EAST AFRICA: With its promise of “making life easy” fast-growing personal loans company Unifi is on the move to redefine personal credit in underserved East African markets. Unifi has its roots in Zambia, where it has rapidly expanded since inception 18 years ago and has managed to grow its customer base by 43% over the past year. There are now 34 Unifi branches across Zambia, in South Africa the online-only offering more than doubled its customers over the last 12 months, and Unifi Uganda is six branches strong and growing. Unifi has also taken its first steps in Kenya.
The business started with the acquisition and amalgamation of Unity Finance, a branch-based lender that has been operational in Zambia since 2006, and later Cobol Finance, a South African online lender established in 2004. The entities rebranded to Unifi in 2020 and the best of both businesses collided: Today, Cobol’s sophisticated loans management technology is being used in combination with outstanding face-to-face customer interactions at Unifi’s branches to offer a product that’s sticking out in the crowd.
When asked about Unifi’s secret sauce, co-founder and group head Michiel le Roux responds: “I think keeping it simple has been key. We started with one core product – small, short-term personal loans – and have been focusing on delivering it well by combining tech, data analytics and outstanding customer service. We’re excited to see that we’re onto something, that our customers are really responding to it. Our approach combines tech with a human touch to make our product simpler and faster in markets where it’s historically not been easy to access personal finance.”
The outcome of Unifi’s single-minded focus on getting its core product right and delivering outstanding customer service backed by great tech, is a loan that’s delivered at a surprising speed for these markets. It’s not unusual for customers to wait for days to get their money, with 24 hours being defined as “fast”. Unifi can give customers cash in hand in as quick as 20 minutes at the branches and sends money straight to their bank accounts within minutes of customers applying online.
The USSD-based app, which is called the Uniapp, enhances Unifi’s brick-and-mortar presence, and allows returning customers to get Unifi loans with their phones, or to complete transactions such as checking their balances and paying their instalments with mobile money. Every new customer must visit a branch and have their fingerprints taken when they take out their first loan from Unifi and can thereafter simply transact through the Uniapp if they choose. Aside from fraud prevention, the initial check-in at the branch ensures first-time customers are educated about the product and are properly set up for self-service on the app going forward.
“While East Africa is very familiar and comfortable with mobile transactions, there are customers who prefer to transact in person at a branch, or who want to speak directly to a consultant when they have a problem. The branches offer them that option, and play an important role in onboarding new customers,” explains Le Roux.
It’s one thing to easily get loans out, but the other side of the coin is getting the money back. In addition to offering flexible repayment terms, Unifi’s branch/app combo have made it easier for customers to make their loan repayments, and so aids collection efforts. Customers can choose between making a cash payment at a branch, paying via EFT, through a debit order, or paying with mobile money through the Uniapp. In markets where payroll deductions are the norm, it’s also allowed Unifi to put more trust in its customers, who get to take control of their own finances.
Unifi’s growth is accelerated by the Uniapp, but it’s not closing branches anytime soon. In fact, more branches are on the cards. In a world that worships at the altar of the next big thing in tech, Unifi is a firm believer in good old-fashioned, great customer service. And many of the simple personal touches that have made Unifi special from the start, are still an important part of its customer experience today: Branch visitors are welcomed with a cooldrink, and every new customer gets a gift, such as a 25 kg bag of maize meal.
“On surface value things like our new customer gifts may look trivial, but it’s part of the personal touch that sets us apart in an industry that has a bad rep of exploiting customers. Even something small like ensuring our branches are always neat and tidy, is a way of showing respect to our customers and of living up to our value of Dignity. It’s worth the extra effort. Our customers seem to love it as much as they do getting a loan in minutes on our digital platforms,” says Le Roux.