How Cellulant is changing the digital market in Africa

Simply put, Cellulent is a telecom company that is trying to make online and mobile payments more accessible to farmers in Africa.

The reason for this? According to the head of technology operations at the firm, George Murage, traditional payment methods in the continent mean that farmers don’t always get their fair share of the cut. But by bringing in more secure online payment methods, there is less chance of money disappearing with each hand it passes. Murage spoke about how he is making this happen and what emerging tech means for his organisation.

An introduction to the firm

Meeting in a busy corner at this year’s New Relic’s FutureStack London conference, George Murage comes across as happy and eager to talk about his current project. The first thing Murage speaks of is that his job involves taking care of services in production and overseeing the DevOps infrastructure teams’ service management and security as well as ultimately, being responsible for technology operations.

He explains that the firm now has over 11 markets across Africa where they offer services across 24 markets. He tells of how the company began 15 years ago, selling mobiles to subscribers. But they soon realised that they were not getting payment from bigger network providers and so made a ‘payment wallet’ that opened up scope for them to create a ‘payment space’ which provided options.  “Regardless of what your store value is, whether it’s a bank account, whether it’s mobile money, whether it’s a card for bills that need to be paid…The digital platform has changed as we move from markets in Africa.”

“One of the things we’ve done in Nigeria is to use that platform for disbursement of subsidies to farmers, because historically, this way of collecting cash has been problematic, only about 10% actually gets to the farmers and the agricultural sector and this particular use case was collapsing, because farmers didn’t have inputs. So, when we provided a digital platform where our farmers could sign up, we knew those farmers would get the money.” Murage continued.

A successful project

The programme that Murage created was very successful and he claims the project managed to pass on about a billion dollars’ worth of value to 17 million+ farmers. On the back of this, Cellulant built an agricultural marketplace that benefits the farmers further by allowing them to buy and sell products as well as getting the pay for it too. The head of technology also spoke of the tech developments he is hoping to add to the platform after the project’s success. “Recently we evolved that platform to start using blockchain-based smart contracts so that there is end visibility for all the actors in the ecosystem. And that trust has just enabled us to create the marketplace we are now at. Large food producers are able to put an order in for produce and the farmers are able to respond”

This amazing project has encouraged the firm to keep on thinking outside the box and in speaking to Murage, it is clear that is has a positivity and passion in what he does. He continues to talk about the impact that moving towards a more digital way of living will have on Africa as a content.  “[This way of working can] provide a digital marketplace where sellers can meet buyers because now they have a ubiquitous way of being able to pay. That’s what we want to solve on the African continent. We have 140 million customers addressable, but actually the real market is about 700 million customers on way to succeed and it has given us the impetus that we are on the right track. … We are concerned about social impact. But when the value chain is cash-based there’s a lot of risks. There’s a lot of costs.”

Cellulant and DevOps

When Asked about how DevOps has benefitted his firm, he says: “For us, DevOps is all about the fact that we really wanted to go quicker. In terms of what you’re presenting to our customers in terms of product releases. And because of the fragmented nature of our markets, different regulations, different currencies. The ability to experiment weekly is very critical because what might work in Malawi might not work in Zambia. So, we use it to allow us to experiment quickly or fail fast so that we validate the ideas we have.”

Continuing on the technical side of his work, Musaf also talks about what he did to reduce migration costs whilst also improving application products. “One of the things we realised we needed was to re-architect our platform. Because we have grown by prioritising speed over anything else, I developed a lot of technical debt. So, when we began to use [a specific specialist firm] as our mobility platform, we began to see that we had the software that was running on hardware that was oversized. We realised we needed to shrink it. Sometimes we couldn’t figure out what’s wrong so we thought, “let’s just give the software more resources”. But that meant more costs. But now we’re able to pinpoint where the problem actually is….We also wanted to make sure that it meets very specific goals in terms of scalability. As our payments are periodic, we have times the first week and the last week of the month where we have a lot of payments. So, because of that, the ability to scale is very critical. And then we are not the only option for payments. There are others. So being able to fulfill that request very quickly is very critical because Africa is generally a prepaid market.”

Not just about the tech

He continues by giving the advice: “It’s not so much about the technology. It’s about changing the way people think, it’s giving people understanding but also a simple use case for your application to go mass scale. Because if it doesn’t scale and you get a lot of traffic, it’s going to collapse. So, we’ve spent time talking to our development teams and showing them in practical ways that we need to change from this produce. We are not there yet, in terms of cultural change. But we are considering a migration to the cloud migration journey to a new platform as a change management challenge that we need to do. We need to examine it because it’s about getting people to do their work differently.”

He finishes by talking about his aims to work towards a cashless society and what this will mean for people.

“It’s so much easier to do business. It’s so much less risk. And you can add so many more players, simply because you’re mediating the digital payments. Our vision is to have cashless systems and digital marketplaces in Africa…. It’s slow, I think that one of the challenges we have is fundamental regulation.  What you can do in one market you’re not allowed in another. Then in some markets, it’s easier to go fully digital with an app because the cost of data is reasonable, whilst in others, it’s prohibitive, so you have to use shortcuts. These experiences are not great and not what is available to everybody. But we are very optimistic that this is a huge opportunity for us, and an opportunity we want to grab with both hands”


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