Razaq Ahmed, Co-founder and CEO of CowryWise, is no small fish in the fintech space – an industry that is fast growing to compete with the banking industry. This is more so, as Cowrywise gains even more popularity among the emerging generation who have realized that the benefits of subscribing to classic investment schemes might be much more than that of leaving funds idle in the bank – savings.
Razaq’s story is a captivating one that sees one unfortunate event changing the fate of a young man. He is the focus of Nairametrics Founders Profile this week.
Razaq Ahmed was born in Kano, where his parents lived. They had gotten married in Kano town and this was the same place they had all their children. Razaq and his siblings started their early education there.
Razaq recalled that the community in which he spent the first 14 years of his life had an unusual perception of education. Not many people were particular about tertiary education and becoming an artisan was seen as a norm for the children.
“Traditionally, everyone attended primary education, and then secondary school, but up to 90 percent of the students combined schooling with some form of other works like manual works or learning a craft,” he explained.
Based on recommendations from an uncle, Razaq started learning generator repairs and maintenance. As a secondary school student at the Army Day secondary school, he would close from school with the rest of his friends, change into casual wears, and resume at the workshop for another kind of learning.
Even though Razaq was intelligent and excelled in his studies, he expected to become a generator mechanic and did not see that much could come out of his education. In retrospect, he would say, “The expectation was to spend a couple of years learning the skill, and then have the ceremonial freedom, after which you start up in your workshop and become successful. Every successful person in the community around whom we could identify with seemed to have toed that path, so this was what shaped our thinking at the time and defined our idea of success.”
Already in SS2 at the age of 14, Razaq was well on his way to becoming a ‘generator man’ as they were called in the community. Even though there was a tertiary institution – Bayero University – in Kano, it was quite a distance from the town where they lived, so the young children hardly came in contact with people in the academic community. Rasaq’s parents had no plans of relocating and the future seemed pretty much predictable. Fate, however, had other plans.
The turning point
At age 14, the family had their life disrupted by the Hausa-Yoruba crisis which rocked the country in 1999. The fracas was traced back to some Hausa men who had been killed in Sango-Ota and their bodies sent home to their families in Kano. This erupted into a major crisis that claimed the lives of many Yorubas and Hausas across the country. As Yoruba residents in a Hausa community, Razaq’s family became victims of targeted attacks.
On one of such attacks where Yoruba residents were being slaughtered by an angry mob, the entire family nearly lost their lives but for the timely sound of the gunshot of men from the Nigerian Army.
“We were all indoors hoping and praying that something magical would happen because we had seen other people being killed, and we were conscious of the fact that it could be our last day. The mob only had sticks and cutlasses. So, immediately we heard the gunshots, we knew help had come. If the Nigerian army had waited a few more minutes before they arrived, I wouldn’t be here today,” Rasaq narrated.
After shooting in the air to disperse the mob, the soldiers took them to the Bukavu barracks where they were camped as Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in the Army Day Secondary School – the same school where Rasaq was a student.
This was the turning point in Rasaq’s life. His parents decided then that they could no longer gamble the lives of the entire family in such a crisis. The 1999 crisis was the third major crisis in which the family survived unscathed – and it did not seem like they would be lucky enough to survive a fourth. They relocated to their hometown in Ogbomoso to start life from the scratch.
“We never had plans of coming back to the southwest, it was completely accidental and it was this accident that completely changed the course of my life,” Rasaq states wistfully.
New mentors – New dreams
Back to Ogbomoso, the Ahmeds moved into the house of an extended family located at Isale, not far from Ladoke Akintola University of Technology (LAUTECH). For the first time in his life, Rasaq started seeing undergraduate students and admission seekers, who talked about lectures, examinations, and careers after school.
He also got to meet with a distant uncle who was a Lecturer at the Obafemi Awolowo University. From interacting with post-secondary students who were seeking admission, Rasaq soon came to understand that the subjects they were studying were no different from the subjects he was already studying.
“This showed me that I did not need to do anything abnormal to become like them, and with this understanding, I became the first person in my immediate family in Kano that would go to a university.”
He first attempted the University Matriculation Examination (UME) before taking his West African School Certificate Examination (WASCE). He came out with the best WASC results in his school in Ogbomoso, but his UME score was 20 points below the 235 cut-off mark of the University of Ilorin which he had selected for his first and second choice.
The following year, he selected Obafemi Awolowo University and was admitted to study Economics. After a few years of ardent academic studies and educative activities as a member of the Students in Free Enterprise (SIFE) club, Rasaq bagged First class honors in Economics and secured a job with Meristem Securities in 2007, courtesy of Saheed Bashiru – a senior schoolmate, whose acquaintance he made in his final year.
The job offer came before the National Youth Service year, so Razaq served out the year at Meristem Securities as a Research Analyst. This marked his introduction into Investment banking, as he was saddled with responsibilities which helped him build capacity. When Saheed Bashiru moved to another unit, Razaq became Head of the research unit.
In 2010, Razaq left Meristem for Vetiva Capital Management, where he spent about four months as a Research analyst.
He had a short break from investment banking in December 2010, when he resumed with Shell Petroleum Development Company as Business Economist. This break affected his CFA programme which he had started at the time, delaying his completion till 2012. While working at the SPDC, he also took a professional course to become an Energy Risk Professional (ERP).
Founding Sart Partners
After completing the CFA program in 2012, Rasaq Ahmed founded Sart Partners, an investment vehicle to carry out investment management in the alternative assets space that cuts across oil and gas, commodities, real estate, and other informal sectors. He explained that his years as an investment banker had shown him the larger market in the informal and alternative asset space which, though profitable, was not exposed to investors.
“A lot of companies need to be formalized, so they become investable and provide liquidity option for investors. My target was to formalize the informal sector and make them investable options. There are lots of opportunities that evade businesses in this country when they do not have the required institutional framework.”
Under the holding company, subsidiaries were set up to handle real estate, agriculture, FMCG brands, and a Joint Venture Agreement with a distribution company to handle oil and gas. It was a mutually beneficial arrangement where the investors were issued the SART commodity link notes to make investments, and they got returns at the end of the month.
This classic investment banking arrangement was only open to private institutional investors and high net worth individuals, and the minimum Entry investment was N1million. Though the holding company started quite small with about 20 to 30 million naira, it grew fast till it was worth about half a billion naira.
The birth of Cowrywise
As the world got ‘techified’, there was a need to merge technology into the classic investment arrangement. Also, at about the same time, there were indicators showing a larger pool of ordinary individuals interested in being a part of the arrangement.
“The idea of cowrywise came in when we had a lot of people come asking ‘how do I invest 1000 naira and small amounts like 50,000 naira. After much deliberations, we decided that the best way to scale was to open it up to the public and that was what gave birth to Cowrywise.”
To eliminate bumps from the process, Cowrywise introduced the automated savings option that allows people to use a saving schedule and invest as easily as they spend.
Meristem Securities was introduced into the arrangement as a check, to ensure that the savings are actually going into risk-free instruments. The idea, Razaq explains, is to let savings become a lifestyle, you save while living your normal life.