36|86 Student Edition 2017 winner: ‘The concept is revolutionary’

Co-founders of fintech-startup Leaf on the challenges — and rewards — of banking without borders.

A random match-up in a global business plan competition at Vanderbilt paired Tori Samples and Nat Robinson. The challenge: Create a sustainable, scalable business to address an aspect of the international refugee crisis. Their solution: Provide a service for refugees to store money and move it across borders through their phone when they leave their country — like a Venmo that can work internationally, but without the need for a smartphone.

Two years later, the plan has evolved into Leaf Global Fintech, the company Robinson and Samples are starting in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The team won the 2017 student pitch competition at 36|86 Entrepreneurial Festival, and now they’re prepping for launch.

We checked in with Robinson recently to see how things are going.

What’s happened with Leaf since you won the pitch competition at 36|86?
We’ve set up companies in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where we have tested our solution on the border. We have piloted there with several telecoms and a public blockchain. We’re now working on establishing regulatory compliance to expand operations. There is a huge need for digital financial services there. We continually see the impact of moving people off of cash and allowing them to manage their money across borders from a mobile phone.

A lot of our work at this point is ecosystem development. The concept is revolutionary, so we’re spending a lot of time laying the foundation and bridging education gaps. We’ve taken a conservative stance on regulation as well because we work with refugees, which takes additional time. We are excited to officially launch soon.

We’re in transition right now, traveling a lot between the US and Rwanda and evaluating where we want to set up our global headquarters.

Leaf co-founders Tori Samples (third from left) and Nat Robinson (sixth from right), in Gisenyi, Rwanda, site of the company’s first pilot, with Rwandan traders and a team of Vanderbilt students.

Why did you choose Rwanda?
We did a global market assessment and sent teams to six countries and border regions before choosing East Africa. DRC and Rwanda experience a regular flow of refugees, and there’s high mobile money penetration in the region (a system that allows users to store and send money from their basic phones but that cannot cross borders). Mobile money creates the infrastructure for us to build upon so that we don’t need to keep a heavy physical presence in the area.

Rwanda is very pro-business and pro-tech, making it a great place to start before expanding into additional markets. I worked in Kenya for seven years, including several helping launch a mobile phone company, so I was familiar with the region and the technology as well. Nashville also has a significant Congolese and Rwandan population, so we’re able to engage with the community through them and their contacts.

How did you prepare to pitch at 36|86 Student Edition?
We spent a lot of time working on the story we wanted to communicate. It was challenging to explain our unique market and technology to a general audience in a relatively short amount of time. We needed to succinctly explain the refugee crisis, mobile money, blockchain and our business model in an engaging way.

Besides winning the pitch competition, what did you gain from your experience at 36|86?
We gained valuable feedback from the judges. We also developed a partnership with LaunchTN that has continued to support the growth of our company through additional funding opportunities and speaking engagements in Tennessee.

How has your vision for Leaf evolved over time?
We’ve refined our vision and broadened our market segments to include small cross-border traders — people who live on the border of Rwanda and DRC and buy goods on one side, usually agricultural products, and carry them across the border to sell on the other side. We quickly realized that accessing refugees in Rwanda is more difficult than the cross-border traders who experience the same challenges of carrying cash across borders. The traders carry cash and get robbed along the way like the refugees. They are usually low-income, and 70% are women. Unlike refugees, they cross the border almost daily, making them an excellent market with which to pilot and test.

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your business?
We’ve faced major challenges in the legal and regulatory environments. We need to comply with specific anti-money laundering regulations and make sure we’re collecting the correct identification information from refugees, which can be challenging. We also need to meet banking and licensing requirements to work in Rwanda and DRC.

There are not many for-profit businesses working with refugees, so our concept is new to the business and NGO communities. We’ve found that refugees tend to trust for-profit businesses because of the built in accountability and clear incentives, but we’ve encountered some skepticism from potential partners before they understand our business model.

What advice do you have for this year’s 36|86 Student Edition competitors?
Use the Q&A time to go deeper into your business model. Use the first few minutes to give a high-level overview of your idea and focus on the problem you’re solving for your customers.

What advice do you have for pre-founder you?
Students are a great source of talent but realize that most will get jobs after graduation and turnover will be high. Don’t underestimate how long it will take to raise capital — we’re still raising money, 18 months later! It’s a continuous journey. It’s been difficult convincing US-based venture capitalists to be comfortable investing in Africa. Most of them don’t have experience in the space and perceive it as a higher risk. On the other hand, we have impact investors who are comfortable with Africa but not as familiar with our blockchain technology. Finding investors with experience across the market and technology takes time.

36|86 Entrepreneurship Festival’s student pitch competition gives student innovators a platform to access funding, marketing, and community and corporate resources. Students from Tennessee colleges and universities are encouraged to apply by May 31. LaunchTN will select 12-15 finalists to participate in the pitch competition at 36|86: Student Edition, Aug. 28-29 in Nashville, for a chance to win a piece of $60K in prizes.