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Scott Thompson meets Katharine Budd, Co-Founder, NOW Money, a new remittance app for the unbanked population of the UAE

IBS Journal: Tell us about yourself.

Katharine Budd: My background is retail banking analytics, for UK and GCC banks, and my co-founder Ian was an investment banker. We’re old university friends (Exeter, UK), and made the decision to become business partners a couple of years ago after Ian visited me in Dubai, where I had been relocated for work.

Ian and I had both become intrigued by challenger banks in the UK, who provide a solution based around what a 21st century customer actually wants, but with the UK being over-banked already we were behind the curve. Our attention turned to the population of the UAE. We noticed that 70% were low-income migrant workers who don’t earn enough to open a bank account, but 98% own a smartphone, meaning we could build an app-based service for this segment.

These migrant workers live in the UAE and send the majority of their salary home to their families in countries such as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Philippines. They are charged high remittance costs by the current providers, meaning a proportionately high amount doesn’t even reach home.

It got us thinking, how can we ever achieve financial inclusion when the poorest are being exploited? We’ve expanded and are now a team of eight, with six of us working in the Google Tech Incubator, Astrolabs, in Dubai, and the tech team of two back in the UK. We’re all working hard preparing for launch later this year.

IBS Journal: What’s your business model?

KB: We typically work with corporates to provide accounts to their employees, who are currently restricted to basic pre-paid cards. Using NOW Money, salaries can be paid directly into employees’ NOW Money app accounts, where they can manage their finances and remit overseas. As users don’t have to withdraw cash to make remittances, more cash is kept in the financial system. This is a big priority for the UAE as all transactions have a “ledger”, making them secure and trackable. In addition, users can pay bills and top up mobile phones with credit, and still have a card for day-to-day withdrawals and transactions.

IBS Journal: What sets you apart?

KB: Whilst banks and exchange houses are moving their focus further away from low income migrant workers, leaving them unbanked, we are embracing the challenges and opportunities of providing them with financial products. We focus our use of technology to make the customer’s life easier and better.

We are the first financial company to introduce biometric verification, incorporating facial recognition for use of the app. We have also eliminated the need for branch visits to open accounts and our AML and terrorist financing software means that we can immediately spot suspicious behaviour, helping to eliminate financial crime.

IBS Journal: Who or what inspired you to set the company up?

KB: The GCC has a huge demand for technology. For example, Saudi Arabia is the biggest consumer globally of YouTube. The migrant population in the GCC largely consists of people from countries where mobile and payments technology is already sophisticated. Pakistan has had instant payments for the last 15 years. India’s Paytm, a mobile money platform, was their top-funded business last year. When we discovered the majority of this UAE migrant population are essentially unbanked, and knowing how successful branchless banking has proved in the UK, USA and South Asia, we were of course inspired to develop NOW Money for them.

IBS Journal: What has been your smartest move?

KB: Our best move so far has to be moving our office from my front room to Astrolabs, Dubai’s Google Tech Incubator for local startups. It has opened up a world of opportunities and has allowed us to connect with other FinTech companies, sharing experiences, advice and challenges. Every couple of weeks they bring in a mentor for you to speak to, who’s an industry expert, and we’ve received a lot of guidance from that.

It has also given us exposure to investors, corporates and banks, which has brought access to a network which would otherwise have been difficult. We’ve been involved in startup competitions where we’ve competed against other startups for funding, investment and mentorship. It’s a really great support network and I can honestly say it’s been invaluable. I would encourage any other tech startup in the region to get out of their front room and get down there.

IBS Journal: What was your biggest challenge/setback?

KB: We’ve had to blaze our own trail. We’re one of the first FinTech startups in the region, meaning we’ve had to find our own route through all the regulations. The investment landscape has not yet been formed, and because startups are new to the region there isn’t much support and no one to show us the way. There was no path to follow, a lot of the time we didn’t know if we were still enroute. There were a lot of regulatory barriers as lawyers weren’t used to working with startups and didn’t realise that we couldn’t afford to pay expensive up-front fees.

Instead of following the precedent, we’ve had to set it ourselves. Having said that, it has been a huge learning curve and we’re really pleased to have been able to break down the barriers which stood in the way of startups. The Middle East is just beginning to try to embrace startup culture to make it easier for others to follow, which is a positive first step. We’re really happy to have been a part of the process which enables the UAE economy to grow with new businesses, innovations and technologies.

IBS Journal: Where do you want to be in five years?

KB: GCC expansion excites us; there is so much opportunity across the region, especially Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, which we are looking at as a GCC hub. The product may differ a little for each market depending on requirement and appetite, and we are already establishing partnerships in these markets. We have a roadmap for product diversification as well, based on demand from our users.

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by Scott Thompson
Scott is Senior Editor at IBS Intelligence. You can follow him on Twitter and contact him at: Scott.Thompson@ibsintelligence.com
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