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How a young Jhunjhunwala is quietly building a payment services business

Kunal Jhunjhunwala's Airpay has silently grown from a three-member team in the past decade to over 360 people and processes millions of transactions for some of India’s biggest business houses.

March 22, 2022 / 03:25 PM IST
Kunal Jhunjhunwala, nephew of Rakesh Jhunjhunwala

Kunal Jhunjhunwala, nephew of Rakesh Jhunjhunwala

Far from the gaze of the markets, a new Jhunjhunwala is silently growing his business in the hinterland.

He is Kunal Jhunjhunwala, nephew of Rakesh Jhunjhunwala, the billionaire stock trader often called the Big Bull of domestic stock markets for his bullish calls on Indian equities.

Kunal, who grew up studying in the US and eating cold pizza, calls himself the black sheep of the family. He has been a techie at heart and shaped himself as a serious entrepreneur.

He also wants to discount claims by many who say he is shaping up well in his business only because of his family roots. As a technopreneur, Kunal launched Airpay in 2012 and has raised approximately Rs 24 crore to date, with participation from his father Rajesh Jhunjhunwala and Uncle Rakesh Jhunjhunwala. But the family’s investments in Airpay came only after a seed capital round from Kalaari Capital.

Kunal is not keen to talk about the seed capital. It's both sacred and secret for him.

But Big Bull Rakesh Jhunjhunwala is someone he looks up to. So do members of his family. He keenly follows the investments made by the billionaire investor and stock trader, whose net worth is estimated to be around $6 billion. Kunal remembers the small piece of advice he got from the Big Bull: “Always opt for value creating opportunities.”

Kunal has remembered those words ever since.

Firmly in the saddle

In less than eight years, Airpay has established 250,000 micro-entrepreneurs called Airpay vyaparis (a Hindi word for traders). With monthly signups of 10,000 plus vyaparis, Airpay is firmly in the saddle.

Market sources say Airpay used the Indian government’s Atmanirbhar Bharat platform to launch the Airpay vyapar network across India to plug last-mile financial services. The numbers are indeed mind-boggling because he has not spent a penny on marketing or advertising services. As of now, Airpay vyapar has provided banking and financial services to 35 lakh plus consumers across 533 districts and 5,700 villages in 37 states and union territories.

“We grow Airpay vyapari's revenue by offering a variety of services to their customers. Money Transfer, Cash Withdrawal, and Bill Payment/Recharges are some of the examples of the services that have built customer stickiness,” says Kunal.

Cashless boom

India’s payment landscape is getting swamped by digitalisation for the last couple of years and people are increasingly being encouraged to adapt to cashless transactions both in the urban and rural sectors.

As per estimates by Morgan Stanley, digital payments have tripled – from 2.5 to 7 percent of GDP during the past three years, and this is further forecast to touch 10 per cent by 2023.

Airpay is a financial empowerment network in an utterly cashless world, focusing on unserved traditional business sectors like Kirana stores  (neighbourhood mom-and-pop stores). Airpay is being built around the core pillars of revenue enhancement, revenue collection and business management.

Kunal laid the foundation of his first firm where he developed software solutions for companies based out of North America and Europe. Before starting Airpay, he tried many things. His other ventures included launching a print magazine, security consulting services firm and software development firm, to name a few.

The budding entrepreneur believes he's been a great learner, especially during his stints at Beverly Enterprises and Hungama. He explored opportunities that helped him to innovate. He spent five years with Hungama and went on to start digitalhathi, a vibrant experiential agency.

And then, he co-founded Airpay payment services. His friends said going for a cashless payment service was committing harakiri in India where people don’t have bank accounts or credit cards. In short, he was told cash will always be king in a billion-plus nation.

“I constantly connect with entrepreneurs from different sectors and help them evaluate their businesses and resolve their problems,” says Kunal.

Steady growth

Airpay has silently grown from a three-member team in the past decade to over 360 people and processes millions of transactions for some of India’s biggest business houses. Airpay managed to retain its growth focus on Tier2 and Tier3 cities – a much more vibrant and profitable market beyond the metros of Mumbai or Delhi.

During the pandemic, Airpay focused on efficiencies and cost – leading it to start an office in Kochi, which in the past year has become the largest workspace for the company. It also enabled the company to cut costs, not slash salaries and pay bonuses.

“Payments are a big challenge for large enterprises; they do not know how to collect from consumers. Even the big players in the markets, even the banks do not have what we have,” says Kunal. He cites the example of Eureka Forbes, where its salesmen were collecting cash but not depositing it in banks because they hated standing in the queue. So, a connection was made to deposit the same in a Kirana store. This, in turn, helped in more footfalls for the store and eased the work of those salespersons.

“Airpay vyapar is a holistic solution for the Kirana store. We do not want to be on their cost side. We want to grow their revenue. We want to give them basic accounting tools. We want to get their khata management and dovetail into that to GST compliance,” says Kunal.

Kunal does not want to talk about his turnover but admits establishing the company and building credibility has been backbreaking. And yes, he is not in the red but in the black. “We are making profits, but I am not very comfortable about talking numbers at this stage.”

Eye on Africa 

With plans to venture abroad, Airpay has set its eyes on Africa and some Gulf countries, starting with the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The Chinese intrusion in Africa does not bother Kunal, as he knows the Chinese have gone to look for products.

Airpay under Kunal is focused on replicating the vyapar ecosystem in the African markets such as  Kenya and challenging products like M-Pesa, Africa's most successful mobile money service and platform. Established in 2007 by Vodafone's Kenyan associate, Safaricom, M-Pesa has over 600,000 agents operating across Congo, Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Lesotho, Mozambique and Tanzania.

Kunal is not worried. He says he will find a way to reach the deep pockets of opportunity without bypassing traditional banking routes.

And when that happens, he will be able to share a meal with the Masai warriors and watch lions in the wild.

Shantanu Guha Ray is a senior journalist based in New Delhi.
first published: Mar 22, 2022 03:24 pm