Benjamin Fernandes, Stanford GSB ’17, is on a mission to bring financial inclusion to Africa. He is the founder of NALA, the leading mobile payments app currently in Tanzania. I recently sat down with him to discuss his journey thus far and his vision to create access to financial services in emerging markets in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Limited Mobile Money Functionality in Emerging Markets
Mobile money is on the rise in emerging markets. Last year, Sub-Saharan Africans transacted $37Bn over mobile money, totaling 60% of the world’s global mobile money payments. Less than one-third of Sub-Saharan African adults have access to banks or other financial services. That means these mobile networks are their first-ever alternatives to cash wallets.
Despite its widespread usage, mobile money technology is still immature in emerging markets. Because of the lack of internet data connectivity in the region, payments cannot be made over standard mobile apps.
Instead a text-based protocol owned by the large mobile networks called Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD) is used to make payments. Users must type in a clunky, 39-46 digit code on their phone’s dial-pad. The average transaction, from start to finish, takes 1 minute and 43 seconds.
This cumbersome user experience makes cash transactions more appealing, especially to those who are already less tech-savvy. Worse, the typical USSD configuration cannot supply the basic features consumers want, like transaction histories, especially across multiple networks. This outdated technology has created a need for a more simplified user experience and a wider variety of features. Benjamin Fernandes, co-founder and CEO of NALA, is on a mission to close that financial exclusion gap in Africa.
NALA Founder Benjamin Fernandes speaking at the FinScope FSDT launch event in Zanzibar in November 2018.
What is NALA?
NALA is the first mobile app that allows users to pay with mobile money without an internet connection using an esoteric Google API which allows secure USSD automation, effectively sparing users the need to type those long, complicated codes themselves.
This makes mobile USSD-based payments work through an app based interface for the first time and thus makes them faster than ever before. In fact, payments with NALA take just 7 seconds to complete. The app is as simple to use as Venmo is in the United States. Users have to complete just 3 simple steps: choose a recipient, choose a payment amount, and send!
The NALA mobile app.
NALA launched on Tanzania’s Google Play Store April 21st 2018, approximately 6 months before the writing of this article. The app is currently ranked #3 in Top Free Finance apps for Android in Tanzania. Currently, NALA grows with over 400 new users a day.
The company has not spent a single dollar on marketing and has grown through organic referrals, free press, and speeches Fernandes makes throughout the country.
NALA ranks 3rd Overall in Top Free Apps on the Google Play Store in Tanzania, just a few months after its initial launch.
NALA is receiving wide recognition throughout the African continent. In August, NALA surpassed 412 other candidates to win the EcoBank Africa FinTech Challenge, the most competitive FinTech award in Africa.
NALA was also recently nominated for “Best FinTech App” and “Best Disruptive Innovation” at the AppsAfrica Innovation Awards, “the Oscars for Apps in Africa”, according to various African media sites. On November 12th, NALA beat 300 companies in Africa to win the AppsAfrica Disruptive Innovation Award for 2018.
NALA Founder Benjamin Fernandes receiving the AppsAfrica Innovation 2018 Award in Disruptive Innovation.
Fernandes’ Story: From Celebrity National TV Personality to a Startup CEO with a Vision
When mobile money first started to grow in the earlier part of the decade, Fernandes was a well-known, national TV personality in his home country, Tanzania. He anchored for major sporting events, such as the Olympics and the World Cup.
While working with a major Tanzanian TV provider, Fernandes’ team was involved in completing Tanzania’s first mobile money integration to enable consumers to pay for their TV subscriptions through their mobile money wallets.
“I got really excited when I saw people uptake mobile TV subscription payments. It was way more convenient than having to walk up to a store to pay for your TV service.”
– Benjamain Fernandes, NALA Founder
As he traveled around Tanzania for work, Fernandes noticed that young adults in the capital city, Dar es Salaam, were using their mobile wallets to send money back to the parents in rural areas.
“I saw how much of an impact mobile money is creating and I said to myself, ‘Okay this is really fascinating. I want to participate, but I don’t know how.”
– Benjamin Fernandes, NALA Founder
In order to explore how to make impact in financial services in Sub-Saharan Africa, Fernandes applied to Stanford Business School. He was admitted and received a full-ride through the Stanford Africa MBA Fellowship, an award only given to 8 students of 8000 applicants.. At just 22 years old, he was also the youngest student in his class.
During the summer between his first and second year, he worked at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation on the digital team and financial services for the poor team. “That summer opened my eyes into how big the potential of financial services was on the African Continent”, Fernandes reflected. During this time, Fernandes also met NALA co-founder Sam Castle, who was working on his Computer Science PhD and writing a research paper on mobile in emerging markets.
When he came back to school, Fernandes enrolled in a series of immersive entrepreneurship classes. These offered him the perfect lab for testing new approaches to African mobile money. At graduation, he won the Frances and Arjay Miller Award in Social Innovation for his work in developing the financial services sector in Tanzania. The award came with $20,000, just enough for Benji to turn down several job offers in the United States and go all-in on his passion for financial inclusion for Africa.
Upon arriving back to his home country, he conducted over 700 user interviews to understand the needs of mobile payments users.
NALA founder Benjamin Fernandes performing user research in Tanzania.
Through this process he came away with three main takeaways:
Not everyone has an active data connection. Payments need to be offline.
Security is a top priority for consumers because mobile money is their only non-cash wallet.
Users want tools for budgeting and categorizing payments.
With these lessons and the breakthrough discovery of making USSD automation for mobile application payments working offline, Fernandes and his team built NALA. One distinctive feature of NALA is it’s offline capability.
“Offline functionality was a major, consistent theme across NALA’s qualitative user interviews. It was also the most challenging to implement. Building a seamless app without relying on an internet connection is a novel technique that was made possible only by the discovery and creative use of Google’s USSD API. NALA leads the industry in perfecting this new technology. We think it was worth the challenge to be able to serve our users.”
– Benjamin Fernandes, NALA Founder
The NALA founders are joining Y Combinator’s Winter 2019 cohort in January. They will be the first Tanzanian startup in the accelerator.
NALA achieved all this with only $70,000. Fernandes is looking to raise a $1.5M seed round to enable even more growth. With these funds, the team will enable two new emerging markets outside of Tanzania and build NALA’s transaction history and Mint-like budgeting tools. The team will also develop the technical infrastructure to enable more affordable cross network transactions, lending, and cross service payments.
This is just the beginning for NALA’s mission of financial inclusion and accessibility for the people of Sub-Saharan Africa. Mobile money adoption is growing at double-digit rates. The company will look to monetize by offering users in-app access to more sophisticated financial services they do not have easy access to today such as remittances, lending, and insurance in the future.
NALA is hiring engineers excited about building a fintech ecosystem in Africa.
Looking ahead, Fernandes has a big vision for the company:
“I dream that NALA will be the first African company to go public on the New York Stock Exchange.”
– Benjamin Fernandes, NALA Founder