Mitchell Elegbe, the switch behind Interswitch – Nairametrics
In the early 2000s, Mitchell Elegbe offered Switch software to several players in the financial industry, who did not find it interesting or worth their money. About a decade later, Elegbe had led the growth of the Interswitch company to over $ 170 million.
Describing him as the switch behind Interswitch would be most apt, as he was the one who took Interswitch from an idea on paper to Africa’s second unicorn.
Mitchell Elegbe attended the University of Benin, Edo State, and obtained a first degree in Electrical and Electronic Engineering. His mandatory one-year National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) took him to Computer Systems Associates (CSA), a software implementation company where he spent a year.
He continued his studies over the years. Elegbe has completed the Global CEO program at IESE Business School, Wharton School, as well as China Europe International Business School (CEIBS) for senior executives of organizations.
Upon leaving service, Elegbe got a job as a business developer at Telnet, an ICT consulting and engineering company. He worked there for a while before moving to Scotland to work as a Field Engineer at Schlumberger Wireline & Testing.
While in Scotland he had an embarrassing experience that would later inspire Interswitch. Elegbe went to use an automated teller machine (ATM) for the first time, only for the ATM to grab their card. Since this was his first experience, he had no idea what he was supposed to do right away to get his card back.
He then had time to think about the situation and imagined that the people of his country – Nigeria – had not had the opportunity to use an ATM either. He also reflected on the hassle people had to go through in the country, joining endless queues to withdraw cash and having to carry cash. It was then that he decided to do something to move transactions from physical to electronic.
There were a lot of problems in the system to be solved; long and stressful trips to banks; long queues, missed transaction times and increased loss of money for criminals.
“Many people joined long lines in banks on Friday night to withdraw enough money for the weekend, only to end up losing it to criminals. Some have opted for bank drafts to avoid carrying cash for travel, and I remember taking my mother to the bank a few times to buy a bank draft to pay my school fees ”, Elegbe said.
Elegbe first touched on the idea of Switch as software that would serve as a solution to the problems it had identified. The challenge was that most traditional players in the financial sector did not find it attractive and were unwilling to buy. He then decides to create it as a full-fledged company, and with his team, he succeeds in raising funds with the support of Accenture. The goal was simple: to ease the burden of money transfers and all financial transactions.
Now it was time to relaunch the business. Elegbe had hoped to find someone to lead Interswitch as CEO, but could not convince anyone to take on the task. He recalled that most of the skilled hands then available were expatriates “who expected to earn more than the capital of the company”. He was encouraged by his colleagues and his team to take on the job himself, and he ultimately resigned his job at Telnet to lead Interswitch as CEO.
Elegbe didn’t have a stock to begin with, but the impressive results the company has shown under his leadership have earned him and his team some equity in the years to come.
In eight years, Interswitch had reached a value of around 26 billion naira (over 170 million dollars), offering early private equity holders considerable returns. The company’s network grew steadily from 7 banks to 13 and then mobile telecom providers until almost all Nigerian banks and ATMs were on its network. Some of its products include the Verve card, Quickteller (for online payments), Retailpay (for mobile business management) and Smartgov.
He sits as Group Managing Director / Chief Executive Officer and member of the board of directors of Interswitch.
Mitchell Elegbe has enabled Interswitch to win numerous awards and accolades. He also received some recognition himself. Elegbe holds the Bishop Desmond Tutu Fellowship from the African Leadership Institute. He received the CNBC / Forbes All African Business Leader (AABLA) for West Africa in 2012, the Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year 2014 award, as well as the Inclusive Business Leader award from the International Finance Corporation.
At the 2013 Africa Awards for Entrepreneurship (AAE), Elegbe was recognized for its business excellence and social impact. In 2019, The African Banker named Mitchell Elegbe the Icon of African Bankers 2019. He also received the Harvard Business School Association (Nigeria) Leadership Award in the General Management category.