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Chevy Chase start-up Ovamba wants to use 'Islamic finance' to connect Africa's small businesses to wealthy investors




The world’s prevailing financial institutions — banks, credit unions and equity markets — have mostly ignored sub-Saharan Africa. And “microfinance” organizations, while wildly successful in some parts of the Indian subcontinent, have had mixed results there.

Could a smartphone app that applies principles of Islamic law help fill the gap?

That’s the project being undertaken at Ovamba Solutions, a Chevy Chase, Md.-based company that connects African business owners with wealthy European and American investors. The company operates an app-based investment platform that is based on fees rather than interest, allowing it to steer clear of prohibitions against interest that exist in Islamic law.

The company was recognized recently as a global technology pioneer by the World Economic Forum, the organization behind the global economic conference held annually in Davos, Switzerland. Past awardees have included household names such as Airbnb, Google and Palantir, selected for their ability to help society while also achieving business success. Of 61 awardees in 2018, Ovamba is one of three winners that focus on Africa.

Bearing in mind past failures in international development, the company’s founders set out to design something that departed sharply from established norms in business and foreign aid.

“We did not like the way microfinance institutions and banks in Africa have such a stranglehold over treasury management systems,” says founder Viola Llewellyn, who was born in Britain to parents from Cameroon and has lived in the D.C. area since 1992. “We’re developing technology that will allow Africa to grow organically rather than rely on something that was foisted upon it by colonialism.”

Ovamba more closely resembles what is known as “Islamic finance,” in which the concept of paying interest on a loan is prohibited. The person receiving the investment does not give up any ownership stake in the business, as they would with a traditional investment. Instead, investors receive a share of Ovamba’s profits and the businesses receiving investments agree to pay a fixed fee over a set period of time.

The company is small but growing. It employs about 40 people and has received just over $2 million from investors.

Executives say Ovamba has facilitated 1,700 transactions through its app and disbursed $24 million to the people receiving investments. The company has generated a substantial user base in Cameroon and the Ivory Coast, with immediate plans to move into Senegal, Ghana, Nigeria and Sudan.

The app is set up so that foreign investors can receive a return on investment, paid out of Ovamba’s profits on a quarterly or annual basis. Such people are required to be accredited investors, which in the United States means having a net worth of at least $1 million or an annual income of at least $200,000. The people receiving the investment do so after setting up a profile of their own business and undergoing an extensive vetting process.

Ovamba is certified as compliant with sharia law by the Shariyah Review Bureau, an advisory organization licensed by the Central Bank of Bahrain, according to certification documents provided by the company.

The app is not marketed as a solution for a specific religious group, however. It is described as “growth as a service” to reflect the fee-based model.

“We’ve found that Islamic finance makes complete sense for the African continent because it gives us complete control of the asset,” Llewellyn said.

It wasn’t until after the solution had already been tested in its initial markets that the founders sought to certify it under sharia law, Llewellyn said.

The app got some initial traction in Muslim communities: The company’s initial markets in Cameroon and the Ivory Coast have Muslim minorities of roughly 25 and 33 percent, respectively, something that may have helped it scale there.

“We looked at what was happening and realized Africans have historically been doing this by pooling money together based on social clout . . . we realized, ‘Hey, this is similar to crowdfunding,’ ” she said.

The company’s founders do not have a particular personal affiliation with Islam. Llewellyn has lived in the D.C. area for 26 years, working at large technology businesses including IBM and Unisys before founding Ovamba in 2013.

Marvin Cole, her co-founder, is a Jamaica native who spent much of his career at consulting giant Deloitte. He speaks Chinese, having worked for two years in Shanxi province advising stainless steel producers and electronics manufacturers. Chief technology officer Prashant Mahajan lives in India and has a background in robotics.

It’s too early to tell whether the trio will lead a revolution in Afro-centric finance, or whether their ideas will appeal to investors. But the fact that they view places such as Sudan as a promising market just might set them apart.

“Africans don’t need charity as far as we are concerned,” Llewellyn said. “They need growth and opportunity.”



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