Egyptian startup MerQ is optimistic about the future of artificial intelligence (AI) in Africa and the Middle East as it looks to extend the application of these advanced technologies within the fintech sector.
Founded by Dr Waleed Ghalwash, MerQ aims to cover various topics in financial literacy in banking and non-banking services, delivering true financial inclusion by helping Egyptians to make financial decisions using AI.
Its first product is Sally, which provides users with comprehensive information to assist them when deciding between the different credit card options available across various banks through its AI-enabled chatbot offered through Facebook Messenger.
The startup was launched last year, though most of the team have been working together on other ventures since as far back as 2010, and made it its mission to address the lack of financial literacy in Egypt.
“From our point of view the gap was so obvious. In our local market, it manifests in the very low penetration of banking services in Egypt,” Ghalwash told Disrupt Africa.
“We are living in a digital world, so it’s essential that we think digitally and make use of the technologies we have, while also using them to build our own. This is our belief.”
So MerQ launched Sally, a programme for smart dialogue through the Facebook Messenger app built to educate people on credit cards’ systems. It provides individuals with all the information they need to make informed decisions when choosing from different credit card options at various banks, through Messenger’s voice services.
“We use AI for customer support by developing chatbots that help reduce time, provide recommendations and provide valued information,” Ghalwash said.
“Using AI has tremendous potential in making financial inclusion and banking services more efficient and accessible to all while spreading awareness.”
The startup raised seed funding in April to further develop Sally, which already has 20,000 users, and launch further new products, and Ghalwash said it was targeting further funding later this year.
“We are quite optimistic about the uptake of the product which also brings us to consider the next series of products we have. We’ve also seen a considerable influx of users around the travel season with people genuinely interested in making sound decisions about their credit cards when they decide to travel. Our ability to constantly update and build on Sally’s AI means that we can continue to cater to different user preferences,” he said.
MerQ also has geographic expansion in its sights, with various African markets being considered. Ghalwash said the startup, which makes Sally available for free but takes a commission on issuance fees from any products sold through its platform, had overcome numerous challenges in educating financial service providers and customers about its products.
“The most challenging from an operational point of view while launching was to adapt our conversations to the users’ way of interacting with the platform, and the way they talk, since we deliberately designed our bot to talk in slang. So while we are expanding our bots exposure to wider geographical areas the slang differs,” he said.
“We also found some difficulty at first with the banks. Although they were impressed with the idea, it was a little hard to convince banks to trust us and connect to the platform due to the novelty of the idea to the local market. Yet we achieved very solid steps on the ground.”
Nonetheless, MerQ believes AI is no longer a futuristic technology for Africa, but rather one that is increasingly part of people’s daily lives.
“Africa is one of the most diverse and youngest populations in the world and has great potential to be the hotbed for AI talents,” Ghalwash said.
“AI technology may be a new trend, but with the accelerating rate of our daily life and the growing challenges, people are in need for such technologies to ease their lives.”
Companies must choose to adopt AI or risk being left behind, he said.
“So, it is less about persuading, and more about spreading awareness. We have to spread more awareness about AI and the benefits of deploying and embedding it in our lives to save time, money and to cope with global progress.”
The recent launch of Google’s latest AI lab in Accra, Ghana, will prove a boost in the development of the sector.
“There are big and various investments coming from tech companies in Africa like Google, Amazon and Microsoft. With the power of the cloud this is enabling lots of scenarios to drive value to the economy at a lower cost compared to previous times,” said Ghalwash.
“The young population in the African continent and their exposure to the internet and technology have built a strong base of skilled technology professionals that are now harnessing the power of technology progress like AI, and this can be seen by the surge over the past years in the entrepreneurial space.”
Challenges remain, however, that startups operating in the AI space will need regulatory assistance with.
“Although there is potential and opportunities for AI, regulations and infrastructure are strong challenges that should be addressed so we can deploy AI processes and tactics smoothly,” said Ghalwash.
“I call on all policy makers, innovative leaders, startups and small companies, global technology partners NGOs, civil society groups, and international stakeholders to promote the growth of a vibrant AI ecosystem in Africa.”