If you were there in January, and later in April, when I sat with Mitchell Elegbe in his house in Lagos, you might have felt what I felt; that this man is a quiet one but his kind of quiet is the instinctual kind of quiet.
Altogether, between 2008 and 2020, I’ve met the man a total of six times and each time I’ve left with the same feeling.
Mitchell Elegbe, who turns 50 this November, doesn’t think like everyone else.
He appears to have a rather assured sense of individuality. And if he senses that you happen to be on a bandwagon, he’d like to kick you off that track.
For instance, in April when the coronavirus fears raged across the world and Nigeria seemed to have not fully come to grips with the monster, Mitchell wondered why so many business strategists, including the big ones like Deloitte and Accenture, were already offering advice on The New Normal and a Post-Covid world.
“Nobody has been here before,” Mitchell said. “Nothing in history is like this.” Unlike the 1920 Spanish Flu and other pandemics before and after, the novel Coronavirus has happened at such a peculiar time in human history. This is the age of social media, AI, e-commerce, 5G, Black Lives Matter, Fake News, and deeply polarizing politics. The experts need to take it easy with the prognostication.
Does he sometimes regret that he is often by himself in his thinking? “No.”
In fact, Mitchell Elegbe has lived most of his adult life questioning such a question.
In Interswitch, as a case in point, Mitchell noticed that when the fintech giant adopted a remote office system for the coronavirus lockdown, he discovered that his staff didn’t suddenly become new beings. If anyone offered excuses as to why a deliverable was delayed, it was the same employees who used to offer excuses before the lockdown. It was the same ones with bad generating sets, slow internet connection, and traffic jams.
His business wasn’t transformed overnight because it now operated a virtual office. So, he wondered: What does this mean for the post-Covid era?
The lessons of the novel Coronavirus will be gradual and not generic to all industries. It will take a while to have concrete rules for post-Covid, and that’s even if, once the pandemic is over, people don’t revert to their old ways.
As for Interswitch, the e-payment and transaction company that Mitchell founded in 2002, it will be full steam ahead. In March 2020, Visa bought a fifth of Interswitch at a valuation of $1billion, making Interswtich Africa’s first fintech unicorn.
For a company that Mitchell started in his early 30s, four years after he completed his NYSC, this should be an accomplishment worth rolling out the drums for.
Yet, Mitchell Elegbe hasn’t become a pop culture sensation like other Nigerian blue chip entrepreneurs.
So far, he has preferred the company of others who are also affected by the constant need to chase after big answers to the big questions. When he’s not holding forth among these curious minds, he is wondering how Interswtich could grow from powering payments for governments in 30 of Nigeria’s 36 states to powering payments in all of them — and how to make Verve, his homegrown international debit card, accepted in every country of the world.
Born and raised in Benin, Mitchell’s father died when the boy was only eight years old. Raised by extended family, he graduated from the University of Benin with a degree in Electrical Engineering.
After working briefly at Computer Systems Associates, a software business that connected banks to SWIFT (the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications), he moved to Telnet, a tech consulting firm.
Less than two years after that, he travelled to Scotland to take a job as a field engineer with Schlumberger Wireline and Testing. It was his first time outside Nigeria — his first plane ride too — and the first time he would be interacting with an ATM. To make the moment more remarkable, the ATM swallowed his card. But he thought, wait, why can’t we make ATMs work in Nigeria?
On his return home, Telnet rehired him. And then what did he do? He sold the company on an idea to implement SWIFT.
Fantastic idea, the bosses said. Then they put him in charge. Go sell it to the banks, they ordered. When there were no takers, Mitchell felt compelled to register the product as a business, still owned by Telnet and called Interswitch.
But there was another problem. The newly formed Interswtich had no money to employ a high-calibre CEO, the sort of which Mitchell had in mind. Now, he had to run the company himself. That’s how Mr Elegbe became the chief executive of Interswtich. He’s been in the position ever since.
For his first order of business as CEO, though, Mitchell must convince a few local banks to invest N200 million naira in the start-up. Eight years later, the company’s value had risen to N26 billion. It became the poster child of the new tech economy in Nigeria.
Right now, Interswitch has operations in Kenya and Uganda with continent-wide reach.
“So you have somebody who invested N10 million in this business going away with N2.6 billion after eight years. That to me was real value,” Mitchell has said.
When you help solve big problems, Mitchell says, you’re bound to be well rewarded.
“Many years ago,” he said, “one of the problems we had was the way payments were being made. It was very inefficient, very cumbersome, and not safe because everyone relied on cash. So I thought that problem was one that could be solved, so we went about it; to solve the problem of electronic payments.”
Currently, his solutions, some of which have become the backbone of and several other payments and mobile money businesses, include the following:
- Quickteller – A digital payment platform.
- Retailpay – A mobile business management platform.
- Verve – Now an international debit card out of Nigeria.
- Smartgov – An infrastructure to manage identity and e-payment for state governments.
- Interswitch S&P – the first Nigerian in-country interbank transaction switching and third party processing for all card brands, including Visa, MasterCard, Discover and UnionPay.