The 1% Frontier: Tackling Africa’s Payment Puzzle – Unbuilt and Undeterred

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What is one percent built? Benjamin Fernandes likes to quip that “payment in Africa is one percent built” It made me wonder, is that actually true? And perhaps more importantly, what else is one percent built or even below one built and can start being built today? How did Benjamin come up to that number? And what metrics did he use? It is not as if it is obvious, but living abroad, I can attest that it is very hard to move money around the world, especially in Africa.

Starting in 2009 in the UK and while I was in high school in South Africa in 2024, I found that moving money was difficult. I remember sending money from my “M-Pesa” in Tanzania to a South African account. I ran an experiment and sent a minimum amount to see how long it would take. Well, let us say that money went into the ether! I never received the money on the other end and could not even spend all the time tracking it.

Anyway, physically or in a software world, many things in Africa are marginally built or nonexistent. It is always a complex venture to consider which one will be easier, physical or bits, and how one builds it. Financial highways are an obvious area for Benjamin because, first, the demand is obvious, and the building blocks are already there – the biggest challenge is more of a George Stigler issue of regulatory capture of incumbents rather than skills and capital in the financial sector.

Second, of course, we all have heard political rent-seeking behaviour constraints are a major challenge African builders face. You must understand that many young people do not try to solve interesting problems because they lack ambition or intellectual ability.

Also, read East Africa, Big Money, and the False Promise of “Free” Markets.

The Youth and the One Percent Blocks

Nevertheless, there is an elephant in every room a youth walks in, and some old man or lady is tasked with guarding the door. Some will want some greasing the wheel, some ask for 30 percent equity in your business, and others, bitter/ sour, will outright block your dreams. Ever heard the saying, ‘As long as I’m here, your idea will never see the light of the day?’ Ask dreamers; they have many tales to tell!

Anyway, do not get disappointed. Keep looking for the areas that are 1 percent built, and do your little part. Remember, as Brewster says, “Our highest responsibility might be to unsettle the status quo rather than preserve it”. Or, as the common saying goes, “A Little Bit of Something is Better than Nothing.”

Why Do We Build?

It’s worth asking: what were and are the drivers of what gets built anyway? Why was that road built? Or was that thing created? Most things are built to solve the builder’s pain point, while others are built to measure ambitions. Now, remember ambition is a function of technology. What is built also reflects the type of technologies that society is endowed with. If you live in a city with little to no technology, your aspiration will emulate the technologies surrounding you at most (Though there are exceptions!).

How things come into existence, say galaxies—in Astronomy 101, one learns that astronomy is a time machine, which gives us visualization of the past. Looking back at cosmic history helps us understand how these galaxies used to look and what their composition was.

The lessons are that earlier baby galaxies formed via a conglomeration of the earliest atoms, and those earliest gas clouds produced the earliest stars. These were very simple, composed of mostly hydrogen and nothing else. The constellation of stars are little factories which, as they shine, create heavier elements in their core through the fusion process.

When these stars run out of fuel in their core, they often disperse the material they have created into the interstellar, and it gets caught up in the next generation of stars (recombination or laws of thermodynamics at play, of course).

This means that these galaxies full of stars coming and going are maturing over time, and their sizes are measurable. Even the sun, a very important star for our survival, is not a first-generation star; it took light years of formation for it to come into existence.

So all that is into existence is the result of the progression of the universe from a bust of energy and transition of energy into matter to form gravitationally bound stars such as Earth and the like. Truly, there are stages in the cosmic world where only 1 percent formation has occurred and will require either time or technological change to accelerate its maturation. The same can be found on our planet.

Progressing to the One Percent

The various technologies we enjoy have a progression path, which is not accidental but intentional, to make it happen, as Benji Fernandes is doing with his time in NALA for the Africa market. His audacity and effort should arouse a sense of awe, curiosity, and wonder from all of us. First, it validates us that just as stars emanate from microscopic fusion reactions in the galaxies, we can build great products that transcend our village geography.

Just as we know that there are hundreds of galaxies in the observable universe and even potentially more at yet unreached ends of the cosmos, it is also true that there could be infinitely many technologies that can be brought to light besides those that have recently come to light.

For example, what does it mean to be above average in finance? Imagine that you have trained yourself to be competent in this area to a degree of, say, above one percent of the world’s population! How long will it take, and what attitude will it require?

The formation of stars and galaxies should fertilize our curiosity to learn more about how great things come into existence and what we can do to aid them, even if it is at the margins. Not thinking and trying to pursue the ultimate scope of our abilities or the possible frontiers of knowledge and making actual tangible product(s) out of it is a fundamental abdication of responsibility handed to us by our forefathers.

Though minor in many things in Africa, our great-grandparents’, grandparents’, and parents’ achievements are a testament to new possibilities. Steve Jobs famously said most of what you see is built by men and women who are not necessarily smarter than you are.

Bias for actions trumps genius – every day and always.

Psalm 8:3–9

Ezekiel Lengaram is a Researcher in Economics at Wits University. My teaching and research focus are on the theory of Macroeconomics, Computational Economics and Applied Computational Mathematics

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