The allure of soothing office colours in green and blue evokes a feeling of calm as one sets foot into the Innovation Village - a tech hub in Ntinda that has built a reputation in breathing life into innovators’ ideas. It is here that I met Evelyn Namara, a young techprenuer running Vouch, a tech company that has revolutionised how governments, corporate entities, Non-Government Organisations and the private sector deliver digital entitlements across the world by upholding three basic values of transparency, accountability and trace-ability of money and resources.
Namara is an accomplished tech guru who has seen it all in the tech world. A cursory glance in her office indicates she is a high achiever, with a number of prestigious accolades to her name in the last few years.
Namara joined the Innovation Village three years ago to pursue an entrepreneurship journey in the tech world following years in formal employment which she ditched for self- employment.
Her motivation for an entrepreneurial journey in tech was deeply embedded in her philosophy of building technology for development.
Having amassed experience and networks during her formal employment, Namara joined with a team of like- minded colleagues in 2015 to develop a platform that would address the overwhelming fraud and corruption she witnessed in daily news reports especially in aid donations from humanitarian agencies. To her, the task ahead was a simple call to action to develop a platform that would impact people’s lives in a positive way.
Namara says the challenge she was undertaking was not small. She quotes former Secretary General of the UN - Ban Ki Moon who at the time indicated that 30 per cent of all International aid was being lost in fraud and corruption. To Namara, this equated to lives denied an opportunity to put food on their family’s tables, or send children to school.
“I read newspaper reports where development agencies were struggling with sending cash to their end users. Most of them were using traditional ways of sending cash leading to fraud,” she explains.
“I thought there has to be a better way of building technology to make this system quicker for the development agencies platform. The only way we could do this was through an electronic voucher system,” she adds.
But why was this the challenge that Namara sought to address? This happened at a time when she learnt about a development agency that was looking to outsource a foreign company to build a system that would help them track and deliver entitlements to the last-mile.
Namara’s next step would become a life-changing journey when she walked into the offices of the organisation and pledged to build the platform.
Given less than a month to prove that she would deliver, Namara assembled a small team and started brainstorming on the idea of building an electronic voucher system that would ease the distribution of entitlements as well as goods and services to the last-mile.
In 2016, Namara and her team created the first prototype and implemented with MercyCorps on projects based in Northern Karamoja. She would later work with more international NGOs including Catholic Relief Services and World Food Programme.
“To ensure we were designing for the end-user, it was important for us to make trips to Karamoja to work with the merchants as well as beneficiaries to understand their pains and how we would solve them,” she notes.
To build a sustainable model, Namara charged their partners costs ranging from technology costs for setting up the platform, commissions as well as subscription fees.
Today, Namara and her team have served more than 250,000 beneficiaries, and has sent out more than Shs3 billion in transactions to beneficiaries in the Karamoja sub-region.
How it works
Namara’s company negotiates contracts with organisations in what is referred to as (B2B or Business to Business) and they develop a transparency platform that allows organisations to generate vouchers from the system. The vouchers are then given monetary value and sent out to beneficiaries directly on their mobile phones which they then redeem at an authorised merchant.
The process requires Namara’s team to train a chain of merchants on how to redeem vouchers for beneficiaries and the merchants get paid the value of the voucher as soon as they redeem it.
“This process makes sending aid donations both more transparent and less prone to waste because it cuts out traditional intermediaries who do not add, but rather subtract, value,” she says.
This, however, is just a tip of the iceberg as Namara explains. “When we started out, our process and underlying technology was to use electronic vouchers or coupons,” she explains, noting that: “Working with development agencies was one example of what we could achieve.”
In 2019, Namara’s company rebranded to be known just as Vouch. And with the new brand, came a new approach. She says she wanted to use the underlying technology of the voucher or coupon system to build an Application Programming Interface (API-first) platform for fueling digital incentives. An API is a computing interface that defines interactions between multiple software intermediaries.
API-first means that everything about a project revolves around the idea that the end product will be consumed by mobile devices, and that APIs will be consumed by client applications.
With the technology of vouchers that they developed five years ago, her approach is now to enter the market of helping small brands, big brands, corporates, and businesses alike to acquire, retain and reward customers.
“We are seeing a rise in the number of businesses that are coming online, for us we are aware that most businesses will need a well-tested platform to help them acquire new online customers, retain them as well as reward them,” she says.
The new vouch platform is set to take incentive marketing to the next level, allowing businesses and corporates to create digital gift cards or rewards, promotions and campaigns to boost customer acquisition and retention.
However, Namara says women still face many stereotypes when it comes to technology in Uganda as some male clients did not believe in her tech skills.
“That realisation opened me up to what really happens to women in technology. People judged me more about being a woman than my abilities and skills,” she says.
Some of her awards and recognitions include:
The ICT 4 Development award run by the Uganda Communications Commission and sponsored by Huawei, in 2017.
She also won the Woman Innovator of the year by MTN during the MTN Innovations Awards in 2017 and in 2018.
She was also the third winner in Africa Women Innovation and Entrepreneurship Forum (AWIEF) Awards, 2019.