How a subsistence farmers’ problem led to the launch of Wala, a digital banking platform for Africa

Wala is a digital banking platform for Africa making banking FREE for everyone and completely changes the way consumer’s access, engage with, and use financial products and services.

From accounts, to payments, to insurance, Wala aims to make personal finance easier or more affordable for all. It’s philosophy is different. By working in partnership with banks and other financial services providers, Wala can offer zero-fee and below market rate products to mass market consumers. The Wala platform sits in between banks and customers eliminating many costs thereby creating a more efficient system for everyone. Building a savings culture is imperative! Wala’s number one priority is to protect customers and ensure they get zero-fee banking and affordable financial products so they can get on the path towards financial stability.

TechMoran caught up with Tricia Martinez, Wala’s Co-founder and CEO and this is what she told us.

Tricia

What inspired you to launch Wala? Is Wala a result of your work in Uganda?

My work in Uganda absolutely influenced me to start Wala. I was spending time in Kitgum, Uganda where I had launched a mobile cash transfer solution for subsistence farmers in one of the most underserved areas of the country. We were doing some really incredible and impactful work, but I was conflicted. The women we were providing cash transfers to would receive mobile payments, go to an agent and pay a fee to cash out, and then place that money in cash boxes in their huts. They had no safe place to guard it, to grow it, or create more value from it. Whether a subsistence farmer living in rural Uganda or an Uber driver in Johanessburg, South Africa the problems remain the same- financial services are extremely costly and generally inaccessible due to reasons of inefficiency and distribution.  It was my time in Uganda that I realized banking was the problem, but also the answer. And from here, Wala was born!

Wala team

What have you done before Wala?

Prior to Wala I founded two companies and devoted my time to socially innovative initiatives in areas including microfinance, economic development, and women’s empowerment. My previous work ranges from cash transfer solutions in Sub-Saharan Africa to the development of an investment fund for underserved markets. I received my Masters of Public Policy from the University of Chicago’s Irving B. Harris School with a concentration in Development and Behavioral Economics. It was there that I began learning how small scale improvements could make lasting impacts through methods of financial innovation.

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How does it work?

Once a user registers and download the app they can digitally register for a current account. At minimum, a user needs an ID book to register. Users can then open savings accounts. From here, users can deposit and withdraw money through partner ATMs and agents, receive direct deposits and inbound payments, send p2p payments to friends and family in the Wala network, buy airtime and pay bills, and login to check balance, move money between accounts, get insights into spending habits and history.

In the future, users will receive debit cards/prepaid cards to transact directly with merchants, get access to insurance, international payments, loans, and credit all through the Wala mobile platform!

Do you think South Africa is the right market for Wala? Why did you decide to launch in South Africa first?

While consumers throughout every African country need better banking and financial services, we strongly believe that South Africa is the best country for Wala to launch in given the customer base and financial industry.

The most important part of Wala is creating what I like to call a “consumer-driven” financial solution. Everything we do is for consumers and our goal is to provide zero-fee accounts to all Africans so financial empowerment becomes a reality. Over the last 10 months, we have seen a huge increase in our customer base specifically in South Africa. We have almost 1M South Africans who have signed up for a Wala financial community via Facebook and given how quickly that number is growing we want to focus our energy here.

Additionally, South Africa is the financial hub of Africa. Most banks are headquartered in Johannesburg, industry experts reside throughout the country, and the banking infrastructure is developed and very advanced. We need to make sure we are not only close to our partners, but also valuable resources that will help us grow.

What is Wala’s business model?

The beauty of the Wala business model is that we make money when our customers save more money! We work in partnership with banks and other financial services providers to offer free or below market rate products. The Wala platform sits in between banks and customers eliminating many costs thereby creating a more efficient system for everyone.

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We don’t generate revenue by charging fees on transactions or cross-selling products. Instead, our partners pay us for bringing assets into their banking system. We built our model this way so that we always stay in line with the needs and financial stability of our users. If they improve their financial lives, Wala succeeds.

Do you have any investors?

Wala is currently backed by angel investors that recognized a massive opportunity to innovate the banking industry throughout emerging markets while also solving a global problem impacting billions of people.

Do you have bank partners?

We are working closely with a number of banks and financial services provider so we can provide zero-fee banking and below market rate financial products to our users.

How is Wala helping to improve users savings culture?

The Wala philosophy is different from most financial companies. Rather than focusing on lending we focus explicitly on savings. There is no shortage of companies that are willing to offer consumers loans and that’s because they can do so at high interest rates that end up costing people an arm and a leg. Loan businesses are very profitable as long as they are run properly and loan businesses that target the poor or people with bad credit can even be predatory, making it worse for the consumer long-term.

Of course there are banks and companies that do provide good loans but we believe financial health starts with something more basic: a bank account. A bank account allows you to safely store your income, grow your savings, and even hold your loan money. Having an account helps you build a financial history, which will allow you get loans at lower interest rates in the future. With Wala, consumers can easily send payments to their community, pay bills, and access other great financial tools. But again, it all starts with a bank account!

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Wala CoFounder and Chief of Product, Samer Saab.

Any plans to launch in new markets?

Of course! We plan to expand throughout Africa in the coming years to markets including Nigeria, Uganda, Ghana, Mozambique, Egypt, and many more. Wherever customers are in need of better banking, Wala will be there.

Which services compete with Wala and how is Wala unique from them? How different is Wala from a basic debit card or mobile money account?

Wala is the only company that can provide ZERO-FEE banking. From traditional banking to mobile wallets and payments to loans, most financial products in Africa are transactional-based meaning they charge consumers for any type of transaction. If you use mobile payments with a telecom provider you will incur fees to send money, receive money, hold money, withdrawal money, etc. But with Wala, we cover all fees for you and make the experience convenient through a digital only tool so that you don’t have to deal with the additional financial stress. No more hidden fees. No more long queues. Just Wala.

What have been your biggest challenges so far?

Change in any form is extremely difficult to accomplish and we are pushing boundaries on multiple fronts- banking, technology, policy. Everyday we have a new challenge, but we have an incredible team driving forward every step of the way.

As a financial company, most startup founders would agree with me when I say the greatest challenges are:

  • Acquisition- It takes time to build trust when you are dealing with people’s money. Fintech isn’t like building another social media app, it’s creating solutions for the most important asset in people’s lives- money.
  • Policy- Many regulators are risk averse and implement policy for a reason making it often times difficult to navigate complex systems. It can take a long time to build relationships with regulators and to get them on your side and in the startup world time is our most precious commodity.
  • Fundraising- Even if you have the greatest idea, solution, product, customers, etc. investors always want more especially when you are in underserved markets so you need to figure out how to stay lean and continue to build and grow with limited capital.

 

 

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