“With two-thirds of Africans unable to access a bank account, we believe that building a connected payments infrastructure is the foundation of solving real challenges and accelerating Africa’s growth and development.”
This is how Ken Njoroge, co-founder and co-CEO of Cellulant, describes the vision of the Pan-African-based financial technology company that is building a payments gateway and an agriculture marketplace. However, Cellulant did not start life as a financial technology company.
Established in 2002 by Ken Njoroge and co-founder Bolaji Akinboro to provide ring-back tones for mobile subscribers, Cellulant soon found itself designing a digital wallet when it faced difficulties receiving payments from mobile providers in the extremely fractured African financial marketplace. It didn’t take long for the company’s founders to realize that a payment system like the one they had designed could be enormously beneficial throughout Africa, where two-thirds of the population doesn’t have bank accounts, and 98% of transactions are carried out in cash.
From there, it was a sprint to be first to market with a digital payment platform and marketplace ecosystem “for Africa, by Africans, in Africa.” Having won that race, Cellulant’s next goal was to make its platform ubiquitous across the continent.
Today, with operations in 18 countries, coverage extending to 50% of Africa’s banks and to 17 million unbanked African farmers, and a payment platform that serves 1 in 10 Africans, Cellulant is well on its way to meeting that goal.
In 2017, however, the company’s co-CEO anticipated a coming crisis for a platform that was already growing by leaps and bounds. His worry: that a contract currently being negotiated would likely result in 10 times more traffic for the platform—and that the platform would not be able to accommodate the sudden spike in users.
Challenge: Keeping pace with rapid growth and spiking traffic
As it turns out, the co-CEO’s worries were well founded. Although Cellulant had already begun moving from a monolithic system to an event-driven, microservices-based architecture, the company’s payment platform, Tingg, experienced its first catastrophic failure in April 2018 when a discounted offer designed to drive people to the platform resulted in a wave of traffic that crippled the system.
“We had massive failures one Friday evening,” explains George Murage, group head of technology operations for Cellulant. “And that really served as a wakeup call: we knew it was time to change our approach to technology.”
Already considering migrating its platform to the cloud for the cost savings and flexibility it could afford, Cellulant got very serious very fast about the prospect. But, says Murage, “we knew the transition would be a journey, not an event, and that we would need to essentially ‘re-platform’ and rewrite significant portions of our code to derive full value from a cloud-based environment.”
That’s when Cellulant began looking at New Relic.
Solution: A move to the cloud and end-to-end visibility
Having decided to move its environment to AWS, Cellulant began searching in earnest for a monitoring solution to facilitate cloud migration and to ensure seamless application and infrastructure performance going forward. The company’s first encounter with New Relic came at an AWS Summit.
Explains Murage, “As a startup, we tended to rely on open source software during our inception and were wary of big technology, but with rapid growth (which resulted from having a viable and scalable payments solution), we decided to do a proof of concept with New Relic because we were very clear on the features we wanted to see when we migrated to the cloud and the challenges we were facing.”
New Relic did not disappoint. From the moment Murage and team began testing New Relic, they could see that it was going to provide the end-to-end visibility the company required.
“When we had that incident in April 2018, we couldn't tell whether it was an application or a database issue, so we had multiple teams running around in circles,” says Murage. “One of the first things we noticed about New Relic was the consolidated view it provided. For the first time ever we could see what was happening across our environment, and identify the code that was generating so many errors. This was unprecedented.”
Making migration easy
With the deal sealed, a New Relic engineer came on board to help Cellulant set up the platform to support observability across both the legacy stack and the new stack it was building—key to ensuring a successful migration to the cloud.
“Where New Relic really helped was in allowing us to baseline what was running on premise so that we could get a clear view of the improvements we wanted to experience in the cloud,” says Murage. “In the payments market, a problem can exist for a couple of hours and then disappear. Prior to New Relic, all we were able to determine in such cases was that people came into the ecosystem, had a poor experience, and then left. Now, we can pinpoint the underlying problem and figure out how to avoid it in the cloud.”
In addition, the view into usage provided by the New Relic platform makes it much easier for Cellulant to control infrastructure costs. Explains Murage, “The cloud is exciting, but it's very easy to run up costs as people spin up more and more services. By using New Relic Infrastructure, we've actually been able to lower infrastructure costs by 25% by identifying and turning off what we don't need.”