Wala, a digital banking platform is launching on Android to make banking free for everyone in Africa and completely change the way consumer’s access, engage with, and use financial products and services.

Tricia Martinez, Wala’s Co-founder and CEO told TechMoran the app will be launching in Alpha with the first few hundred users at the end of Q1 2017 and will then expand to Beta with the next few thousand sign-ups followed by a full-market release in South Africa.

“Wala is the first digital banking platform for Africa,” Martinez said. “The Wala platform and model makes 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, personal finance has never been easier or more affordable with Wala.”

According to her, the Wala 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. Martinez adds that the Wala platform sits in between banks and customers eliminating many costs thereby creating a more efficient system for everyone.

Wala was inspired by Martinez’s work in Kitgum, Uganda where she 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,” she said.

According to Martinez, 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. Martinez adds that it was her time in Uganda that made her realize banking was the problem, but also the answer. And from there, Wala was born!

Wala works simply.

Once a user registers and downloads 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!

Wala’s business model is that it makes money when its customers save more money! Wala works 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.

“We don’t generate revenue by charging fees on transactions or cross-selling products,” she says. “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.”

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

Wala works closely with a number of banks and financial services provider so it can provide zero-fee banking and below market rate financial products to our users.

But just how is Wala helping to improve users savings culture?

Martinez says the Wala philosophy is different from most financial companies. Rather than focusing on lending it focuses 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!,” Martinez told TechMoran.

Building a savings culture is imperative according to her and 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.

In the meantime, 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,” the CEO told TechMoran.

Though Wala has seen considerable success even while still in beta, the biggest challenge so far has been change. Martinez says change in any form is extremely difficult to accomplish and the firm is 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,” she said.

As a financial company, she says most startup founders would agree with her that 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.

Prior to Wala, Martinez founded two companies and devoted her time to socially innovative initiatives in areas including microfinance, economic development, and women’s empowerment. Her previous work ranges from cash transfer solutions in Sub-Saharan Africa to the development of an investment fund for underserved markets.

Martinez received her 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 she began learning how small scale improvements could make lasting impacts through methods of financial innovation.

On why she launched Wala in South Africa first, Martinez said while consumers throughout every African country need better banking and financial services, her and the team 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,” she told TechMoran. ”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.”

After South Africa, Wala plans 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 promises it will be there.

If you are interested in being one of the first users for zero-fee banking in South Africa register at www.getwala.com/register or send us an email at [email protected] to join the thousands of users who are joining the platform daily.