Too often in the GCC, the needs of low-income labourers from emerging economies are overlooked by startups, who instead tend to target the wealthier citizens of a country. But for the world’s largest mobile top-up company, Ding, it is these expat workers who have made the company profitable, sending small amounts of credit every so often.
Founded in 2006 by Mark Roden, Ding now works with more than 500 mobile operators across the world and has facilitated more than 300 million top-ups globally. The company is celebrating its 10-year anniversary in the Middle East and has so far facilitated more than 140 million transactions for the region’s international workers. According to its latest research, 73 per cent of expat workers in the Gulf have transferred money or airtime in the past six months and 53 per cent of expat workers in the GCC pay at least three quarters of their loved ones’ phone bill.
The UAE is currently the third largest remittance sender in the world with $33 billion sent in 2018, its expat workers still prioritise the needs of their family back home with 90 per cent ensuring they budget to send top-ups and remittances on a monthly basis.
Roden is a seasoned entrepreneur in his home country of Ireland. His first venture was Esat Telecom founded in 1991, which he later sold to British Telecom for about $1 billion and then in 2001 he founded easycash, an ATM operations company that he later sold to Royal Bank of Scotland.
To celebrate the sale of easycash, Roden decided to take a trip to Dubai with his family in 2005. It was there at his hotel, where he spoke to one of the waiters who was upset that he could not get in touch with his wife back in India. The waiter had bought her a mobile top-up card, but the pin did not work and so she could not phone him. Back then, mobile top-up cards from expats’ home countries would be sold, illegally, with a significant markup. Roden decided to digitise the process and sell mobile phone credit to workers who could then choose the beneficiary. The whole process of buying credit and sending it, took seconds.
How did the idea for Ding come about?
The waiter showed me the store in Al Quoz, it was very dark and he said something to the teller who had thousands of these recharge cards from foreign mobile operators. They were being sold illegally at the time. The value of the retail card was expressed in rupees, the rupee amount had been marked out with a pen and a 50 per cent mark up in Dirhams was added.
I thought that if this waiter has a need to stay in touch with his wife and it’s a need all expats have, what about making it legal and digital? And that’s what we did.
Every expat worker around the world can now go to Ding and top-up the mobile phone of a friend or family member in another country.
What was the next step?
To meet all the mobile operators. We went and visited all the mobile operators in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. It was very difficult to get the mobile operators on board. They felt it wasn’t worth their while. We created an industry where they sold minutes to providers outside their country. The very first operator who signed with us was BSNL in India and after that it started slowly, we added more operators from around Asia and then we added operators in the West. Ultimately, the goal was to add every single mobile operator in emerging countries. We now have 500 operators that reach four billion people.
Why don’t expats just send money back home through remittance services?
A lot of the research we’ve done with the expat communities show they are wary of sending big lump sums back home and they want to determine where the money goes. Typically, people send Dh10 per transaction, whereas exchange houses start with a slab fee which could be Dh20. Sending money can also take days, but top-ups take seconds. The principal need that’s not solved [through remittance providers] is for people to be able to speak to each other and be connected to each other when they want. This is the need we’re solving, we’re enabling people to stay connected all the time, it’s a very real and human need.
How do beneficiaries spend their top-up?
Now it is 50 per cent spent on data and 50 per cent on airtime. By the end of this year, 60 per cent will be spent on data.
Will mobile credit be used to pay for other services and enable financial inclusion?
One of the drivers for our business is that essentially, you’re talking about exclusion, whether it is digital or financial. A lot of the time, that is reinforced by language and comprehension of language. A lot of foreign workers might not have all the languages to navigate through the system, but mobile phone recharge is a universal language. The Indian waiter’s wife who received the 14-digit pin knew what to do with it.
It’s interesting that these super apps and apps like Careem have not been built by the telecoms operators. Operators were the ones who really controlled the device and introduction of any new device for so many years. One would have thought it would be natural they would be the most experienced to launch them. But innovation has come from the outside operators. Careem is a good example, it addressed transportation and is now saying “what’s next?”. We’re now the largest company in airtime, so what’s next? It’s important to provide services that are important for people.
Why did you set up in Ireland?
I live in Ireland, that’s where home was, I went back home to research the idea and felt that it was not just a GCC opportunity, but a global opportunity. Ireland is very, very aggressive in terms of encouraging startups. What we have found in Dubai is there is really good availability of talent. What surprised us was the diversity and standard of education, we’ve got some fantastic grads who support our business globally. In some ways I wish I had come out here and started. If you pick a region, concentrate on it and become an expert, you will become the de-factor dominant player. It’s great to come back here, it’s been 10 years since we started business in the Gulf, we now employ 20 people and we’ll be adding another 20 in the coming years.