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Startup Story

Minutes, not weeks. Workpay turbocharges HR in Africa

Workpay team picture

As Africa embraces mobile money, an HR payroll tool emerges for SMBs

Workpay is an HR tech tool that bridges the gap between how Kenyans earn money and how they spend it.

In Kenya, employers’ payroll systems have failed to keep up with the East African country’s futuristic embrace of mobile money. Cell phone-based transactions now power the equivalent of 87% of Kenya’s GDP and have brought a globe-leading 96 percent of Kenyan households into the financial system, using only their phones–no bank account required.

Yet the country’s hourly employees still largely experience payday as they have for decades: HR employees run payroll through a time-consuming process of ledgers and spreadsheets for a once-monthly employee payout, still often delivered in cash. By providing a platform for SMBs to move payroll into the digital realm, Workpay plans to capitalize on a vastly underserved market in Kenya and throughout Africa.

“There was still no existing mobile-first payroll HR solution for the SMB market,” says Paul Kimani, founder of Workpay, the Nairobi-based startup that offers a flexible suite of mobile-first HR tools, such as payroll processing to mobile wallets, biometric attendance tracking, and employee HR self-service portals. By delivering a mobile-first experience for payroll, Workpay is positioned to expand across Sub-Saharan Africa, which is already home to half the world’s mobile money services and continues to be a global leader in mobile payment transactions.

“The biggest challenge most businesses, especially in Kenya and Africa, have is when it comes to payroll payments,” says Workpay CTO David Maina. “Being able to automate that running of payroll and being able to pay out at once is one thing that keeps us going.”

In addition, a timesheet app with GPS geofencing allows employees to clock in and out of worksites and sync with payroll.

Workpay has recently expanded beyond Kenya, opening an office in Lagos to cater to Nigerian and West African SMBs. A new suite of debuted Workpay tools also allows employees to manage bill payments and companies to provide salary advances and bulk payments to banks.

“We’ve always dreamed of being the go-to people platform, whether it’s in terms of finding jobs, making management better for businesses, managing human resources, or paying employees on time,” says Maina.

An app powered by Google products

Workpay helps fast-growing African companies hire, manage, and pay their teams efficiently, freeing up founders to focus on their people strategy and growth, not on repetitive HR, payroll, or compliance tasks.

“Small and medium-sized businesses are looking for solutions to bring efficiency into their processes: people, financial, clients—anything that helps save resources,” says Kimani. “We saw an opportunity to build a solution SMEs could subscribe to, without having to worry about the infrastructure problems that come with homemade solutions.”

Workpay relies on Google Maps Platform’s attendance tracking feature to help business clients analyze their employees’ attendance. Attendance information is fed to the payroll system. “Especially for those who are paid based on attendance, Google Maps Platform helps us to locate, or geofence, those attendances,” says Maina. “Google Maps Platform came through because of its speed and accuracy.”

Building connections at Google for Startups Accelerator: Africa

Maina says many of the Google products Workpay uses were introduced to them during Google for Startups Accelerator: Africa. The Workpay team participated in the Google for Startups Accelerator program in 2019, after tracking the success of other startups that went through the program. “We always knew we wanted to go through it, so we waited for the right time for us to be able to participate,” says Kimani.

The Workpay team set three main goals for the program: to improve their technology, build their network, and gain visibility. Over the course of the three months, Google mentors helped them migrate their hosting to Google Compute Engine, which lets companies create and run virtual machines on Google’s infrastructure. The move doubled Workpay’s performance speed and solidified its reliability—essential for a payroll product users expect to be operational 24/7. “The service had been crashing due to our prior host, and the application speed doubled once we migrated to Compute Engine,” says Maina.

They appreciated their Google mentors’ hands-on support as they onboarded their platforms to Google products. “Before I joined the program, there were technical aspects that seemed very hard, but being able to get mentorship and the support of people who have walked the same journey was an eye-opener,” says Maina. “Their advice and notes have opened my view of research and my way of approaching best practices for engineering. One thing that can really help a startup is being able to get mentorship from Google.”

The team also grew close to their Accelerator cohort. “Being in an environment where we interacted with people day-to-day who were going through the same challenge and supporting us was super important,” Kimani says.

The Google for Startups Accelerator program also opened up access to needed resources, like connections and funding.“We were able to be seen, and that helped us when we were doing our seed round of fundraising” says Kimani. “Going through the Google for Startups Accelerator program validated what we were doing in the eyes of investors and partners. People see that we are actually building a legitimate business, with the backing of Google.”

What’s next for Workpay

After attending the Google for Startups Accelerator: Africa program, the Workpay team joined YCombinator, graduating in March 2020 and raising a seed round of about $2 million six months after completing the program. Their board and investors include YC, Musha Ventures, Soma Capital, and Kepple Africa Ventures. “Getting into YCombinator was because of us being part of Google for Startups Accelerator,” Kimani says.

In 2021, Workpay was selected for the Google for Startups Black Founders Fund in Africa, which provides Black-led startups with equity-free funding, Google Ad grants, and mentorship. Workpay received $100,000 of the first $3 million fund, which is allocated across 50 startups across Africa. “We are fortunate to be part of the first Google for Startups Black Founders Fund in Africa,” says Kimani. “It’s amazing, being in that community.”

Now, Workpay’s biggest technical challenge is scaling to other countries within Africa. “Expanding to other countries, how do you scale your virtual machines and environments to ensure you can distribute your product to as many users as possible?” asks Maina. “We are considering breaking our product down into services that can be more independent.”

Kimani knows his team is ready for the challenge. “When you are building something great right, it takes time, and you need to be in a group or environment that allows you to build a good company,” he says. “Being in a group of people who have actually done what you are doing makes the journey not easy, but bearable. You need to be able to build for a real problem; you need to ask yourself whether the solution you are building is actually solving a real problem.”

Learn more about WorkPay