Ten years ago, the act of shopping – retail as a necessity and as a pastime – existed entirely offline in Nigeria. You go to a store, you buy what you want, you shop around – but it was a physical transaction. Often laborious too; moving from one store to another, across town, back again, only to find that what you wanted wasn’t in stock. And when it came to payments? Consumers were prepared to part with their cash with bundles of Naira to preempt the store’s POS machine not working or, in all likelihood, there not being one.
Fast forward to mass-market internet; commerce is changing – it is literally in the palm of our hands. Retail has no fixed abode. It’s on instagram. It’s on Facebook. Soon, it will be on online marketplaces that haven’t even been invented yet – and at scale.
Retail powers our country, stealthily. Ask anyone about Nigeria’s economy and the words “oil” and “gas” roll off their tongues, because we can see the results and can account for much of the revenue. However, the millions of retailers across the country – those making sure every day people get what they need and want, are virtually invisible. It is almost a clandestine economy.
At Diamond Bank, we cultivated the retail sector and built digital mobile products for retailers, because we wanted to include them in the banking community and provide a service for the underbanked. For most, cash was [and still is] king, and there was no real engagement with the banks. Not at scale. Retail was a cash economy outside of the usual economic paradigms of taxation and government involvement. For traditional banks, this was a vacuum. For Diamond Bank, we saw it as an opportunity to engage an entire community; and that is exactly what we did. In less than 10 years, we built out a retail arm of the bank that included over 15 million people. This was their first foray into retail banking. As my father and I look back on Diamond Bank’s legacy, cultivating digital banking, at scale, is one of our lasting impacts.
But that was yesterday.
Let’s look at today. And tomorrow. We are introducing Sparkle. A new iteration of what it means to support retailers, businesses and individuals in Nigeria. Beyond traditional banking. A platform that has gone from concept [securing better access to banking and finance business facilities for businesses and individuals] to an MVP; Sparkle is now being developed to allow people to do more whilst allowing businesses to be more.
At Sparkle, we want to complement the resilience with a wrap around digital service that supports retailers, individuals and SMEs, seamlessly. A silent business partner, so to speak. The businesses of today that we will be collaborating with at Sparkle are on the go. They are extremely fluid. They move with the trends and, where possible, they dictate the trends. As I mentioned – they have no fixed abode. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t building or growing. And importantly, they are digital natives – their first point of interaction with customers is online. Picture, swipe, click, purchase. It’s that easy. So how can we deliver a service that supports a tribe of digital natives who want to focus on making money and building their business, rather than be burdened with financial admin?
We are blessed with a young population [in its tens of millions] of early adopters, who are revelling in [and capitalising on] lower costs of smart phone handsets and lower data costs. Whist this means that the barrier to entry for businesses is now significantly lower, there is more competition. But that’s OK – competition is fine, but let’s all make sure we can compete, build and grow; this can only be done if you have access and support services that enable you to compete on a level playing field. This is a generation of mobile-first retailers who are powering ecommerce via social. Facebook boasts over 21m users. Instagram – 5.6m. And unlike the “developed” world, these figures are growing upwards, and fast. Sharing, telling, selling – this is where commerce lies, this is where Sparkle starts.
So what we did with Sparkle, we decided to support and build a tribe of digital natives. Those who instinctively reach for their mobile phone when they’re engaging in any transaction, be it personal or business. As we build this tribe, we are sticking to and embedding core values and principles in to how we operate; everything, absolutely everything we do is grounded in trust and transparency. We are creating a market within an established market and unpicking the barriers to entry for so many people by ensuring they are part of the growth – part of society. They are financially included. Retailers have, for so long, been excluded from society at so many levels, because they are not paying tax and engaging with state and government; Sparkle is tackling this and bringing more people into an inclusive system.
Interestingly, these are the human principles upon which we built when we started building Diamond Bank in the 1990s. Our principles are 25+ years old [and more] but our approach and execution is totally new. With Sparkle, we will provide a dedicated, personalised experience to each and every one of our users – who we hope will number in their millions in years to come. But they will not be “seen to” by traditional customer relationship managers; that’s for the 1%. Sparkle is here for all. We are building for those who don’t need to look into the whites of a bank personnel’s eyes – we are building and growing for a community of people who want fast, accurate decisions made based on unambiguous and unbiased data habits. Powered by AI and Machine Learning, Sparkle will remove emotion from decision making and put your data in your hands. Whereas other companies accrue data to sell and to profit from, we want our Sparklers to profit from their own data, but allowing them to make well informed decisions regarding their next steps. At Sparkle, currency is data.
Our Sparklers have their heads down as they create and build and test – building an MVP that delivers human principles of commerce and business. We are curating a business and lifestyle-friendly platform that will enhance the human side of doing business, at scale. We have no alternative. This is how retail will scale and businesses will thrive in Nigeria; leveraging technology and mobile to create and support a generation of digitally native businesses that provide an alternative economy for Nigeria.
Why Sparkle? Because we can