LONDON — Refugee, strawberry-picker, economist, U.N. whistleblower and tech CEO: Ismail Ahmed has worn many hats on his long journey to running a firm with an annual turnover of $60 million.
Along the rocky road to success, the cheerful 57-year-old has survived the ravages of war-torn Somalia and ostracization after calling out corrupt practices.
He now employs hundreds of workers worldwide — a remarkable outcome for a man whose integrity once left him, in his own words, "not only unemployed, but unemployable."
Ahmed created a business that allows customers to transfer money from 50 countries to over 140 locations across the globe with the tap of a finger.
As a British national who grew up in east Africa, he has been both a recipient and a sender of desperately needed cash and knows firsthand how critical such a service can be, especially at a time when anti-immigration sentiment is high in the United States, Europe and elsewhere.
When Ahmed grew up in Somaliland, a self-declared state within Somalia, money sent home by family members working in the Gulf states was a lifeline. But the process was arduous: An intermediary would buy construction materials in the Gulf, transport them back and, once the goods were sold, relatives would get their cash. It took months, but it worked.
In the late 1980s, the area was the target of attacks from Somalia’s central government and its dictator, Mohamed Siad Barre. Hargeisa, Somaliland's main city, was flattened and an estimated 200,000 people were killed in what many say was genocide. In the ensuing chaos, Ahmed and his family were forced to flee and ended up in a refugee camp in Djibouti.
Ahmed, who had won a scholarship to study economics at the University of London before the war broke out, eventually made his way to the U.K. with family help.
In between studying, Ahmed worked several part-time jobs including picking strawberries, which he described as the “toughest" work he ever did. Whatever meager wages he earned were sent back to relatives scattered in refugee camps across the Horn of Africa.
Witnessing the cost and hassle of sending money home, he began researching the tremendous impact remittances have on the local economies that rely on them.
Overseas remittances aren’t a nickel-and-dime business.
More than 247 million people, or 3.4 percent of the world’s population, live outside of their country of origin as international migrants — and almost all of them send money back to family members at home.
Those payments might be small, but they add up. International migrants sent more than $441 billion in 2015 alone, according to the World Bank’s Migration and Remittances Factbook 2016 — three times the amount of international aid.
Ahmed returned to Somaliland after the violence subsided to do research for a Ph.D. He studied the huge impact remittances were having on the rebuilding of his homeland; aid organizations estimated that a few million dollars trickled back annually, but he discovered that the true figure was closer to $500 million.
After the 9/11 attacks, there was increased scrutiny of these payments, especially in east Africa, amid fears that they were being used to finance terrorism.
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Ahmed then got the chance of a lifetime: to work for the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) on a project to support East Africa’s remittance industry, particularly in Somalia, to strengthen compliance with anti-money laundering and anti-terrorism rules.
“It was a dream job for me,” Ahmed said. “I didn’t even think twice about it, I just jumped when I was given the opportunity.”
Ahmed’s high hopes were quickly dashed when he arrived in Nairobi where the project was based. “As soon as I got there and learned more about the details of the project, I witnessed widespread fraud and corruption,” he said gravely. “I couldn’t watch.”
It was 2005, shortly after the U.N.’s Oil-For-Food scandal, and the international body promised that there would be zero tolerance for corruption and promised to strengthen protection for whistleblowers.
He sent an anonymous complaint to the U.N. via email and officials from New York came to investigate his allegations. But he said it became clear they were intending to cover up the corruption, rather than investigate it.
Ahmed began to formally document what he was witnessing, and put together a 1,000-page dossier that he submitted under the U.N.’s new whistleblowing guidelines.
He was immediately relocated to Dubai, and that’s when the threats began.
“One of my most senior bosses flew to Dubai and told me, ‘Look, you have a great CV, I know you are passionate about remittances, you’ve got a great future, family. Don’t do this stuff,’” Ahmed recalled. “He said, ‘If you proceed, you will never be able to work in remittances. You will lose your job.’ It was an incredible threat.”
But Ahmed was undeterred. His contract was immediately terminated.
By now it was 2008, at the height of the financial crisis, and he was the father of two young boys.
“So that’s when I decided, the only way I could go back to remittances would be if I set up my own company.”
He returned to London and to school to get his MBA.
After the U.N. didn’t take any action on his dossier, he went public and shared it with Reuters. The charges, and his allegations that he was terminated for making them, were finally escalated to the U.N.’s Ethics Committee.
Almost exactly four years after his first anonymous complaint, sent from an internet café in Nairobi, Ahmed received a settlement from the U.N. for the retaliation he suffered as a result of exposing the corruption.
Ahmed used the settlement money to start WorldRemit, a mobile-money transfer company, in September 2010.
At one time, migrant workers had to visit a money transfer office, such as Western Union, wait in line and pay high fees to both send and collect money. Customers who register their bank information with WorldRemit can send money from anywhere, at any time, with just a few clicks and with lower fees.
The fintech’s London base resembles a typical start-up. It has a sleek, colorfully carpeted open-plan workspace that takes up an entire floor of a skyscraper a few minutes’ walk from Parliament. It has approximately 390 employees worldwide, about 290 in London.
There are some unique touches: Conference rooms are identified not by names but by currency symbols such as the dollar, pound and euro. One corner looks like a mini-United Nations. It’s the customer services department, where a diverse staff speaking dozens of languages field calls from across the world. Customers can send money to over 140 places on the planet, the most remote being Pacific islands including Samoa, Tongo, Fiji and Vanuatu.
The business takes advantage of the explosion in smartphone usage in the developing world, which now allows for cheap and instant communication, as well as the growth of similar phone-based money transfer services such as M-Pesa in Kenya.
"What is driving the remittance behavior has changed, largely because of the instant communications," Ahmed said.
“Back in my time, when we were recipients of remittances, we could not talk to relatives. But today, the Filipino nurse in London is talking to her mother virtually every day,” Ahmed said. “And so a lot of conversations end up with sharing some money.”
Ahmed sees a direct correlation between the uptick in messaging apps and mobile phones and the frequency of transactions. Where it used to be a big deal to send money, now people send smaller amounts more frequently; his firm completed 750,000 transactions in October, more than double its monthly average for 2016.
And in the old days, cash transfers allowed for anonymity and the opportunity for fraud, but the new digital methods create an audit trail showing exactly who sent money to whom.
“One of the things we like in addition to the convenience and the lower cost, is that the digitization really helps us fight financial crime,” Ahmed said. “If a transaction becomes suspicious, there is a wealth of data that we can share with law enforcement agencies.”
The company has raised about $200 million from major investors Accel Partners and Technology Crossover Ventures, early funders of companies like Facebook, Slack, Airbnb, and Netflix; last year, it made $60 million in revenue.
Despite anti-immigration sentiment from President Donald Trump in the United States and across Europe, Ahmed believes there will always be a need for remittances.
“Ever since Homo sapiens left North Africa 50,000 years ago, we’ve been on the move. We’d have all been extinct had we not migrated from Africa,” he said with a laugh. “So migration has become a fact of life, and I think it will continue. I don’t see that really changing.”
Petra Cahill is a senior editor and writer for NBC News Digital. She writes NBC News' Morning Rundown newsletter.