Chris BishopBy Chris Bishop|July 27, 2022|9 Minutes|In Billionaire Tomorrow

Billionaire Tomorrow

“We’re f***king with Facebook if you like!”

The African-born-and-bred tech mover and shaker who went from shoveling cow dung on a Swiss farm to owning a multi-million dollar tech company is now taking aim at a sacred cow – Facebook.

In a few months, Gour Lentell will pitch for more capital in London to drive his African digital disruption that needs courage and persistence, as well as a few prayers. It’ll add to the more than £10 million raised last time and help him with growth and cash flow.

His company, Datafree, and its MoyaApp, is going where many fear to tread, in competition with global giant Facebook in a bid to loosen its iron grip on the South African market that is set to grow as smartphone make their way into more and more hands.

“It’s a tall order that doesn’t happen easily and we’re fucking with Facebook if you like !,” he says.

‘We’ll either be a huge success or we will get killed along the way and they will say it was a good try guys but you didn’t pull it off. But so far, we are pulling it off.“

This is how it works. Businesses put their content on MoyaApp and pick up the cost to make it free for users. Datafree makes its money by buying data in bulk and then selling it retail to businesses, at a margin.

“The inspiration for Moya is not just WhatsApp it is WeChat in China, which is an all-in-one super app that does many things. So we have built MoyaApp to do messaging, and provide content and information on sports results, news, and weather all data free. Then we have added a Moya money app into it which we call Moya Pay,” he says.

“It is like a shopping mall and people just walk in and there are a growing number of websites and they never have to leave the app and it is all data free. The value of being in a shopping mall is you don’t have to advertise anymore, people are walking past your door and will walk in if they are interested…We are saying to our customers, you are buying clicks from Facebook and Google- here is another way to do it”.

The company has garnered 6.5 million users in South Africa and is looking further afield to invest to keep pace with growth. It is far behind Facebook’s WhatsApp, which has  25 million South African users but has a target of 20 million for MoyaApp by 2024.

“It is actually a very new concept for digital marketers and advertisers because their whole existence has been brainwashed by Google Facebook – you need to be on Google Facebook or Instagram or whatever, You have got to have ads you have got to get clicks for people to come to you and they don’t know any other way. I have been living in that world since 1998. We are coming up with something new and many digital advertisers are saying:  ‘Huh, how does that work ?’Advertise? You don’t need to advertise, just be there. It takes them a while to get their heads adjusted to the new way of doing this where they are paying for megabytes of data usage and not clicks from Facebook,” he says.


“I think messaging is here to stay and the questions is who will be the dominant? WhatsApp is completely dominating  emerging markets for messaging . Facebook owns messaging globally and no one has disrupted WhatsApp anywhere where they are the dominant messaging platform. Never happen, across Africa, everyone uses WhatsApp, across Asia, across Latin America. Others have come with various products like Telegram Signal and so on and maybe got a little share of the market, but never truly disrupted WhatsApp. I believe we are the first messaging app that has disrupted WhatsApp to any significant degree anywhere in the world.”

Lentell is looking across borders for new business.

“ In developed markets, we have a very large company in Australia that wants to use it. At senior civil servant level in the British government we have had talks about how they could use Datafree in the UK to enable access essential services like the universal benefit schemes and welfare schemes and health schemes, “ he says.

Duncan McLeod, the editor of the South African journal TechCentral, believes MoyaApp may have a fighting chance.

“I think data free is the main reason people use it. Data prices have come down quite significantly but at the low end of the market, I think it’s difficult for people to afford data now. If the choice is between a loaf of bread or a few megs of data, the loaf of bread is more important,” he says.

“ I think it’s more likely WhatsApp will be more successful if that space as they are doing in markets, such as India and Brazil, and no doubt will do in South Africa. I think they will be more successful because WhatsApp is used across the market where Moyà is used by a subset of users.”

While people in tech talk about growth excitedly, McLeod also sees threats to progress from some of the more mundane struggles in the economy.

“I think the problems at Eskom are significant, you cannot build an internet business with no electricity. It’s huge problem, if the electricity supply is not sorted out, it is potentially disastrous.”

Yet there is likely to be no stopping Lentell in his latest tilt at the digital market. He was in on the early days of the internet and built a multi-million-dollar company that he sold in New York.

“This business has been the hardest of the lot, but the most rewarding of what we do. We are nearly 14 years old, but we operate like a start-up. The company’s name when it was founded was biNu. We had success for a while making software for phones and internet access in emerging markets, but after seven years that all came to nothing we still believed.

Found an investor in the UK who also believed. Refunded the business and started from scratch in 2016 we rebuilt the business. We are now a UK holding company because the rest of the investors are in the UK while we developed our technology in Sydney, we were aiming for emerging markets so we launched our business in South Africa.”

Another few miles on the road less travelled for Lentell, now an industry veteran in his 60s. He left Africa with £300 more than 40 years ago; shovelled cow dung in Switzerland to pay off credit card debt; pulled pints in a London pub; built a $65 million tech company, only to see it evaporate in the crash.

You would have to bet on him to give Facebook a data free run for its money.