Sahar Salama spent 13 years in Germany at a global tech firm that served the Automatic Test Equipment (ATE) industry. She later worked for an Egyptian telecom group that focused on emerging markets for another eight years.
With a career spanning over two decades, building and managing high-tech products that are being rolled out globally, Salama decided she needed a change. "I was tired of being an engineer. I had been in the tech ecosystem for long enough, and I had a strong network, so I felt like I had the right ingredients to start my own company," she said.
In 2014, the consumer payments scene in MENA was still in its early stages. Many industries were going through a significant change, and Salama wanted to use her experience to work on a new venture.
She had the idea of building a mobile payments platform that allowed local and global digital service providers to have access to, and the ability to monetize, the population in the MEA region. The platform, which she called TPAY Mobile, would enable customers outside the banking system, including the underbanked and underage, to access digital commerce through mobile payments. According to the World Bank, only 14 percent of Egyptians had a bank account at the time.
"I believed in the huge potential of alternative micropayments. I also believed in building a solution on top of a completely different stack of partnerships and technology. This solution would facilitate access to digital goods and services in our region, including customers who do not have access to traditional banking infrastructure and services. I saw an opportunity to simplify the complex processes that underpin cross-border mobile payment acceptance across MENA," Salama said.
For local and global digital service providers, accepting cross-border digital payments in the region was complex, involving multiple service providers. Low bank penetration was another major challenge. By acting as an acquirer and payment processor with connections to mobile airtime accounts and wallets, TPAY Mobile would offer an end-to-end service that enables digital service providers to access and collect funds from users, without the need for a bank account or a payment card. Even better, this would all be achieved through a simple integration with a single API.
Establishing the Company
Salama knew about A15 through her work in the Egyptian tech scene. As one of few female tech-startup founders, Salama found mentors challenging to reach until she began working with A15. A15 helped her at the earliest stages of her idea.
Salama tapped into A15’s network of contacts and commercial relationships to secure TPAY Mobile’s first contracts. A15 introduced TPAY Mobile to partners, helped with follow-ups on new leads, and showed the firm how to pitch its value proposition to different stakeholders. A15 also used its expertise in the telecoms market to provide strategic direction to the company.
"It was all quite new to me as a new founder at the start of the journey," Salama recalled.
TPAY Mobile achieved the MENA region’s first "dragon” exit for A15 in 2018 when a 76 percent stake in the business was sold to Helios Investment Partners. A dragon is an investment that returns a value greater than the entire size of the fund when exited.
A15 supported TPAY Mobile as the company expanded its footprint into new markets. It helped TPAY Mobile with ensuring it had the right set-up, from a legal, tax and regulatory perspective, as it expanded into new markets. Today, TPAY Mobile has operations in over 27 markets in the Middle East, Africa and Turkey region.
When the time was right to capitalize on the value that had been created, A15 helped Salama find a buyer for the company. Leveraging its expertise in M&A, A15 helped initiate a sale process for TPAY Mobile towards the end of 2017 and was deeply involved in the execution and negotiation of the deal. TPAY Mobile achieved the MENA region’s first "dragon” exit for A15 in 2018 when a 76 percent stake in the business was sold to Helios Investment Partners. A dragon is an investment that returns a value greater than the entire size of the fund when exited. Salama chose Helios Investment Partners as she believed the private equity firm was the ideal partner to help TPAY Mobile expand to other African countries.
When Salama started TPAY Mobile in 2014, she had just three staff members. Today, the company has close to 200 employees and operates across most countries in the region, with access to 600+ million addressable users. The firm is also profitable and has processed over $300 million in transactions in 2021 alone.
Still retaining a minority stake in TPAY and board representation, A15 works closely with Salama and Helios Investment Partners to support TPAY Mobile's plans. Salama credits A15 for her support from the earliest stages to the eventual sale.
"A15’s support was more than the money. They gave us the best practices for business development, operating a company, and establishing a legal structure. We built everything with a strong foundation from day one."