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Z O O N 1A9

Driving through Zambia, you can't help but marvel at the ubiquity of the lime green boxes that have come
to symbolize one of Africa’s most successful ventures: Zoona. Launched in 2009 by brothers Brad and
Brett Magrath, Zoona is the real deal – quite literally, as Zoona means “it’s real” in Nyanja, one of the
languages spoken in Zambia. “Zoona!” is what the cotton farmers expressed after the founders explained
the service and they overcame their initial scepticism. “Zoona!” - it is real, and it is making a profound
impact on people’s lives.
The drastic rise in mobile phone ownership in
Zambia (Fig. 1) has been accompanied by the
emergence of a plethora of digital financial service
providers. Zoona stands out amongst them - its
relentless focus on customer-centric design and
data driven product development explains how
Zoona has gone from a fledgling start-up burning
through USD 250,000 of cash a month, to raising
USD 19 million from private investors between
2012 and 2016. Today, Zoona has become a
market leader, processing more than USD 60
million in transactions each month with an active
user base of 2 million people. Figure 1: Cellular phone subscription in Zambia (per 100 people)


Zoona’s service is simple: Customers bring their cash to the booths - conveniently placed at busy
intersections, outside post offices or markets - from where the Zoona agent transfers the money
to the recipient who collects it on their phone or from the nearest Zoona booth. In addition to
transfers to people, customers can also make bill payments or top-up airtime (Fig. 2). All the
sender has to do is present a valid ID and a phone number for the recipient.

Figure 2: Volume and value of over-the-counter transactions at agent locations

In making a money transfer service for the

unbanked the core of their value
proposition, Zoona’s founders have proven
exceptional foresight of where the market
for payments in Zambia was moving. Today,
agent-based payment services such as
Zoona make up a quarter of all payment
transactions in the country (Fig. 3) and
register the highest customer activity rates
compared to banks and mobile network
operators (MNOs) despite only representing
4% of the overall market share of digital
financial services in Zambia. Figure 3: Customer activity rates by provider type (Dec 2017)

A focus on people is Zoona’s “secret sauce”.

Despite competition from MNOs who started
opening booths next to Zoona’s, the founders
were confident that their model could not simply
be copied. They had spent years working with
communities to craft a product that would
respond to their needs. Whilst Zoona booths
drew crowds, “[...] the neighbouring kiosks closed
for business. The recipe for secret sauce can’t be
bought or sold; nor can it be made up on the
Z O O N 1A9



The self-confidence of the founders is not

without merit. When designing new products,
uses human- design (HCD) techniques such as
drawing out the target customer on paper.
The drawing is supplemented with
information about the customer: their age,
income needs, spending and saving patterns.
The assumptions are then tested through
interviews with real customers. Next, maps
out the customer journey - how and when
they use the product, the transaction process,
the interaction with the teller, etc. This allows
them to identify pain points and adapt the
product to address these.

After running a limited initial pilot, Zoona

refines the product, then tests it in three
separate locations, using different strategies
in each. Only the strategy with the best result
will be taken nationally. This process of
prototyping and iteration is key to
understanding how has consistently scored
higher customer satisfaction than its DATA-DRIVEN SERVICE DEVELOPMENT
competitors. According Brett Magrath, the
challenge of providing a service such as Zoona Zoona also relies on a sophisticated system of data
“[...] is not digital, but one of trust and quality of collection. Each time a customer makes a
experience. People get very excited and hyped transaction, the company receives information on
by the promise of scale, and lose touch with the their name, ID number, phone number and
reality of the users on the ground”. transaction amount. Similarly, Zoona tracks the
agents to determine median performance rates and
In following this process, has been able to supplements this with customer feedback. If their
continuously test and challenge common performance drops, the company is able to mobilize
assumptions about customer needs. The its local team to take corrective action.
initial pilot of its savings product “Sunga
Pocket” for instance revealed surprising The data that Zoona collects isn’t just used in its
results: customer preferred fewer head office. In fact, Zoona agents that employ
functionalities, not more. Whilst Sunga tellers can log into the online platform and monitor
initially included a payment feature, the performance of their booths remotely. This
feature has drastically cut down the time agents
customers expressed preference for a
spend managing the tellers face-to-face. In
deposit-only product that would reduce the
optimizing not just the also the tracking of its
temptation of spending. As a result, the
agents, has been able to create both satisfied
feature was made optional and withdrawals
customers and entrepreneurs - a key ingredient to
could only be made a booth, not through the
growing their business.

In the early days of Zoona - struggling with day-to-day operational challenges and haemorrhaging cash - the two
founder brothers had a heart-to-heart during a family vacation in the Drakensberg. It was a make-it-or-break-it point.
That night, they committed to take the tough decisions to make their business work - to be “bold and brave” in their

One might wonder whether Zoona will soon find itself at a similar crossroads. After 10 years as a CEO, Mike Quinn
left the company in April 2019. At the same time, Zoona has fallen short of its initial target to expand into 10 African
countries by 2020. Whilst it has established a presence in Malawi and Mozambique, it faces stiff competition from
local incumbents.

The customer centric focus of Zoona might well have allowed the company to expand rapidly in Zambia in the early
days of 2009. But one most also wonder whether the initial absence of competition might have facilitated its ascent.
Powered by an even greater wealth of customer behavioural data, MNOs such as Airtel and MTN are quickly
catching up. It seems Zoona’s secret sauce is not so secret after all.

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