Pioneering digital inclusion in Sub-Saharan Africa

Approximately 44% of the African population have mobile phones but only about 40% of these are smartphones. This is largely due to limited understanding of the benefits of owning a smartphone and how to use it, the high acquisition cost and a sense of cultural alienation. The low levels of smartphone and digital payments penetration has resulted in lack of access to the mobile internet and the value it can add with value subsequently being lost on multiple fronts. End consumers are unable to access digital goods and services; businesses providing these goods and services are unable to access a large share of the market and retailers; and wholesalers and various other players along the value chain have no market. Qwili wanted to address these obstacles by developing an affordable phone with software that could acclimatize users to smartphones, ensuring that they understood how to use them and get maximum benefit from them. They also wanted to expose users to locally relevant content that would ensure a greater sense of ownership, familiarity and comfort with the technology.

The founding team’s initial idea for Qwili was a business-to-customer model where they would sell affordable smartphones to individuals who would use the platform’s digital wallet to buy value-added services. As users operated the phone, Qwili would take a percentage of every transaction; the phone would eventually commercialize itself and users could buy them from Qwili. Despite conducting in-depth research over several months and selling more than a thousand smartphones to end users, the team decided to pivot to focus on merchants. They found that early adopters were using their digital wallet functionality to sell pay-TV, electricity and other value-added services to people around them, using the phone in a way the team hadn’t initially intended. This prompted the development of their agent model, which made commercial sense for Qwili and enabled their users to use the device and software to sell to others instead of buying services for themselves.

“Removing the barriers to smartphone and mobile internet access for sellers of digital services.”

Pioneering digital inclusion in Sub-Saharan Africa

Qwili officially launched their merchant offering in January 2022. They developed a hybrid hardware-software product consisting of a smartphone and a digital sales ecosystem. The hardware is a low-cost NFC-enabled smartphone called Qwili Pula that allows merchants to send and receive payments. The platform’s software (which can be downloadable as an app on any smartphone or automatically installed on Qwili’s phones) turns the smartphone into a point-of-sale device enabling merchants to sell value-added services, such as data, pay-TV subscriptions, groceries and clothing to customers.

Almost 2500 micro and small merchants actively use the hybrid platform monthly (about half use Qwili’s NFC-enabled smartphones). Their typical business customer is a seller without a storefront who sells digital products to immediate communities and networks informally. Buying a point-of-sale device with limited functionality doesn’t make economic sense for these merchants whereas Qwili’s smartphones enable them to collect payments and advertise products over WhatsApp. While the smartphones cost approximately $50, Qwili doesn’t profit from selling them, but rather takes a commission for every sale made. In July 2022, Qwili raised $1.2 million in an oversubscribed seeding round to develop and scale their app, make key hires and for hardware production. The company processes $575,000 gross merchandised value (GMV) every month from its merchant base and has seen strong turnover growth at just more than 60% month on month. The company plans to increase these numbers to $15 million monthly GMV and 20 000 merchants by the end of 2023. Qwili has launched in Botswana and Zimbabwe and is looking to run a proof of concept in the Democratic Republic of Congo towards the end of 2023.


Qwili is building accessible smartphones that support point-of-sale functionality and provide a digital ecosystem built around a marketplace and sales portal.

Removing the barriers to smartphone and mobile internet access for sellers of digital services.


Thandwe Radebe, H’21 has a Business Science Finance Honors degree and a Masters in Development Finance from the University of Cape Town.


Radebe is striving to fulfill the same objectives as other members of the Alliance and wants like-minded comrades next to him on this journey.  He wants to share in the resources needed by others to achieve their goals.

“Let my hindsight become your foresight – together we will guide each other to solve our continent’s biggest problems.”


Transforming the daily commute in Nigeria


Pioneering digital inclusion in Sub-Saharan Africa


Building Africa’s first digital women’s health clinic
Zoie Health


A technology-driven insect protein producer with a novel approach


Developing affordable, lifesaving healthcare technologies for Africa
Impulse Biomedical


Helping employers to engage in a smart and meaningful way with deskless employees
Subscribe for Updates
Sign up for our newsletter and follow us on social media