PATRICK NELLE, BIRD STORY AGENCY
IT is late afternoon in Active Spaces, an innovation hub for techies and tech communities in Douala, Cameroon and a cheerful young man has been presenting to an attentive audience for a couple of hours. Money is the topic of discussion, and it seems that regarding this subject, the speaker’s inspiration – and the audience’s appetite – is endless.
The speaker’s name is Akwo Junior and in 2020, he, together with friend Takor William, founded the Nkwa app, a mobile application that enhances financial literacy and encourages a savings culture, especially among the youth.
“There is a huge lack of financial education. Very few of us have access to any formal financial education,” Akwo explained after the presentation.
“What is missing is the right way of doing things, knowing that, for example, if you have a monthly income, you should set maybe 50 percent of that income to take care of your needs, 30 percent to take care of your wants, and you should save at least 20 percent of your monthly income.”
Akwo was born and bred in Buea, the capital city of Cameroon’s Southwest Province. Though he was raised in a middle-class family, he recalls the disturbing experience of being frequently ejected from classes due to unpaid school fees.
He did not understand why each time he was forced out of class, his parents would immediately settle the pending fees, and he would return to class.
It was only years later, when he saw a young cousin break open a wooden piggy bank, that he had a “eureka” moment. It occurred to him that it was important and empowering to save whatever you earn, for a rainy day. Putting money aside ahead of time, by creating a savings account – the equivalent of the piggy bank – would have prevented the regular embarrassment and disruption of being ejected from class.
“I was so stunned that I challenged myself that I should have a wooden bank, too,” he recalled with amusement.
Later, he noticed that saving money was something many young people wanted to do but did not how and where to do it.
For him, this was an opportunity to come up with a solution; to develop a digital platform for the youth to help them save and invest their money.
A graduate in Microbiology and Parasitology, Akwo had always been fascinated with technology and how it could help people, especially the youth.He had also embraced an old adage: where there’s a will, there’s a way.
He had tried once before, however. He had founded a small company to digitalise health services, but it failed to take off.
This time, he decided, he needed a partner. His friend Takor William had the right skill set to ensure the app had popular appeal.
Takor was seduced by the idea’s potential to provide value to a wide audience and didn’t hesitate to partner with Akwo.
“We felt that if we could make this app accessible to other people, it could be providing some value; and that’s how Nkwa was launched,” said Akwo.
Nkwa’s co-founder, as a marketing and advertising professional, brought key skills to the enterprise.
“Akwo shared with me his vision to create an application that would help young people to save funds; I came in with the product design, the branding, the communication”, Takor explained.
“Nkwa” is a local Cameroonian pidgin language word that means bag or purse. The duo chose the name because they wanted something that sounded specifically Cameroonian, a name that would speak to every Cameroonian.
According to the two founders, their journey is all about spreading financial education and teaching people to be disciplined in managing their money. The app not only offers advice and a system that helps subscribers with the discipline to save money, it also works as their “piggy bank”. It requires an active e-mail address and a money mobile phone number to subscribe to the platform. The user sets a saving target and a term, and he can withdraw money only when he reaches his target.
The start-up doesn’t use or invest customers’ savings but stores them in mobile money business accounts provided by partner telecommunication companies until it is time to pay them back to customers. The business is regulated by Cameroonian financial sector regulations and while it may not operate officially as a bank, savers are “rewarded” for being disciplined and are offered a savings “bonus” of up to 4.5 percent.
When subscribers are unable to deliver on their value proposition, they get a refund on the savings made up to that point.
While the fintech sector is growing fast in Cameroon, Nkwa remains the only start-up of its kind. Subscribers – as with today’s audience – are mainly young men in their twenties.
Sango Edi is a young artist living in Douala who runs a music recording studio. He subscribed to the platform almost two years ago. Since then, he says, the app has been a common feature in his daily life.
“My cousin introduced me to the app, and now this is a place where I save my money and be mobile with it; still, my money is in my pocket basically,” Sango said.
Since first using the app, Sango is now on his third project – successes he ascribes to the discipline instilled by the app.
“I have really improved my financial management,” he said.
Building trust among their clients has been paramount for the young entrepreneurs to build on their initial user base.
” Anything about money, especially in Cameroon, is very sensitive. So you have to gain the trust of young people, to make them understand that it is not just about you, it’s more about them,” Takor explained.
“This has propelled us to where we are right now,” he added.
Nkwa, which is housed at Active Spaces in Douala – the incubator has another site in Buea – boasts about 4,500 users, mainly in Buea and Douala but increasingly from other towns and cities across Cameroon. The founders are looking to grow that base significantly, both across the country and beyond.
“This is only the beginning and the best is yet to come,” said Akwo.