Wala aims to close the gap that exists between consumers and financial service providers, increasing the accessibility of the financial system. Wala was founded by Tricia Martinez. The origins of the company began with Martinez working with subsistence farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa, which exposed her to the deeply rooted complexities, and barriers in the financial systems. With a background in behavioral economics, Tricia began testing incentives models as a means to influence financial behavior. From here, Wala was born. In just three years Martinez founded Wala, and the company has recently received investment from venture capitalists Vinny Lingham and Llew Claasen’s Newtown Partners. To find out more about the blockchain, we spoke with Tricia Martinez.
Digital Journal: Tricia Martinez, thank you for the interview. How is the world of technology changing? Tricia Martinez: One of the great benefits of technology are the opportunities that it is creating for people across the world. The internet has knocked down borders and created social and economic opportunities for people in countries that seriously lacked them. You can live in India, work for a company based in the US, and service a client in South Africa. Now more money is being invested in emerging markets to grow tech ecosystems, startups, and developers. And one of the big drivers is the adoption of the blockchain. DJ: What are the advantages of Blockchain technology? Martinez: The key advantages of the blockchain are that it is immutable, distributed, and completely digital. A distributed, immutable system has massive advantages that limit fraud, theft, hacking, and other system-wide risks. It is also beyond the limits of any geographic boundaries or corporate or political influence, enabling global engagement between its users. This creates a powerful tool that shrinks the globe to a greater extent than even the internet. DJ: Do you see this type of technology becoming more commonplace? Martinez: Absolutely! In general, I think we are seeing interest in blockchain continually grow. The general direction of crypto-currencies over the last year as well as the number of token sales that have taken and are set to take place in the near future just proves that. This doesn’t surprise me because of the disruptive power that this new technology wields. However, I also believe that, for all the headlines, it has still only touched the surface of many markets. I think the projects that are targeted at solving the biggest issues around the world are the most interesting to me. So far, blockchain has been mainly focused on finance but we’re seeing a wave of projects now where the technology is being used to solve a big social issue. DJ: Please explain about the ideas behind Wala? Martinez: Wala is a mobile financial platform for the next 3.5bn consumers. It’s a blockchain-based financial platform that brings zero-fee banking to the 3.5bn consumers worldwide who are currently unbanked or underbanked. The big idea behind Wala is to close the gap between these consumers and the financial services they need, by reducing the key barriers to entry. DJ: How did you go about developing the technology? Martinez: Unlike many tech startups, Wala was born out of years of customer research and engagement. My work in Uganda began in another startup where I was helping subsistence farmers through an economic tool called Unconditional Cash Transfers. It was then that I identified a much larger problem limiting the growth of consumers: the banking problem. I set out to understand the problem in greater detail through conversation after conversation with Ugandans. Eventually these conversations became more than I could handle as hundreds of people were reaching out for financial guidance, leading me to create a Facebook community. That community quickly exploded to 100,000 members in the first month. It is now well over 1,000,000 in over 100 countries. We have used this community to help us build a solution that will engage consumers and solve their financial needs. They have tested our prototypes, given us feedback, and helped us iterate towards a solution that we believe will change their financial lives.
DJ: What were the main technological issues with the development? Martinez: Developing any new product can be a challenge. Developing one for a not-so-technically-savvy consumer base can be especially challenging, especially with varying levels of technology, financial, and standard literacy. These consumers also exhibit interesting behaviors which can be difficult to understand without real user familiarity. For instance, consumers often use their phones as “dark phones” meaning they have their data off at all times until they want to send a message. Or data access can be a challenge, especially high-speed networks. Knowing where your consumers are and how they behave is critical, even before they enter your application. Another big technical issue is the sheer number of device types that we have to support. Operating on Android means customers can have any one of thousands of phones; all of which can come with minor feature differences that can create bugs. DJ: How is Wala helping the unbanked in emerging markets? Martinez: The Wala platform is helping the unbanked in emerging markets by making financial services accessible to them. In most instances, serving these consumers in a traditional way is simply uneconomical – and consumers have little choice but to deal in cash, which has limitations in terms of value transfer, as well as being higher risk. The banks who would like to serve these consumers know that they need to transition them to the digital financial economy – but they lack the digital expertise and resources to create a platform that would serve them. Wala bridges the gap by providing a platform that enables banks to offer financial services, which in turn means these consumers can access them. DJ: What are the barriers to implementation? Martinez: The biggest barrier – which we think we’ve cracked – was providing a product that was more economical and useful to consumers than existing solutions. The Wala platform not only meets all the consumer’s needs in one application – it also provides community and financial education elements that are not found elsewhere. As smartphone penetration rates are still relatively low in emerging markets, we’ve had to develop a flexible platform that works well on Android (the largest and fastest-growing OS in emerging markets) as well as a USSD solution. Scaling partnerships with financial institutions is one of our next challenges – continuing to develop integrations with banks, financial services providers, and payment systems that want to serve consumers in emerging markets. DJ: Does this type of technology appeal to a certain demographic or sector? Martinez: Early adopters and enthusiasts have been in the developer and cryptocurrency space, and early commercial applications have largely focused on FinServ – but blockchain is steadily gaining broader awareness and appeal. As with many technologies, it has broad applications across a range of industries – from FinServ to fashion, and beyond; what’s critical is that in the right hands, it’s a technology that can address very real needs of both consumers and businesses. The Wala digital platform is a great example of utilising blockchain to meet pressing needs – both of the consumers who don’t have access to financial services, and of the banks who don’t have the digital expertise to create a platform to engage with and provide services to the unbanked in emerging markets. The biggest potential barrier to success is consumer trust and adoption; we’ve tackled this by proactively collaborating with users to ensure it meets their needs. DJ: Are there any security risks? Martinez: Our CTO Ross McEwan has spearheaded the charge on security, leveraging his background as a developer and technology leader, particularly in the FinServ space. As with any high quality platform or application, we’ve made security a key priority from day one, and have architected the platform to remove and mitigate any risks where possible. Dealing with financial institutions like banks does raise the bar – their expectations are very high. And in addition to these measures, the blockchain technology we’ve used is private, and accessed via private keys, which provides additional security. DJ: Please can you explain about your background prior to forming Wala Martinez: I have a background in behavioral economics, which has inspired me work in the financial services space. I’ve been involved in financial inclusion for a number of years. Prior to founding Wala, I founded Basic Transfer, a digital cash transfer platform providing payments to subsistence farmers in Uganda. While working on Basic Transfer, 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. DJ: What other areas of technology are of interest to you? Martinez: As a problem entrepreneur, I root for any technology or startup that solves major humanitarian or global issues. I am optimistic about the growth in solar and other renewables. I believe we need to see a lot more investment in sustainable farming and education across the globe as well. DJ: Are you working on any other projects? Martinez: Wala and Dala have all of my attention right now. This is a big enough opportunity to keep my focus for the foreseeable future. Wala is a FinTech company that has set out to solve this global problem by engaging users with a digital financial platform that provides all of the financial and transactional services a consumer needs. http://www.digitaljournal.com/business/aiding-unbanked-emerging-market-consumers-interview/article/505710