Safaricom rolls out Bonga social networking platform to augment M-Pesa

When it comes to monetizing digital social interactions, Kenya’s Safaricom has its own order. American tech companies such as Facebook and Twitter offered social networks first, then moved to commercialize them.

Through its M-Pesa mobile money product, Safaricom built one of Africa’s most robust commercial webs and now aims to leverage it as a social network.

The vehicle is the company’s new Bonga platform, something Kenya’s largest telco rolls out in pilot phase this week. An outgrowth of the Safaricom’s Alpha innovation incubator, “Bonga is a conversational and transactional social network,” Shikoh Gitau, Alpha’s Head of Products told TechCrunch.

“It’s focused on pay, play, and purpose…as the three main things our research found people do on our payment and mobile network,” she said. Gitau offered examples: pay could be using M-Pesa and SMS to coordinate anything from tuition payments to e-commerce, play spans online sports betting to gaming, and purpose includes SMS or WhatsApp chat groups that raise money for weddings, holidays, or Kenya’s informal investment groups.

“In our [Bonga] research we’ve said ‘what can we do to build upon those three network behaviors in our network that is Safaricom?,’” she said.

I recently sat in on an Alpha product development session in Nairobi and talked to Safaricom CIO Kamal Battacharya on his vision for the product late last year, as reported at TechCrunch.

“Safaricom’s unique in that we have telco services and a financial services platform that connect nearly every household in Kenya largely on the basis of trade,” he said.

“We’d actually like to move beyond M-Pesa by leveraging its power as a social network to connect people to other product solutions.”

As a telco, Safaricom­—still  has 69 percent of the Kenya’s mobile subscribers. Its M-Pesa fintech app―which generated $525 million of the company’s $2 billion annual revenues―boasts 27 million customers across a network of 136,000 agents.

Through in-house development and partnerships, the company continues to add consumer and small business-based products to its mobile and fintech network. These include digital TV, the M-Kopa solar-powered lighting kit, and Lipa-Na bill pay service.

This week Safaricom will offer Bonga to a test group of 600 users, before updating the product, allowing the initial group to refer it to friends, and then extending the platform in three phases.

Bonga Sasa will facilitate messaging and money transfer between individuals, “enabling users to send or receive money while conversing with each other,” according to a Safaricom release. For example, through Bonga Sasa a parent can send money to the child without having to leave the platform to access another money transfer tool.

Bonga Baraza, expected in mid-2018, will allow users to collect money for purpose driven events, including Kenya’s harambee collective fundraising drives.

Bonga Biashara will build on this use of social networks for commerce. Digitizing Kenya’s extensive informal trading commerce is at play here. Alpha’s research found roughly “2.5 million people doing side-hustles with a smartphone in Kenya” and 12.5 million total running small businesses on smart and USSD devices, according to Gitau.

Bonga will channel Facebook, YouTube, iTunes, PayPal, and eBay in one platform. Users will be able to create business profiles parallel to their personal social media profiles and M-Pesa accounts and sell online. Bonga will also include space for Kenya’s creative class to upload, shape, and distribute artistic products and content.

As for Safaricom’s Bonga monetization plan, it’s not an immediate priority, according to the Alpha team members I spoke to. “We’ll offer it for free for now, and it’s connected to M-Pesa, which is already monetized,” said Gitau. “The more these services grow and grow small businesses the more they grow M-Pesa..which is already profitable.”

Safaricom is exploring how to take Bonga beyond Kenya’s borders, which could include markets where both M-Pesa and Vodafone are present: currently 10 in Europe, Africa, and South Asia.

Photo courtesy of Flickr/WorldRemit

With loans of just $10, this startup has built a financial services powerhouse in emerging markets

Peris Kimeli and Betsy Cheruyot were students at Kenyatta University thinking about launching a business when they applied for their first loans from the mobile lending company, Tala.

Hoping to get a clothing business off the ground and make some money to live on while going to school, the two young Kenyans downloaded the Tala mobile app, and within minutes received loans totaling about $15.

“Between us and poverty, we had about 200 shillings,” Kimeli said of her early days starting their business. “We were like, what are we going to eat? Our parents said, ‘No. We’re not going to send money… You go figure it out’ So we went and we did that.”

Kimeli and Cheruyot took that $15 loan and went to Nairobi’s famous secondhand market, Gikomba, where they bought 15 dresses at 100 shillings each and resold them in dorms and hostels for 200 shillings.

“Two remained, but we had no problem — since we could keep them, we could wear them. By the end of the month, we had 7000 [shillings],” Kimeli said. “We borrowed again — this time we borrowed 3000 [shillings] — we went out and bought some more dresses, and that’s how we’ve been.”

Peris Kimeli and Betsy Cheruyot in Nairobi. Photo courtesy of Tala

Similar stories are playing out in cities across the world — in countries like India, Mexico, the Philippines and Tanzania — all because of Tala, a young, Santa Monica, Calif.-based, financial services startup.

Now in its fourth year, Tala has already distributed around $300 million in loans to 1.3 million borrowers like Kimeli. The company plans to continue expanding its geographical reach and range of financial services, thanks in part to $65 million in new financing from billionaire backed investment funds like Steve Case’s Revolution Growth fund.

“We see Tala as a company building the future of finance. They have quickly become one of the leading mobile-first lenders in emerging markets where well over 3 billion consumers do not have access to traditional banks,” says Case.

Shivani Siroya, the founder and chief executive officer at Tala, knows just how important — and transformational — outside investment can be for individuals in emerging markets.

Siroya was introduced to the power of financial independence working with the United Nations Population Fund.

“I ended up interviewing 3500 people, in person, across nine different countries,” Siroya says. “What I did was go to their homes with them. Walk with them to work and sit there in the back of their stores and tally how many customers came in and how many products they sold. How much money goes under the mattress and how much oney goes to allowances… These individuals are hard-working and they are credit worthy, but you couldn’t lend to them because they couldn’t be documented.”

Siroya launched Tala in March 2014 to create a mechanism for providing credit scores to financial institutions so that these undocumented women could get the loans they needed to become financially independent and entrepreneurial, she says. What Tala’s founder quickly realized was that the easiest way to create credit scores that other financial institutions would recognize would be for Tala to start issuing loans itself.

The app — available for download on Android devices — works by collecting data on texts and calls, merchant transactions, overall app usage, and personal identifiers on a mobile phone to create an instantaneous profile of its potential borrowers. Customers simply download the app, apply for a loan and receive a decision in seconds. Most Tala borrowers, actually receive their credit in less than 10 minutes.

Shivani Siroya (Tala CEO) at TechCrunch Disrupt NY 2017

Siroya started Tala’s lending in Kenya — in part because of the robust mobile payment infrastructure that exists in the country — before eventually expanding to the Philippines and then Tanzania. By the end of last year Tala had added operations in Mexico and India to span more geographies than any of the other unsecured mobile lenders in the market. The company boasts 215 employees across offices in Santa Monica, Nairobi, Dar Es Salaam, Manila, Mexico City, Mumbai, and Bangalore. 

Tala typically lends around $70 to its borrowers, but loans range from $10 on the low end to $500 at the high end. “The point of credit is leveraging your income to improve your quality of life,” Siroya says. Lower loan sizes could mean a product that’s geared more towards consumption than towards leveraging a product to invest for economic stability, she says.

“We want to start at $10, because we realize that 70% of our customers are using this for working capital. They’re small business owners. That’s really the gap in the market,” says Siroya.

Tala’s borrowers are usually paying back the loans within 30 days and the company charges a 11% to 15% interest on the money it disburses.

The company raised its first capital in 2013 from Lowercase Capital, Google Ventures, and Collaborative Fund. With the new financing, led by Revolution, Siroya now has $50 million in equity to match another $11 million in credit facilities. In all, the company has raised $94 million in equity across three rounds. Steve Murray, a managing partner of Revolution Growth — and former director on the board of business lending startup Kabbage — will be joining Tala’s board of directors with the latest round.

Previous investors, including the growth investment firm IVP, Data Collective, Lowercase Capital, Ribbit Capital, and Female Founders Fund, also participated in Tala’s latest financing.

“We have been fortunate to invest in Twitter and Dropbox and a lot of other companies. but when I think about the companies that we have had the opportunity to back that will have the greatest impact on the world, Tala is certainly one of them,” says IVP general partner, Jules Maltz. “That’s because it has the opportunity to reach the 2 billion people who are unbanked and don’t have access to financial products.”

Those 2 billion include thousands just like Nairobi’s budding new entrepreneurs, Kimeli and Cheruyot.

“I believe in the magic of taking risks and new beginnings,” says Kimeli. “If we hadn’t began on that day, we could have just been desperate now. As in, we might not have a place to eat, maybe. It’s good to take risks, to start something new.”

African VC TLcom Capital invests $5M in Nigerian data analytics firm Terragon Group

The African venture firm TLcom Capital is betting on Africa’s data analytics markets with a $5M investment in Nigerian based Terragon Group, the developer of a software analytics service for customer acquisition.

TLcom’s commitment is the second from its $40 million TIDE Africa Fund for early and growth-stage digital companies.

“We liked…that the business has matured into a new platform with very strong technology behind it,” said TLcom Capital Partner, Ido Sum “It allows the largest advertisers and brands…to reach consumers in a way they couldn’t do before.”

Located in Lagos, Terragon’s software services give its clients — primarily telecommunications and financial services companies — data on Africa’s growing consumer markets.

Products allow users to drill down on multiple combinations of behavioral and demographic information and reach consumers through video and SMS campaigns while connecting to online sales and payments systems, according to the company.

“We can track across several layers — web, mobile, mobile money — and track data to do things channel agnostically,” said Terragon CEO Elo Umeh, on how Terragon captures consumer info from multiple sources.

These tracking services are enabled by a lack of regulation around data privacy in the country. “There is currently no comprehensive data privacy or personal information protection law in Nigeria,” said CTO Ayodeji Balogun of Terragon’s largest market. “A bill is being considered and we are actively engaging with regulators and legislators to create a clear path.”

Beyond government mandates Balogun highlighted Terragon’s internal controls, “Adrenaline was built using a comprehensive data governance framework to ensure data security and consumer privacy,” he said. The company is also working with Deloitte to implement ISO/IEC 27001 information security standards “across all our platforms, systems, and processes,” said Balogun.

The company has a team of 100 employees across Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana, and South Africa. Top customer sectors across countries span fast moving consumer goods, financial services, gaming and betting, and NGOs, according to Umeh.

“We are helping everyone we work for to intelligently reach the mobile user in Africa,” he said. “We are providing them data…driving accuracy, and making sure they are communicating with the right person at the right time, and at the right place.”

Terragon generates revenue primarily on transaction facilitation for its clients.  TLcom Capital is their first formal investor, according to Umeh. Though the company does not release financial statements, he said Terragon had bootstrapped itself into the black. “We are profitable. We’ve been in business for 8 years and have grown to revenues of between $4 and $5 million dollars a year.”

Consumer research in Africa is emerging as a professional industry as the continent’s large informal business space—representing some 55 percent of the continent’s economic activity—modernizes.  The growth of consumer spending, e-commerce, mobile penetration, and Africa’s improving broadband landscape are facilitating this, while creating opportunities for data services.  

Big global firms such as Nielsen and Euromonitor have upped their African consumer research offerings. An American company, GeoPoll, has also built out a digital survey service and database in multiple African countries. mSurvey, a Kenyan based startup specializing in mobile data collection, developed a Consumer Wallet product with partner Safaricom in 2017 and recently expanded in to Nigeria.

Meanwhile, Umeh sees global possibilities for the company’s platform. Terragon already has a consumer data research and development team in India and is contemplating expansion in Asia and the Americas. “Today the strategy is to be dominant on the continent of Africa,” said Umeh. “At some stage we’ll look at licensing our technology into Southeast Asia and Latin America. We think our technology is relevant South of the equator. We also think we can generate interest out of large advertisers looking at Africa from New York,” he said.

EdTech is having a renaissance, powered by the emerging world

So-called ‘EdTech’ has seen many false dawns over the years. After being lauded as the teaching platforms of the future, most MOOCs (Massive Open Online Course platforms) have not quite lived up to the superlatives made for them, and the sector has had trouble coming up with more innovative ideas for a while.

But that appears to be changing if a new wave of startups is any indication. In Dubai this weekend I was invited to judge a number of education startups which are really trying to move the need on EdTech, and in particular on a sector with almost unlimited potential. That is, education platforms aimed at the emerging world, where the hunger for scalable education is almost incalculable.

Consider this: Ethopia, now a far more stable country that it once was, contains more people under 25 than almost anywhere else, and it has a population of over 100 million people. And consider the potential for EdTech to transform countries like India, for instance. This is going to be a very interesting market in the future, as well as being an urgent issue. According to UNESCO, 264 million children do not have access to schooling, while at least 600 million more are “in school but not learning”. These are children who are not achieving even basic skills in maths and reading, which the World Bank calls a “learning crisis”.

A taste of what is to be found in this sector was showcased today at the “Next Billion Edtech Prize,” launched at the Global Education & Skills Forum (think: Davos/WEF for Education) by the Varkey Foundation to recognize the most innovative technology startups destined to have a radical impact on education in low income and emerging world countries.

The overall winner in the competition was Chatterbox, an online language school powered by refugees

This web platform harnesses the wasted talent of unemployed professionals who are refugees, offering them work as online and in-person language tutors. Based in the UK, where there is a language skills shortage estimated to cost the economy £48bn every year, Chatterbox has now signed up several UK universities and major non-profits and corporations to use its services. Having raised a seed round from impact-fund Bethnal Green Ventures, it’s now looking for further funding to expand.

Co-founder and CEO Mursal Hedayat was three years old when she arrived in the UK as a refugee from Afghanistan with her mother, a civil engineer who spoke English and three other languages fluently. “I watched her become unemployed in the UK for more than a decade. Refugees with degrees and valuable skills still face shockingly high levels of underemployment. An idea like Chatterbox has never been more urgently needed,” she says. (Indeed, the conference later heard from Al Gore who quoted research that showed millions of people will become refugees due to climate change in the next few decades).

Chatterbox’s fellow finalists for the $25,000 prize on offer were equally interesting.

Dot Learn was almost literally the same as ‘Silicon Valley’s PiedPiper. It makes online video e-learning far more accessible on slow connections for users in low-income countries, especially because it compresses educational video so making it cheaper to access. Its technology reduces the file-size of learning videos, requiring 1/100th of the bandwidth to watch. At current data prices in Kenya and Nigeria, this means a student or learner can access 5 hrs of online learning for about the cost of sending a single text message ($0.014). The startup was a notable finalist during TechCrunch’s Battlefield Africa.

TeachMeNow is a gig-economy platform for teachers. This marketplace connects teachers, experts, and mentors to students. The technology combines scheduling, payments and live virtual sessions that can connect on any device allows tens of thousands of teachers to create their own online businesses, with some earning over $100,000 last year. In addition, schools and companies including Microsoft use TeachMeNow software to create their own-branded online learning communities.

Sunny Varkey, Founder of the Varkey Foundation and the Next Billion Prize says he launched the prize because “over a billion young people – a number growing every day – are being denied what should be the birthright of every single child. The prize will highlight technology’s potential to tackle the problems that have proven too difficult for successive generations of politicians to solve.”

Other notable finalists included Learning Machine. This using the blockchain as a secure anchor of trust makes verifying the authenticity of a document instantaneously, specifically education documents like university degrees. They are now working to put all the educational records of Malta online.

Localized is a new platform for college students and aspiring professionals in emerging economies to find career guidance, role models and expertise from global professionals who share language and roots (think Slack meets Quora for college students in emerging markets, drawing on diaspora expertise).

The Biz Nation is an EdTech startup focused on empowering youth with technology skills, soft skills, entrepreneurship and financial intelligence through a methodology that improves user’s learning about creating a business.

Africa’s SureRemit joins the tokenized race to win the global remittance market

 Nigerian based SureRemit has launched a crypto token aimed at money sent home by global immigrants. The startup — which is incorporated in Mauritius — offered pre-sales of its remittance focused tokens this week, before a January 2018 ICO. SureRemit will use blockchain partner Stellar’s platform. The company is connecting its crypto product — which is not redeemable… Read More

Safaricom launches innovation center to move beyond M-Pesa

 Safaricom, Kenya’s largest telecom company and provider of the nation’s mobile money service, M-Pesa, has launched a new innovation center in Nairobi. Named Safaricom Alpha, a priority of the incubator is to identify spending patterns on mPesa and turn those insights into additional Safaricom products — according to Chief Innovation Officer, Kamal… Read More

Rare white giraffes spotted in Kenya

In early June, conservation rangers with the Hirola Conservation Program in Kenya first spotted a white female and baby giraffe. In early August, they were able to capture this footage of the elusive pair.

Like that translucent-shelled lobster that was recently pulled in, these giraffes are not albino but have a genetic condition called Leucism. That means they a partial loss of pigmentation in their skin cells. If you look closely, you can see a familiar, though faded, reticulation on the calf's neck.

A blogger for Hirola writes:

In this very sighting, in Ishaqbini, there was a mother and a juvenile The communities within Ishaqbini have mixed reactions to the sighting of this leucistic giraffe and most of the elders report that they have never seen this before. ‘This is new to us” says bashir one of the community rangers who alerted us when they sighted the white giraffe. “I remember when I was a kid, we never saw them” he added. “It must be very recent and we are not sure what is causing it” he said.

(National Geographic)

Days before elections, the official in charge of Kenya’s voting machines has been tortured and murdered

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p6DlkMBKVVs

Chris Msando is the Kenyan electoral commission IT manager who oversaw the country's computerized voting systems; now, just days before a hotly contested election, his body has been found in the Kikuyu area in Nairobi's outskirts, and the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission says he was tortured and murdered. (more…)