Kotani Pay: Increasing access to financial solutions for the underbanked and unbanked
The UNICEF Venture Fund is proud to see portfolio member Kotani Pay graduate. They've come a long way – from prototyping a text message-based app for mobile payments to reaching 15,000 beneficiaries in a year, enabling refugees and gig workers to access universal basic income and alternative means of income.
Kotani Pay is a platform that lets users off-ramp from crypto using a simple interface that does not require internet connectivity or a bank account.
Many communities in Africa are locked out from the benefits of blockchain and cryptocurrencies, simply because the technology was built for smartphone users with strong connectivity. We built Kotani Pay to bring financial instruments and services to those that do not have access to the Internet or have the capital and credit standing to open a bank account, thus increasing financial freedom.
Our initial solution used Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD) that enabled simple withdrawals of digital assets to local fiat currency. However, we have had iterations of the solution to enable users to register for specific programs such as universal basic income (UBI) claims. Our latest offering has decentralized finance (DeFi) elements that are built into the USSD interface.
The different versions of our solution have been influenced by feedback from end users and different clients who come to us with different needs and ideas. For example, the first DeFi element was inspired by working with our partners at Cinch and Moola markets to offer smallholder farmers and landowners low-interest loans to enable increased output and income generation.
We expect further iterations to be influenced in the same way as we receive feedback during UX/UI testing.
We conducted several tests with our partners and end users. During a visit to a village in Laikipia, we met a young lady who, at 24 , was a recently-widowed mother of 3. She was the breadwinner of her young family and would occasionally struggle to put a single meal on the table on a bad day. In partnership with Mercy Corps, we enrolled her in a Universal Basic Income Community, enabling her to claim funds that were being disbursed in Celo Dollars directly to her mobile money wallet via Kotani Pay. During a subsequent visit to the village, we discovered that she had been able to set up a small garden and was now able to sell her additional produce. She had purchased a goat and was planning to buy a cow. She encouraged other women to join the program.
Our biggest lesson from such user experiences is that no matter the technology you choose to use, if you find a problem that is a huge pain point and address it, your solution will grow organically.
Being open source has offered us visibility and attracted new partners. Many ethical hackers and developers are inspired to integrate Open Source solutions with platforms that they are building. For example, one of the leading mobile games development studios, Usiku Games, is using our Open Source code to enable an alternative means of payment for their users.
Additionally, being Open Source helped us get useful feedback from peers in the community, including other developers working on other payment applications. Community participation helped us identify and create new features, allowing the solution to take a community-based growth trajectory.
The greatest challenge we currently face is that of regulation and legislation. In a continent with 54 countries, our greatest hurdle as we expand to serve the entire continent is that of meeting different regulatory requirements in each country. With these independent needs and demands, we are forced to slow down and ensure that we are fully compliant with requirements in a country before serving users whose needs become acute by the day. In some countries, this may even mean setting up a separate entity, a process that may take many months. Still, we have kept pushing while respecting the regulators' needs in these countries.
Kotani Pay is blockchain agnostic. We are currently integrated with the Celo, Stellar, and Avalanche blockchain networks and are in the process of integration to the Stellar network. We look forward to integrating with many blockchain protocols to serve users across the board.
We look forward to partnering with more NGOs to reach the marginalized through our work. We believe that by offering financial access, we can improve the livelihoods of many individuals.
We also intend to partner with some central banks that offer sandboxes to allow for testing of solutions in the payment space to find the best ways of structuring legislation while encouraging innovation within the space.
What we've accomplished and the way forward
We are excited that in just a year, we have been able to serve over 15,000 beneficiaries, enabling refugees and gig workers to have access to a universal basic income and alternative means of income.
We have run over 10 pilot programs in various locations and with a diverse group of partners with great success. Notably, one of our pilot programs served a 97% female population, enabling them to receive universal basic income payments of $1 a day. Some of these women went on to spend these funds to set up small vegetable gardens or run small businesses like selling nuts and sweets from basins to supplement the household income.
We have during this period successfully raised USD $800,000 in our Seed Round and have expanded from Kenya into Ghana and Zambia.
We are excited to grow the current solution and offer our service to at least 6 African countries within the next year. While at it, we will be working on obtaining regulatory licenses in these countries to ensure that our service is compliant.We would also like to expand the portfolio of blockchain protocols upon which our service is available to at least 4 by the end of the next year.
We are committed to our mission of offering financial inclusion and access, and we hope to offer this service to as many countries in Africa as possible in the coming few years.
Moving forward, we see Kotani Pay having the greatest impact in offering financial access to marginalized communities especially in Kenya and Ghana. The demographic that stands to benefit most are the refugee communities and the unemployed youth who will be able to access gig work. We believe that the lessons we have learned in this journey will only grow stronger, and we are excited as we onboard more and more Universal Basic Income (UBI) Communities day by day.
Making it happen with the Venture Fund
The UNICEF Venture Fund has been one of our most valuable partners. We have received mentorship in Business Development, Software Development, Tech Design and Improvement, Open Source and Impact Mentorship, to name but a few.These sessions helped us to identify our strengths and weaknesses and refine our solution with the help and experience of experts in the respective fields.
Additionally, we were linked with teams from the cohort and potential partners, adding great value to our work. For example, we have partnered with Treejer to enable tree planters in Ghana and Uganda to receive stablecoins and off-ramp to local fiat currency.
We are humbled by the continued support of the team at the UNICEF Venture Fund. We couldn’t have done it all without you.