We officially launched Sparkle this time last year [yes, at the height of the COVID pandemic] with a view to building a digital community centered around trust, transparency, freedom and simplicity. No offline transactions. No murky or opaque decision making. Just data-driven, unbiased choices, in an app that gives its users freedom to do what they want to do so they can move on with their day.
And you know what? It worked. We were able to build a digital financial community, not in spite of, but perhaps somewhat due to, COVID. The plague of our times actually helped to evidence what we had been saying for some time — digital first, cash is unclean. Individuals, small businesses, corporates — everyone was forced to go online and almost instantly saw the benefits of doing so. We were fortunate that we had a platform in place to actually make this happen.
Our Sparkle tribe has worked with us over the past 12 months — they told us what worked, what could work better. We reviewed the data and looked at how the products and services were working for them. We kept a simple, and transparent line of communication with them, constantly re-checking and reworking our offerings to make the most simple and safe financial platform for digital natives. The community worked with us, and it was great to wrap the feedback on individual needs of so many, into tangible product updates.
But Sparkle was never just about the individual — it was about a community, involving individuals and, importantly, businesses. SMEs make up the backbone of business in Nigeria, but they have never really been supported or served in any meaningful way. Traditional banks continue to prefer large scale enterprises and wealthy individuals, whilst professional services are priced for them too. Our SMEs, who are the country’s biggest employer, are mostly left to their own devices. This is why Sparkle Business was always part of our roadmap — because we wanted to fill the many, many gaps in SMEs’ professional support spaces, via a simple, safe digital platform.
It was always our plan to build in Inventory and Invoice Management, a Payment Gateway Service, Tax Advisory/Calculations and Payroll/Employee Management as essential tools to help businesses. I’ve long considered these to be the bare minimum building blocks when building any business. But what has been fascinating whilst we’ve been testing Sparkle Business, and what we’ve found in our continuous dialogue with our Sparkle community, was impact transformation — we knew what we were building was important and useful for the business community, but I am not sure we knew just how transformative it was. We went into this with the overarching wish to drive financial inclusion; but for end users, it was so much more than this.
During my time at Diamond Bank, we found that market women who previously relied on just holding cash or keeping cash with an unreliable money man in the market, had few options. This is in stark contrast to those who had access to a savings account could record and control their money much better, giving them the tools they needed to make better business [and personal] decisions. One woman we spoke with had never had a savings account, but once she opened one with Sparkle, she was able to put money aside and save in order to put her children through school. Now, she had always been making money — we weren’t in any way lifting her out of poverty; there was no change to her monthly income. But she had never kept track of where her money was going; she now had a place to keep money. She had access to information and could make decisions based on that. What we thought we were doing was financial inclusion through financial products. What we were actually doing was data collection — providing data for her to make better informed decisions with how she kept a track of her money. Essentially, this interaction was the entire premise for Sparkle.
For Sparkle Business, we knew that we weren’t just providing one product that was going to change everything; we were building a collective sum — a range of services and data collection points for businesses that will, in their entirety, help businesses make better informed decisions. This isn’t just a new product to help with tax compliance or to help you manage your inventory, just like the Diamond savings product wasn’t the only route to financial inclusion — it is part of the wider journey to data-led decision making. This is why we’ve never seen ourselves as just a bank, or a financial services platform; we are providing a data collection platform. We are providing a transformative platform that will be absorbed into business’ lives in ways we haven’t even realised yet.
In fact, interestingly when I started digging into some of the new products, they actually helped me better understand a few business fundamentals [again, an unpredicted byproduct of what we were building]. When looking at the tax implications of my own team’s head count in Net and Gross, I had better transparency around the numbers and realised that I could also start contributing to my staff’s pensions. Again, the simply presented data allowed me to re-think and make better educated decisions around money for my own business.
So I am excited about the transformative products and services that are being rolled out with Sparkle Business this week. Individual products that, as a sum total, will power businesses simply and effectively. We are taking banking and services to the marketplace and not expecting the marketplace to go to banking and services — a transformative, yet simple way of making a better business environment for Nigeria’s SMEs.