South Africa: Touch Down for SA's Banking Siri

13 September 2019

An African counterpart for Apple Inc’s virtual assistant, Siri, that focuses on banking and financial management, and speaks four of South Africa’s official languages, is breaking ground on the continent. A group of University of Cape Town (UCT) students are behind the novel idea.

They call her Naledi, and she is a multilingual personal banking and financial management assistant powered by artificial intelligence that reaches users via WhatsApp. In a world where tech trends reign, Naledi is guaranteed to make life easier. How can she not? She understands and speaks isiXhosa, isiZulu, Setswana and English and allows users to buy airtime, transfer money, check account balances, and gives users the financial advice they need, when they need it most.

Naledi was designed and developed by Thapelo Nthite, a fourth-year mechatronics student in UCT’s Faculty of Engineering & the Built Environment, in partnership with some of his peers: Xolisani Nkwentsha and Sange Maxaku are master’s students in electrical engineering currently conducting research into artificial intelligence, and Bonolo Malebo is a postgraduate accounting student in the Faculty of Commerce.

The idea was driven by the group’s desire to come up with African solutions to a single tech challenge Africans face.

“Naledi is a first of its kind for South Africa and Africa, and we are very proud of her, how she operates and the fact that she will make banking easier for so many in our country. She’s SA’s banking Siri,” Nthite said.

Groundbreaking idea

According to Nthite, Naledi was primarily designed to help address the issue of financial exclusion in South Africa. And financial exclusion takes many shapes and forms, he added. But for Nthite and his team, the language barrier associated with banking applications was fundamental, and helping ordinary South Africans overcome that hurdle was essential.

“A large part of the South African population has no access to financial services, and if they do, they can’t use them effectively because they can’t comprehend and express themselves comfortably in English,” Nthite said.

That, he said, was more than enough reason for his team to start working on a plan that would help plug that gap. And so their start-up, Botlhale, under which Naledi operates, was born. Currently, Naledi communicates in four of South Africa’s 11 official languages, and there are plans in place to ensure that improves exponentially and for her to speak and understand other languages too.

The workings

Naledi helps users to make better financial decisions by keeping a close eye on their spending and analysing their income and expenditure. The virtual assistant also demonstrates a user’s last transaction, how often they transact and how much they spend daily. It’s a one-stop shop for banking in the country.

“Naledi doesn’t only allow users to transact, she also tracks a user’s spending and helps them work towards achieving their financial goals. She also lets users transact on WhatsApp using voice notes, and this makes her unique,” he said.

The long-term plan is for Nthite and his team to partner with a large banking institution to grow their customer base. For now, he says Naledi operates as a standalone assistant on WhatsApp and engages directly with users from different banks.

Using Naledi is simple, Nthite said. Potential users are encouraged to log onto the Botlhale websiteand register their cell number for the banking chat journey to begin, but only after Naledi’s official launch in November.

“It is 100 percent safe, and users don’t have to worry when registering their bank details. It’s watertight,” he said.

Award-winning idea

Nthite said the team were “very proud” when Naledi was recognised at the 2019 African DataHack4FI innovation competition in Rwanda. They proceeded to the continental round in Rwanda after Naledi won the in-country round in Johannesburg. Up against 13 other start-ups from around the continent, the chatbot received the winning prize of $25 000.

“Winning this competition was a great achievement for us and serves as encouragement and assurance that we are heading in the right direction and that we should keep pushing in that direction,” Nthite said.

The competition promotes the use of data and data analytics to solve challenges that individuals and communities experience. It also encourages pan-African collaboration by creating opportunities for data enthusiasts and emerging tech companies to work together.

“We are very excited and already hard at work developing a number of systems to improve users’ interaction with technology. Artificial Intelligence is busy changing the world; at Botlhale we want to make sure Africa is not left behind,” he said.

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