By Eimear Dodd Journalism MA student, @Irish_TechNews

Interview with Matt Flannery, co-founder of and, Skoll awardee and Ashoka fellow. Founded in 2005, has lent over $1 billion to low income entrepreneurs in 84 countries. In 2015, he co-founded, an Android-based ‘branchless bank’. The interview has been lightly condensed and edited for clarity.

Can you tell us a bit about

In 2005, I started the non-profit, a person to person lending website for low income people. It began in Africa and spread across the emerging markets. A few years ago, I got really interested in mobile payments and how people were transacting with their phones in sub-Saharan Africa. Two years ago, I started a commercial bank called Branch which is essentially a branchless bank. It was kind of a crazy idea to try to use artificial intelligence to lend to people on their phones. An algorithm analyses their phone usage to approximate their income and make loans based on those approximations. We’re working now in Kenya, Tanzania and Nigeria. It’s basically an app on people’s Android phones that they use like a credit card to borrow and repay small amounts frequently for day to day business needs.

What are the opportunities that you see in that space, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa?

I think there’s a huge amount of opportunity because the internet is just reaching the mainstream. A few years ago, people started to access the internet on a frequent basis for the first time through their phone. I think there’s opportunity in social media, e-commerce, every category of the internet.

How have the last 12 months been?

It’s been great. In the last year, we started to really scale. We went from almost no users to about 300,000 borrowers. We’re making 6,000 loans everyday. In the future, we intend to add on savings products and other financial services.


Do you have ambitions to scale and be a full service bank?

Yes. We think within 5-10 years we could be one of the largest banks in Africa. Other banks are pretty bad at online customer acquisition and service but that’s where the people are. As a lending company, you have to have much higher volume to be sustainable but I think we’re on the right track.

You founded a non-profit then set up a for profit bank. Have you noticed any differences in the process?

I had a background in charity for the last 10 years with non-profit fundraising, public speaking and all the things that non-profit leaders need to do to keep their staff motivated and their board engaged. At a for profit, everything is much more measurable and clearer in terms of the objectives. It’s a lot easier to fundraise for venture capital then for donations. However, you always have the looming pressure of investors. In order for their investment to make sense, it has to grow really fast so you’re trading one challenge for another.

What do you think is the value of social entrepreneurship?

Social entrepreneurship is just a word for using entrepreneurial skills for a social cause. I think social entrepreneurs face a lot of challenges because they have to convince investors to invest for a long term impact not just a short term profit. So you face a lot of sceptics when fundraising. One thing I have to do is bridge the gap between Silicon Valley and East Africa. Just to convince typical tech investors that there’s an opportunity in these markets is hard and that now is the right time but I think we’re doing it.

Do you see an opportunity for tech in sub Saharan Africa in the coming years?

I think it’s obvious that there’s a huge demand for many different tech businesses that have worked in places like Ireland for years. We’re starting to see an audience for the simple internet ideas. So if you try, you’ll probably have a lot of success getting users. I think the challenge is macro. Are the economies stable enough? Currency risk, political risk and all that stuff introduces a wild card of total unknown futures. There haven’t been a lot of periods of sustained stability and growth in sub Saharan Africa.

Do you have any advice for anyone starting off as a social entrepreneur?

I think number one is to go work in the field with your customers. If you’re working in farming, be a farmer. If you’re working in micro finance, do banking and get to know the users. Secondly, make sure you like it because it’s going to be hard. There’s a huge failure rate so the fact that you found it worthwhile in the moment is what will carry you through. And lastly, just get started fast because you learn so much by having customers and doing the work. I think a lot of people in college or just finished spend too much time planning. I think the best entrepreneurs find a way to get started fast.

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