Dubai fintech company edges closer to $1m prize pot

Startup NOW Money takes top spot in GCC finales of The Venture, a global contest to find scalable social enterprises

A Dubai startup whose aim is to give low-income workers access to banking services has won first place in the GCC finals for the $1m global competition The Venture.

NOW Money, a smartphone app that offers bank transfers, remittance and other services to migrant workers unable to afford traditional bank accounts, pitched against three other Gulf social enterprises to win over the judging panel.

The company will now have the chance to represent the GCC at the global final in Los Angeles in July, and to compete for a share of the $1m prize fund, which is designed to find and scale promising social enterprises from around the world.

“It was the last thing we were expecting, so I’m absolutely overjoyed,” said cofounder Kat Budd. “The Gulf can at times be underrepresented globally, so we can’t wait to get to Los Angeles, and hopefully be a positive voice for the region.”

The company aims to meet the needs of the estimated 70 per cent of the UAE population that are ‘unbanked’, or unable to afford to maintain a bank account. Many of these workers receive their wages via pre-paid ATM cards, and can struggle to gain regular access to financial services.

Across the GCC, an estimated 25.5 million migrant workers are classed as low-income.

“What Now Money offers is critical services like remittances and bank transfers at a competitive rate using our app – which also can top up prepaid mobile credit and pay utility bills,” said Budd.

The cost of remittance transactions via the app is under 4 per cent, so typically lower than that offered by high street transfer houses, she added.

The four finalists each made a 10-minute pitch to the judging panel, before undergoing intensive questioning. The panel, which included the managing director of Pernod Ricard Gulf, Gaurav Sabharwal, as well as Charles Blaschke, cofounder of Dubai-based Taka Solutions and last year’s regional winner, ranked each venture for factors including potential social impact and scalability.

The final decision was unanimous, Sabharwal said. “Their business can positively benefit the lives of literally millions of people and can be replicated geographically, quickly and cheaply. Its potential social impact is astounding.”

The four finalists were drawn up after a two-month search and consisted of NOW Money; eco-friendly feminine product provider Health Gate; t-shirt company Ilovemypocket, and Charicycles, which upcycles forgotten bicycle frames into sleek vintage designs. A portion of its revenues go towards funding bicycles for children in refugee camps in the Middle East.

Consumers in the GCC are increasingly keen to spend their money with firms doing good, said Rania Kanaan, co-creator of Charicycles, smoothing the path for more companies designed to target social development alongside strong returns.

“When the customer knows that the product that they’re buying affects the economy, society, the environment, they are more willing to purchase a product that speaks to them on these different levels,” said Kanaan.  “They become the agents of change – not just contributors to change.”

Next, Budd and NOW Money cofounder Ian Dillon will join 30 other social enterprises from around the world in attending an accelerator week at the Skoll Centre for Social Enterprise in Oxford, UK. A handful will then go on to compete at The Venture’s global finale in July.