How Nokia and Prepaid Airtime Fractionalization Gave Rise to Africa’s Digital Economy: Guest Post by Niti Bhan

What can we learn about the digital society emerging in Africa without the trappings of legacy infrastructure and institutions?

3 seemingly unrelated events in different parts of the world in the early to mid 90s converged, to culminate in the perfect storm  – what we now call Africa’s Rising digital economy.

One was in the mid 1990s, in a small city in northern Finland, where engineers and designers began work on the product development of a mobile phone that would eventually become one of the best selling Nokia models ever – the 3310, released in Europe and the Far East in the year 2000. The continent of Africa was not yet on their radar as a target market and Nokia’s impact on sub Saharan Africa, as well as its iconic success for its legendary durability was still some years in the future.

The second event was around the same time, in 1994 – 1995. Portugal Telecom’s mobile telephony division TMN, invented the prepaid business model whilst researching ways to lower barriers to credit services, and thus reach a wider audience. They too, were not thinking about the farmers, traders, or biashara vendors on the African continent, for whom the prepaid plan would turn out to be a godsend, matching their needs for flexibility and control over the timing and amounts spent on cellular services. This, too, was still a handful of years in the future.

The third is the liberalization of African state owned monopolies such as in telecommunications in the mid 1990s which opened the doors to private sector operators in cellular telephony, and thus, to competition.

These 3 events would prove to be a fertile time for the perfect storm and the firm foundation on which today’s African digital economy thrives.

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How Digital Platforms are Shaping Africa’s Informal Economy

A new digital generation of informal African entrepreneurs have adopted and adapted gig economy tools and digital platforms to meet their needs for a flexible and negotiable digital marketplace. Apps that can drive demand and scale reach affordably are transforming African markets, opening up new opportunities for young Africans.

With contribution from Niti Bhan

When people think about the informal economy, this is the picture that often comes to mind.

What is often forgotten, is that the next generation of informal economy actors – mama mbogas, boda boda okada riders, wakulima farmers, traders, taxi drivers, matatu touts, drivers et cetera in Kenya and East Africa will be vastly different from the women depicted here.

The coming generation of Africa’s informal economy are today’s millennial digital natives – hungry, educated, exposed to global trends, with all the tools available to them like everyone else anywhere in the world. Only with no prospects of formal employment on the horizon.

‘Informal’ is no longer synonymous to the streets, associated with the roadside, automatically defaulting to the marginalized or vulnerable – it is not a disease to recover from. The informal economy is an equal opportunity, organized and commercial operating environment offering Africans the chance to achieve their aspirations.

Africa’s prosperous future will only be realized by embracing the informal. This is not a choice.

While my thoughts are presented in the context of East Africa, I believe it resonates with the broader, global ‘gig’ economy. So perhaps my 60,000 ft view from Nairobi, East Africa rings true for the rest of the world.

Allow me to paint a picture for you using one of the sectors of the informal economy – trade.

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How Africa’s Airtime Currency Traders Birthed A Fintech Innovation Playbook

This is a story of how informal airtime currency resellers of Africa birthed mPesa, mobile money, and an innovation playbook for Africa’s emerging economy.

Not everyone can see it.

If you are keen though, you’ll realize Africa’s informal economy is an open playbook on how to innovate, build and scale successful products and services for the emerging African consumers. Ask me how I know, and I’ll point you to the little known story of prepaid airtime currency re-sellers in Africa who, by cobbling up a rudimentary hack, were able to model a country-wide money transfer network, that would later be adopted by Africa’s telecommunication companies (Telco), spun off into a massive revenue generating business to eventually dethrone the monopoly of banks in East Africa.

But the real story is neither about airtime, nor Telcos. What it is really about are the lessons we can draw upon Africa’s informal economy on how to approach innovation in Africa.

This is a story of how the prepaid airtime re-sellers of Africa not only birthed mPesa, and mobile money, but an innovation playbook for Africa’s emerging economy.

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Why African Fintech Wants To Digitize Chamas, But Can’t Seem To Get It Right

Why is the digitization of Chama groups so valuable for Fintechs and Telcos and Banks? And more interestingly, why is it such a tough nut to crack?

 

A group of high profile organizations including Facebook, Mastercard, FSD Kenya, Safaricom, Fintech startups,  and even the World Bank have convened in Nairobi for a one day workshop to try figure out how to digitize the chama groups of East Africa. While it has been over a decade of digital financial inclusion estimated at 80%, none of them have figured out how to successfully digitize chama groups.

Just so we’re on the same page, I use chamas as a catchall for any group of people who come together with a shared goal, agree on a self governing mechanism and pool together resources such as time, labour or capital to achieve their shared aspirations. This simple form of self organization, self governance and chama identity makes it a highly flexible people-structure and why it exists in different forms across the world and Africa as Paare in Chad, Asusu in Nigeria or Chilemba in Zambia.

So why is the digitization of Chama groups so valuable for Fintechs and Telcos and Banks? And more interestingly, why is it such a tough nut to crack?

I found the answers to these questions from Toffene Karma, the one person who successfully digitized the social savings group of Chad West Africa known as Paare using a mobile product known as TigoPaare.

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How Nairobi’s Matatus Defied the Will of Kenya’s Cashless Policy Makers

Nairobi’s failed cashless experiment, an attempt to digitize all commuter payments in Kenya is a poster child on the pattern of thinking that’s left a trail of struggling Fintech experiments in the name of Silicon Savannah.

 

We often fall into the trap of making broad sweeping assumptions about people and places based on our preconceived notions of an what we consider is an ideal world. In the context of East Africa and its bulging informal economy, countless technology entrepreneurs, policy makers, donor agencies and wazungu NGOs have fallen victim to throwing resources at reality hoping to turn it into their Utopian dream. Pick a sector, any sector – be it agriculture, transport, banking, ecommerce. Everything but the kitchen sink has been tried at perceived problems. I say perceived because the definition of the problem depends on who you ask.

Kenya’s short innovation history is littered with such experiments, typically ambitious, well funded but not lasting long before packing up.

Nairobi’s failed cashless experiment, an attempt to digitize all commuter payments in Kenya is a poster child on the pattern of thinking that’s left a trail of struggling Fintech experiments in the name of Silicon Savannah.

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