Fintech Sempo has taken home the top prize at Startup Victoria and Giant Leap’s Impact Pitch Night, for its blockchain-based solution improving financial inclusion in developing countries.
The competition, held in Melbourne last week, featured four high-growth profit-for-purpose businesses driving social or environmental change, who pitched to a panel of judges and a packed out audience with standing room only.
In his winning pitch, Sempo co-founder Nick Williams said 1.7 billion people globally, or one-in-three adults, don’t have access to a bank account.
Through his work in Vanuatu, he learnt that people were happy with the new plastic banknotes, because “you could bury your money in the ground, and it wouldn’t rot”, he said.
Equally, in Iraq, about 70% of Syrian refugees say they have sold the aid they’ve been given in order to buy things they actually need. And, migrant families who are able to send money home often lose about 20% of the value on overheads when they convert that money to cash.
“Ultimately, financial exclusion disempowers people,” Williams said.
Sempo is a lightweight wallet designed to connect unbanked people in remote communities, allowing people to send and receive money.
It uses a suite of cryptocurrencies, with one currency acting as the “global reserve”, he explained.
“People don’t need to worry about exchange risks between some esoteric cryptocurrency price, and the price of wheat they’re used to using on a day-to-day basis.”
The solution is “at its simplest and most underwhelming … an Android app”, the co-founder said.
One of the biggest problems facing people living in remote communities is literally the distance they would have to travel to get to a bank. But, the vast majority have a smartphone.
“They can download an app that provides them with many of the same functions that they’re looking for, without having to travel for hours.”
The idea is to get a lot of people and stores in the community on board at the same time, thereby reducing the need for cash. In trials in Vanuatu, people have been able to pay for their phone bills, electricity, clothing, food and medicine using the card.
Founded in September last year, Sempo is already working with the likes of Red Cross and Oxfam, as well as with Consensus and Coinbase.
So far, Williams said the startup has helped more than 2,500 people, and about $60,000 has gone through the platform.
“The last thing the world needs”
Williams himself has a background in building finance platforms, while his co-founder Tristan Cole has a background in cryptocurrency trading. The team also includes experts in humanitarian engineering and financial compliance.
But, Williams first became interested in financial development when he wrote his undergraduate thesis on why western organisations tend to get development wrong.
“That’s kind of the last thing the world needs — another white guy with strong views about developing countries,” he admitted.
But, he “fell in love” with the idea of creating a cash transfer system tailored to the communities that needed them.
Sempo is designed to be “really hands-off, and about empowering communities, rather than trying to dictate their lives”, he explained.
“It was ridiculous that no NGOs were doing cash transfers at scale … we really wanted to create that change, and create that empowerment that no one else seemed to care about.”
Williams fought off competition from three other impact-focused startups to take home a prize package worth more than $90,000.
The package includes participation in a Landing Pads program in either Singapore, Berlin, Tel Aviv, San Francisco or Shanghai, as well as $5,000 in AWS credits, a mentoring session with the Giant Leap Fund team, and an array of additional credits, vouchers and training sessions.
On the night, Jane Kou, founder of food rescue startup Bring Me Home, took home the people’s choice award, as voted by more than 300 audience members.
Bring Me Home allows cafes to sell surplus meals at a discounted rate at the end of the day, with users earning rewards for the meals they save from the bin.
Launched last year, the platform now has more than 120 retail partners on board, and more than 12,500 users. It’s seeing 30% sales growth, month-on-month, Kou said in her pitch.
The startup is currently completing an equity crowdfunding raise, and has surpassed its $200,000 minimum target with six days to go.
The other startups competing were Gecko Traxx, which has created wheelchair tyres that allow users to navigate rough terrains such as the beach, gravel, grass and even snow, and The Neighbourhood Effect, headed up by Lily Dempster, which helps people transition into a more environmentally friendly lifestyle.