How international airtime top up is gaining ground in the African consumer market

Inspired to change people’s lives and touch families, Fintech experts, Uganda’s Lawrence Zikusoka and Nigeria’s Ademola Adebolu have designed an efficient and cost-effective airtime transfer product, International Airtime Top Up™, to enable small value transfers to any mobile phone globally at low cost. In 2014, they founded Global ICT Solutions (GLICTS) East Africa, a fintech company that specialises in creating inclusive ICT and mobile financial services for growth and impact in emerging markets while delivering scalable and sustainable solutions including, the international top up gateway solution (technology) that has the capability to combine both airtime and mobile money transfers across borders at low cost. Lawrence Zikusoka, a technology social entrepreneur is the Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) while Ademola Adebolu is the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) responsible for solution design, user experience and customer support.

“According to a report by World bank 1 in 7 Africans (112 million people) receives remittance from friends and family from abroad and this represents USD 60 billion, yet Africans pay the highest transaction fees in the world.”

GLICTS East Africa is focused on the challenges and growth opportunities for impact in promising emerging markets that connect to people involved in; studying abroad, tourism, business travel, migration, trade and remittance corridors. The company’s flagship product is International Airtime Top Up™ which is East Africa’s largest international top up service offering for traders, tourists, student studying abroad, migrant workers and refugees. International Airtime Top Up™ enables instant airtime transfer services across East Africa to over 100 countries with 80 destination currencies supported. This unique offering currently connects customers to 250+ mobile networks and reaches more than 3 billion prepaid mobile subscribers worldwide. So far, more than 500 regional airtime top up transactions have been successfully processed through this international top up gateway.

According to a report by World Bank, 1 in 7 Africans (112 million people) receives remittance from friends and family from abroad and this represents USD 60 billion yet Africans pay the highest transaction fees in the world. GLICTS East Africa was therefore founded to address the need of enabling people and SME customers in East Africa to instantly transfer small values to any mobile phones across borders at reduced transaction costs. Lawrence Zikusoka’s 15 years global experience in leading program and project management in innovative ICT, Telecom and Financial services across Asia, Africa and Middle East markets played a key role in conceptualising the instant airtime transfers across East Africa and worldwide service.

To raise funds, GLICTS East Africa has since its inception relied on boot strapping; receiving financial contributions from family and friends which amounts to USD 25,000. The founders used part of the funds to develop an international top up gateway that is registered and protected by copyright and neighbouring rights with the Uganda Registration Services Bureau. GLICTS East Africa is also receiving in kind technical assistance from the GrowthAfrica Accelerator Programme in Uganda. Lawrence’s advice to entrepreneurs is, “start with a little money as possible and prove to yourself that your concept works then look at what scale would look like. Once you have the proof of concept there is a possibility to expand your services.”

Customers can access the International Airtime Top Up™ service on the company’s website and with any mobile phone in the world using the unique International Top Up Card developed by GLICTS East Africa. Through the innovative top up card products, they are able to reach the under-served and unbanked segments thus reducing transaction costs on airtime transfer and remittance.

The Global ICT Solutions East Africa team attending the GrowthAfrica Acceleration Programme boot camp in June

GLICTS East Africa has also partnered with MTN Uganda and Airtel Uganda which makes it easier for Ugandan mobile money customers to make cross border airtime top ups by dialing *210*10# to access International Airtime Top Up™ service. In addition, they have recently partnered with Interswitch East Africa and selected banks in Uganda – GT Bank, FINCA, NC Bank, Opportunity Bank, to enable banked customers to select the International Airtime Top Up™ option on the ATM menu to access this service and pay using their ATM bank card. To ensure that the use of this service is wide spread and accessible to all, they partnered with Interswitch 400+ point of sale/merchant locations across Uganda, where one can pay using an ATM card. They attribute word of mouth by their brand ambassadors as the most effective go to market strategy so far. They also leverage their distribution channels by working with their customers who become their agent network and play an invaluable role in sharing inputs on how they can improve their structures.

What makes GLICTS East Africa different is that they are able to address needs for regional airtime top ups which play a role in giving local agents, SMEs and women using ICT in their business increased transactions and revenue stream.  A unique impact story is of one, Klaus who works at a great pizzeria in Lubowa, Uganda. He is able to send mobile top ups to his sister back home in Bujumbura, Burundi from Uganda using International Top Up Card. GLICTS East Africa generates value from relationships with the industry leading payment and transaction processing ecosystems including, distribution channels and global mobile operator partners to enable small value transfers to any phone in the world at low cost. They have signed MOUs and partnership agreements between East Africa’s leading payment network, distribution channels, mobile money networks and more recently with the Growth Africa Accelerator Program.

Klaus, who lives in Uganda is one of the people benefiting from the international airtime top up service which he uses to send money back home in Burundi

GLICTS East Africa faces three main challenges. One, is the lack of funds to hire the right staff. Two, pre-funding their merchant accounts and three, lack of capital investment for marketing the product. They also face the challenge of creating awareness of their product and to overcome this, they partnered recently with Jumia Travel to get access to some low -cost trip ads or targeted PR which is leveraged on Social Media.

The specific industry opportunities that GLICTS East Africa is addressing in regional ICT and mobile financial inclusion services is the facilitation of small value transfers from East Africa to international destinations using their top up card and other local payment options. “There is a growing revenue from international top up” Lawrence stated. “In the context of this ecosystem, there remains challenges of interoperability, affordability and accessibility in cross border remittance and airtime top up”, he added.

In three years time, GLICTS East Africa seeks to build on Key Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) objectives of reducing poverty, creating income generating opportunities for SMEs and empowerment of women for building their capacity to use new technology and inclusive financial services at lower cost and access to new markets. “By matching market segments with key products, we will develop and launch a new Mobile Money Top Up Card, to enable instant mobile money transfers sent from East Africa and West Africa to any recipient’s mobile wallets across borders for improved social economic impact,” Lawrence stated in view of their future aspirations as a company.