In the 1969 Apollo 11 mission, it took Neil Armstrong close to three days to reach the Moon. But guess what. It takes just as long, or longer in some cases, to transfer money from one country to another, even today. Technology has not been able to make any significant dent in cross-border payments, and banks—the primary movers of money across countries—still rely on legacy systems.

Multiple financial institutions from Money Transfer Outlets (MTOs) to banks and neighbourhood shops are involved in a tedious exercise. The process is inefficient, costly and time-consuming. But the market is up for grabs. Over $600 billion is sent between countries every year, according to the World Bank. If anyone came remotely close to disentangling this web, the compliance and regulation procedures could be enough to spook them out.

Not a surprise then that few companies globally have dared to attempt it. And Indian firms have been far fewer. Not TerraPay though. This company wants to make cross-border payments as instantaneous as a text message, and cheap too. “When one can send an SMS instantly, why should sending payments from one country to another be any different,” says Ambar Sur, founder and CEO of TerraPay.

That was the thought that set the ball rolling. TerraPay is a curious little company. Headquartered in the Netherlands, it helps people transfer money between seven countries across Africa, Europe and the Middle East. But it is run by Indians based out of Gurgaon and a lone member in Goa. “Setting up a cross-border payment business in India is tough due to the tax regulations involved in dealing with money across different currencies,” says Ramakrishnan Sundaram, TerraPay’s COO, who is based out of Goa for the last six years.

Did you know that India is the largest remittance receiver in the world? Almost $69 billion comes into the country, according to a 2016 World Bank report. The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) has allowed only banks to carry out remittances inward and outward. Needless to say, companies, which want a slice of the remittances pie, have to partner with banks in order to move money. That’s not very lucrative. So naturally, India wasn’t TerraPay’s first choice to begin operations in.

Africa is where TerraPay went first. And the fintech explosion in Africa is the single biggest reason to be there. Even though close to 80% of the population in Africa is unbanked or underbanked, the ubiquity of a mobile network presence has powered fintech companies to bring payment solutions to countries like Kenya and Tanzania.   

Unchartered territory

Sur relies on telecom analogies to make his point. After all his first company CellCloud built systems that powered value-added services for mobile operators. CellCloud merged with the telecom software arm of Bharti Enterprises in 2002.

AUTHOR

Arundhati Ramanathan

Arundhati is Bengaluru-based. She is interested in how people use money in the digital age and how new economies will take shape based on that interaction. She has spent over 10 years reporting and writing on various subjects. Previous stints were at Mint, Outlook Business and Reuters.

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