Interview With Simon Schwall
Describe your product or service:
“OKO creates and distributes crop insurance to smallholder farmers in emerging countries, to secure their income and give them access to financial tools. We use simple mobile technologies to be accessible to anyone with a phone, and we automate claim verification using satellite data and images.”
Describe your company values and mission:
“OKO is on a mission to offer insurance to millions of farmers in Africa to secure their income and improve their lives through financial inclusion.”
How are you funded? I.e. type of funding, number of funding rounds, total funding amount.
“Seed round ($1.2 million) and a few grants.”
How big is your team? Tell us a little about them (I.e. co-founders, freelancers, etc.)
“10 people in five different countries. We build the team around talents rather than proximity, which proves sometimes inconvenient but also leads to greater diversity.”
How did you come up with and validate your startup idea? Tell us the story!
“In 2015, I witnessed the effect of a severe drought in Papua New Guinea (where I was living) on rural customers. Working in micro-insurance (life and health), I realized that I had the tools to create a solution and that I should solve this problem.
I met Shehzad, who had the same experience in Uganda and had the technical skills I was missing. We started working on a solution as part of a MasterCard competition and kept working on this idea despite not winning.”
How did you come up with your startup's name? Did you have other names you considered?
“The name had to fit many criteria:
- Be short to save space on mobile phone menus/SMS
- Be catchy
- Be easy to pronounce in all languages
- Have a meaning in West Africa (where we started)
We looked for names of mythological figures protective of agriculture and found out about Oko, an Orisha in ancient Nigerian and Benin culture, who is the protector of good harvests. It was the first result in our search and a perfect match.”
Did you always want to start your own business? What made you want to become an entrepreneur?
“Seeing my dad working long hours under a lot of stress as an entrepreneur, I promised myself not to be an entrepreneur. But then I got frustrated as an employee to give so much dedication in projects without being able to call them my own that I had to make the jump.”
Did you encounter any roadblocks when launching your startup? If so, what were they and what did you do to solve them?
“It was very difficult initially to convince investors that solving this issue could also be a good business. They saw us as candid dreamers who wanted to save the world and who were not going to generate profit. We had to find other sources of funding (accelerators, grants, prizes) to prove that we could bring this to life and generate traction, but it was a difficult start!”
Who is your target market? How did you establish the right market for your startup?
“Mali was our first market. I was lucky enough to know the CEO of Orange Money in Mali and to count on her support at an early stage. Mali is a very agricultural country where mobile penetration is very high, so it was a good place to test our concept.
There is less competition in West Africa as startups often choose to launch initially in Kenya or Tanzania, so we made it our home turf.
Now we are targeting larger markets with more potential and less political and territorial conflicts like Ivory Coast, Ghana or Nigeria.”
What's your marketing strategy?
“We partner with mobile operators to offer our insurance product as part of their mobile money offering. Mobile operators have the strongest reach in their markets and are pushing mobile financial services.
But we also know that farmers need to be educated about insurance and that we need to build trust, so we invest a lot in building a local network of agents and representatives at the local level.”
How did you acquire your first 100 customers?
“Instead of working on the full solution, we just packaged an existing insurance product to sell it via mobile money. We selected a commune, rented an office in the village, painted our logo on it, and started to visit nearby farms.”
What are the key customer metrics / unit economics / KPIs you pay attention to to monitor the health of your business?
“Cost of customer acquisition: a lot of efforts are needed to onboard rural customers but we need to ensure we don't spend more than we can collect
Retention: given the efforts needed to onboard customers initially, it is key for us to keep them active for a few years
Average sales per day per agent: we keep testing different models to find something that works both for us and for the agents that we hire.”
What's your favorite startup book and podcast?
“Book: ‘The Business Solution to Poverty: Designing Products and Services for Three Billion New Customers.’”
What is a song or artist that you listen to for motivation?
“‘Ain't No Mountain High Enough’ by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell.”
Is there a tool, app, or resource that you swear by to help run your startup?
What is something that surprised you about entrepreneurship?
“How high are the highs, and how low are the lows.”
How do you achieve work/life balance as a founder?
“I force myself (and I am forced by my spouse) to block some time in my weekly schedule for myself and my family.”
What is a strategy you use to stay productive and focused?
“To-do lists. Small but frequent breaks.”
Did you have to develop any habits that helped lead you to success? If so, what are they?
“Learn to say NO.”
What was your first job and what did it teach you?
“I was a business management consultant. It taught me that you can quickly become an expert in a topic if you speak to the right people. And it also taught me how PowerPoint and Excel can solve most problems”
More on OKO
Simon Schwall, founder of insurtech startup OKO, shared valuable insights during our interview that will inspire and motivate aspiring entrepreneurs.