How We Built NALA

…and why we had to leave our dorm rooms to do it

NALA is a simplified mobile money application that allows you to make faster, smarter and safer transactions without an internet connection.

Key recipe for building NALA:

  1. Talk endlessly to potential users
  2. Build, rebuild, and rebuild again
  3. Repeat

What we didn’t do:

  1. Spend a lot of money
  2. Build everything we wanted
  3. Finish “on time”

A little history, first

We didn’t start with the “perfect” idea. The fundamentals of NALA changed multiple times even before the beta release. We saved ourselves a lot of headache, time and money by committing ourselves to user-centered ground research from the start.

I grew up in Tanzania, worked in the television industry since the age of 17, starting as a TV presenter but slowly involving myself in the operations side of television. When digital TV first came to Tanzania, my team was heavily involved in building one of the first TV integrations for mobile money payments where viewers could pay for their TV subscriptions through mobile money. This fascinated me and sparked my curiosity — I always wondered what else could be done in digital financial services. I wanted to learn how we could deepen financial inclusion in Africa, and more than that, I wanted to actively participate. How do we simplify the process of payments? How do we help people gain more control and understanding of their spending?

Then came NALA, essentially the answer to these questions. NALA is a simplified mobile money application that allows you to make faster, smarter and safer transactions without an internet connection.

Talk to users, and talk often

I founded NALA during my first year of studies at the Stanford Graduate School of Business with the goal to build the next layer of inclusive finance in Africa. My classmates helped me conduct research with Tanzanian friends, family, and acquaintances over the phone over the course of multiple school projects. We listened to their perspectives, then built a framework to help us understand what else we needed to learn. 140 people participated, patiently and passionately discussing our detailed questions — sometimes late into the night due to time zone difference. The information we learned was key to building a product that worked for people. That summer while working at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle, I met my co-founder Sam.

When I moved back to Tanzania in July 2017, we repeated the same work in person. Over the course of a few months, we conducted over 670 in-person user interviews in multiple regions and over 11,000 online surveys. This enabled us to pivot and adapt the product even before writing our first line of code.

Making user feedback a habit

Today, with our product out in the market, we remain committed to our NALA Family — our users. To show our commitment, we do a thing called NALA Fridays every single week. Each Friday, the entire team, from business and operations to developers to the customer care team, spends the afternoon talking with both new and existing NALA users. We listen instead of forcing our opinion and assuming we know what NALA users want. This enables us to better understand how they use the product and how we can improve it, so it has more value for their lives.

In addition to NALA Fridays, every Wednesday we work offsite, from working in innovation hubs to co-working spaces to coffee shops, all in order to meet other developers and entrepreneurs and work towards a goal of creating a collaborative ecosystem. Not only is it important to us that we support fellow Tanzanian entrepreneurs, but in doing so we also develop a shared learning environment. This allows us to test new product releases, learn what works, what doesn’t, and where we can become better — all of which saves us a lot of time.

Finally, we use all our channels of communication to consistently build NALA together with our NALA Family. Our users engage in product design decisions, updates and promotions to help tailor the application to their needs. Their voices and votes drive our strategy as an organization and we are proud of that.

Focusing on what really matters to users

Remember the saying: “you can do anything, but, you can’t do everything?” This was key for us when deciding what to focus on based on research feedback. Given our goals of deepening financial inclusion, we here at NALA believe that increasing financial accessibility is key in doing so. At NALA, we are working to provide financial tools to those with the greatest potential to benefit from them. We are trying to address the paradox we see around the world in which rapid economic growth is accompanied by rapidly growing inequality. Where nations are getting richer, the income/wealth gap is widening. This truly starts with inequality of opportunity. If people have access to the tools they need to take advantage of economic opportunities in rapidly growing economies, then you have created a more sustainable economic and social model for future development. Yet, with every growing economy, development occurs on different levels. Such is the case with Tanzania. In Tanzania, we learned that due to the staggered economic progress, NALA needed to work for everyone.

Here are some of the key pillars our team has focused on:
One distinguishing feature of NALA is its offline capability. Offline functionality was a major, consistent theme across our qualitative user interviews. However, it is also one of the most challenging features. Building a seamless app without relying on an internet connection is a novel technique. NALA leads the industry in perfecting this new technology. We think it was worth the challenge to be able to serve our users.
The NALA Family indicated that security was very important. We listened. Today, application security is our number one priority. Our team has spent hundreds of hours validating our security process meets top global standards to ensure protection for our NALA Family. You can read more about our security here.
The transaction history feature evolved into a NALA Family favourite. Users enjoy learning more about their expenses and how they spend their money each and every day. Our tools provide them with key insight allowing them to budget better and smarter — a major pain point and sustainability issue according to the FSDT Finscope 2017 data. That study showed only 50% of Tanzanians know how much they spent the previous week. Our goal is to significantly increase that by enabling them to have this information at their fingertips.

These features have allowed us to target Tanzanians at every stage in the development process, particularly woman and illiterate Tanzanians, who are left out the most. When we spent time in rural Tanzania, we found the highest rate of people excluded from digital financial services were women. We found similar results written in the Bank of Tanzania’s National Financial Inclusion Framework. In Misungwi, Tanzania, we met Mama Saraphina. She owned a $25 smartphone that her son purchased for her. Mama Saraphina said the complicated process of using USSD short codes made her scared of using mobile money. We showed her a simplified mockup with many icons that I had made the night before and she smiled and said, “Afadali, hii ni rahisi” (English: At least, this is easy). Today, Mama Saraphina is a key NALA family member in her community, getting more women to access financial services.

Were there no challenges?

There are far too many to list, however, no one said entrepreneurship was easy. People complain a lot about building a startup in Tanzania. Oftentimes, investors are scared. Maybe it’s the risk? Maybe the regulation? I’ve struggled a lot myself as an entrepreneur. My hope is to change the startup narrative for Tanzania. I’d like to see more local and foreign direct investment going into supporting young startups and the evolving entrepreneurship scene in my homeland. I moved back to Tanzania to help change this narrative, especially for my fellow youth entrepreneurs.

To all my fellow Tanzanian entrepreneurs pursuing their dreams and dealing with their daily challenges, remember, there’s a swahili saying that goes “mti wenye matunda hupigwa mawe” — The tree with the fruits always gets stones thrown at it. I could write a whole book about this, but I’ll save it for another day. My advice to you and myself, is continue pursuing your passion and fight for what you believe. Our collective vision for a better tomorrow will help change our beloved country for the better. Don’t give up on your dreams, know there are many young entrepreneurs out there just like you who are building innovative solutions to the challenges we face as a country. We need to support each other and overcome whatever obstacles that lay ahead.

Does listening to customers really work?

Mama Saraphina is just one example of how our NALA Family has driven the progress of our app. Our NALA Family members change the course of our app development and show us where we need to improve. Without their feedback, NALA’s development would look completely different. Most companies succeed because they are flexible and effectively execute. We consider user feedback to be a non-negotiable prerequisite to success — our ideas alone can only take the organization so far.

The more appropriate title for this post would be “how we are building NALA” because the process of adapting to users is never-ending. If we do our jobs well, we’ll constantly be adapting NALA to improve our NALA Family experiences.

Recently, NALA made it to #4 in Tanzania on the Google Playstore for Finance. We hit this mark within two and half months of going live — without a launch event or massive advertising campaign. We’ve been the #1 Trending Finance Application in the country for 17 days in a row. NALA Family members tell others about our product and continue to give us vital feedback.

NALA has come far — and has a long journey ahead. It is you, our NALA Family, that empowered us to reach this point. NALA isn’t only built for you, it’s built by you. Let’s build a better financial future together.

Explore NALA here. We know you’ll love what we’ve built together!