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Heidi Metz, CEO and founder of mobile banking startup Imani, is partnering with Solageo, a company selling solar and renewable energy products in developing countries. (Imani Photo)

In parts of Africa, payday is a mixed blessing. Because hundreds of millions of adults across the continent don’t have bank accounts, they’re paid in cash and in places where the currency has a low value, that can leave someone carrying home a stack of bills.

“Everyone knows it’s payday,” said Heidi Metz, “and it’s like having a target on your back.”

Governments send armored cars into rural areas of Africa to pay police, teachers and other public employees. The cars, too, are victims of robberies, creating instability when key civil servants miss their paychecks, Metz said.

Globally, about 1.7 billion adults are “unbanked,” meaning that they lack an account at either a financial institution or a mobile money provider, says the World Bank.

To help people without access to digital or traditional banks, Metz created Imani, a mobile banking startup based in Kirkland, Wash., just east of Seattle.

“I grew up in nonprofits and have spent a lot of time in developing countries and understand the culture, and it’s in my DNA to want to make an impact in a big way,” Metz said.

Nearly 40 years ago her parents created Mercy Ships, the world’s largest non-governmental hospital ship, and Metz has lived in more than 65 countries.

“I have a lot of contacts,” Metz said. “I am meeting with prime ministers and the head of the central banks in a lot of these countries.”

Photo Credit Josh Callow - Albertine (MGB16237) sells sweet potatos with her mother from her home in Mahajanga after her first surgery with Mercy Ships.
Metz has traveled the world visiting developing countries. As a child, her parents created Mercy Ships, a ship-based hospital serving impoverished communities, including this family selling sweet potatoes in Madagascar. (Josh Callow Photo)

She has also worked for Microsoft as a marketing strategy consultant and briefly served as chief operating officer for Metafos, an online payment system.

Despite her background and the huge market for unbanked customers, Metz has struggled to secure funding for her company, which she started in 2015 .

“I’m unknown in the VC community and Africa hasn’t been a big market for investment, and I’m pre-revenue and I’m a woman,” she said. “So I have a lot of counts against me.”

She’s leveraging a partnership with Solageo, a company started by a friend from graduate school that is selling solar products to underserved communities, in order to start reaching customers. Imani will serve as a means for processing payments for the clean energy items. The duo recently won the regional rounds of the Empower a Billion Lives (EBL) competition, organized by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. For the EBL’s global contest, they’re launching a pilot project in Uganda in August to deliver clean water and energy to women and families.

Imani was also accepted into Microsoft’s IoT & Insider Labs, giving the startup access to AI experts who can help with prototyping, testing and operations at scale.

Imani’s product is blockchain based, and can use multiple different bitcoins, though Metz is not creating her own cryptocurrency. Imani will work with numerous telecommunications companies, so users are not limited to a certain provider or phone. Imani allows users to receive salaries directly into their accounts, and can turn savings into physical cash. Imani will charge 1 percent per transaction.

There are many companies big and small in the mobile banking space in developing countries, including PayPal and Mastercard. Some businesses have generated controversy by charging high rates for money transfers and by operating as monopolies in certain countries.

“Imani not only provides an alternative to burying or carrying cash, but also protects customers’ information, and charges affordable transaction fees,” Metz said.

We caught up with Metz for this Startup Spotlight, a regular GeekWire feature. Continue reading for her answers to our questionnaire.

Imani CEO and founder Heidi Metz (Imani Photo)

What does your company do? Give us your 2-to-3 sentence elevator pitch: A blockchain-based, affordable mobile wallet and payment system for the unbanked to store, save and transfer their digital, fiat and cryptocurrency. Initially targeting West Africa.

Inspiration hit us when: My drive to make a difference began forming as a young child growing up in numerous emerging economies. My parents are the founders of Mercy Ships, the world’s largest non-governmental hospital ship that has operated in developing nations since 1978, impacting 2 million direct beneficiaries. My two lifelong passions are addressing global issues to result in lasting change and cutting edge technology. Imani, which means ‘trust’ in Swahili, marries the two!

The plans for Imani have been in my head for almost 15 years, but after taking a sabbatical and volunteering in Africa, I saw with my own eyes the 100 percent mobile phone penetration and realized the continent was ready.

VC, Angel or Bootstrap: Bootstrap. My first investor turned out to be fraudulent, trying to obtain my IP. And our next investor is out there, right around the next corner — or behind one of the many emails I’m waiting to hear back from. As my advisors at K&L Gates say, what makes a good startup CEO is the ability to “run through walls.” I won’t let money keep me from doing what I was meant to do.

Our ‘secret sauce’ is: A combination of my contacts across our market, and our technology’s ledger management.

The smartest move we’ve made so far: Moving to blockchain technology before we launched.

The biggest mistake we’ve made so far: Where do I start? Being naïve. Trusting people and their motives. Those mistakes have cost us years.

Which entrepreneur or executive would you want working in your corner? Arry Yu, chair of the Blockchain Council for the Washington Technology Industry Association and the person behind the Storm Token ICO (initial coin offering) in 2017. She is a well-known blockchain expert here in the Seattle area, and a known entity in the Angel/VC and entrepreneurial community. I’ve met Arry and love her down-to-earth and open approach to life and business. It would be my dream-come-true to have her join Imani and take us to the next level. She understands our technology, the complexities of raising money in this market, and is passionate about helping others.

Our favorite team-building activity is: Eating together. My tech team and I all love food and it brings a sense of camaraderie. We’re making new memories and sharing stories while breaking bread together.

The biggest thing we look for when hiring is: Passion for technology and making an impact. If the soft skills are there, the rest can be taught.

What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to other entrepreneurs just starting out: Think of your business journey like a roller-coaster ride: there are lots of ups and downs, but this is a fun ride and a privilege to take!

Story updated on May 24.

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