In 2011, the Nigerian government launched a financial inclusion initiative and set a target to include 80% of the country's adult population. Although only a target of 64% was met by the end of the decade, one positive from the exercise is that achieving financial inclusion across the country is still a continuous process that has seen fintechs take part alongside banks in recent years.
Agency banking upstarts are the main innovators in this space. Their branchless banking system, which includes thousands of physical agents, provides financial services to the unbanked and underbanked in rural and semi-urban areas. NowNow Digital Systems, one such platform launched in 2018, has raised $13 million in a seed round that will allow the four-year-old startup to scale and expand its service offerings across Africa.
When CEO Sahir Berry and his co-founder Mahesh Nair founded NowNow in 2016, they wanted to provide solutions to financial inclusion and job creation, two of the most significant pain points they thought were facing Nigeria and the rest of the continent. According to Berry, in partnership with a foreign third-party partner, NowNow launched a mobile wallet in late 2017, but soon realized it needed to build out its tech, which set the stage for going to market the following year. “Doing that and building our proprietary IP ourselves changed our business," the chief executive said. "So starting, we provided digital banking solutions to consumers and businesses. But today, we're fast becoming an embedded finance platform."
NowNow claims to have built an end-to-end ecosystem of financial products catering to agents, individual consumers and small businesses. Its flagship product, similar to other agency banking platforms such as OPay, TeamApt and Nomba, involves more than 50,000 agents across the country who provide Nigerians financial services like sending and receiving money and paying bills. The fintech also has a consumer-facing product where people can send and receive money, pay bills and access value-added services such as insurance and lending via a debit card and a wallet in an app. The service is available to users with smartphones and feature phones; however, for the latter, they would need to visit agents to access other services, said Berry. Similar digital banking providers in this segment include the likes of Kuda, Carbon and FairMoney.
According to Berry, NowNow wants to set itself apart from the competition with the development of NFC-enabled tech that will allow tap-in functionality within its ecosystem of products, where users can use virtual or physical cards against an NFC-enabled phone or POS and tap from wallet to wallet using two phones. This product has been made available to a few small businesses to test in a pilot phase. On the other hand, NowNow typically provides these SMEs with a business-in-a-box platform with tools and value-added services such as a storefront and a marketplace.
"It's an end-to-end integrated platform for SMEs, including logistics and we are the first company in Nigeria to provide such an end-to-end platform," said Berry. Going beyond that, because we've built all this technology and own the IP for it, we've also become a BaaS company providing our product to multiple fintechs in Nigeria and Africa. We also have renowned financial institutions that use our products to offer a white-label solution to their customers. So that mitigates the risk in that we are playing in the consumer and the B2B space."
NowNow is targeting 5,000 SMEs with its business-in-a-box solution, including the NFC-enabled tech, by year's end. On the consumer side of things, the fintech claims to serve up to 200,000 customers; it hopes to increase that number to 1 million by December. "We're on track to transact a GMV of about $5 billion by the end of this year across all platforms," Berry added.
With the newly secured funds, NowNow plans to grow its platform, team and marketing for the scale the company is "now ready to embrace." The fintech, recently selected to participate in the Mastercard Start Path Global program for seed, Series A and later-stage startups, also wants to introduce new products to enhance its existing consumer banking, agency banking and merchant payment solutions and expand into African countries that fintechs from Nigeria rarely move to: Angola and Liberia.
"We want to work in countries where we find that the infrastructure is paralyzed and requires fintech to step in and see what solutions can be provided to solve the situation. Angola is one of those places where we found that the digital payment space is pretty far behind and we might launch there over the next month. Liberia is another country where we are gearing up to set operations."
The seed round welcomed participation from several firms, including lead investors Dubai-based venture capital firm and studio NeoVision Ventures, India-based DLF Family Office and Shadi Abdulhadi.