Stellar, South African nonprofit to bring digital savings to young girls

When Stellar launched last summer, Joyce Kim like any other startup exec wasn’t getting much sleep and found herself trolling Twitter in the middle of the night, San Francisco time. In September, Kim, the co-founder and executive director of the Stellar Foundation, posted a tweet, asking if anyone wanted Stellars, a cryptocurrency, to top up their pre-paid mobile phone cards. All the way over in South Africa, Simon de Haan responded yes.

It wasn’t that de Haan was short on mobile phone minutes. Instead, as the CTO of the Praekelt Foundation, he tweeted back to Kim that he would “like to find ways of making the transfer of funds to & between people, who only have a non-data feature phone, super easy.”

Today, Stellar plans to announce its new integration into Vumi, an open-source messaging platform run by the Praekelt Foundation, a South African non-profit.

“When Joyce sent out that tweet I jumped on it because it was very clear that, if it worked, the potential for the majority world (and first & foremost Africa, being our home base) would be enormous,” de Haan said in an e-mail.

The Praekelt Foundation initially developed Vumi, a messaging platform similar to WhatsApp, for philanthropic reasons. Instead of a consumer, social application, the Foundation applied it to altruistic arms, like MomConnect, a state-endorsed maternal network supported by UNICEF and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that messages registered pregnant mothers with reminders about doctor’s appointments and other important pre-natal information. Other countries have used Vumi to register voters in Libya or bring citizen journalism to South Africa during an election season. And even Facebook’s Internet.Org has noticed the South African nonprofit, bringing some of its apps for moms connecting to the internet for the first time under its free app umbrella in Tanzania.

Adding money to the mix

Stellar is a decentralized payments network, funded in part by payment processor Stripe and supported by the Stellar Foundation, that allows users to easily send money like e-mail. It’s not just limited to its native cryptocurrency, Stellars, though — it can be used to send anything from dollars to South African rands. (Its appeal to a number of people and currencies also caused a major headache when a ledger fork problem was discovered in the Stellar network in December. Kim assured me that’s being resolved and a new version of code will be released in a few months.)

By adding Stellar as a payments platform, Vumi is getting a way to process payments for the first time. It’s an attractive prospect — thinking down the road, a government could send a pregnant woman money for a bus fare to get to a clinic, theorized Kim (Full disclosure: Kim worked with Gigaom founder Om Malik in 2007 on the Gigaom Show). “Because both Stellar and Vumi are open source, it will be possible for other organizations to include and extend the Stellar Savings application to enable them to build unique financial inclusion products suited to the developing world,” said Gustav Praekelt, CEO of the foundation, in an e-mail interview.

In the coming weeks, the Praekelt Foundation plans to launch a new messaging app designed for young girls in developing countries. But as messaging apps evolve, it won’t be for trading emojis and stories back-and-forth. Instead, the Praekelt Foundation wants to offer young South African girls the chance to start a digital savings account that uses an alternate currency they’re likely to swap: airtime minutes.

“We know that girls are familiar with the concepts around buying and transferring airtime, and felt that this would be the best avenue to introduce them to the concept of savings,” said Praekelt, the CEO. “Of course, by using stellar as the underlying currency infrastructure we will be able to extend this product (and future applications), to to work across many countries, currencies, banks and other incentives.”

Adding wallet services to a messaging app may not be new to developed markets. Snapchat, which is now a hybrid publishing and messaging platform, added SnapCash to allow its users to send money back and forth. Other companies, like Microsoft, are also spotting the potential in the budding banking and e-commerce market of Africa. However, many of these require banks or credit cards — things young girls in South Africa or in any other developing country may not have. Instead, they have phones that come loaded with pre-paid mobile minutes. Using the Praekelt Foundation’s app, a young girl would be able to easily swap, and more importantly, store their Air Minutes.

When I mentioned that this integration seemed like a limited market (young South African girls who have downloaded this app), Kim was quick to correct me. “It’s actually a huge audience,” Kim said. “This can reach where traditional financial services never have.”

And she’s right. Many banks and even software developers don’t spend time developing for a populace who may have little money in their bank accounts and only swap in small transaction amounts — we’re talking minutes of phone calls here, not hundreds of dollars. More importantly, Kim says, it’s taking Silicon Valley code and applying it to a problem that can have a domino effect in a young girl’s life, teaching her financial skills and how to save money.

“It’s using these protocols to have an immediate impact on people’s lives,” Kim said. “That’s just something we need to see more of in this space. The fact that it’s in developing world is amazing.”

This story was updated at 10a.m. to add comment from de Haan.

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