Montserratian tech entrepreneurs are working on a solution for the region’s payment challenges.
Serra, a mobile payments application, is being developed by Manish Valechha, David Silcott, Sheldon Tuitt of Montserrat and Charles Oduya of Kenya.
Valechha is co-founder of local tech firm Rovika, which has developed other successful web and mobile solutions being used in the public and private sector on island and abroad. Silcott, holds a BSc in Computer Science, a Masters in Computer Networks and gained his experience in financial technology working for a series of companies in the UK around credit checking, peer to peer company, and block chain. Tuitt is a software developer and Oduya is also a coder focused on quality assurance and business startup.
Four years ago, the group began discussing the possibility of working on a mobile payment solution but kept putting it off Silcott told Discover Montserrat. In 2018 they began working on it and built it from scratch. “We have been thinking of ways to contribute to country. Tech is one way you can do that and it does not always require a lot of startup capital,” he said.
While the application is still going through the paces to be approved by the local financial services commission and other regulatory bodies, the founders envision that it will help to modernise and provide secure mobile payment options for the underbanked and unbanked.
Serra is Arawak for barter or exchange. In Portuguese it means mountain rage, and Valechha says their vision is to be “at the peak of their game”. The word Serra is also part of Montserrat and the team felt the name epitomises their goals for the company, which has been incorporated on island.
Valechha along with the core team, they have the support and mentorship of a group of advisors who are experts in finance, anti-money laundering, risk management, and compliance among others. It is important, he said, that as Serra is developed they continue to do their due diligence behind the scenes.
The developers said the mobile payment solution was developed to address the challenges of financial institutions in the region, who are not innovating quickly enough and still require a lot of red tape to access funding.
They acknowledge that payment platforms such as PayPal and Stripe, are already on the market which could make life easier but they can’t be leveraged on island and in the wider Caribbean. “We hope to solve these issues for the region,” Valechha added.
David Silcott, who got his introduction to tech working as a volunteer at the Montserrat Volcano Observatory said the same thing happened in the UK before the rise of fintech. “When governments allowed challenger banks and fintechs into the market, it brought innovation which eventually the traditional banks came in line with.
“Ultimately we want to offer options to the end users. We want the underbanked and unbanked to have a fair chance to have financial services they need and create opportunities for the every day person.”
The team recognises that the challenges of financial institutions and correspondent banking is due to KYC – know your customer issues. Not having transparent ways to gather data and show the source of funds continues to make the region a high risk environment for money laundering and other negative transactions. To mitigate this, the Serra group from the onset have taken compliance into the processing and design of the application.
“It is a balancing act and we put a lot of effort into the design. We want to make sure we ask for the right amount of information at the right time without putting people off the app,” explained Silcott.
How Serra Works
Montserrat as many Caribbean islands is still primarily a cash-based society. “We’re missing out on the trillion dollar online market,” Valechha said. And with a 139% mobile penetration rate for Montserrat like the rest of the region, it means that every resident has a tool in their hand to make payment transactions at the press of a button.
For someone sending or purchasing goods or services in Antigua, they either need to pay huge charges to send money or get up early to find someone leaving on the ferry to take the money over. With Serra, a business can generate a QR Code which they can share via WhatsApp or online which contains all of the information about the service, and how much is to be paid. Simply scanning the code using your mobile phone inputs the amounts and a payment made by clicking send.
The plan is for Serra to cut down the need for consumers to walk into a bank or other money transfer centres to make payments and send money. It will also be an option for those who do not have a credit card. The built in basic money management tool will allow the buyer to see how they are spending their money, be it on entertainment, education, utilities, etc.
“It is not convenient for the average person selling coconuts or putting on a small event to use credit cards machines because of all the additional charges. Vendors with a small markup can’t use the cards as it takes all of their profits,” Valechha said.
The team has developed the Serra software inhouse and will have no brick and mortar locations to minimise the need for licenses and fees. It will also have all of the security measures built in such as biometrics and passcodes to access.
With live transactions, the buyer and receiver can know immediately that money has been received.
Initially, Serra will work as a mobile payment wallet on island. It can be topped up at authorised agents on island. The group hopes that customers will see the potential for using it to raise funds, sell tickets for events without the usual leg work.
“We want to leverage as many local systems as possible that people are already used to. We will continue to educate the public and ensure that Serra is compliant with local regulations,” Silcott said. He added that current laws are geared towards brick and mortar financial institutions and so they are aware that work must be done to improve this. He hopes, that establishing the company and adding the requisite legislation will set the island up to develop a framework for launching future projects in fintech and other technology ventures.
Valechha added that while the local fintech laws are currently nonexistent, their aim is to ensure that Serra adheres to the higher standards and regulations available in more modern and mature markets. “When local laws catch up, we will be in compliance.”
Serra is to have its beta launch by St. Patrick’s Festival in March 2020. There is an early access list to provide a few customers with the first chance to test it.
“This can change Montserrat’s economic landscape and the wider region,” Silcott said.
To get on the early access list click here https://bit.ly/2DaJgjw