Safaricom, Kenya’s largest telecom company and provider of the nation’s mobile money service, M-Pesa, has launched a new innovation center in Nairobi.
Named Safaricom Alpha, a priority of the incubator is to identify spending patterns on mPesa and turn those insights into additional Safaricom products — according to Chief Innovation Officer, Kamal Bhattacharya.
“Safaricom’s unique in that we have telco services and a financial services platform that connect nearly every household in Kenya largely on the basis of trade,” he told TechCrunch at Startup Battlefield Africa.
“We’d actually like to move beyond M-Pesa by leveraging its power as a social network to connect people to other product solutions,” said Bhattacharya.
Safaricom has 73 percent of the Kenya’s mobile subscribers. Its M-Pesa fintech app―which generated $525 million of the telco’s $2 billion annual revenues―boasts 27 million customers across a network of 136,000 agents.
Through in-house development and partnerships, the company has been adding consumer and small business-based products to its mobile and fintech network. These include digital TV, the M-Kopa solar-powered lighting kit, Lipa-Na bill pay service, and Little ride-hail app―now going head to head with Uber Kenya. Safaricom will launch an e-commerce platform in coming months dubbed Masoko.
Noting Safaricom’s current customer driven product view, Bhattacharya hopes the new Alpha innovation center can find ways to “better adapt to our customer needs by taking a timeline view of a customer’s journey from when they join Safaricom to the present to offer commercial solutions for them.”
He sees the Kenyan company in a better position to do this than some of the social networking giants. “Facebook and others have connected people well on a social level, but are still at a fairly nascent stage in digital monetary transactions,” he said. “Safaricom already has an extensive network of people, merchants, and governments all connected through monetary transactions.”
He sees one of the innovation center’s first products “as a messenger solution with full payment integration to better support the kind of social patterns that our customers are already using informally.”
Safaricom’s innovation center will be located in Nairobi’s Kilimani neighborhood, outside the company’s main office.
Some leadership positions have already been named. Former African Development Bank technology lead, Dr. Shikoh Gitua, will be Head of Products Innovation. Safaricom’s Veronica Ogeto-Tchoketch will head the innovation center’s Strategic Partnerships unit and David Nyamai will manage a Business Intelligence and Big Data team.
While still under construction, Safaricom’s innovation center is now operational. The product incubator will eventually connect to a VC function, including Safaricom’s Spark Venture Fund, to support investments and partnerships. “We haven’t formalized those kinds of things yet, but it will happen over time,” said Bhattacharya.