NALA is a fintech startup designed to widen access to financial services in East Africa. The startup is in beta, with 41,000+ Tanzanians signed up for the early-April public release. We had the pleasure to continue our conversations with Benjamin Fernandes, NALA co-founder and CEO, to learn more about the startup’s story and ambitions.
I’m Tanzanian. I grew up in Dar es Salaam with the hopes of one day being able to build something that is going to help my fellow countrymen. Prior to going to university, I had a career in television that would have me travelling to rural regions in Tanzania to build TV sites in remote locations. It was humbling: I met so many brilliant, visionary people. The one thing separating them from the success I enjoyed was access to education. After university, I wanted to pass that privilege on to others.
I was an avid fan of mobile money ever since it arrived in Tanzania. After spending time in the remote areas, I realised that mobile money adoption was oddly slow. Consumers really struggled with USSD payments[i]. This was a serious challenge, especially for the illiterate and for first-time mobile phone users. I felt frustrated anwanted to make this simpler, cheaper, and faster for Tanzanians. I began to dream; how might additional financial services be tied to mobile payments?
I met my co-founder, Sam, when I was working at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle. By the time I graduated from business school, we had already built seven prototypes and tested them on the ground in Tanzania. At that point, I had three options: I could return to work at the Foundation; I could go back to further studies; lastly, I could work on NALA full-time. NALA was the riskiest option, but the nearest to my heart. In mid-2017, I moved back to Dar es Salaam and began building NALA. I took the risk and never looked back.
Our goal at NALA is to build a digital bank for sub-Saharan Africa. We want to incentivise the wide adoption of digital payments on the continent by overcoming the barrier created by the USSD system.
Simply put, NALA is an interface that sits on top of mobile money. NALA processes transactions seven times faster than the current USSD system. We provide visibility and speed. The user simply opens the app, clicks “Send money”, selects a recipient from their contact list (or phone number input), inputs the amount, and it’s done! Super-fast, super clean, super easy. And, of course, every transaction through NALA enjoys bank-grade security.
We provide a few other, vital financial services at this stage. A major one is multi-SIM functionality and record-keeping. Many consumers in Tanzania use multiple SIM cards and lose track of their spending. NALA can host a single user’s multiple SIMs, performing and recording all transactions in one place. This boosts users’ financial awareness and control.
Finally, the most impactful feature at this stage is that NALA can operate totally offline. Consumers don’t need the internet to manage their finances through our platform. This is a huge step forward for the financial inclusion of low-income users.
Human-centred design is just amazing, I love it. We spent countless hours sitting down with people to understand their personal finance needs and motivations. There is simply no replacing the value of this time with our users. Consumer feedback helped us adjust our prototype to where we are today.
For example, we knew that users highly valued security. They wanted to know they could trust their mobile wallets. How could we gain users’ trust? We tested our home screen with a lock at the bottom and the word “security” in English. We repeated that design test in Swahili. Not a single person liked the Swahili version! People felt safer with the word “Security” written in English.
That was fascinating. Does this mean people don’t believe Tanzanians can build secure and safe products? Oddly enough, most interviewees didn’t even speak English, yet reported feeling safer with the English version. We never would have discovered this through traditional research.
Benjamin’s team has interviewed over 450 people in person over the last year and a half and over 11,000 from online surveys promoted through Benjamin’s personal social media channels that bring together over 250k cumulative subscribers.
There have been many challenges. It has felt draining at times. However, when users are empowered by our product, we remember why we do what we do. Specifically, we’ve faced two main challenges: accessing talent and funding.
Starting with talent, the talent gap in Tanzania is big, especially in tech. I interviewed over 70 potential hires in the last three quarters and hired only one. Trust and security of our services is crucial; we want these values to be reflected in the people we hire. As a team, we believe in creating jobs in Tanzania for Tanzanians. It will probably take time and a lot of effort, but we will keep pushing for it.
Our second main challenge has been funding. Most of the successful startups in Tanzania are run by foreigners. A 2017 Village Capital report stated that ninety per cent of East African fintech funding went to expats. I believe my region is rich in talent and ideas. I want NALA to challenge the funding and leadership narrative. We’ve had some investors reach out to us and we hope this is just the beginning of a new chapter.
It hasn’t been an easy journey. There have been so many rejections and failures along the way. Many of my friends have suggested, ‘Benjamin, why not go and build this in Kenya?!’ Still, I am committed to put Tanzania officially on the startup ecosystem map, pioneering innovation in Africa. There is a saying in Swahili that keeps me going: “Mmoja akifika, wote tumefika, mmoja akishangilia, wote tumeshangilia.” Meaning, “If one of us makes it, we all make it. If one of us celebrates, we all celebrate.” This is my philosophy. This is what drives me, what drives NALA.
For more information about NALA, visit their website: https://www.nala.money
Benjamin is an award-winning speaker and entrepreneur in Tanzania. He is the youngest African to ever be accepted at Stanford Graduate School of Business and the first Tanzanian to win the Africa MBA Fellowship Award. Benjamin is the first Tanzanian to attend both Stanford Graduate School of Business (MBA) and Harvard Kennedy School of Government (Executive Education).
[i] USSD (Unstructured Supplementary Service Data) is a communications protocol used by GSM cellular telephones to communicate with the mobile network operator’s computers. They are used by users for mobile-money services, location-based content services, amongst others. USSD messages are up to 182 alphanumeric characters long.