Meet the Ecobank Fintech Challenge winner – Tanzania’s Nala

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Tanzanian fintech startup Nala is planning further growth after securing funding and winning the Ecobank Fintech Challenge.

Disrupt Africa reported last week Nala, a simplified mobile money application that allows users to make faster, smarter and safer transactions without an internet connection, was named winner of the pan-African Ecobank challenge, walking away with US$10,000 in prize money.

It continues an impressive year so far for the startup, which in April secured US$50,000 in funding from DFS Lab and in four months has become the number one trending app for finance in Tanzania.

Co-founder Benjamin Fernandes, however, said the Nala team did not start with the “perfect idea”, with its fundamentals changing a number of times before the beta release. Fernandes started working in the television industry in Tanzania at the age of 17, and was involved in building one of the first integrations for mobile money payments whereby viewers could pay for their TV subscriptions through mobile money.

“This fascinated me and sparked my curiosity  –  I always wondered what else could be done in digital financial services. I wanted to learn how we could deepen financial inclusion in Africa, and more than that, I wanted to actively participate,” he said.

Fernandes founded Nala during his first year of studies at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, with his classmates helping him conduct research with Tanzanian friends, family, and acquaintances over the phone.

“We listened to their perspectives, then built a framework to help us understand what else we needed to learn,” he said.

After moving back to Tanzania in July 2017, he repeated the same work in person, gaining feedback that enabled Nala to pivot and adapt the product even before any code had been written.

A major distinguishing feature of NALA is its offline capability.

“Offline functionality was a major, consistent theme across our qualitative user interviews,” Fernandes said. “However, it is also one of the most challenging features. Building a seamless app without relying on an internet connection is a novel technique.”

He said even though there has been an increase in smartphones in Africa, the feature phone market is still strong.

“And even though people have smartphones, not everyone always has an internet plan which keeps them connected. We realised the importance of having offline app payments through our user interviews,” Fernandes said.

This importance has been proven by the impressive uptake of Nala, which will be opening a round of funding next month as it continues to scale. For now the startup is only active in Tanzania, but it does have plans further afield.

“We have already built an integration to move to another market as well, we’ve had some organisations reach out us to discuss expansion. Right now, we are focused on building out Tanzania well and believe the market in Tanzania has massive potential,” said Fernandes.

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Passionate about the vibrant tech startups scene in Africa, Tom can usually be found sniffing out the continent's most exciting new companies and entrepreneurs, funding rounds and any other developments within the growing ecosystem.

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