Cashi: building Sudan's fintech OS against all odds
By Nina Saeed
About this op-ed’s author:
Nina Saeed is the founder of alsoug, Sudan’s digital classifieds and marketplace. On top of alsoug, Nina has launched Cashi, one of Sudan’s leading fintech platforms. Cashi today has transformed more than 10,000 merchants across Sudan into mini-banks for their neighborhoods, serving communities across this vast and neglected country.
She has raised over $6M in funding and is a paramount force in her country’s young tech ecosystem.
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The harder the problem, the stronger the moat
A couple of years into alsoug, Sudan’s first digital classifieds and marketplace, we hit a wall. We realized that until we built an adequate payment infrastructure, we would be hindered in both the scaling and monetization of the platform. That’s what we set out to do, with Cashi.
In its simplest of forms, Cashi is a piece of software that turns a small merchant into a mini-bank. These agents are generally small convenience stores who benefit from becoming one of their community’s banking nodes. Cashi merchants (known as Cashi Points) provide their community with a broad range of services including bill payment, local remittances, cash in and cash out from bank cards and mobile wallets, and receipt of humanitarian cash transfers.
Cashi Points can also accept card and wallet payments for the other goods and services they sell. Sometimes, the Cashi software sits on a traditional POS machine, and sometimes it is just an app on a mobile phone. We also recently launched a consumer wallet, MyCashi, to supplement the merchant network and encourage payments interoperability.
As Sudan remains a cash-reliant society, the Cashi Points network serves as a means to bring cash into the formal economy - a rail which serves anyone who wants money collected or moved. We see as our mission the development of a payment infrastructure that ultimately super-charges the banking services offered by mainstream payments players, be they banks, telcos or perhaps in the future, other startups. We want to add our skills to those alongside us. Where we have strength, we want to help make others stronger. Cashi is about platforming and extending access.
We’re building something very similar to what Fawry has in Egypt. They happen to be one of our investors.
Building Cashi is tough, but worth the pain. Until Omar al-Bashir’s toppling in 2019, Sudan had been blocked off from the global tech scene due to a constraining sanctions regime. The result is that the country’s entire digital payments infrastructure lagged far behind neighboring countries like Kenya or Egypt. Sudan truly is one of the last frontiers for digital payments, with a very substantial amount of the population remaining unbanked / cash-dependent, and an extremely nascent tech ecosystem. That introduces many challenges.
While growing alsoug ushered in a classic “chicken-and-egg” marketplace challenge, pushing Cashi’s usage required us to go offline and send teams to convert future merchants “by hand”. Having boots on the ground introduces a new layer of operational complexity, as your teams now deal with the physical reality. In a country undergoing a civil war, the predicaments they face are unsurprisingly daily and numerous.
These operational impediments are complemented by others: local payments players’ initial suspicion of our product, a telecom infrastructure in need of investment, stringent regulation and the difficulty of converting a bank-wary population (hence the prevalence of cash).
Those hardships are exactly what makes our business case so strong. Building the base infrastructure on which others will rely is a tried-and-tested business model. The most telling proxy is telco companies: it’s expensive and lengthy to build, but once a company gets it right, they become hard to displace. Sudan’s telco companies have historically done very well by becoming indispensable to the country’s functioning. We believe that with time, Cashi can get to a similar position by providing an essential service that empowers other businesses.