Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Nigeria is quietly rewriting fintech’s rulebook

It all started with a tweet on New Year’s Day, 2016. Joshua Chibueze, a computer scientist and entrepreneur based in Lagos, Nigeria, floated the idea of digitising the kolo, a wooden box similar to a piggy bank, used in many Nigerian homes to save money.

Chibueze had heard that, with enough persistence, people could set aside significant sums, but when he started using a kolo himself he realised how easy it was for upwardly mobile young Nigerians like him to forget – or simply lack the discipline – to save every single day. Worse: as Nigeria’s economy was getting increasingly cashless, an old box did not sound like an effective saving device – and was a security liability.

Hence the idea of a digital kolo. Odunayo Eweniyi, a fellow entrepreneur (and Twitter friend of Chibueze’s), was the first to reply to his tweet on the subject. “The conversation progressed from digitising to automating the kolo,” Eweniyi recalls. The pair teamed up and – alongside a third co-founder, Somto Ifezue – built an online savings platform to help medium-to-low-earning Nigerians save small amounts daily, weekly, monthly, or annually. Launched as in February 2016, today it is known as PiggyVest.

Marketing solely on social media for the first couple of years, PiggyVest was able to help Nigerians sign up easily using their smartphones, automate savings and earn interest, with rates between six and ten per cent. By the end of 2018, PiggyVest had helped over 53,000 users save close to a billion Nigerian naira (£2,000,000).

In 2015, two per cent of Nigerians controlled 90 per cent of banks’ total deposits, according to the Nigeria Deposit Insurance Corporation, a government-backed financial agency. One year later, Nigerian financial inclusion advocacy group EFInA found that only 36.9 million adult Nigerians – out of a population of over 195 million – had access to a bank account. Nigeria was grappling with a huge unbanked population and PiggyVest set to cater to this demographic blending technology and traditional saving methods.

“The thing about the unbanked is that they’re actually banked, they’re just not formally banked,” says Eweniyi. “Banking is necessary to them but the banks themselves haven’t proven to be.” She believes that Nigeria’s financial exclusion problem will be solved by working with people rather than offering top-down solutions.

That is why Piggy`vest has decided to borrow well-tested models from Africa’s financial history: after its debut as a digital kolo, in May 2018 the company launched a new feature – called Smart Target – modelled af

ter the traditional saving practice of ajo. First recorded in the 19th century, but rumoured to have been around for longer among the Yoruba ethnic group, an ajo consists of a group of colleagues, friends, or religious peers, each contributing the same amount of money at an agreed frequency to hit a financial target. At the end of each savings cycle – typically, a month – one member of the group receives the entire saving pot; the ajo goes on until everyone has received their payout.

“My mum belonged to at least four ajo groups, one of which was at the university where she was a lecturer,” says Eweniyi, whose parents were both academics. “My parents relied on ajo to pay their way through our education and this is how most middle-class families I know survived.”

PiggyVest’s take on ajo, however, tweaks the tradition to fit the times: Smart Target lets people save towards a common goal together as an online community, but unlike ajo, users are in control of how much they contribute and where the payout goes.

PiggyVest is just one of a new breed of Nigerian fintech companies. “Companies like PiggyVest have moved to push savings and budgeting consciousness, by gamifying the process and including a reward system for users who follow through,” says Modupe Odele, a lawyer and startup consultant based in Washington, DC. She predicts that in the near future, Nigeria’s fintech industry will start broadening its scope.

“We have payments, we have savings and these are great, but there's still a lot of financial technology that is ripe for exploration,” Odele says. 

By Kiki Mordi


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