are rearranging for your higher good. Have faith in the unknown.
What are your top work essentials?
My to-do list, an ergonomic chair and plenty of water.
At what age did you found your company?
Twenty-three when I founded Wezatele, and twenty-eight for Pezesha.
What’s your most-used app?
Slack. I’m on Slack a lot.
What’s the most valuable piece of advice you’ve been given?
Trust the process – there’s a divine plan moving through everything.
What’s your greatest skill?
Convincing others to join me in believing in a vision.