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South Africa startup Wala wins Zambezi Prize for micropayments platform

Legatum Center’s award for innovation in financial inclusion plays a key role in MIT’s push to expand African engagement.
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Samer Saab, founder of Wala, accepts the Zambezi Prize competition’s $100,000 grand prize award.
Samer Saab, founder of Wala, accepts the Zambezi Prize competition’s $100,000 grand prize award.
Photo: Sarah Jane Maxted
Prior to the Zambezi Prize award ceremony, attendees at the Open Mic Africa Summit participated in an MIT-style hackathon.
Prior to the Zambezi Prize award ceremony, attendees at the Open Mic Africa Summit participated in an MIT-style hackathon.
MIT Legatum Center

The Legatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship at MIT, with support from the Mastercard Foundation, has named South African startup Wala as the grand prize winner of the 2018 Zambezi Prize for Innovation in Financial Inclusion, as well as the regional winner of the MIT Inclusive Innovation Challenge (IIC) in the Financial Inclusion category. 

Wala is a mobile financial platform geared toward consumers operating outside the formal financial system. Using a blockchain system, it enables zero-fee, instant, borderless micro-payments for emerging market consumers. Through the Wala platform, users receive a cryptocurrency wallet and can access transactional banking, remittances, loans, and insurance.

Wala was chosen from among 10 finalists, all of whom joined leaders from the MIT and African tech ecosystems for the 2018 MIT Open Mic Africa Summit at Strathmore University in Nairobi in late August. The summit culminated in the award ceremony for the Zambezi Prize and for the IIC Africa, with Wala being honored as the $100,000 grand prize winner.

Other Zambezi Prize winners included Tulaa (Kenya) and RecyclePoints (Nigeria), which each won $30,000 as runners-up. $5,000 was awarded to each of the remaining Zambezi finalists: Apollo Agriculture (Kenya), Bidhaa Sasa (Kenya), FarmDrive (Kenya), Farmerline (Ghana), LanteOTC (South Africa), MaTontine (Senegal), and OZÉ (Ghana).

“Innovators like Wala and the other Zambezi and IIC finalists are vital to driving a more inclusive prosperity,” says Georgina Campbell Flatter, executive director of the MIT Legatum Center. “We’re excited to work with them.”

Megan Mitchell, director of fellowship and student programs for the Legatum Center, says MIT was a big winner too. “By bringing these transformative entrepreneurs into the MIT and Legatum Center universe, we’re giving ourselves more inputs and role models to integrate into our curriculum, student programming, and thought leadership.”

All 10 prize finalists will attend the Zambezi boot camp on the MIT campus during the IIC gala in Boston Nov. 5-9. As the Zambezi Prize winner, Wala will join Lynk, Wefarm, and Solar Freeze, the three other winners of the IIC Africa Prize, to represent Africa at the global tournament, which awards over $1 million in prizes. The IIC event is part of the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy and, along with the MIT Legatum Center’s initiatives, exemplifies MIT’s global commitment to the future of work.

The Mastercard Foundation and several leading organizations attended this year’s Open Mic Africa Summit to engage with the new cohort and other area entrepreneurs. Prior to the prize announcement, event participants took part in cohort-building, panel discussions, a conversation on Kenya’s entrepreneurship ecosystem led by MIT Regional Entrepreneurship Accleration Program Executive Director Sarah Jane Maxted, and an MIT-style hackathon led by MIT Sloan senior lecturer Anjali Sastry and Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship entrepreneur-in-residence Nick Meyer.

The summit also wrapped up the 2018 Open Mic Africa tour, a Pan-African event series designed to invigorate and celebrate entrepreneurial ecosystems across the continent. The Zambezi Prize and the Open Mic Africa tour are pillars of the Legatum Center’s Africa Strategy — a global vision to leverage MIT’s ecosystem to improve lives through principled entrepreneurial leadership. The Legatum Center’s strategy is also a core component of the MIT-Africa initiative, an Institute-wide commitment to coordinate and expand MIT connections with the continent.

Legatum Center Global Programs Manager Ali Diallo emphasized the scale of collaboration necessary to execute initiatives like Open Mic Africa and the Zambezi Prize: “We’re especially grateful to the Zambezi Prize Board, the MIT community, our global ecosystem collaborators, and the 40 African tech leaders who served as Zambezi judges and whose dedication to entrepreneurship and financial inclusion helped us discover this new generation of innovators.”

The Zambezi Prize competition, which awards a total of $200,000 in cash prizes, was established in 2015 to discover Africa’s most innovative early-stage startups that address the continent’s biggest financial inclusion challenges.

The challenges were selected by the Zambezi Board Members in collaboration with the Mastercard Foundation. Board Members include Georgina Campbell Flatter, executive director of the Legatum Center and lecturer at MIT Sloan School of Management; Christian Catalini, an assistant professor at MIT Sloan; Sam Epee-Bounya, managing director at Wellington Management; Xavier Faz, a lead at Digital Finance Frontiers, CGAP; Professor Simon Johnson of MIT Sloan; Jake Kendall, director of DFL Labs at Caribou Digital; and Shari Loessberg, a senior lecturer at MIT Sloan.

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