A chat with Sam Wanjohi Founder and CEO of Popote Payments

Like many people, Sam Wanjohi found himself a prisoner of his business, as he has to be present to monitor payments, sign cheques and other management and accounting requirements. However, this is now in the past thanks to his innovation POPOTE PAY. He speaks to LILY RONOH-WAWERU about this app, which enables entrepreneurs to carry out all payment transactions digitally and remotely.

Kenya is not referred to as Africa’s Silicon Valley for nothing. Over the past few years, the number of incubation hubs and startups cropping up from this side of the Sahara has been nothing short of remarkable. At the heart of this technology ecosystem, Sam Wanjohi, a former civil engineer turned technology entrepreneur who has made a business of providing solutions to his own day-to-day challenges.

“I once attended a technological summit in the USA and the experience taught me that technology does not emanate from the West because they are more brilliant than us; no, they beat us to it because of the kind of ecosystem that exists for supporting technology startups from investors, partners and early adopters,” Sam asserts.

And he should know. Sam has a number of innovations to his name but perhaps the most disruptive one yet is Popote Pay – an app that allows payment transactions to be done digitally with the benefit of multi-level approval, instant delivery and automated expense accounting, enabling businesses to run better and freeing their owners and managers to do more with their time.

“Popote Pay is an instant payment, expense accounting and management platform that allows business owners and managers to control their operations from wherever they are,” the last born in a family of five explains.

Background of Popote Pay

According to Sam, he is very intentional about the apps he designs, which are solution-based.

So what problem does Popote Pay address? “The inspiration behind Popote Pay came while I was running another venture, Foresight Interiors, which deals with woodwork and interior design. I used to travel a lot in search of materials and found it quite hectic moving around with luggage,” he says.

Knowing how handy technology has come in solving today’s challenges, Sam naturally gravitated towards it in search of a solution to his travelling predicament. He thus designed an app – Globe Robe –, which was a virtual wardrobe in that one needn’t carry their luggage whenever they travelled. “The app enabled one to maintain a virtual wardrobe that would be delivered fresh to one’s hotel and taken away so the frequent traveller just arrives as they are,” he reveals.

Thanks to the app, Sam got a chance to be invited to one of the largest travel summits, Phocuswright Travel Innovation Summit in Phoenix, Arizona, US. “The summit brings together influential leaders, pioneering executives and innovative startups. I presented Globe Robe to more than 5,000 attendees. It took the third place in the contest,” he recalls. If Sam was looking for an affirmation that he was on the right track, he got it and so much more.

“The win came with Ksh10 million but on condition that the Startup is launched in the US,” he reveals. Having travelled with his wife, Sam had expected to stay in the US for a week but his newfound fortune changed the dynamics. “I had to look for the best state to pilot my app and I thus ended up staying in the US for six weeks as I toured different states,” says Sam who also holds a Master’s degree in project management.

On coming back to Kenya, he found the accounting book at Foresight Interiors in disarray. For example, he couldn’t tell how much money was used in his absence and on what. He was the sole signatory of his company and being absent meant they had to resort to using customers’ payments for expenditure, which left them in a financial mess. This also came with the realisation that he could not remotely run the business effectively. He needed a solution to help him control the financial aspect of his business if he were to be able to return to the US and take up the opportunity.

“I got working on the app in January 2013. Together with the software developers I was working with, we had a viable product by August 2013. I began using it in September the same year and also gave it to friends to try it out. We used their feedback to refine the app,” he says revealing that he chose to concentrate on his new app, which meant he had to give up Globe Robe and the prize money that came with it.

The app, which he aptly named Popote Pay, finally enabled him to control payments outside his office. There was no more need for him to rush to the office to approve a payment or deal with money issues. This meant that he had more time to spend with people and things that also mattered to him.

“I can now be able to take my daughter to school every morning because I needn’t be in the office unless it’s a face-to-face meeting, and we can take extended breaks because using Popote Pay alongside Skype, Whatsapp and Emails, I am just as effective on the beach as I would be in the office,” he says elatedly.

Going all-out

Having received positive feedback about the app, Sam decided to transform the app into a business and offered it to other business people who were facing the same predicament. However, this meant that Sam had to integrate it with other financial providers, meet the requirements of regulatory bodies and ensure the security of the system.

“It was a long, winding process that eventually culminated in 2016. We got select clients and again used their feedback to make Popote Pay much better. We finally launched it in July 2017 and we currently serve 1,000 plus clients,” he explains, adding that he has partnered with Safaricom and Microsoft to leverage on their technologies.

Popote Pay is a saving grace to businesses of all kinds from small businesses to small-medium enterprises (SME’s) to large businesses. On a personal note, Sam says Popote has enabled him to perfectly balance between his business and family. “I used to struggle so much with work-life balance. Foresight Interiors took so much of my time considering we had about 170 employees and other aspects of my life suffered. Since family means so much to me, I can now comfortably work from home and the business will run smoothly. I am no longer bound to the office,” the 38-year-old explains.

And he is not the only one reaping the benefits that come with Popote Pay. “Our clients tell me they now have more time on their hands to do other things and they can never go back to cash and cheques. It’s like a treatment for an ailment one didn’t even know they had. What’s more, it is so simple that anyone can use it. My mum, who is over 70 years old. used to go to the office daily to do monetary approvals. Now she only goes to the office a few times in a week. Popote Pay has enabled her to semi-retire, phone in hand, at her home,” he explains.

So how does it work? Create an account by either visiting the Popote Pay’s website – Popote.co.ke – or downloading the app then add users who in this case are usually accountants, link bank accounts and Mpesa lines. To pay, the accountants create requisitions on the platform using their computer or smartphone after which the manager will receive a notification, review the details and approve. Up to three managers can pass approvals on their devices.

The money is then automatically transferred to the respective person’s phone, pay bills, till numbers or bank account. Records are maintained as an expense account; that is, by general ledger, branches, cost centres, jobs or projects, which can be filtered, printed or exported to excel or full accounting systems or ERP’s.

“The app is very secure and one can transact money ranging from Ksh100 to Ksh10 million. The limits are very high as required by businesses. We serve all sizes of companies with some of the biggest being the likes of Chandaria Industries among others. Popote Pay is free to use and one only pays a small transaction fee comparable to bank transfers, however, with the app, you also get a complete expense accounting management system, saving immensely, preventing internal fraud and gaining a better quality of life,” he reveals.

And the future can only be bright for Popote Pay. “I see Popote Pay replacing cash and cheques totally. We also aim to take it Pan-African as the problem it addresses is experienced all over,” he avers. Sam has been married to Miriam Wanjohi for the last eight years and together they have a four-year-old daughter. His wife, an interior design practitioner and the proprietor of Inzu Furnishings, has been a strong pillar of support to him. “She is among the first people to sample the apps we make and her feedback is always invaluable,” he says.

Keen on using technology to enable business owners and managers control more of their operations remotely, Sam has also launched a complementary app called Mobiforce, which will allow collaboration where teams can see one another’s position on a map in real-time and assign tasks and meetings top-down or peer to peer. Each member provides status updates that enable the app to generate weekly performance reports for every member of the team.

Sam, who works with a team of software developers and customer support, counsels aspiring entrepreneurs to come up with products that address societal problems that are real and big if they are to succeed. “Then find the right team to work with, the right partners and be ready to invest yourself until you have a proven product and customers before you can receive investment,” he advises as we conclude the interview

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