How the fintech disruptor Philip Belamant has alleviated poverty in South Africa through ground-breaking mobile payment technologies and financial inclusion.
Many people know Philip Belamant as the CEO and founder of Zilch, the customer-centric buy-now-pay-later (BNPL) provider that makes payments simpler, easier, and more accessible for over 2,000,000 people. What’s less known is that before launching Zilch, Philip Belamant developed other tech-fueled financial tools that improved welfare and mobility in overlooked populations throughout South Africa. His pioneering virtual payment technologies changed the everyday lives of millions of remote consumers by enabling them to pay for their water, bills, electricity, airtime, and goods via mobile phones and virtual cards.
Here, we’ll explore how Philip Belamant has dedicated his career to empowering unbanked populations with revolutionary mobile phone-based payment systems.
Philip Belamant’s Entrepreneurial Roots
Fresh out of the University of Johannesburg with a degree in Information Technology in 2006, 21-year-old Philip Belamant had already developed an entrepreneurial streak and conceptualized technologies that could lay the groundwork for his future ventures. Having closely watched his father’s success in the technology industry, he found himself drawn to artificial intelligence as well as mobile technologies and developed a biometric security system for his university thesis project, which won Microsoft’s Project Firefly competition. He then went on to launch his first entrepreneurial venture, PBel, which he grew to over 6 million users, generating sales run rates of over $100 million.
Having sought funding for PBel, Philip Belamant began developing social games for mobile devices, which rapidly gained traction in South Africa’s mobile technology arena. Users would make use of prepaid airtime to play games and buy virtual assets (similar to NFTs). The company also enjoyed a huge amount of interest in its airtime competitions and “mega promotions”, in which users would enter to win prizes or more credit, which they could transfer peer-to-peer as they pleased. Over time, customers showed more interest in PBel’s airtime competition and mobile payment technology capabilities than its mobile games, so the company decided to focus only on the former which laid the groundwork for the creation of a mobile payments business. This decision marked a major turning point for PBel, which had just come across an opportunity to expand into Namibia.
Moola Mobile’s Expansion Into Namibia (and Wider South Africa)
The CEO of Windhoek had taken an interest in the mobile technology enterprise and arranged a meeting with Philip Belamant to discuss how they might collaborate. Together, they identified an opportunity to roll out the airtime competition and payment model in Namibia. This enabled PBel to scale rapidly. The company became the largest reseller of airtime in Namibia in just four months post-launch and went on to become the largest airtime service provider in the country. PBel then worked with a handful of strategic partners to partner with mobile network operators like MTN, Vodafone, Orange, and Bharti Airtel, which enabled the company to roll out into more than 27 African countries, growing its reputation and credentials across the continent.
World Food Programme Partnerships
PBel then partnered with Mastercard, which enabled the company to progress into a more sophisticated model — virtual cards issued off the back of airtime. This solution made it possible for outreach programs like the IFC World Food Programme and Mastercard World Food Programme to distribute funds in real-time to individuals in third-world countries who were using green screen phones. By establishing strong partnerships with these World Food Programmes, Philip Belamant was able to leverage his fintech system to facilitate a clear net benefit to society.
Distributing funds this way offered a much more sophisticated, cost-effective, and immediate transfer method than cash. Instead, individuals received store value on their phones that they could use to purchase items from their local food, clothing, and healthcare shops. PBel distributed the card credentials but locked these down to certain merchants that sold essentials, which ensured that everyone accessing finance used their funds responsibly. This business model proved successful and is the approach that Zilch uses today.
The Convenience of Borrowing Airtime
As PBel grew, Philip Belamant researched his customer base to gain a broader picture of the consumers who were using the company’s services. Having recognized that customers were consistently repaying vendors, Philip Belamant got in touch with the customers to learn more about their buying habits. He discovered that they weren’t borrowing airtime because they lacked funds. Instead, they were borrowing airtime to reduce their need to travel and the costs and inconvenience associated with this. With PBel, customers didn’t have to travel long distances to reach vendors and then queue for hours to pay an electricity bill. Instead, they could access the airtime or pay their bills from home.
With PBel’s access and convenience benefits in mind, PBel launched new services, lending prepaid airtime, electricity and water, to make life easier for consumers across South Africa. This way, customers no longer had to dedicate a whole day to purchasing airtime or electricity. Instead, they could borrow these services in an instant on their mobile phones and pay back later at a more convenient time. By combining mobile technology with payment technology, Philip Belamant effectively developed a unique system that helped to deliver a huge unmet need while tackling poverty in Africa.
Increasing Mobility and Financial Inclusion
While financial inclusion usually relies on the issuance of a bank account, PBel created a branchless banking opportunity for individuals in lower-income, often rural, areas. Most of these individuals didn’t have access to bank accounts and instead kept all of their funds in cash. PBel’s innovation of a ground-breaking solution provided both convenience and mobility for customers in under two years, decentralizing the antiquated banking system and improving lives across the continent.
The traditional business-to-business-to-consumer airtime distribution model typically saw multi-vendor businesses purchase airtime at a discounted rate and distribute it among their vendors, who would then sell to the consumer. PBel disrupted this model by lending airtime directly to the consumer and collecting repayments through the middlemen infrastructure, ensuring that the SME and SMME ecosystem was left intact all the while creating a fundamentally better service for consumers to access airtime, electricity, and bill payments instantly from their phones.
After six years, Philip Belamant sold PBel to Nasdaq listed Net1 UEPS Technologies and built the company up to over 200 employees.
Continued Growth: 2009-2017
In 2009, Philip Belamant launched Manje (meaning, “now”), which also served customers directly. While many big banks and larger companies of the time didn’t necessarily look out for their customers, Philip Belamant carefully positioned his branding to show customers that Umojay would keep their best interests at heart and facilitate new local economies through access to credit and microloans.
Manje’s value-added service gained traction rapidly through word-of-mouth recommendations, and users began borrowing airtime on Manje’s platform and selling this to their own customers using their phones, spawning its very own network effect. This way, Manje inadvertently crafted a virtual network of buyers and sellers that went viral before “going viral” had become a concept. Manje’s powerful technology opened doors to creative opportunities for many individuals, who used the system to build their own businesses.
Innovative Virtual Currencies
With virtual currencies superseding airtime and more consumers paying for goods and services from apps on their mobile phones, Philip Belamant advanced Manje by developing virtual cards and an advanced card scheme technology. This sophisticated payment technology ultimately enabled him to develop a high-level infrastructure and product that allowed consumers to transact using virtual currencies.
One of Philip Belamant’s biggest virtual card projects was the system he oversaw for the World Food Programme, which distributed virtual cards throughout South Africa and other African countries so people could purchase essentials. He also developed and launched South Africa’s first cash-to-Mastercard solution for Uber. This system enabled Uber to overcome its cash-on-delivery challenge and allow customers to pay for their taxi services virtually. Simply put, this system delivered the innovation needed to bridge the gap between cash on delivery and card scheme payments.
Banking the Unbanked
Philip then integrated the Magstripe card payment technology that his father had previously employed in his business with Manje’s virtual payment technology. This integration allowed him to paint an even broader picture of financial inclusion and develop a large base of empowered customers who could check their balances and make payments virtually. As a result, Philip Belamant was able to bank the unbanked and make it possible for virtually anyone in South Africa to access the credit they needed.
Killing Payday Lending
Philip Belamant also delved into his customers’ spending habits and analyzed which companies were billing these customers most. Then, he investigated how he could change the face of payday lending by developing an alternative product that would be more cost-effective for consumers. The product that he conceived emulated the technology he developed for the World Food Programme. This product enabled customers to shop at essential retailers, swipe their cards, and borrow money to make their purchases. Customers could then repay the funds over a few installments for a flat fee with no interest.
Manje soon became a Top 40 Fintech Company in Africa. Within six months, more than 8 million people were making use of this product, this strategic move, in turn, closed down over 50% of the then-payday lenders in the country over the next 12 months. Moola’s alternative solution to payday lending enhanced the local financial infrastructure, allowing customers to not only survive financially, but thrive, too. Given the success of this model, it’s no surprise that Philip Belamant has integrated the same fundamental concepts and framework into Zilch’s BNPL service today.
Partnering With Customers
When attempting to partner with retailers, Manje experienced pushback as retail companies hadn’t experienced this kind of industry change before. As a result, there weren’t initially any retailers who wanted to partner with the company. But by charging a flat fee for customers and selecting stores that customers used most (those selling food and clothes), Manje was able to evade retailer partnerships. This way, Manje helped consumers across South Africa move away from high-cost, traditional forms of credit, to low cost and no APR credit. As a growing trusted brand, Manje made airtime, electricity, and funds easily accessible to all consumers, who didn’t have to worry about the general lack of accessibility to credit for people on lower incomes.
This is the same kind of disruption that Philip Belamant achieved in his later fintech initiatives, particularly Zilch, which stands apart from the rest of the BNPL industry as it partners directly with customers (allowing them to spend where they wish) instead of the incumbents which built their business models focused on purely residing on the checkout of retailers and offering customers money for their purchases. Evidence Philip always considers creating products for people with ubiquity in mind. As a direct-to-consumer provider, Zilch connects with customers directly and in real-time, monitors their affordability to ultimately bypass the need for creating harmful interest and late fees for consumers.
Disrupting Ecosystems With Technological Innovations
Philip Belamant’s fintech ventures have improved access to airtime for over 20 million people. He has consistently disrupted ecosystems throughout his career by developing future-facing technological innovations and leveraging existing infrastructures to make them more convenient for consumers. As someone who comes from Africa, knows the various cultures and has spent vast time working to meet the needs of millennials and people from lower-income backgrounds, he is well-positioned to craft solutions for consumers who when paying for everyday shopping have the most rewarding way to pay in their hands, thus making the very best use of their money.
Philip Belamant Today
Having founded, developed, and sold a variety of value-added and mobile payment services in more than 25 countries, Philip Belamant is today recognized around the world as a fintech disruptor. Today, he uses the richness of his experiences in the mobile payment and technology industries to oversee the USD2bn BNPL provider Zilch, which he founded in 2018 to radically transform the traditional credit space with innovative products for payments that enable financial health and inclusion for all users. His previous efforts in killing payday lending and financing the unfinanced have fueled important parallels in the ways that Zilch disrupts the predatory elements of today’s BNPL arena that fundamentally are designed to work to the interests of the merchant, not the customer.
Philip Belamant was also the owner managing director of the information technology services company Net1 Mobile Technologies, which provides its UEPS universal electronic payment system coupled with Mobile Payment technology as an alternative payment system for unbanked and underbanked populations of developing economies.