Sparkle, a digital ecosystem that offers financial, business, and lifestyle support services to retailers and small businesses launched early June after securing a banking license from the Central Bank of Nigeria.
The new service offers comprehensive support for individuals, including flexible payments, savings, and analytics to provide greater freedom, flexibility, and control over finances and lifestyle. It operates via a mobile app – available for iOS and Android users – that gives customers full and free access to one account offering multiple services and different wallets. By democratizing access to valuable solutions for both business and personal needs, the goal is to “empower Nigerians to fulfill their potential.”
“Sparkle is redefining Nigerian commerce by merging financial services with a seamless lifestyle solution,” said Founder Uzoma Dozie, former Diamond Bank chief executive before the merger with Access Bank. “We are removing barriers using technology and data, and driving inclusion at scale.”
Ventures Africa talks to Dozie about the vision behind his new venture, the mode of operation and the place of digital technology in the broader financial services industry.
Ventures Africa: Tell us about how you came up with the idea for Sparkle and the problem you’re aiming to solve?
Uzoma Dozie: The idea for Sparkle was developed through my 25+ years’ experience in Africa’s retail and banking sector when I noticed some of the limitations that large scale banks had regarding retail, SME banking, and financial services, as well as building products for individuals.
Sparkle initially was supposed to be the pure digital solution for the, then Diamond Bank. We had made great inroads in using mobile to reach the underbanked, enhance the experience for the underbanked and underserved and enable small businesses to do things, and run their business mobile. However, for us to really leverage mobile technology and digital to do much more from a transformative and impact perspective, at scale in the areas of opportunity, especially small businesses, we need to build a new platform from the ground up, using first principles and building it around the customer. For individuals, a simpler, more transparent way to connect your finances to the way you live, for small businesses, providing business services in an integrated platform, that reduces your cost of business, increases efficiency, and provides information and insights to connect better with your customers and market.
VA: Could you share your experience in the research and planning stage leading to the launch of Sparkle?
UD: We asked ourselves, and potential users: What do you want to do today? And we built around that. A lot of thought and research went into the creation of the Sparkle app. We spent a fair amount of time thinking about what business owners require to run on a daily basis, i.e. finances and admin, in order to keep their companies and day-to-day lives running smoothly and efficiently.
Our research showed that they needed easy, simple, reliable access to business tools such as digital inventory support, calculating and paying tax, paying bills, access to a current account, a selection of payment options [send and receive] as well as access to credit. Sparkle is working to provide all of this and more via one platform.
VA: I understand that Sparkle offers financial, lifestyle, and business support services, how do you intend to meet the obviously distinct and many needs of users?
UD: We will do this through partnerships with already established brands. We want to make sure that we build trust with our users through transparency and also a collaboration with global industry leaders in relevant industries. Sparkle is currently working with partners such as VISA, PWC, and Microsoft in order to strengthen core areas of our platform, as they will provide industry expertise in APIs, cloud computing, data science, machine learning, tax, and financial advisory services, for the benefit of our customers. Sharing and collaboration are at the very core of our overall strategy.
Sparkle will continue to co-create and build more services that meet the needs of our very valuable customers. All of the decisions Sparkle makes are powered by data – not human bias, and this is really going to be beneficial to our users because it means they can get the most from the app; they get what they deserve. The data we will have collected will allow our customers [in the near future] to have access to credit which will help them to invest in and build their businesses. We will also be launching a Visa card and virtual card in the next few weeks with features and functionality to facilitate e-commerce for Nigerians.
VA: With the relatively low adoption of tech in this part of the world, how will you communicate the many benefits of Sparkle to Nigerians in the hope of boosting acceptance?
UD: Apart from direct and digital marketing, word of mouth is still a very powerful communication tool in this part of the world. We are counting on the early adopters of our app to have a great experience, which they can pass on to their peers.
Sparkle will use the infrastructure available (mobile phones) to ensure Nigerians have better access to financial products. We will not drive financial inclusion through a physical banking infrastructure – it’s too costly and logistically impossible. The future of financial services in Nigeria is the cloud.
VA: How do you see the online banking and fintech space evolving over time? Do you think the COVID-19 pandemic will play an important role particularly in Nigeria?
UD: Our economy can never really truly operate to its full potential without financial inclusion. Nigeria is a nation of the underbanked, and that’s what platforms like Sparkle, and other fintech counterparts, alongside the banks and regulators, need to come together to tackle. With support and investments, fintech in Nigeria can be instrumental in bridging identity management and financial inclusion gaps.
COVID-19 has reinforced the importance of technology in various sectors. Africa is filled with untapped potential and we can use technology to accelerate the impending growth. Businesses that have been able to adapt quickly are far more able to survive during this pandemic due to their [swift] adoption of digital. Businesses should invest in digital not only because of but also in spite of COVID-19. They need to be able to reach their customers from wherever they are – they can’t afford to be tied to a desk. Digital infrastructure allows companies to be agile, it also allows them – at this moment in time especially – to be resilient.