August 31, 2020
When alum Dennis Asamoah ’12 started Nokwary Technologies, his goal was to use Artificial Intelligence to build solutions and products that are both inclusive and convenient.
In creating a blueprint for this approach, his startup designed a WhatsApp-based banking service that allows platform users to make money transactions through basic actions such as voice commands and texts.
“During my graduate studies at the University of Minnesota, I became fascinated with speech and natural language processing and especially its potential to make technology accessible to low-literate populations,” shared Dennis, who studied Computer Science at Ashesi. “Before this, a friend had shared her experience helping rural farmers adopt digital technology and how literacy had been a limiting factor. As I learned natural language processing, I became excited about how this literacy barrier to accessing technology could be broken. So I decided to start a company that could realize the benefits of AI and NLP for millions of people who do not currently enjoy, as much as they should, the blessing of ICT.”
So in August 2020, when Nokwary’s WhatsApp banking system won the Ecobank Fintech Challenge, they knew they were on to something meaningful.
“Our company is rather young, and to be recognized like this on such a stage was exciting,” he shared. “I also feel some validation for our approach. One of the key things we decided to focus on right from the start is creating inclusive technology – making sure that our solutions do not cut out less educated demographics. I think our win validates having such an emphasis on inclusion.”
The Ecobank Fintech Challenge helps Ecobank, one of Africa’s largest banks, to identify and partner startups like Nokwary, that are ready to scale. The bank also provides them with support and access to its African markets.
“Winning the challenge and having that spotlight is the sort of attention every startup needs,” shared David Sampah, Computer Science faculty at Ashesi and Chief Technology Officer at Nokwary. “With machine learning, we have a chance to create technology solutions that model our context in a meaningful way, and includes everyone regardless of race, age, gender, education, language.”
Using intelligent conversational WhatsApp bots, Nokwary’s platform allows merchants to receive payments from customers and for users to perform banking transactions on WhatsApp through voice notes and texts in English or in their native language.
“With its capacity of rich multimedia such as voice notes and images, WhatsApp provides very convenient modes for interaction,” shared Dennis. “A user can simply send a ‘hello’ or text, as easily as interacting face to face with another person. In contrast, using a mobile app, one typically has to download and install the app, sometimes struggling with space constraints, before verifying their phone number. Not only can this be cumbersome, but also not as straight forward for many people. Using our Whatsapp bots, we can simplify the banking process for users at various levels.”
Long before starting Nokwary, Dennis had, over the years, been working on developing natural language process systems, particularly for the Ghanaian market, helping local language speakers interact with computers and smartphones. Before starting his ongoing graduate program at the University of Maryland, he returned to Ashesi for a year, where he designed and taught a natural language processing course for undergraduates. He also took the opportunity to work with students in various research projects, including building a search platform that allows users to search for songs in Twi.
In staying true to the company’s ethos, Dennis’ goal for Nokwary channels simplicity and inclusivity. “Our vision is for Nokwary to become the leading AI company in Africa and, through that, become a major force for good in the world.”
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