Yo Uganda: Meet the company that survived and used mobile disruption to its advantage

Incorporated in 2006, Yo Uganda is among the first Mobile Value added service providers in Uganda. The medium-sized company has churned out some of the most innovative products in the industry since its inception delivering solutions for profit and nonprofit entities.

However, since 2006, much has changed that warranted a visit to their head offices located in Impala House,13 Kimathi Avenue where I spoke to Gerald Begumisa, the Managing Director. I wanted to know from the company that’s been in business for 8 years now the products that have kept it afloat, how its coping with new technologies and the future of Mobile Value addition in general.

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Traditional Value-Added Services

Yo Uganda has its roots in the provision of traditional Value-Added Services such as Bulk SMS, SMS and USSD gateways and Voice solutions. Businesses that need to send alerts to their customers can use their Bulk SMS services for instance while those that need to conduct mobile surveys can use their Two-way SMS gateway.

The company also provides Interactive Voice Response (IVR) which is a voice menu based solution akin to Telecom customer care call lines to business customers.

Even though the company has its feet still deep in traditional Value-added services like SMS, Yo is sharp enough not to get stuck with legacy technology.

Mobile Payment Gateway

This is a platform that enables businesses to manage their mobile money transactions from a central place. It’s used by merchants. These are users who have a number of goods and services to sell. Merchants can use the payment solution through their own website, for instance New Vision enables users to pay for online classifieds.

Also merchants can use the platform at their point of sale terminals. Merchants can also use the system through mobile. This is also called an integrated solution. Smile Telecom users can for instance pay for their internet through the MTN Uganda’s USSD Mobile money menu. Yo just powers the transactions in the background. They are like Visa for Mobile Money.

Yo Uganda is an authorized integrator. Meaning that they have contractual agreements with the networks as opposed to using work-arounds.

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Banking integration enables banks to integrate with the mobile money platform. The capabilities with this solution are quite interesting. For instance mobile user could withdraw money from their bank accounts to their Mobile Money accounts and vice-versa. They currently have Opportunity Bank on board.

With Bulk payments they provide a platform that enables easy remittances of funds to multiple mobile beneficiaries across all networks. The system further provides security and audit-trail capabilities to keep everything in check.

Yo and The Developer Ecosystem

Most Tech companies in Africa operate as isolated units who focus on creating stand-alone products alienated from the wider-ecosystem. Strangely enough, this even includes the big companies too like Telecoms.

However, Gerald believes that his company is very developer-friendly; “We’re a very developer-friendly organisation. We’ve the lowest barriers to entry for developers. They are no application fees for instance to use the various APIs(Application Programming Interface)”.

Being developer-friendly of course means several things among which include having an open, concise well-publicized documentation. Unfortunately Yo Uganda won’t cut this red tape. But that’s not because they have purposed to hide their APIs behind corporate firewalls. Rather, it’s because of the compliance obligation;

“There’s a lot of money involved in the system. We have certain obligations with the networks and finances to do our bit to ensure the security of the entire system. Any weak link could affect the security of the entire system.

We used to have the APIs online. But you couldn’t know who is accessing the APIs and what they use them for. The financial and telecoms networks want you to identify who it is that is integrating with the system.  Hence not having our APIs freely available online is more a compliance obligation. The industry is not yet mature to allow that level of exposure.”

Their goal is to provide 360 degree access to all Telecom services. So far, they think they are hitting their milestones since they provide Airtime, SMS, Voice, Mobile Money APIs from all the Telecoms in Uganda like MTN to developers which means developers won’t have to hustle with Telecoms. Their motivation is simple; provide innovation ground for innovators with shoestring budgets but with good ideas to launch their products to the market.

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Mobile Money is the future

Mobile has already overtaken over the banks in-terms of clientele and volume of transactions. It’s a growing area that everyone should consider venturing into said Gerald.

According to Gerald, the growth of mobile money has been spurred by low-barriers to entry. Mobile money agents are easy to set up across the country as long as there is network availability compared to banks that need a lot of pre-requisites to set up branches.

The Opportunity in Mobile Apps

Passed SMS and telecom-controlled walled-gardens, Mobile Apps provide an alternative for innovators to reach their customers. Gerald believes that developers have an opportunity to create new product;

“I think there’s a big opportunity here, mobile Apps are growing. I know someone developing a music streaming app and another one is working on cinema App to see the latest movies, reviews and even buy tickets.”.

There are number of smartphones now owned by a number of users and what’s more is that there’s easy distribution network of Apps through the App stores. Apps depend on data which the Telecoms are looking at the next growth points which creates an interesting proposition for developers.

Yo is one of the few third party mobile value providers that survived the heat of the mobile disruption. The companies secret is in keeping one foot on legacy technology like while resting the other on new mobile tech trends such as mobile money transfers, remittances, payments.

Image: Gerald Begumisa, MD Yo Uganda

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