Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

Primer on African Fintech: Myths, Misconceptions, Opportunities, Hotspots and Roadblocks

As we prepare to start work for our third African fintech client, I thought it was time to quickly and briefly introduce the opportunity space and clear up some misunderstandings around fintech in Africa.

  • The first point is the common confusion between Fintech and financial inclusion. Investopedia’s definition of Fintech says financial inclusion, that is, affordable and accessible financial services to the underserved and unbanked is only one of the many areas fintech is actively addressing. While technology helps provide cheaper solutions for emerging markets such as those on the African continent, all fintech cannot be said to be equivalent to financial inclusion.
  • This leads us to a clarification on what exactly is Fintech. I prefer to quote Investopedia since the entry in Wikipedia defines it as the industry itself. “Fintech is a portmanteau of financial technology that describes an emerging financial services sector in the 21st century. Originally, the term applied to technology applied to the back-end of established consumer and trade financial institutions. Since the end of the first decade of the 21st century, the term has expanded to include any technological innovation in the financial sector, including innovations in financial literacy and education, retail banking, investment and even crypto-currencies.
  • Thus, while financial inclusion is a key untapped opportunity space for fintech innovation of all kinds, there are numerous other opportunities along the entire value chain of financial service provision both B2B and B2C, including intermediary services, which are ripe for disruption in the African context.
  • Beyond the conventional preference for disruption of the existing context, there are as many if not more opportunities for meeting the unmet needs of African businesses and consumers. History, geography, economics and conventional wisdom have together combined to create a vacuum of solutions and services that address the unique circumstances of the African operating environment which still tends to be heavily cash dependent and is described commonly as “informal”. And this commercial environment has lagged in custom designed tools and services for small business productivity or household enterprise management.
  • Hotspots: Kenya overwhelming leads in mindshare as the leading fintech innovation market on the continent, and grabs the lion’s share of investments in East Africa. However, the GSMA’s latest report implies West Africa is rapidly catching up, and may outspend East Africa. The WAEMU region is a hidden hotspot, and Ghana leads the anglophone countries.
  • The largest market opportunity, by population, remains a challenge however, for a variety of reasons including policy and regulation. Nigeria’s payments innovators have made a name for themselves but their domestic market has not felt the impact of their efforts. Even mobile money, introduced more than 5 years ago, has only achieved 1% penetration. On the other hand, it took India years and years before digital payments reached visibly transformational critical mass. There’s hope.
  • Lastly, Chinese investment has just entered the African fintech space, talking up financial inclusion – a clear sign of its economic importance for the future development of trade and industry.

Implications of Mobile Money Interoperability in Kenya?

Mobile money pioneer Kenya, has finally gone live this month with account to account interoperability between mobile money services. Neighbouring Tanzania pioneered interoperability between the mobile money services offered by local telcos with a soft launch back in 2014. Fears of cannibalization and zero sum scenarios were unfounded, as documented in an early evaluation report by the GSMA. On the other hand, perhaps that assessment of impact was far too early as little else is mentioned in the rather thin report. Fellow East African Community member Rwanda too has had interoperability for a couple of years now. Now, its Kenya’s turn.

In a market where mPesa services posted a market share of 80.8%, what, if any, will be the impact of this newfound ability to send money directly from wallet to wallet without cashing out?

Talking points in news media articles and various interested non profit bodies point to “increase in financial inclusion” and “increase in competitiveness” with lower transaction costs as the benefits to end users, but these seem to be just that, talking points.

Safaricom, the telco behind mPesa, has long maintained a stranglehold on the market, and even now continues raising barriers to frictionless payments. In the decade since mPesa’s launch and unchallenged dominance, the vast majority of Kenyans have had no choice but to set up their own account even if it means using a separate SIM*.

In a different market, such a move would be cause for a celebration- the potential benefits clearly outweighing any drawbacks to individual service operators, and the future potential for digital commerce and trade enabled by a frictionless payments platform to be realized in time. In fact, mobile money usage is only growing in both Tanzania and Rwanda, though in each the numbers of subscribers is less unevenly distributed across the telcos.

But in Kenya, beyond providing ~20% of mobile subscribers with the ability to send money to mPesa (more or less) seamlessly, the overall impact on platform and service innovation within the local economy is likely to remain limited. Providing the service takes the edge off Safaricom’s issues with monopolization of the market but will in no way change much of the daily transactional reality on the ground. Habits are hard to break. And mPesa has become a Kenyan habit.

 

*  mPesa has a penetration rate of ~81% as compared to Safaricom subscriber penetration of ~72%, as of January 2018

 

West Africa’s incipient mobile platform boom will transform the ECOWAS economy

While East Africa has tended to grab the headlines as the mover and shaker in mobile platform innovation, there’s an imminent boom due to emerge in West Africa. The GSMA’s most recent report on the West African mobile ecosystem contains all the signals of this happening within the next 3 or so years.

Even in mobile money solutions, where East Africa has had a headstart (and worldwide fame for M-Pesa), numerous new solutions have been launched in West Africa and subscriber numbers show double digit growth.

In addition, both smartphone penetration (~30% of all subscribers) and internet use are growing as well.

All of this, taken together with the growth of incubators, accelerators and variations of tech hubs to support the startup ecosystem provide evidence of a transformation underway.

Does West Africa have the potential to surpass the success of East Africa? I believe so, given its larger population, greater numbers of dynamic economies from both Francophone and Anglophone regions, and the side effect of years of watching East Africa grab the headlines.

Why is the Kenyan mobile loan industry facing just a digital version of India’s MFI problems?

When you make fast, easy, short term loans available on the phone to anyone with a need for quick money, why is it a surprise when high levels of consumer debt are the result?

A recent survey by financial inclusion giants like FSD and CGAP discovers that low income Kenyans have not been helped by the plethora of easy access mobile loans introduced in the market in the name of financial inclusion and ‘access to finance’.

“The rise of the digital credit market has raised concerns about the risk of excessive borrowing and over-indebtedness among lower-income households. Digital loans are easy to obtain, short-term, carry a high interest rate and are available from numerous bank and non-banking institutions,” states the report

The same pattern of behaviour is emerging as did in India during the peak of the MFI small loan boom almost a decade or so ago. People are borrowing from one loan to pay off the other, and livelihoods are hurting while some face challenges putting food on the table. The year 2017 might have been economically challenging for Kenya, but the design of repayment plans are also a factor.

“Digital credit is not reaching everyone and remains ill-suited for most of the population, such as farmers and casual workers, whose livelihoods are characterized by irregular cash flows,” says the phone survey.

The attractiveness of the market opportunity however is such that new loans served through the mobile phone are still being launched every other month in Kenya. Whose responsibility is it to ensure that programmes meant to benefit the lower income population don’t end simply perpetuating the same problems seen before, albeit as profitably?

Disrupting Predictions: How Stereotypes Distort Expectations

This chart embodies some stereotypical thinking regarding the high growth opportunities now available in low income and lower middle income countries. Its from the just released World Development Report 2019’s concept note on the theme “The Changing Nature of Work”.

Where the cognitive dissonance lies is in the accompanying text which highlights the transformational capacity of digitization and its impact on the nature of work in developing countries. As this snippet shows, Kenya has been showcased as an example of such technology enabled change:Based on this, the chart’s positioning of jobs such as “mobile application developer”, “data technologist”, and even “cyber security consultant” should actually be further to the left, given that its the lower income nations where the majority of the future need will emerge from.

Even fashion designers are not spared, placed as they are in middle income countries. Lagos Fashion & Design Week has become the byword for up and coming fashion brands, sponsored heavily by the likes of Heineken. Kigali is another hotspot for fashion’s rapid growth, and the local brand “House of Tayo” reached the pinnacle of global visibility with their bespoke suit for Lupita Nyongo’s brother, worn for the Black Panther premiere.

The irony is that if this chart is used as is, without correlation to the transformations mentioned in the text, it will end up being the one thing that readers will notice when glancing through the final report. Diagrams and visuals catch our attention faster among reams of text.

Further, if these are the predictions being made, how much of the unquestioned assumptions relegate lower income nations to tourism hubs and farming? Drones are being deployed for healthcare in East Africa, and being tested for parcel delivery where transportation is scarce. Won’t drone operators and robotics engineers find jobs if these initiatives scale as planned? Its the developing countries that face greater logistics challenges, lacking the infrastructure of the developed.

There’s a strong case to be made for the redesign of this chart. It places an unfair burden on lower income and lower middle income countries, and implicitly relegates their future of work opportunities to the less skilled quadrant. Given the current and existing changes already underway, there’s a disruption waiting to happen if this is the chart that’s used for policy planning and analysis.

Connectivity, Communication, and Commerce: The 3 Cs of Africa’s Smartphone Led Future

Recent headlines touted the decline in marketshare being seen by smartphones on the African continent, and the concurrent increase in sales of basic devices. Yet a closer look shows that this shift might only be numerical due to the opening of new markets in heavily populated DR Congo and Ethiopia – first time buyers are likely to start with entry level phones.

In fact, role of smartphones in Africa is not only likely to grow and evolve over the coming 3 to 5 years but its very likely that it will be connectivity apps driving their adoption. We Are Social’s latest report shows Africa’s internet user numbers have been growing by over 20% year-on-year.

The 4th C – the Challenge of Unquestioned Assumptions and Great Expectations

With connectivity and communication, commerce was expected to take off but anyone tracking the headlines would notice the challenges faced by African e-commerce platforms. Some point fingers to connectivity as the issue, expecting to reap benefits from scale of penetration. Others point to high costs of data and devices, or challenges with completing the transaction online.

Looking at the patterns exposed by all the reports and the articles makes one wonder whether it’s the underlying assumptions and expectations that are the real problem. The untapped market is hyped out of proportion by each new entrant who rush in with their disruption to revolutionize the African consumer, only to rush back out again when the traction fails to succeed. This has been muddying the waters of what could have been a considered thoughtful opportunity to transform the social and economic landscape.

Yet its not all negative. If someone was to ask me about how connectivity and communication are driving commerce in the African context, I’d point to the plethora of informal trade in goods and services being conducted daily across social media platforms. Everyday there’s a new product or service launched with a tweet. Groups on Facebook encourage and support the entrepreneurial journey. Cryptocurrency trading is making Kenya famous as a first mover.

The difference in traction seems to be that which is self organized and organic vs that which is institutionalized and/or introduced from elsewhere. The external pressure to succeed in the same terms as that visible in the Silicon Valleys might actually be a greater barrier to the sustainable development of the African online community led commerce, increasing pressure on founders and startups with every negative headline. Maybe the lesson from the informal organic growth online is that might actually be a matter of throw the technology at them and see what emerges without lifting the lid every other second to check progress?

Maybe all that is needed is more locally relevant content, such as already being seen emerging from Nigerian and Kenyan tech blogs, rather than the imposition of metrics and heuristics from developed nation contexts.

Mobile First Africa: Social Media’s Boost to Rural Productivity in Kenya

Now in business for just six months, he also uses social media pages to sell his products, improving his customer reach.

“Through Facebook posts I receive enquiries and orders from Kenyans in the diaspora living in the US, South Korea, South Sudan, UK, Switzerland and Botswana who want the splits to be delivered to their families in Kenya,” he said.

“I also use the page to educate farmers and friends more about brachiaria grass.” ~ How farmers look for new markets every season

Continuing with yesterday’s theme of business productivity in mobile first Africa, this story caught my attention for the way this farmer leveraged the reach and discoverability of social media to grow his business.

Social biashara such as this is diffusing outwards from the urban centers where it first began. Expect to see many more such stories emerge from the unexpected places.

Mobile First Africa: Opportunity for Accessories that Boost Productivity on Smartphones

Long ago, when smart phones were still on their way to changing the world, I remember the product development of a host of accessories that would boost business productivity in a variety of areas for phone owners.

The projector phone was one such innovation, flopping back when it was launched due to the tech not having caught up yet. I bring this up because I read an article this morning that highlights a major challenge for the ‘mobile first’ African market.

“We hear about mobile-first Africa, it sounds sexy,” said Nanjira Sambuli, digital equality advocacy manager at the World Wide Web Foundation. “But how much meaningful work can you get done through your mobile. Are we creating a divide? We are not going to be equal if mobile is the only way. Because mobile is for consuming.”

Today, technology is far more advanced, and as China has shown us, far more affordable. Can a range of productivity solutions be launched as accessories for smartphones to disrupt the African SME market?

The Japanese are already ahead with their answers, such as this keyboard by Elecom. The products are all out there, I think its just a matter of identifying the opportunity and the price point for the African markets.

The continent tends not to be taken as seriously for enterprise solutions as it could be. Informal sectors do not mean lack of purchasing power or opportunity space. Perhaps this is the sector that is now ripe for disruption by an enterprising entrepreneur.

The Resilience of Innovation under Conditions of Scarcity

Kouassi Bafounga works on a storm lantern, Bangui, Central African Republic, January 16, 2018. Thomson Reuters Foundation / Inna Lazareva

Innovating beyond the traditional tin lantern – a simple wick attached to the can – Kouassi Bafounga cuts shapes from tin cans and fixes them together with glass, string and a little petrol to produce storm-proof lanterns.

Last year, Bafounga was one of 11 winners in a “Fab Lab” innovation competition run by the French embassy and Alliance Française, a French cultural centre in Bangui, with financing from the European Union’s Bêkou Trust Fund. The finalists, chosen from more than 100 applicants, received assistance to develop their products into businesses.

Inna Lazareva writes on this “creativity from crisis” sharing stories of inventors and makers who must single-handedly create solutions for daily needs in highly volatile conditions of material scarcity.

Given the challenges faced by the Central African Republic, I see these stories as evidence of the resilience of innovation, something often overlooked when we ooh and ahh over the creations themselves.

How can we learn from this?

 

For more on Innovation under conditions of scarcity and Scarcity as a driver for innovation

The Strategic Entry of China’s Transsion into the Vacuum Left by Nokia in Africa

Branded storefront in Karatina, Kenya (April 2013)

If you’re outside Africa, you’ve never heard of them before, but a mobile phone brand called Tecno has been painting Kenya blue ever since I started fulltime fieldwork there in late 2011. It was in Mombasa that I first noticed the name and wondered what it was about. Over the years, I saw the line up of phones even in the smallest market towns and began wondering if this brand would be the new Nokia of Africa.

Transsion, Tecno’s manufacturer, has two other brands on the market – Itel, and Infinix catering to different price points and consumer segments. What sets the company apart is that they are solely focused on the African continent and do not even sell in their domestic market of China. This was a strategic decision, as a recent article says, and their rapid success very likely due to the vacuum left by Nokia. They’ve customized completely for the African market, going as far as to develop cameras suited for local conditions, something no other phone manufacturer has done anywhere on the planet.

“For African consumers, a main medium of entertainment is photos – they love to take selfies and share them with friends. The traditional camera was not optimised for the African consumer because often, for those with darker skin, the photos don’t come out well especially in low light. We did research using over 10,000 photos of African consumers to create a special algorithm to optimise the camera to attract 30% more light on the darker face. We call this ‘Africa Focus’. It’s been heavily popular. It improved our cameras and won the hearts of Africans who like to take selfies.

In fact, Itel is so popular among traders in the Uganda Kenya borderland due to its low price and long battery life, that our research associate went as far as to capture the mound of Itel packaging seen on the rubbish heap.

They’ve brought in local languages and messenger apps. They’ve established a factory in Ethiopia to show their commitment to Africa, and they’ve set a full customer care facility – something glaringly missing from any other imported brand’s portfolio.

In my opinion, they’ve done what Nokia could have and should have done, cater to the emerging markets across the developing world where they’d originally begun connecting people.

And, they’ve shown us that it is indeed possible for a consumer product manufacturer to not only focus solely on the African consumer market but to make an outstanding success of it.

Update:

Quartz echoed the story to share the factoid that in Africa, not only have featurephones sold more than smartphones but Transsion’s brands lead the way.