In one suburb of Dakar, Senegal’s capital, every week, one person lands a sum of money that is tantamount to a jackpot.
There’s no gambling involved, however, the windfall comes from a savings system that has been popular in Africa for hundreds of years.
Peer-to-peer savings circle are common on the continent, from Mali and Senegal where there are also known as ‘tontines,’ to Nigeria where it is called ‘Ajo,’ ‘Esusu’ or ‘Adaji’ depending on the local dialect.
Each one has its own variations but the general way it works is that subscribers contribute a fixed sum to a common pot and take turns collecting the money after an agreed period.
Some work on a weekly or monthly basis and the cycle continues until every member has taken from the pot.
In Nigeria, as in Senegal, it is often used to fund businesses or large-scale projects while in Ethiopia, the ‘Idir’ serves as a form of insurance against special emergencies.
Technology meets tradition
While it is usually prevalent among female traders, many Africans take part in tontines schemes.
They are a practical alternative in a region where more than half of the adult population does not use a formal monetary system.
Now a new start-up, MaTontine, is trying to take the savings circle into the digital age, using mobile technology in Senegal.
“The value of tontines in Senegal we estimate to be about $200 million per year,” says Bernie Akporiaye, co-founder of MaTontine.
“The problem is that money is not leveraged to provide significant services or value-added services that will get them out of poverty,”
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The practice is highly successful because it is a great way for “poor people to save money,” he tells CNN.
MaTontine has created a system where technology meets tradition - paving the way for formal banking solutions.
Mobile phones and mobile money replace the pots and designated members who collect the contributions.
“What we have done is we have automated the whole process and able to deliver a range of financial services, whether it is small loans, whether they are micro-insurance products,” Akporiaye says.
Months after he launched, the platform has around a thousand members.
One of them is Dieynaba Ly, who runs a small clothing store in Dakar and is using MaTontine’s loans to grow her business.
“Usually, when you go to any other banks, in order to be financed, they ask you to put down some collateral, which is not easy to get a hold of,”
“But MaTontine doesn’t ask you for any of this,” she says.
Yet, for all the innovations, Akporiaye says the social cohesion that old tontines offer has restrained his company from starting new ones.
“Instead we look for existing tontines and then we automate these tontines. Our innovation is to put together a credit scoring methodology so we can put credit scores or we can assign credit scores to the members and to the groups.”
MaTontine is hoping that it can count on this to bring digitized financial solutions across Africa.
“We have one big hairy goal. We want to provide financial services to a million women in five years,” he says.