This interview is part of a series about innovative startups in Village Capital's network that are responding creatively to the challenges raised by COVID-19.
The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) has the highest rate of unbanked people in the world. In Tunisia, 64% of adults are financially excluded or underserved, in part because of the difficulty of reaching a physical bank location.
Kaoun helps people across Tunisia open a bank account using eKYC (electronic Know Your Customer) technology that can be operated on a smartphone. The process authenticates a customer’s national ID card and uses facial recognition to confirm their identity – something that would otherwise have to be done in person at a bank.
We spoke with Business Development Analyst Leila Ruiz to learn more about Kaoun and how it has responded to the coronavirus pandemic.
On the importance of digital identity:
When the team first launched Kaoun a few years ago, we thought that the best way to tackle financial health would be to create a mobile payment application.
However, after taking a step back and looking at the problem from a macro level, we realized that one of the most significant barriers to getting a bank account in the region was physical distance. Bank branches are based largely in urban, coastal centers but even those who are geographically close do not have equal access to banking services. As you can imagine, this exacerbates inequalities in the region.
That insight caused us to expand our vision to include an eKYC service that allows people to open a bank account by proving their digital identity regardless of where they live.
On how Kaoun has adapted during the pandemic:
Last month we were getting ready to launch Flouci, an app that would help users go through the eKYC process and also give them a free eSignature.
When coronavirus hit, we tweaked that strategy. We saw that the eSignature piece is important on its own: anyone signing up for government services or simply filing their taxes, needs to provide a qualified signature electronically and that will be more important in the age of social distancing. So we quickly launched a light, early version of the app that offers free e-signatures.
Meanwhile, we launched a service that allows people to open bank accounts at partner institutions for free, without going in person. This remote service allows the unbanked as well as the underbanked to access financial services while respecting social distancing.
Finally, we’re helping other small businesses in the region adapt. Our remote service can help small businesses who have had to close their physical locations and move their business online – getting them a bank account without any investment in expensive hardware or technology. And we are working to help small businesses access credit remotely through partner banks and microfinance institutions. This can help business owners an opportunity to not only receive an injection of capital but also a chance to boost their credit scores.
On partnership with SBITAR:
In the past few weeks, hospitals in Tunisia have seen their stockpile of medical goods and supplies dwindle quickly. We recently collaborated on the SBITAR platform with Tunisia’s medical student association and other startups in the region. Hospitals submit a list of essential supplies that they need, and everyday Tunisians are encouraged to donate any amount they can, choosing whichever supplies or hospital they wish to contribute to. Our technology secures the backend of the platform making sure that the money is securely transferred to the SBITAR team who takes care of purchasing the supplies and coordinating deliveries. To learn more or support this initiative, you can visit here.