Nigerian mobile money startup Paga wants 15 million users by 2015

“Access to basic financial services – the ability to save, transfer and invest even small amounts of money – can make a huge difference to people around the world. It can help a farmer to survive a bad harvest, or provide a slum-dweller with the vital capital needed to start a small business.” – Richard Mwami, head of mobile money, MTN Uganda

Tayo Oviosu, the founder of Pagatech, a mobile money services platform in Nigeria, can attest to the above quote.

Paga was founded on the simple belief that mobile phones could be leveraged to provide financial services to Nigerians.

“I was frustrated about carrying cash around whenever I was in Nigeria. It didn’t help that 60% of the ATMs are based in Lagos and most of them are constantly not working,” explains Oviosu. “Mobile money seemed obvious given the number of phones in Nigeria. My frustrations led to the birth of Paga.”

Paga was launched to a user group of 80 people in September 2010. The company received its ‘Approval-in-Principle’ from the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) in November 2010 and it was later launched to the broader public in February 2011.

“One can make deposits through Paga. For the customer’s convenience, we provide three ways to deposit cash. The first is through our agent network. You can search for your nearest agent online or via SMS. The second way is through any one of our six partner banks such as Diamond Bank. Lastly, it is also possible to load money in your Paga account using your debit card.”

Paga launched with four key products: money transfer, airtime purchase, bill pay and merchant payments. However, money transfer is its flagship product.

“Our mission is to deliver innovative and universal access to financial services. We fundamentally believe that technology should be built to fit into people’s lives rather than the other way around,” he says. “Paga has been designed to work on the most basic SMS enabled phone and without the need to download any application to your phone. Simplicity is key. If you can send an SMS, then you should be able to type in a few words and digits to send or receive money.”

He further adds that someone who does not have a bank account can go to a Paga agent, open an account, and after saving for a while, will be able to access micro credit.

Paga works on all mobile networks making it accessible to any Nigerian with a mobile phone. The company has partnered with select banks and microfinance institutions, while also working with a network of over 400 approved agents. Thousands of additional agents are currently awaiting training. Within less than a year of launching its service to the general public, Paga has registered over 32,000 active users and has processed over US$1.6 million in payments.

“We are proud of our progress to date. We intend on having 15 million users by 2015,” says Oviosu.

A Paga advertisement in Lagos, Nigeria.

A Paga advertisement in Lagos, Nigeria.

How would Tayo Oviosu explain Paga to a woman trader in one of the big markets in Nigeria?

“During our marketing awareness drive, the market women immediately saw the benefits of Paga. They understood the benefits of removing the need of having to carry large sums of money around the market just to perform everyday transactions.”

Oviosu explains the process of registering for the service:

“Any concern about having to submit documentation is alleviated, since what one needs is to register their name and phone number. To register for Paga, one is required to send an SMS to the Paga shortcode with their name. No identification is needed for our most basic services.”

“This is one of the key measures introduced by the CBN. The regulation differs from other parts of Africa as risk is mitigated not by asking for documentation, but by tracking spending and limiting transaction sizes. Customers who only give their name and phone number can send only US$20 per transaction and US$200 per day,” notes Oviosu.

Nigeria has a population of more than 150 million people. Analysts state that 22 million have a bank account but there are more than 90 million people who are mobile phone users.

Oviosu adds that of the 20% of Nigerians with access to formal financial services, 90% of them have less than 5,000 naira (US$30) in their accounts.

“This shows that the majority of money in Nigeria is outside the banking industry and this poses a massive challenge to banks. Banks open branches everywhere, yet the issue remains unaddressed. Mobile payment and banking takes advantage of the wider coverage by mobile phones.”

In Nigeria, like other sub-Saharan countries, the method that is popularly used is a bank transfer from one account to another, which typically involves waiting in long lines that can literally take hours. However, this is only available to those that have a bank account. Those without bank accounts use rather cumbersome and lengthy means of sending and receiving money.

“Through our research we realised that the common practices used include sending physical cash through inter-state travelling bus drivers or sending phone airtime voucher numbers via text messages to be resold for 30% discount on the face value,” explains Oviosu. “The majority of the respondents stated that they would actually prefer to wait until someone they know physically takes the cash to the recipient.”

Paga shares its challenges and learnings

“The challenges to launch a service such as ours are mostly around the reliability of the mobile networks and overall infrastructure deficiency in the country. The mobile networks continue to strengthen their networks based on their competition, which is good for everyone.”

Oviosu engaged in wide research on other mobile payment companies in different parts of the world to give guidance into Paga’s strategy.

“In Nigeria, contrary to most markets around the world, the telecommunication companies are not allowed to be the service providers of mobile payments,” says Oviosu. “The CBN framework allows for a level playing field for all mobile payment operators. We believe Nigeria represents a very attractive mobile payment market for companies like Paga.”

“There are numerous reasons why the traditional banking sector remains out of reach to most Nigerians, indeed, most Africans. A major reason is the cost/benefit analysis of deploying brick and mortar infrastructure in a cost efficient manner across the region. This is a major challenge for the banking sector and Paga addresses this issue. Paga brings financial services around the corner of every Nigerian via our agent network.”

Oviosu adds, “Paga also allows those people who do not have the requisite requirements to open a traditional bank account to access financial services. Reaching the unbanked via our agent network and the reduced requirements to use our service will bring the majority of Nigerians into the banking fold. We believe that we will address the challenges the traditional banking sector has and bank the unbanked in Nigeria.”