Brian Richardson
Ashoka Fellow since 2008   |   South Africa

Brian Richardson

Brian Richardson is enabling South Africa’s poorest to become full economic citizens through the use of cell phone banking technology. His innovation empowers those who have been unable to gain access…
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This description of Brian Richardson's work was prepared when Brian Richardson was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2008.


Brian Richardson is enabling South Africa’s poorest to become full economic citizens through the use of cell phone banking technology. His innovation empowers those who have been unable to gain access to traditional banking services and provides the disenfranchised a platform for wealth creation.

The New Idea

Brian is empowering people in poor communities by giving them access to banking and lending services through his organization, WIZZIT. WIZZIT’s banking scheme enables individuals to conduct all their banking transactions via cell phone, giving previously un-banked members of the population easy and affordable access to banking services. In this way, WIZZIT is bringing the bank to the unbanked, as opposed to the other way around. WIZZIT’s cell phone banking platform works on any cellular phone network and with any cell phone, making it accessible to South Africa’s masses. WIZZIT banking makes financial transactions affordable to all its clients by employing a pay-as-you-go fee model that is more cost effective than traditional savings accounts and Mzanzi accounts (low-cost savings accounts) offered by South Africa’s large banks. And unlike those banks, WIZZIT does not charge a monthly banking fee as all the major banks do. WIZZIT’s model is also unique because in addition to enabling banking via cell phones, he offers financial literacy skills to his consumer base, as well as employment, for marketing agents nicknamed WIZZkids.

The Problem

According to the World Bank, more than five billion people worldwide do not have access to financial services, and 96 percent of Africans lack access to banking facilities. In South Africa, it is estimated that 11 million people are “unbanked” and that, at any single point in time, there is in excess of R12B (US$1.6B) stashed under mattresses or otherwise saved in ‘safe places’ in homes. The impact on the economy and job creation if even a small percentage of this money found its way into the formal economy through the banking industry is enormous.

Being excluded from full economic citizenship is both disempowering and expensive. In South Africa, making a simple payment to a creditor involves time standing in queue at a bank as well as transport costs to reach this bank, making every cash-based transaction costly. In the case of farm workers, for example, it can take hours to walk to a main road to access public transportation, whereupon they have to wait indefinitely for a bus or taxi to travel to the nearest town with banking facilities. In addition to time and travel costs, individuals risk losing their money at the hands of armed bandits and petty thieves. Employers face similar challenges as they have to manage large sums of cash to pay their workers’ wages.

Criminal activity in South Africa is cash-centred and takes the form of home invasions, car robberies, and street muggings. Security remains a major problem in South Africa, as the country has one of the highest crime rates in the world. Anyone with large amounts of cash or anyone trying to access a cash machine is a target for criminals. In the first 8 months of 2008 there were 192 ATM bombings recorded in South Africa. In addition to crime that plagues individuals who carry cash, there are numerous risks associated with keeping cash in one’s place of residence, such as fires and water damage. Many individuals lose their entire livelihood when their homes fall victim to the elements, as they are not insured and have not put their savings in a financial institution.

South Africa has a large migrant workforce who regularly sends money to their families through a remittance system that represents a R12B industry and a major source of income for rural communities. These remittances largely come from “blue collar” workers in the cities who are supporting family members in rural areas. The most widely used method of sending money home is through the Post Office or taxis Although Post Offices are easily accessible in the cities, they are widely dispersed in rural communities. This necessitates the travel of remittance recipients over long distances to collect their money. Sending money home is thus a cumbersome process throughout Southern Africa. The sender has to fill out extensive paperwork, provide various forms of identification, proof of residence, and proof of income.

The major South African banks have developed revenue models that make it very difficult and expensive for them in extending banking services to people at the bottom of the pyramid. Moreover, the regulatory framework under which banks operate is centred around a “know your customer” and an anti-money laundering philosophy, which makes it very difficult to open bank accounts. Traditional banks in South Africa are thus perceived as elitist institutions that cater for the upper and middle income groups.

In South Africa, to be sure, the major banks have tried to address the issues of lack of banking safety and the inaccessibility of brick and mortar branches by offering mobile banking services to their existing customers (e.g. text message transaction confirmations), but have not addressed the high banking fees which are cost prohibitive to many. In a few countries elsewhere in Africa, minimal banking services are being offered by telecommunications companies, but such models are not able to operate in South Africa because of a regulatory framework that does not permit the issuance of funds electronically by non-banks. South Africa’s poorest citizens largely remain disenfranchised and financially handicapped.

The Strategy

After some 18 months of careful “due diligence” research, WIZZIT was formally launched in 2004, making it the first mobile banking model of its kind in South Africa and in the world. Through WIZZIT, he has formulated a multi-pronged strategy to reverse the debilitating cash-dependent culture of South Africans and encourage financial literacy skills through savings programs that help the unbanked become bankable, financially savvy citizens.

In South Africa there are approximately 40 million mobile phones, which WIZZIT leverages as a technological platform to bring banking services to the masses. WIZZIT account holders are issued a WIZZIT bank account as well as a debit card upon opening their account. Their basic account services allow them to make debit purchases and get cash back at large retail outlets without incurring the costs of using an ATM. There is a minimal WIZZIT fee per bank transaction (and a modest fee per minute charged by the user’s mobile phone company, and deducted from the user’s prepaid airtime). WIZZIT operates 24 hours per day and complies with all of South Africa’s banking regulations. WIZZIT bank operates, formally, as a division of The South African Bank of Athens Limited (a foreign bank operating in South Africa since 1946 and part of the NBG Group) and also provides transactional services through the South African Post Office.

WIZZIT’s core customer base is comprised of rural dwellers and low-income earners in marginal urban settings. WIZZIT targets cash-based wage earners, social grant pension recipients, students, and the semi-employed in an effort to have them participate in the formal economy. WIZZIT is especially affordable and accessible to people living and working in remote rural areas without access to traditional banking institutions.

In addition to financially empowering the poor, WIZZIT is also addressing issues of crime and productivity. WIZZIT operates via an individual’s mobile phone which reduces the need to carry cash, hence eliminating crime risks, as well as reducing bank transaction charges. WIZZIT customers also save on time and transportation costs as they do not need to travel to make payments, deposit funds or receive money at traditional bank branches. WIZZIT also enables individuals to send money to their families in real time and cost effectively. Users can also purchase prepaid cell phone airtime, send money to their families, and pay their bills without having to be there physically. WIZZIT also encourages employers to pay their employees via an electronic funds transfer, once again reducing the risks and costs associated with cash transactions.

WIZZIT’s marketing and outreach strategy consists of an income generation and job skill component known as WIZZkids. WIZZkids, unemployed people with a minimum high school qualification and account holders themselves, are trained by WIZZIT to market WIZZIT’s services and to provide customer service for clients. All WIZZkids must pass a financial literacy exam. WIZZkids open bank accounts for the unbanked and teach customers how to use their accounts on their cell phones. WIZZkids sign up new WIZZIT bank account holders in a matter of minutes without extensive paperwork or queuing in traditional bank branches, making WIZZIT extremely accessible to the illiterate, the uneducated, and those living in remote areas.

WIZZIT specifically designed an “empowerment” hiring policy and only employs those who have no formal jobs. To date, WIZZIT has trained and provided jobs to more than 3,200 WIZZkids. The WIZZkids are paid commission on each account opened and earn a regular fee for each account that is kept active. If customers encounter problems, a 24-hour call centre is available that assists customers in one of the 11 official South African languages of their choice. Investments in the career prospects of his clients and of the WIZZkids constitutes an important and growing component of WIZZIT values. They plan to establish an Entrepreneurship Academy, where WIZZkids can be trained in accounting, small business development, and skills beyond WIZZIT bank account management.

Although a WIZZIT account can currently be used only for basic transactional purposes, future plans include a loan facility for WIZZIT account holders and for those who intend to start their own businesses. WIZZIT is currently launching a pilot program on lending short-term “productive loans” (microcredit loan for small to medium enterprises) to be offered to customers with a WIZZIT banking history. The World Bank has seen the benefit of WIZZIT’s services and recently purchased a 10 percent shareholding in WIZZIT through the IFC, which will enable WIZZIT to expand its services and regions of operation. To facilitate this expansion, WIZZIT has recently appointed a managing director to oversee the daily operations in South Africa, while Brian focuses on strategies for WIZZIT’s future expansion and specific projects in South Africa. In the long term, Brian hopes to make WIZZIT a global entity and plans are already in the pipeline for two new rollouts in Africa and one Eastern Europe.

The Person

Brian was born in Uganda to Irish Parents. The untimely death of Brian’s father left his family in tough financial circumstances and at the age of 13 Brian started his first successful business: training competitive show jumping horses. Brian held leadership positions at school, and was involved in community work as president of the young division of the Lion’s Club. After completing high school, Brian could not afford to go to university and he accepted a job offer from Barclays Bank. After six weeks in the bank’s employ his promise was noticed by his superiors, and through a Barclay’s scholarship, he earned a Bachelor of Commerce degree and an MBA from the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Shortly after completing his MBA, Brian left the bank and started a successful consultancy firm—Thomas International.

It was in a conversation with Cyril Ramaphosa, a prominent political leader during the Apartheid era and now a highly successful businessman, that the difficulties of opening a bank account and the financial struggles of the lower end of the market stimulated Brian and his long time business partner to consider a new venture that would provide banking services for the unbanked.

In researching that possibility, Brian went to a rural community where, at month’s end, he witnessed several hundred people queuing for their social grants and pension payouts. He spoke to an old lady in her sixties who explained to Brian that every month she would make the long journey to collect her pension and stand for hours in the queue. This and many other similar stories inspired Brian determined to create for the poor a path out of poverty and towards wealth creation.

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