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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How Kenya’s Digital Financial Inclusion Industry Is Failing Women Entrepreneurs

Mshwari & Mpesa is only half the story. The rest of it is happening offline, in cash and trust networks

Don’t get me wrong, the efforts by the Kenyan financial inclusion industry have not gone unnoticed. Without naming specifics, the industry’s greatest feat by far is building a wide accessible network for formal financial services.

But access is only one item on a long list. It doesn’t matter how many bank accounts you give to the poor. Heck, even throw in a bitcoin cryptocurrency bank account – 2 mobile banks, 5 traditional bank accounts and 2 cryptocurrency bank accounts. Access means nothing when you can’t put money in people’s pockets. I speak for all when I say Kenyan people want to be empowered, they want more pesa in their pockets period. And that’s ok!

So when I criticize the industry, I mean well.

If you’ve been up and about in Kenya, you will appreciate how pesa will almost always positively correlate to some sort of biashara opportunity and even more likely one in the informal sector

My assertion is there is an overall failure by Kenya’s financial inclusion industry to look beyond the digital personas of the people of East Africa’s informal economy. Whereas, much of their lives unravel offline in cash, trust and biashara networks.

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Why Kenya’s Cryptocurrency Agents of 2017 remind me of airtime p2p networks of 2006

Could Kenya’s cryptocurrency peer to peer networks become agents or exchange points in a future where digital currencies and crypto assets are commonplace ?

The lack of an official or formal bitcoin payment gateway has done little to dampen the adoption rate of cryptocurrencies in Kenya. Quite the opposite in fact. People have adapted to this service gap by forming peer-to-peer networks where anyone can buy or sell cryptocurrency. These informal networks, resemble the airtime currency informal networks of pre-2006, that powered remittance payment networks before Mpesa became a thing.

Let me explain.

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