Launch HN: Nala (YC W19) – Internet-Free Mobile Payments App for Africa
I’m Benjamin, one of the co-founders of NALA (https://www.nala.money), an application that simplifies the process of making mobile payments for our users in Africa. My co-founder Sam and I first met back in 2016 while I was working at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (focusing on financial services in Africa), and he was earning his Ph.D. in computer science at the University of Washington (researching mobile money security in Sub-Saharan Africa).
As you may know, the way that mobile payments are made in many developing markets is quite different from how they're made in the rest of the world. In much of Sub-Saharan Africa, people make payments using mobile money, an electronic wallet service that is typically tied to a user's cell phone carrier and sim card. Using a 39-46 digit sequence of short codes (i.e. dialing a code such as 15030, waiting for a screen to pop-up, dialing another code and waiting for that screen, repeat, etc.) that are received by the user's cell phone carrier, a user can request to send money to a friend, pay a bill, or purchase airtime all without being connected to the internet and accessible via smartphone and basic feature phone alike. (M-Pesa, which you may have heard of, is just one of the many such mobile money services offered in Sub-Saharan Africa).
While mobile money has undoubtedly transformed the way that millions of people transact, the process of executing a mobile money payment is time-consuming, arduous, and prone to error, resulting in a less than ideal transactor experience. After moving back to my home country of Tanzania in 2017 and conducting 700+ on-the-ground interviews, Sam and I founded NALA, the first internet-free mobile money smartphone application. NALA interfaces with existing mobile money providers (M-Pesa, Airtel, tiGO etc.), and provides users with a simple Venmo-like payment experience. To deliver this capability, NALA has built a USSD automator tool to send requests over existing USSD channels.
Our product serves as a central platform where users can initialize payments for all of their mobile money accounts (having multiple sim cards and mobile money accounts is extremely common in Sub-Saharan Africa as inter-network transaction fees are lower than out-of-network fees), and for the first time ever, access their transaction histories through our rich transaction tool. While we will make a percentage cut for every bill payment and airtime top-up that is conducted on our platform, we are primarily focused on growing our active user-base.
As Sub-Saharan Africa mobile money usage proliferates ($860+ million in daily transaction values and close to 400 million mobile money accounts), smartphone penetration approaches 40%, and the fastest growing middle class of any continent comes into its own, we believe there is massive potential to transform and shape the African payment space. Building a product that thoughtfully addresses our users' financial challenges is what excites and energizes us. The pernicious transaction fees that mobile money users are subject to is an area of particular interest and focus.
We would love to hear about HN's ideas and experiences in this space, as well as answer any questions you might have!