The Diaspora BusinessGifts for your loved ones abroad
When was the last time you tried to send money to your loved ones abroad? Or a gift to your family overseas? While communication has become global and immediate, sending money, goods, and services abroad is still costly and complicated for individuals. A whole range of new apps now offers alternatives. Read More
Imagine you’re living abroad and want to send your nephew a birthday gift – but what your nephew wants most of all is the coloured ball he saw in the shop next door. Perhaps your stubborn mother is ill, but won’t visit a specialist preferring the GP she’s known forever, and you're not around to talk her into it. Maybe you've bought land at home and want to build a house on it, but no one is around to look after it and check to make sure the workmen are all actually doing their jobs.
Millions people in various diasporas and expats around the world face these little challenges on a daily basis. But change is underway: Start-ups in several African countries have developed services to tackle exactly these problems. Whether you’d like to treat your grandma to a piece of cake or pay for the airtime your best buddy needs to call you – just grab your smartphone and download the right app!
Here are some recent examples you should know about:
Instead of sending cash home, you might want to give your family or friends a gift by covering an expense for them. Perhaps you want to give your best buddy the airtime to call you, or pay your family’s electricity bill. Mergims is the service of choice here: The app allows you to buy your loved ones airtime, electricity or water, and pay their bills directly.
The young start-up from Rwanda works with three telecommunications providers, electricity and water suppliers, and even offers ways to pay tuition fees.
Any Android user around the world can access the service by downloading the mobile app. Just choose what you want to buy and whom you want to buy it for, then pay using your PayPal account. Once payment has been received, the recipient of your largesse receives an SMS with a voucher number informing him or her about the gift they’ve received. The service charges a 5% fee, which is significantly less than most money transfer services charge.
So far, more than 800 users from around 21 countries have used the service to support family and friends in Rwanda, founder Louis-Antoine Muhire told us. Louis-Antoine lived abroad for a long time himself. He fled his home country during the Rwandan Civil War in 1994, taking off for Canada, where he experienced first hand how expensive and inconvenient international money transfers can be. A few years ago, he decided to quit his job as a Montreal police department employee, returned to Rwanda and founded Mergims. Mergims has been supported by the kLab IT hub. “Right now, Mergims only offers vouchers valid in Rwanda,” he continues, “but we’re looking for ways to start the service in Kenya, Ghana and perhaps even Nigeria next year.”
So far so good, but what can you do about your stubborn mother who doesn’t want to go see a specialist? In this case, e-tsena could become your new best friend. The Malagasy business allows you to buy vouchers that can be redeemed at specific local businesses. You could buy a voucher for a physician that you have chosen, for instance. Your mum then receives a unique code granting her access to the doctor’s service. And she'll have to stop arguing, because she can't see another physician with the voucher.
“That is actually the central focus of the service. We guarantee that a voucher can only be used in the shop the sender selects and nowhere else,” founder Alvino Heresoa told us. Alvino struggled with these same problems himself when he was living abroad – with his inability to control what the money he sent from Europe to Madagascar was really used for.
Although e-tsena was only launched in January 2016, the start-up is already working with a variety of different shops, such as drug stores, supermarkets, hotels, and furniture or electrical goods stores. The beneficiary receives an SMS with a unique voucher code valid for 45 days. If he doesn’t spend the entire amount, the shop issues a voucher for the remainder.
“We decided to focus on Europe and Madagascar to start,” Alvino explains. “We aim to make the service available in the USA, Canada, Africa and Asia at a later date.” Customers in Europe can pay online by credit card, while customers in Madagascar can use mobile banking. Fees are 5% for international and 3% for local transactions. More than a hundred customers are already registered on the website and the first corporate clients are expressing interest in the service. E-Tsena has been supported by the Habaka Innovation Hub.
Beam from Ghana is the service to choose for more sophisticated projects and tasks. Whether you need someone to supervise the workmen building your new home, want to buy your nephew the birthday present he has his eye on in the shop next door, or need help with errands at Ghanaian government agencies: Simply contact Beam's customer service via WhatsApp and they'll get the ball rolling.
Beam aims to deliver any services and goods inside Ghana. The start-up’s staff can go grocery shopping for your grandma, pick up her medicine at the pharmacy, or arrange for a driver to take her to church. As most Ghanaians abroad are in the US and the UK, the start-up is so far focused on – but not limited to – these three countries.
Once you contact customer service via WhatsApp, they make you an offer. Charges depend on the specific service provided, and you can accept or reject the offer. Then you'll get frequent updates about how your request is progressing via WhatsApp.
“WhatsApp is perfect for ironing out the details of a request and keeping the customer updated on progress made,” founder Falk Benke explains. “Once we went fabric shopping for a customer in the US. We sent her real-time images of the different fabrics, so she could choose just as if she was right there with us.” Beam doesn’t send sensitive information like payment data via WhatsApp though. “For all sensitive data, we use email and external payment providers like PayPal.”
Beam has been supported by the MEST incubator in Accra. The start-up has been around for six months and receives all sorts of requests. The major categories are sending gifts like cakes and hampers to friends and family in Ghana, legal errands like registering a company, and help buying land and checking up on construction projects. Some orders are even surprisingly funny:
“We have received several requests for homemade Waakye from specific street vendors here in Accra to be sent abroad,” Falk tells. “Waakye is a Ghanaians speciality and the favourite dish of many Ghanaians. You can buy it in some places abroad, but people keep telling us that the taste is not the same. Unfortunately, you are not allowed to ship prepared food to the US, so we haven’t found a good solution for this yet.”