I love my job, I really do. I say this because I get to meet many interesting people doing some amazing things in the tech space but once in a while, someone comes by who completely reshapes my way of thinking through how they navigate life and the tech industry to create something that is beyond the product that is on the table. These are the rare few who against all odds have something in mind that paints a picture you couldn’t have come up with on your own. You just have to follow them to see it. I know, it sounds very dramatic and everything, but by the end of this article, I hope you feel the same way that I did after I finished my interview with Mary Mwangi, co-founder of Data Integrated Limited about their product, MobiTill something that is far beyond any POS system that I have interacted with.
Not too long ago, cash was undoubtedly the most accepted form of payment. It was always cash
Our payment landscape has really changed in the past decade. Not too long ago, cash was undoubtedly the most accepted form of payment. It was always cash. Then MPESA came by and the idea of mobile money spread like wild fire. Nobody was really directly using it to pay for goods. Somebody sent you money, you go withdraw it from an agent and you go stand in line with your basket of goodies and pay with money you got from your phone. Things changed when Lipa na MPESA came by and finally you can truly do cashless payments. Even paying with your credit card or debit card has been on the rise as more and more people walk around with very little cash in hand but a whole load of riches on your phone or cards. But herein lies a problem. Something I usually experience first-hand.
I rarely carry around cash. If I need to buy something, the first thing I look out for is the Lipa na MPESA poster. If that doesn’t exist, I check around awkwardly to see if they have the PDQs at the cash point to accept card payments. If not, I walk away. If a merchant doesn’t accept cashless forms of payment there are many, like me who walk away frustrated looking for alternatives. There are also those moments where cashiers see you pull out your phone or card and look at you straight in the eye with frustration and ask if you are really sure you do not have cash. I can’t even begin to imagine the reconciliation of transactions they do at the end of the day to make sure all forms of payment are accounted for. Cashless payment is nowhere near painless. Not yet at least but I think these guys may have just cracked it.
The best way I can describe MobTill is that it is an all-in-one payment solution that accepts most forms of payment, from card (VISA and MasterCard), NFC, mobile money and cash and also provides a system of full financial accountability for the merchant from summary and detailed reports, inventory management and tracking of transactions.
Mary Mwangi is not your average startup co-founder. She is nothing like the young kids starting Startups every day around Nairobi. She is a mother, something I found out as her daughter kept calling her during the interview. She was late for a lunch obligation with her (oops! my bad) but that is not the only thing that separates her from any other startup founder I have met. It’s the way she has been running her business. I honestly can say, she was a breath of fresh air. This is her story.
“I looked at the solution from an auditor’s perspective and a business person, because for me, the most important things are trails, controls and accountability.”
From the way she spoke, I figured that there had to be some foreign influence in her life. I found out that she studied and lived in USA for quite a number of years and it was on a trip back home that she thought about a solution that is the basis of her payment solution.
“I have a background in business and I worked in banks in the US for about 10 years. I was a teller in college and went on to do cheque clearing during the night.” Over the years, she moved on to doing internal auditing and then on to do IT audits and this made her appreciate the value of having accountability and a trail to follow to ensure everything is going on right.
“I came back to Kenya in 2010, right when MPESA was really picking up.” As she was interacting with it, she saw a problem. “I had to go to an agent, make a line to withdraw cash then go to the merchant and make a line to use the cash. Why not pay the merchant directly.” When she looked at how MPESA and transactions worked, she figured it would be easy to automate the process and give them all an auditing trail to follow (both the Telco to the merchant). In a way she was thinking of creating something like Lipa na MPESA but more comprehensive. “I looked at the solution from an auditor’s perspective and a business person, because for me, the most important things are trails, controls and accountability.”
And so began her journey, one that portrays, wit, determination and raw passion.
The solution began with mobile payments (before Lipa na MPESA). “We thought we needed a hardware device to promote this. We had an idea in mind for the kind of hardware device we needed and when we did not find one that fit perfectly, we decided to design and build one ourselves.” Once they had a proof of concept and realized they could build the hardware, they decided to go ahead and start producing.
“We went to a shop and saw that they had more than one device already for payments, why would they want another one? We realized this wasn’t a good working model and we pivoted.”
“We needed to create a device that combined everything for the merchant so that they did not need to have multiple devices. They have PDQ for cards, a cash register that does the recording for inventory, a phone for mobile payments and an ETR to print receipts. Why not write an application on one device to do all this?”
The up’s and down’s
“You cannot just wake up one day and decide that you are going to develop for MasterCard or VISA”
That is what they set out to create. A venture that found them hitting more lows than highs.
First of all, she says, “You cannot just wake up one day and decide that you are going to develop for MasterCard or VISA” something that they naively thought was possible.
They were held back by the need to have certifications, certifications that cost a whole lot of money to get, money that they did not have. They needed to rethink their strategy. They had to go look for a device that had all those certifications and could provide most, if not all the services they needed. They found a few that they could write applications on and began their work, but also identified a Chinese manufacturer to provide certain customizations.
With the hardware in hand, they now had to figure out how to develop for the various payment modes. Like she said, this is not a decision that you can make haphazardly.
“To get to develop for MasterCard, we actually got into a competition here in Nairobi and won and then they gave us the permission to develop for them. For VISA, we were introduced to somebody who introduced us to somebody who realized that they needed a product in Africa and that allowed us to do it.”
That is how you get things to happen, but this fairy tale was about to have a bad ending in so many ways.
“One day, one of my employees called me and said that he was in town and his bag had been stolen with all of the cards” Kenyans, surely, why? “My biggest worry at that time was if VISA would ever trust as again to develop for them after the theft, not the fact that it would cost us Kshs 150,000 to get new cards.” Laughingly, she said “They were okay with it and they let me put in a new purchase order and continue developing.”
“I could develop all I want but for live testing, I needed a bank and the bank had to be willing to apply to VISA for you to come in and test so that you can get certified and approved.” This brought about a lot of frustrations obviously, but she navigated through and somehow made it work.
“Once you give someone your model, some will want to copy you and take your ideas. I feel that it validates your idea”
No idea is really safe in this space. I was curious to what steps she has taken to protect her technology, specifically for a fintech startup, surely someone better placed with unlimited resources and networks can just walk in and create the product.
“Once you give someone your model, some will want to copy you and take your ideas. I feel that it validates your idea.” Then she said something quite interesting. “The cost of educating the public is high. For a new product it can be quite expensive. If the people taking your idea don’t have the whole picture in mind and go ahead anyway, they take the cost of educating the public from you and you then sneak in later with the whole picture and get to work.”
A risk sure, but what isn’t risky in life?
She has however patented a specific area of her solution. She got a global patent for a vital part of their tech, something that differentiates them from anything else globally but something that cost them a whole lot of money. To be specific, USD 30,000. Why did she do this? “I cannot advise anyone starting out a business to do this first. That is money that is can be better used elsewhere at the beginning and once you see growth then you can do it, but in our case, it protected us a lot from the big guys.” There are those who would love to use this tech in their solution, but they would have to go through Mary, something that she is proud of.
Through her smarts, she has been able to go through hoops and hurdles over time, without a lot of noise or funding either. She is self-funded and has very supportive family who have helped here through this journey. Her company is based in Kasarani, at a house her sister let her use after outgrowing her mother’s back house. This really cuts down on costs of starting up compared to doing so in the ‘CBD area’.
“Being on the outskirts has helped me save a lot of money and stay away from the politics, pressures and competition of being around other startups. I have a team of 8 software developers, 2 hardware guys an office manager and a sales person, who find it cheaper and easier to live, work and study around that area”
MobiTill has also been hitting more regulations road blocks along the way, the biggest one being the revenue authority. She loosely quoted Jack Dorsey of Square on the frustrations he faced. “He said that no matter what innovations, products or entrepreneurial skills you have, there is always going to be the forth element, the regulators.” She added that the financial industry is very traditional and not willing to change just because you have something innovative. If you do not comply, no shortcuts can be made for you.
This process of complying and creating to fit this regulations has been a long and hard one for her and her company, but they made head way, not only in Kenya but in Rwanda too, where they are setting up shop as well. “Every merchant there needs a tax machine which costs up to Kshs 30,000. We figured we can make our machine tax complaint and still provide all they need for transactions bundling all that up in our machine that goes for Kshs 35000.
They currently have 30 companies on board as they are piloting this product across a wide variety of industries. Right from the retail market, to restaurants, event planning and the transport industry. I asked about the transport industry, how she possibly gets them to adopt cashless payment, considering the number of times it has gloriously failed.
“My system is already in use in 10 Matatu Saccos. They have used it at the various collection points that they have. Once a Matatu takes a trip or two, there are stages where they offload the cash and it is collected by Sacco management. They needed to keep track of individual Matatus and how much money is collected. This data can be tracked real time by those in the back office leading to accountability. A Sacco that made about 1 million shillings a month, ends up doubling or tripping that because of the accountability aspect.” I was impressed.
“I only personally sold this tech to one Sacco and it took time, but after that, he told one other Sacco lead and that one told someone else and that’s how I have 10 on board currently.” What sorcery is this that this woman employed to have Matatu’s comply? It was genius! The government is pushing and even threatening Matatu operators and passengers to adopt this kind of system but it’s not working. But here is a woman who has single handedly made the Sacco want the tech and opt in voluntarily. She is now, with their permission, planning a pilot stage where the system is now brought inside the buses of one of the Saccos that can now take any kind of payment from passengers. I was speechless to be honest.
So MobiTill is highly customizable to fit in any industry and their needs as she illustrated to me when creating a model for an event planning company.
“Let’s say people planning an event want us to use our technology for the payment of the tickets. There are a number of steps we take to customize our solution to fit them. We first ask them how they previously handled their payment and where they found weaknesses in the previous system. What kind of controls would they think will be achieved by automating the process? They would then list out problems like ‘long queues at the last minute, lack of an accountable system for tickets sold, where they were sold and money collected and lastly the problem of people using counterfeit tickets’.
After this, we would then write a program to help counter this. Do they want to sell tickets before or on the day of the event? Do they want people to go to certain locations and get receipts for the tickets? On the final day, do they want their people to have the tills and come to people in line and have someone at the end scanning the tickets for validity?
These are all questions we ask to make sure that the device works for them. We provide accountability at the back end where people in the office can track ticket sales in real time. The person selling the tickets on the device also keeps a record and can print out reports.
In this way, we have solved the accountability issue, the long lines and the authenticity of tickets”
So how much does all of this cost?
For the example of an event, she says that they do not necessarily buy their devices. They lease it for the period. “We ask for 10% of the total collections for all the services we offer from the POS system, the application, logins, training of staff and the support we give during the event.”
For those customers, retailers and such who wish to buy the product, we sell each at 35,000 and provide support for 3000 per month.
They never gave up on their own hardware, they just haven’t given it priority.
She told me that just that morning of the interview, she received an email from their manufacturer that their final motherboard is ready to be used and tested in their final pilot and that before the end of the year, and we will have Kenyan designed hardware for POS.
“It will be more sophisticated than anything that you will find currently. Other than all the things we have been able to make the system do, it will be fully customizable depending on the client’s needs. Right from having a fingerprint scanner, camera, QR code scanner and expandable hardware. We have different 3D printed casings and modules to serve every need. We will be able to design it to fit in different industry needs from parking, toll stations, taxis, railways, agency banking among many others.”
If I am to sit here and share the whole story of Mary and MobiTill, I fear this might turn into a book. There is a lot to learn not only from her story but also the way she sees her product shaping the payment industry all together. In her words, they are working very hard to level the playing field in the transaction landscape, whereby no matter the size of your company, whether a Jua kali artisan or a leading supermarket chain, MobiTill is there to help manage your financial transaction and offer your business much needed and simple to implement controls, trails and accountability levels.
I am excited to see how this will turn out, by the end of the year, we should be able to see MobiTill in its true form. I simply cannot wait.