Tricia Martinez: Where things went wrong for Africa-focused cryptocurrency Dala

Tricia Martinez is the CEO and founder of Wala, a financial services app for developing markets, particularly in Africa. Wala was the launch partner of Dala – a cryptocurrency designed for developing countries – and the first app that enabled the use of Dala for transactions and peer-to-peer transfers. However, the vision for Dala hasn’t worked out. In this article, Martinez lays out the Dala journey and addresses the problems they were up against.

Dala’s goal has been to create a decentralised financial system for emerging market consumers. We wanted to build a new financial system for consumers in countries throughout Africa who have been underserved because of their geographical location and economic status. We believe that financial services don’t need to come with huge fees to send money to someone or have a savings account.

In April 2018 we launched Dala in Africa. So what happened?

  • In the first four months Dala token users grew faster than we could imagine. Through the Wala app (a mobile financial services platform), over 150,000 users, mainly residing in Uganda, signed up and began transacting with Dala. Thanks to the Dala rewards model, users would sign up friends and family, transact (buying products like airtime, data, and electricity) and send payments to people and receive Dala rewards as an incentive. (Refer to this post for details on the difference between Wala and Dala their operating models)
  • But with these rewards we ran into problems. Rewards attracted scammers or people who figured out how to take advantage of a rewards system. This led us to change our rewards model multiple times and we had to remove users who were abusing our system.
  • The biggest problem we ran into was infrastructure. Our partners’ systems (products and services like airtime, data, and electricity) would regularly turn off due to internet problems and/or their own poor infrastructure which meant our users were unable to transact, which was the biggest use case for Dala. Additionally, we suffered outages from our local banks and mobile money services that strained the flow of capital in and out of the system. This crushed our user engagement and most importantly trust in our system. It also forced us to expand the scope for Dala. We had to build even more infrastructure than we anticipated at the start. Companies that we thought were reliable were anything but that.
  • Even with these issues, we were confident about our roadmap and the path to growth. As we built more of the required infrastructure, we could reignite growth and bring users into a more robust system. We just needed another injection of capital.

Dala had little funding and limited resources while tackling a massive global problem

  • We were able to make $1 million go a very, very long way. With over 150,000 Dala wallets and more and more partners wanting to work with us we had a lot on our plate with limited resources.
  • It came time to fundraise again and given our rapid growth I expected to find a number of people wanting to support this initiative. But I was wrong. I began fundraising at the start of crypto winter, which certainly didn’t help. For whatever reason, not many investors wanted to back a crypto company let alone a startup focused on African markets.
  • For eight months I travelled across the globe, pitching investors in blockchain, fintech, impact, African focused, etc. I met and engaged with over 100 investors and despite our early growth numbers, we couldn’t secure the necessary financial support we needed to continue growing and operating.
  • With no funding coming in we had to start cutting back. We turned off deposits, left withdrawals open, and informed users they could no longer put money in the system to ensure no users in Uganda lost money.
  • Then the day came when we finally laid off most of the team and turned off the app entirely. Our team was devastated to say the least and our users were upset. We provided a free financial payments system to consumers that solved a huge problem for them, but we didn’t have the funding to scale operations and solve the infrastructure problems that existed in these markets.

Where are we today?

  • Dala fell short of its mission and vision. While it was short-lived we managed to launch a crypto solution in Uganda and grow faster than most if not any other crypto solution. There is a lot of learning to be had here for the tech and crypto community.
  • For the last six months, my co-founder and I have (without resources) tried to find new capital and/or teams to realise the Dala vision.
  • We are still strong believers in this vision and approach to delivering financial freedom. We will continue working to solve that problem and support others that do as well.

I want to be transparent about this because I believe it is important for people to learn from failure and bring light to the issues in emerging markets.