Benjamin Fernandes was confident he
and his business partner, Sam Castle,
had developed the equivalent of a better
mousetrap — in their case, a simple mobile
device interface that promised to make
digital banking accessible to anyone with
a smartphone, even without internet access.
And he knew just the place that needed
For most of the East African country’s
60 million residents, managing or
transferring money via a digital device
involves using the cumbersome Unstructured
Supplementary Service Data system, which
Fernandes says requires users to type up to
46 digits into their phone to make one peer-to-peer payment. The interface he and Castle
developed can transfer money seven times
faster, he says, usually within 10 seconds,
after a few simple commands.
“We’re a massive country,” says the
26-year-old Fernandes, adding that
70 percent of his fellow Tanzanians are
younger than 24.
“Tanzania’s land mass is two and a half
times the size of California. We’re growing,
and we have this huge, youthful population.
What’s going to happen when the country’s
economy relies on these people to drive it
for ward? How will they fund themselves
and be aware of their finances?”
Fernandes, a one-time national Tanzanian
TV sports broadcaster and Stanford Africa
MBA Fellow, graduated in 2017, then returned
to his home country to build a fintech
Using the $20,000 Frances & Arjay Miller
Award he received during his final year at
the school (given to students trying to build a
more just, sustainable, and prosperous world),
he and Castle committed to intense focus and
austere living in order to create their mobile
app company, NALA. Since releasing the beta
version in April 2018, NALA has attracted
more than 100,000 downloads without
a single launch event.
You’ve quoted a Swahili saying that means,
“If one of us makes it, we all make it. If one
of us celebrates, we all celebrate.” How
does that apply to what you’re doing?
Giving people access to financial services
is fundamental to both NALA’s success and
to their well-being. And if one company like
NALA makes it, it gives people access all
around the country to make these financial
transactions, to understand budgeting tools,
and to make better data-driven decisions —
all creating greater impact in the future.
Returning to Tanzania to develop NALA
was a risky option. Why’d you choose
it? I had never experienced the feeling of
privilege as much as I did at Stanford, and
recognizing that privilege made me feel
responsible. There are 60 million people in
Tanzania, and fe wer than 10,000 of them have
master’s degrees. All of that was given to me,
and I felt responsible to pay it for ward for the
millions in my country who wish they could
be sitting in my seat. One of my teachers,
Tyra Banks, told me, “Benji, being different
is better than better. Remember that.” That
gave me confidence to take the risk. Another
thing happened the summer of 2016 when I
worked at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
in Seattle, where I met Sam. I remember
seeing Bill Gates, this guy who has everything
but who is the most humble, simple man
who cares so much about the world. For him
it wasn’t about the money. That summer
changed everything for me. I realize that as
a Stanford MBA, I could make all the money
I want. But it’s not about the money. Why not
take the risk and try to make an impact on
Any regrets? There are things I miss. One is
being surrounded by a group of really driven
people all the time. My classmates for the two
years were, “Go go go! You can do it! But I’m
going to give you brutal and great feedback to
help you and make sure you succeed!”
I miss that.
Those classmates were critical in the early
stages of this business, right? They helped me
conduct long-distance research with Tanzanian
friends, family, and acquaintances over the
course of multiple school projects. We listened
to their perspectives, then built a framework to
help us understand what else we needed to learn.
About 140 people participated in our interviews
— most times late into the night, because of the
time zone differences. What we learned was key
to building a product that worked for people.
When I moved back to Tanzania in July 2017,
we repeated the same work in person. Over the
course of a few months, we conducted over 670
in-person user interviews and over 11,000 online
surveys. This enabled us to pivot and adapt the
product even before writing our first line of code.
How much money did you raise to launch
NALA, and how did you raise it? The Miller
Award left me with about $14,000 after taxes.
So I called Sam in Seattle, where he lived, and
asked him what was the minimum amount of
money he needed to survive. I decided to live
with my parents in my family’s house. We don’t
pay ourselves salaries; we’re just covering costs.
We ran through that $14,000 by January last
year and had to call a few local friends to lend
me money so we could keep our company alive.
After that, the DFS (Digital Financial Services)
Lab from the Gates Foundation reached out and
made us a portfolio company. They gave us
$50,000, and that kept us alive for a while. Then
we got $150,000 from Y Combinator to be part
of their Winter 2019 batch. We’re more excited
about the value of mentorship YC brings than
the money itself. We’re the first Tanzanian
company to ever get into YC. The signaling this
creates for us in our market and for potential
investors was one of the core reasons why we
decided to do it.
What’s your ultimate goal with NALA? We
want NALA to evolve into being a Pan-African
digital bank. In Africa, there are more than
420 million active mobile money accounts,
with few people using bank accounts. Mobile
money is everything to people on the continent.
In Tanzania, 47% of the GDP is transacted with
mobile money. The opportunity to simplify the
payments process is massive. My ambitious
dream is to be the first African tech company to
go public on the New York Stock Exchange.
to East Africa
Why Tanzania’s Benjamin Fernandes took
his Stanford MBA and went home.
BY MARTIN J. SMITH
Photograph by Drew Kelly