MOBILE financial services are a global game-changer with an open money network being the connection needed between the financial industry and telecom to increase both the commercial and social benefits.
It is more so in a country like Nigeria where a large percentage of the population is unbanked. It is this situation that led tech entrepreneur Sahir Berry to tap into the underserved market.
‘In 2017 we identified that one of the two big problems in Nigeria was youth empowerment and financial inclusion,’ Berry told Africa Briefing. ‘With a population of almost 100 million youth, we found that access to formal financial services was missing, as well as the key tool to do that, which was smart devices.’
Berry decided on a two-pronged approach: produce affordable smart phones locally and introduce a mobile wallet. The result – the AfriOne smartphone and the NowNow mobile wallet.
Berry explains: ‘We decided to set up a factory where we would import components from places like China and India and start assembling these devices here. By doing so, we would create jobs and skills and also knowledge transfer to the country and, hopefully, within a time period we would start producing some of these components.’
So AfriOne, the first smartphone produced in Africa, was launched in 2017. ‘We were the first to do it on the continent to the scale and professionalism that we have,’ Berry said. ‘Now we’re on our third factory and it is quite sad that companies claimed last year to be the first to launch African-made smartphones,’ he told Africa Briefing.
The AfriOne phone is built to suit African conditions. As Berry explained, ‘The first thing we did was to make sure the phones were designed for the African market. For example, we have massive electricity problems in Nigeria, so the first thing we focused on was that we had a big battery. Another aspect was the robustness of the phone, like a tempered glass to make sure to reduce the risk of the phone getting broken.
‘Also, music is a large part of our culture so we made sure that all our phones have very good speakers. You have to understand that AfriOne as a new brand was going against the big brands like the IPhone, Samsung and Tecno, which is a popular China brand in Nigeria.’
The AfriOne phone is affordable – the top rage retails at $150 equivalent. It also comes with a good customer service. ‘The customer experience matters. So one of the first things we did was to set up customer service centres and our own brand stores. Therefore if you had a problem with a phone you purchased in, say, Port Harcourt, you can have it fixed in Lagos,’ Berry said. ‘Also because we have the factories in Nigeria, we offer over-the-counter warranties.’
AfriOne has a small share of the Nigerian market compared to the big players – 4-5 percent. But Berry is not focused on a single market. ‘We’ve been setting up factories in Equatorial Guinea, Angola, Senegal, and we’re about to set up another in Liberia with negotiations ongoing to set up one in Ghana,’ Berry told Africa Briefing. According to Berry, all of these countries have young populations who require jobs and financial services. ‘The idea is to set up more of these factories in order to achieve better economies of scale as well as a larger inventory,’ he said.
‘And then coming back to what we’re doing at NowNow basically meant being able to use those smart phones to offer financial services. That was the overall idea.’
With the AfriOne smartphone now on the market, Berry took the next step – launch the NowNow mobile wallet. ‘In 2018 we applied to the Central Bank of Nigeria [CBN] for a mobile money operator’s licence for the mobile wallet. We launched the actual services in 2019 with the fastest, most secure and robust network in the country.’
NowNow currently operates in 26 of the 36 states in Nigeria. It is a significant progress because as Berry states, ‘The 27 retail banks in the country don’t focus on the day-to-day earners simply because they don’t have enough money to put into a savings account, and also it’s not in their interest to put money into a digital form because they don’t have access to it. They need access to the cash at any given time.’
He added: ‘So the first step, which is where we’ve been focusing, is to allow for digital payment acceptance across the board by building an agent network and also empowering SMEs [small and medium-scale enterprises] and at the same time to create an end-to-end ecosystem for a consumer-facing functionality in our mobile wallet.’
According to Berry, ‘none of the [mobile] service providers have actually been successful in mobile money across the world, except Kenya.’ This is simply because telcos are mainly focused on their own subscriber base. ‘They haven’t really been focused on what is required as financial services. Their focus is to sell more airtime as well as the convenience of money which is conducted on their platform.’
Berry hopes to avail SMEs that are still using basic financial tools of the combination AfriOne devices and NowNow mobile wallet. ‘We will be able to offer them services of inventory management, payroll and financial services such as invoice-holding, insurance and basic lending to which most SMEs currently don’t have access.
‘We have the platform as well as the phone. We don’t provide the finance but we aggregate most of the lenders, so it allows us to provide a platform for them to reach customers and the customers to reach the lenders, affording them the best quality products on the market.’
NowNow has also tied up with most utilities in the country for bill payments. In addition, NowNow is able to offer customers discounts through special promotions. It does this by buying in bulk from vendors and passing on the savings through these special promotions.
NowNow enables the unbanked to make payments they’d never been able to do. Berry explains: ‘With media and entertainment, a lot of people who don’t have bank accounts but like to access some content like Iroko TV don’t know how to pay for them because they can’t go to the Iroko office. With NowNow, they can go to an agent, put money into their mobile wallet and make the payment for whatever digital service they choose. So from entertainment to education and gaming, we’ve tied up with many lenders across the board.’
As the world grapples with an unprecedented crisis in the form of the Covid-19 pandemic, consumers are cautious to use cash or making a withdrawal from an ATM and agent network. ‘The pandemic shone a light on the importance of what we are doing, because a country like Nigeria cannot keep on depending on cash transactions, Berry said. ‘If you consider the amount of disease that cash spreads, it’s huge because most banknotes are made of cotton, and cotton absorbs. So when you handle cash the amount of infection is huge.
‘Therefore digital and contactless payments are what the world has to progress towards. And that’s exactly what we’re also pioneering in Nigeria. In order to do that successfully, it is the acceptance of digital payments that we have to crack first,’ he said.