Start-up to use blockchain in bid to revolutionise consumer behaviour

Wala founder and CEO Tricia Martinez.
Wala founder and CEO Tricia Martinez.

Cape Town – A start-up with links to a Cape Town technology venture capitalist is punting blockchain technology as part of an offering to improve consumer behaviour.

An initial coin offering, Dala, is being punted for emerging market consumers as an incentive to save and transact using a digital offering. It will also be available as a tradeable form of exchange, a challenge to traditional banking services.

Dala is a blockchain currency that forms part of Wala, a start-up co-founded by Chicago entrepreneurs Tricia Martinez and Samer Saab. It is a first digital financial platform for underbanked consumers in emerging markets and is starting with Africa.

A partnership with microfinancing giant Finca, which was announced on Friday, will additionally enable the firm to start its first operation in Uganda, where it launched its smartphone app.

“There is great value in partnering with Finca as it will bring Fiat-based services to consumers in a more efficient way,” Martinez told Fin24 on Friday. “It will revolutionise ways in which emerging market consumers engage with the financial system.”

Wala also teamed up with Cape Town-based seed stage venture capitalist firm Newtown Partners, which has made an equity investment in Wala, which is the launch partner of the Dala token.

Newtown Partners blockchain expert James Kilroe told Fin24 that there is huge potential for cryptocurrencies in emerging markets, and believes tokenisation will become increasingly relevant in the finance sector. “Dala is a great use case in emerging markets,” he said.  

Wala started as a brainchild of Martinez, who was inspired by her Chicago University professor, Richard H Thaler, who this week won the Nobel Prize in economics.

“I completed my masters in policy in economics with a focus on behavioural economics,” she said. “Thaler inspired me to find ways to influence consumer behaviour.”

Martinez linked up with Saab, a serial entrepreneur in Chicago. Together they formed Wala and moved to London in 2016 to take part in Techstars, a 13-week Barclays Accelerator programme where they developed their product.

They were then lured to Cape Town’s Silicon Cape scene, where they began exploring partnerships with South Africa’s leading banks. However, they soon realised their product offering was better suited to the underbanked microfinance scene, where consumers are increasingly using smartphones.

They explained that nearly 30% of African consumers now own a smartphone, which enabled them to develop a product beyond feature phone products like M-Pesa. They also see the underbanked sector as a massive untapped sector, with 3.5 billion consumers in this segment worldwide.

With their partnership with Finca, Wala hopes to scale its operation to over 20 countries where the microfinance firm operates.

From left are Wala's chief product officer Samer Saab, chief executive officer Tricia Martinez and chief technical officer Ross McEwan.

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