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Tech tips from the start-up that built East Africa’s top banking app

SCI & TECH
By Lavinia Wanjau | Jul 26th 2017 | 4 min read
By Lavinia Wanjau | July 26th 2017
SCI & TECH

Technology has brought us the sort of innovation that has turned what was once science fiction into reality.

In this fast-moving era, innovators are king, and disruption is the name of the game.

Abel Masai, the founder of Kocela Ltd, a company that’s helping shape the country’s banking industry, knows this all too well.

In telling his business’ creation story, he lets entrepreneurs in on how to ensure that the digital wave doesn’t leave them by the wayside.

Kocela (pronounced Koh-chela) is a software firm that provides mobile solutions. Masai says the company was started in 2013, but the idea first came to him in 2011 while he was still at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT) and smartphones were just making their way into the Kenyan market.

Many local companies had specialised in building websites, SMS and USSD solutions, but then there was this new channel called the smartphone that held so much more potential.

In the beginning

“I bought a Huawei Ideos phone that was on offer at the time, and started playing around with it. To hone my skills, I decided to create my own app and came up with a school fees payment solution – I called it Karopay,” says Able.

“I presented it at the JKUAT tech expo, and the app later emerged the overall best app in the Huawei Android Application Challenge in 2012. What was very clear to me at that moment was that apps would become the in-thing. Yet, there weren’t many companies showing leadership in this space.”

Upon graduating in 2012, Masai went to work at Cellulant for about two years. But during this time, he was still very fascinated by smartphone apps and the possibilities they presented.

As the market shifted from feature phones to smartphones, Kocela was conceptualised and founded to set the pace in the mobile space.

“I quit Cellulant and formed a team that would create solutions for the mobile space. The first app we did was NewsDrift – a local news aggregator. We pushed this product for a while and then decided to customise it for media houses, first Standard Media Group and then Radio Africa Group,” Abel explains.

Payments space

He adds that this was the beginning of a journey that has seen his company grow from a small team into a software firm that has impacted various sectors of the economy, and worked with some of the country’s largest organisations.

Once it signed on Standard Media Group as a client, Abel realised Kocela was onto something. As most companies looked to position themselves in the mobile space, they’d need a company with Kocela’s kind of expertise.

His company next stop was venturing into the banking and payments space.

“The good thing about IT is that you don’t require that much to get started. In the initial stage, all that my team and I needed was a laptop each and an Internet connection. With that, we could work on our ideas,” Abel says.

Around mid-2014, Kocela approached KCB and pitched to them the idea that a banking app should be more than just a transactional platform.

They explained that the bank that would win in the mobile space at that time was the one that would build a lifestyle app – a one-stop shop that helps customers meet their day-to-day needs.

“I remember the day we were called in to present our concept to the bank’s innovation team – I knew this was Kocela’s only chance to make something of itself. We were a relatively young company, so we knew a basic presentation wouldn’t cut it; so my team and I worked on a prototype of a lifestyle banking app,” Abel says.

KCB liked the product and decided to engage the company.

Together with the bank, Kocela designed and developed the KCB mobile app for the institution’s customers and non-customers.

The app was released to the market in 2015 and rose to become the most downloaded banking app in East and Central Africa.

The launch

Abel’s company first worked on a minimum viable product with just the basic services.

He says this was, and is always the best way to introduce new products to the market – you launch with just enough features to satisfy early customers.

He adds that this also gives a developer the chance to gauge the market’s response, and then depending on user feedback, keep improving the product.

KCB then asked Kocela to develop the second phase of the app, which involved enhancing it with additional features, incorporating mVisa, and customising it for the bank’s other markets – Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania and Burundi.

“Working with KCB has placed us at forefront of innovation in the banking and payments sector. Our engagement has been a great learning experience for Kocela, especially on how to build a product for mass users, including those who may not be tech-savvy,” Abel says with a smile.

The KCB app allows users to perform a large number of transactions right from their mobile phones, including paying utility bills, fund transfers, paying school fees and accessing loans.

The app also comes with personal finance management tools, including a budget tracker and an expenses tracker.

Kocela recently revamped and redesigned the app, introducing new services and a modern design.

Dubbed KCB MyKash, this new release combines M-Pesa, PesaLink and mVisa to allow customers to pay directly to any bank, mobile wallet or mobile money merchant.

The company has also provided KCB with a collections platform dubbed Malipo, which allows schools, courts and other companies to view payments made at branch or agent outlets, as well as via M-Pesa in real-time via a back-end reports/reconciliation portal.

Kocela continues to work with other institutions to grow the digital world.

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