In an unlikely marriage, Kotani Pay is using USSD to create access to Web3 for people without the internet. What could be the relationship between technology as old as USSD and the new wave of Web3 solutions?
Tell us a little about Kotani Pay
Kotani Pay is a technology company that enables businesses and people, in general, to convert from digital assets (basically stablecoins) to fiat currency. We have two solutions: one is the API for businesses to integrate directly into our service, and the second one is USSD for users who do not have access to the internet so that they are able to interact with the service as well.
For businesses, we target mostly businesses that want to work with Africans. Those businesses typically have beneficiaries in Africa and need to do currency conversions to either their bank accounts or mobile money wallets. We allow them to make payments to people’s Kotani accounts or bank accounts.
Is Kotani Pay a remittance service provider?
Yes, it is also a remittance service but the juice of the product is that it offers a service for the conversion of digital currency to fiat currency.
When you say “digital currencies,” does this mean cryptocurrency?
Ideally yes, but we deal primarily with stablecoins because of volatility. A stable currency is not exposed to volatility. We work with the USDT, USDC and Celo Dollar, etc.
What made you start Kotani Pay?
In 2017, there were a series of meetups on Blockchain technology and there was an organization called Chamepessa that was about to launch a product here in Kenya helping chamas to improve record keeping. During this period, we met a man that spoke to us about different protocols called EOS. Through that interaction, we started the first EOS community in Africa – EOS Nairobi.
For a long period of time, we were doing sensitization about the technology trying to get developers and developer communities to start building on this technology. At the same time we were also doing some validation work on the EOS protocol.
While we were doing this, we realized that most of the people who could benefit from the technology were locked out because they didn’t have access to the internet or devices that can access the internet. So, we started building Kotani Pay just like an RnD (Research and Development) solution.
We then participated in different Hackathon competitions each time improving the products. We ended up joining the Celo protocol. We participated in a couple of competitions in that space and once the solution was ready, we got partners within the Celo ecosystems and that’s how we have grown till now.
How did Kenyan freelancers start using Kotani Pay to get paid?
I know that the tech-savvy population in Kenya does a lot of gig work on freelance platforms like Fiverr.
In our own case, what we did was pilot a partnership with platforms like Kosali that work on the Celo network.
Kosali is a service that provides machine learning data on a platform called Appen. Freelancers working for Kosali would do stuff like image labeling and compilation, and once they were done, this information would be used to train machine learning models.
Celo was part of the technology enablers for the Kosali solution. Celo’s part was to provide a way for people to receive incentives and earnings through a network that will ensure that the fees are low and the transaction time was much faster than the typical traditional system. These users needed a way to convert Celo dollars to Kenyan Shillings so the solution served them. That was how Kotani Pay was involved.
At what point did you integrate USSD into Kotani Pay service?
This was from the onset of us designing a solution. Aside from the fact that some people are unable to access the internet, another reason for integrating USSD is that most of the mobile devices people have in Africa have limited storage so they probably won’t be able to install additional mobile apps or wallets.
So USSD makes sense because there is no storage space being consumed on your mobile app and no additional computing resource needed to enable USSD to work on your device. For these reasons, USSD was a core part of the solution at the start.
You made a distinction between highly tech-savvy users and non-tech-savvy users. What have you observed from the nontech savvy users of Kotani pay, how do they use your product?
This depends on whether they have access to the internet or not.
Another pilot we have done is our ongoing Universal Basic Income(UBI) support for refugees in Kenya and Ghana. This falls under the category of people who don’t have access to the internet or cannot pay for the cost. These people used USSD on Kotani Pay.
On the other hand, gig workers, who are more tech-savvy use Valora — Celo’s mobile wallet that they use to receive their earnings from companies like Kosali that are in the Celo ecosystem.
Kotani Pay is integrated with Valora such that if you receive earnings on Valora, you can cash out to your mobile money account through Kotani Pay.
Tell us a bit about your work with refugees in Ghana and Kenya
We got introduced to Impact Market by Celo. Our partnership saw us work with them to provide off-ramping (payouts) for refugees in the Kakuma camp in Kenya, and Krisan, Ampain, Egyeikrom, and Fetentaa camps in Ghana.
Impact Market is a decentralised solution that is enabling financial independence for underprivileged people like refugees through initiatives like the Unconditional Basic Income (UBI) where members of these refugee communities get a donation every month.
Because it is a blockchain-based solution, it is digital-heavy. The beneficiary gets the donations in cUSD (celo dollars). However, a number of these beneficiaries were either not digital savvy or didn't own smartphones.
After integrating with Impact Market, we became an alternative for mobile apps as we were reaching beneficiaries with no smartphones or internet connection.
Once funds are disbursed in the form of cUSD (Celo USD) by Impact Market, a UBI beneficiary could simply dial the Kotani Pay code, and from the menu option select claim the daily/weekly UBI and in a few minutes, they receive confirmation that the funds have been sent to their Kotani Pay wallet. They then access the USSD menu again and have the option to choose whether to withdraw to their mobile money account or send it to another KotaniPay user.
What has the traction of USSD users been like? Are many of your users using it or just a few?
A lot of our users are using it. If we think about our integration with Valora, at some point users interact with USSD.
So, I would say all our users are using it. This would be that B2B2C users are using it. We have about 4000 users now; all of which we have gained through different pilots we are doing and on the business side we have worked with about 20 businesses.
The businesses are the ones mostly using the APIs and while the end users use USSD to transfer their money to their mobile money wallet
What is the future for Kotani Pay? What are your future plans?
One of our plans is to go live in six other jurisdictions. Asides from Kenya where we are operating currently, we are just finalizing some things in Ghana, Uganda, and Zambia.
We want to go live in more African jurisdictions to also be able to provide additional services. Right now, you can off-ramp and on-ramp (off-ramp means to sell your stablecoin and get fiat equivalent, while on-ramp means to deposit fiat and get the stablecoin equivalent).
We also intend to leverage cross-border use cases and also explore other use cases like earning interest on your savings depending on the partnership we get.