My billion dollar idea that got stolen

Dear Editor,

When I started my postgraduate studies at University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB) in South Africa, little did I know that this education would empower me to produce billion-dollar innovative ideas that could progressively influence the financial system.

My way of thinking drastically changed from being a mere narrow-minded deskbound accountant to an across the board progressive thinker who is continuously seeking inclusive innovative solutions to fill developmental gaps.

I came up with the idea of a Bank Mobile App that would help ordinary individuals, and especially entrepreneurs, in the rural and urban poor communities of the informal economic sector to start benefiting from formal banking. Moreover, the idea incorporated individuals who are already in the formal economic sector enjoying the benefits and costs derived from financial products, thereby proving its quality and standard of being an across the board, all-inclusive innovative solution.

EXTENSIVE MARKETING

Towards the end of March 2017, I decided to formulate the idea on paper and protect it with the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology (MICT). This idea needed significant financial resources and co-operation between the mobile network operators (MNOs) and local commercial banks for it to be rolled out successfully to the respective users, notably those in the informal economy.

Extensive marketing, especially, in the rural and urban poor communities where financial literacy levels can be below the threshold, was required. Since this is an idea aimed to solve developmental challenges it is imperative that it works at full capacity.

I decided to request appointments with commercial banks to present the idea and for my rights as the author of the idea to be acknowledged. After the presentations, there was no feedback from these commercial banks. They also did not tell me whether they were working on similar projects.

During June 2017, a daily newspaper reported on my innovation. The article was published on 16 June 2017, titled ‘The mobile app that wants to include informal economy in banking’. After the article, I received positive feedback from the public at large and from USB. And still the financial institutions I had presented to remained silent.

During March 2018, one of the commercial banks to which I presented the idea, phased out one of their mobile banking innovation and launched a bank mobile App very similar to my innovation, passing it off as their own.

After studying ‘their’ innovation, based on my idea, and reeling at the unjustness and dishonesty involved, I decided to take the legal route to approach them. This bank was quite happy to take me on in the legal arena. I mean after all, it possesses significantly more financial clout than I do. I was overwhelmed by an exasperating sense of powerlessness. The only power I had was the fact that it was my idea and for it to be implemented efficiently, significant involvement from my side would be required.

During September 2018 the other commercial bank to which I had presented the same idea also announced that they had revamped their existing bank mobile App with new features, after venturing with a local mobile network operator. On studying their new features, I realised that once again, they were very similar to the ones I presented to them.

As an innovator and entrepreneur, it concerns me greatly that these commercial banks are passing my idea off as their own and benefiting from the idea that I spent many sleepless nights putting together. What happened to good governance and an act of good faith? Does this mean that there is no protection for our innovations?

INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY THEFT

In today’s world individuals of my generation, like myself, trying to fight passionately for economic independence for all, we need to be protected from multinational companies that steal our ideas and push us out of the picture. It is intellectual property theft.

The challenges of access to finance and financial inclusion identified in the Namibian financial system will not be solved by targeting only consumers with credit cards, collateral and payslips. Commercial banks appear to lack understanding of the term ‘inclusive’.

Access to finance and financial inclusion does not mean not caring about transaction costs incurred, especially by the rural and urban poor, often travelling long distances to use the infrastructure of commercial banks.

Access to finance and financial inclusion mean concentrating on how commercial banks can succeed to solve three major obstacles in banking, namely information asymmetry, adverse selection, and moral hazard.

If local commercial banks choose to further neglect the exercise of collecting sufficient financial data, especially from individuals in the rural and urban poor communities, and utilise this information to open bank accounts for these individuals and further advance loans and other financial products based on this financial information, the developmental challenges of access to finance and financial inclusion will always be with us. The Namibian financial system cannot afford to further exclude the already neglected hard working informal sector participants who in their own way are also contributing immensely to economic development and growth.

In a country with a GINI coefficient of 0.597 according to World Bank Group Finance and Market report, it is important that we work together to find urgent interventions to develop inclusive solutions to solve challenges from bottom up.

*John Shivute (johnpshivute@gmail.com) (CDFA) is a Chartered Development Finance Analyst. He holds a bachelor of accounting degree from the University of Namibia, a postgraduate diploma in Development Finance and a Master of Philosophy in Development Finance from University of Stellenbosch Business School. His area of study is financial development and economic growth.