Interview with Tricia Martinez, Founder and CEO of Wala, a Mobile Financial Services Platform that Provides Zero-Fee Access to Transactional Banking in Africa

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What exactly is Wala?

Wala is a blockchain-powered, mobile financial services platform working to solve financial exclusion affecting 3.5 billion consumers. The Wala financial platform provides zero-fee access to transactional banking, remittances, loans, insurance and more. We work with best of breed specialist providers in each market that we’re operational in, including banks, to offer a full suite of financial services.

Our goal is to close the gap that exists between consumers and financial service providers by increasing the accessibility of the financial system. Wala’s strength is in customer engagement through digital solutions and partners benefit from the reach and low cost access to previously unserviceable customers enabled by the Wala platform.

On the community front, we’ve grown our financial services community to over 1 million consumers from over 100 countries. These local customer communities have been instrumental in testing prototypes of the Wala Financial Platform and demonstrating that digital technology can be used to effectively remove the key barriers to the adoption of financial services by the underbanked and underserved: access, cost and embedded economic incentives.

Exciting developments on the partner front are a collaboration with FINCA Impact Finance, a microfinance bank, and a partnership with M-vendr, the provider of mobile Point of Sale (PoS) apps for small retailers and informal traders.

What inspired you to create Wala?

I’ve worked in the area of financial inclusion and microfinance within emerging markets since 2010 and, prior to founding Wala, founded Basic Transfer, a digital cash transfer platform providing payments to subsistence farmers in Uganda.

While working on this, I noticed that farmers were not securely storing their money. They were withdrawing all funds and storing them in a local cash box. These farmers didn’t have access to basic banking because existing models either hadn’t reached them or were too expensive, making them inaccessible.

I started to build a community of these unbanked and underbanked consumers and quickly became aware of the scale of the problem. This is where the idea for Wala, the world’s first borderless, rewards driven, zero fee financial platform came from.

What do you do at Wala?

I am the CEO of Wala. I founded the company a few years ago and have been spreading the Wala word ever since!

Your company recently raised funding from Newton Partners. How did you convince them that Wala was worth their time (and money)?

Firstly, we’re thrilled to have the support of Newtown Partners. Llew Claasen and Vinny Lingham are experienced entrepreneurs and technology investors who we believe will be key to Wala’s future success.

I think the thing that really attracted them to Wala was the fact that we’re solving such a big global problem. Blockchain is the sort of transformative technology that can really make a difference to people’s lives and I think they saw that in what Wala offers.

What are some of the challenges you faced before, during and after you started Wala?

I think you’re always facing challenges as an entrepreneur so it’s really hard to identify the most significant.

Certainly, accessing finance from investors is a big deal and it takes up a lot of your most senior people’s time. You need to make sure you can delegate the day-to-day activities so that your fundraising doesn’t derail the business.

How you tackle challenges can tell you a lot about the business you’re dealing with. As an example, I’ll refer back to my initial dealings with farmers in Uganda again. I had assumed that the money transfers we set up were the solution to their problem, only to find that they had nowhere to store the money. That brought up another challenge, which eventually led me to the financial platform that is Wala.

Really, it’s all about uncovering challenges by getting close to your customers and then designing and testing solutions to meet them. That’s the Wala approach and I can’t imagine it being any other way.

What makes Wala different from other banks that offer mobile banking services?

In emerging markets, banks face a fundamental problem. They have developed complex and costly business and operating models that have resulted in a fee and rate dominated banking experience for consumers. Furthermore, banks in emerging markets have made it extremely difficult for consumers to access financial services due to their lack of accessible technology offerings. The resulting consumer experience has been poor and one of high costs.

This is where Wala comes in. Wala is a best-of-breed financial platform built on the Ethereum blockchain. Our mission is to help emerging market consumers reach financial prosperity by eliminating their barriers to banking. As previously mentioned, we achieve this by closing the gap that exists between consumers and financial service providers, increasing the accessibility of the financial system.

Wala is different for a few key reasons:

Wala is not a bank. Wala is a financial platform whose strengths are in consumer engagement on digital platforms, especially the mobile phone. Core banking functions, such as taking deposits, providing withdrawals, and deposit holding will be provided through Wala’s accredited partners. Banks and financial service providers are most equipped to provide these services but require the technology partner to drive the widespread adoption and engagement needed in order to close the financial inclusion gap. Through the platform, Wala and financial service providers can make banking more accessible and minimize the costs of financial products for users.

Wala makes use of the best of blockchain, cryptocurrencies and tokenization. The Wala Financial Platform will soon be powered by the Dala utility token.

Wala is a zero-fee and borderless platform.

Wala makes use of micro-incentives to drive positive financial behaviour of its users.

Essentially, Wala is the world’s first borderless, rewards-driven, zero-fee financial platform built on the Ethereum blockchain & powered by the Dala utility token.

Why did you choose Africa as your pioneer market?

It’s true that the 3.5 billion consumers that are unbanked and underbanked aren’t just in Africa. They are also across Latin America and Asia. However, having initially worked on previous financial exclusion projects in this continent, it stood out as the natural starting point. This is particularly true as we’re always keen to get as close as possible to our customers and to test and develop prototypes with them.

The other point worth mentioning is that, while use of traditional banking and finance services is low in Africa, we know that mobile money has really taken hold here and that shows there is an appetite for solutions built around consumers.

Finally, Africa might be the starting point but we aim to roll out our platform globally afterwards.

Wala is famous for its use of blockchain technology. What is blockchain technology and why is it important to your users and your organisation?

At its heart, blockchain technology is distributed ledger technology. Think of this as a way of storing data, records or information across a whole series of nodes rather than in a single database. Not only is the ledger stored across different nodes, the entire ledger is stored by each node, making it extremely secure because the system does not collapse if one node is breached or unavailable.

The other key aspect of blockchain is the use of cryptography, which plays a major part in making it secure. Cryptography, which is essentially very complex maths, is used to verify the identities of participants when transactions are made and to collectively agree on the most up to date and correct version of the ledger.

Today, there is a realization that cryptographically secured, distributed ledgers are trustworthy alternatives to traditional centralized models. We are currently using blockchain technologies to create a new token and network that will enable near-free, instantaneous transactions. The new token is called Dala and is built on the Ethereum blockchain.

I don’t think our users need to worry about the technicalities behind blockchain. All they need to know is that it’s the technology that enables Wala to offer zero-fee financial services. Having said that, I do believe this technology will transform the way we live and work, so it’s probably worth swotting up!

How many subscribers does Wala currently have?

Wala communities now exceed 1 million consumers from over 100 countries, including Uganda, South Africa, Ghana, Rwanda, Nigeria, Tanzania and Kenya.

What are the company’s plans for the future?

Future plans involve finishing up a token sale for the Dala Utility Token, which will power the Wala platform and rolling out the token to our users. The Dala token will be used to reward platform-enhancing behaviors and will be redeemable for value-added services or exchangeable into fiat currency on the Wala Financial Platform. Interested backers are now able to register for and participate in the Dala token sale.

We are also working hard on our roll-out in Uganda and over the next 5+ years, we will expand to six regions globally. These regions span over 45+ countries, focusing primarily on emerging markets (including 10 in Southern Africa, 4 in East Africa, 10 in West Africa and 7 in North Africa and the Middle East). This expansion strategy takes into account a number of variables, including financial environment, consumer base and remittance flows.

I believe it is time to revolutionize the way in which consumers access and engage with the financial system. It is time for Wala and Dala!

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