A banker’s love for digitizing merry-go-rounds

BY VICTOR ADAR

The concept of merry-go-round is a massive success story in Kenya. The only challenge, though, is that the informal nature in which they operate make it difficult for policy makers to evaluate exactly how valuable they are. 

They are, and have always been valuable savings vehicles. Our grandparents, and even parents had them, we have them and the younger Kenyans already have them. They help strengthen the social fabric by giving those who in some case would otherwise be strangers, a reason to become close and form deep friendships. 

They are vehicles for mentorship in society too. Whenever younger Kenyans are in merry-go-rounds with older members, they find mentors outside their parents on much about life. Daughters get advice from their mothers’ friends, young men get advised about investment by older men, and so on and so forth. Different chamas do different things. Some offer loans and investment options, some don’t. 

Not much is known about financial assets and value controlled by merry-go-rounds in Kenya but people familiar with how they work say it a high value venture. That is why in this generation of hi-tech gadgets and social networking, investors ought to come up with solutions that will drive change. Keeping good quality records is one of those. At some level, it can be very messy to keep track of names, amounts and even purpose of contributions by members.  

Michael Karanja who is a banker with stints in two tier one banks, Equity Bank and Diamond Trust Bank, and holds an ACCA (the UK equivalent of a CPA) certification and a Bachelor’s degree in Commerce, Finance, from the University of Nairobi, tried to search for a solution online, but couldn’t find one. It was not easy to note down transactions manually, and the idea of automation made sense. That was way back in 2013. 

As the quest to find a long lasting solution to proper record keeping for their own merry go round deepened, Mr Karanja exploited programming knowledge that he taught himself while at university. He started to slowly but surely build an innovative product that his family chama could endorse and use without much ado. By 2016, the merry go round app, named Tekeleza, was up and running and is now open to all groups. 

“Tekeleza was started from a personal need,” he says. “We have a family chama, my siblings and I, and every month we contribute money into a bank account that we then do joint investments, and welfare from. So when we were starting out, I found it cumbersome to keep the records on a spreadsheet and neatly connect every transaction to the financial statement.”

The purpose was to rewrite the rules by building up a good product that is able to aggregate data. This was based on the premise that today’s customers are intelligent and will recognize genuine value when they see it. Again, bank statements are generally incomplete to chama members so much that “you still need to break it down”, says Karanja.

Through the product, which currently enjoys a 4.8 star rating on Playstore, one can take less than 10 seconds to record an average transaction. At the same time, member statements can be emailed, members reminded about meetings via SMS, about their contributions, among other things. 

“It massively simplifies records keeping… The records are saved for posterity. You don’t have to worry about forgetting the record book at home when going for meetings. Tekeleza keeps the record for you. Chama members can keep the records during the meetings from their mobile phones and everyone else gets realtime access to the financial records of the group,” says Karanja. 

About a year ago business was not booming. A small number of, say, five groups would come through in a month. Today, an average of 300 groups sign up and the numbers keep growing. Those who want to use advance packages pay Sh30 bob per month. And one can access the product through the firm’s app (Tekeleza: Chama record keeping app) or website (tekeleza.com). 

Initially, subscription cost for a full year was Sh50 but the amount was revised downwards after it became clear that most groups are frugal. He says; “We talk to customers constantly, get feedback… We have a free tier and also a paid tier known as Tekeleza Gold. Payments are done via mpesa.” 

But talking to customers can be challenging. Customers sometimes tell you one thing then do something completely different. It is also a skill you develop over time to identify that the customer’s actions are different from what they are saying, internalize and understand why their is dissonance between their words and action, distil the essence of the real feedback and action it. 

Another foundation is service. “We believe that as humans, we were put on this world to serve others. If someone can take the work of hands and use it to make their lives better or easier, for us, that is of paramount importance. You can tell that we care in how we build the product,” he says.

Tekeleza means, “to implement” or “realise”. It is at the back of this that the name Tekeleza was picked – it perfectly sums up the company’s mission of helping merry-go-rounds accomplish their goals and realise their full potential. Having a name like that sounds okay, a reminder that it is not about “us” but about the customers. 

From design of the digital product, which involves how things are laid out on the app, to the pricing, everything is a product of hundreds of iterations to get the best possible experience for users. 

“We financed it through some of my savings and final dues from my time in employment and an investment from my family’s chama. My family has been very supportive and really were the initial guinea pigs for Tekeleza. Families need to support each other,” he says. 

A time when business environment is tough, the future of trade for a new entrant like Tekeleza looks bleak. In spite of that, from where Karanja sits, what will speed up entrepreneurship growth is easing start up capital, which is a big challenge. 

“Being an entrepreneur is very challenging but also very fulfilling. It takes a long time to build a good product so you have to be patient and try to genuinely create value. We are here to serve our customers and not the other way around, and there are opportunities for partnership… if government was to properly support a business like ours, we would be a great source of information for policy makers. So government will also have better view of operations of chamas,” he says.  

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