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Musings on Senegal
This one's kind of a travelogue
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Right before I started writing this, I had to satisfy my curiosity. “Does Senegal have long-distance runners? I asked Google. “Does Senegal produce track stars like Usain Bolt,” I asked again. The search engine tells me that the most popular sport in Senegal is wrestling and that the first marathon in the country was in 2016. But if you were visiting Dakar for the first time, you wouldn’t be able to guess because jogging is a national pastime here. People jog at every conceivable hour of the day. They jog alone, in pairs, on inclines, in the morning, while the sun is scorching at noon and even at night. With fancy shoes, threadbare shoes, and even flip-flops. While I was having a few beers at a beachfront restaurant, two chaps were stretching a few meters away from me and looked to be preparing for a run. It was 10:27 pm. Pray, tell, what is this country’s fascination with jogging?
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Back to my musings on Senegal
Beyond what seems to be a city-wide obsession with jogging, my next question–which I intend to find answers to before I leave this city–is why the fintech app, Wave, is so bloody fast. To put this in perspective, we’ve done a lot of talking in the past two months about how Nigerians are using fintech apps like OPay to work around a pesky cash crunch. OPay won the hearts of customers by being super fast. For a low-trust society like Nigeria, instant transfers help bridge the trust gap, but ironically, in some instances, they make it worse.
No one really takes your word for it that “the transfer has gone.” So it’s common for you to pay a merchant at a market, or pay for a cab with an instant transfer. Yet, until the merchant or cab driver receives the money, you’re likely to be in some sort of hostage situation; God help you if it’s one of those days when your bank is having a downtime. The notification of your debit alert from your bank isn’t enough proof, you’ll likely have to wait it out until the other party’s bank notifies them as well.
OPay has helped this trust problem along because, compared to other banks, it’s super fast. So previously financially excluded or underserved people, whose primary reason for not having bank accounts was a lack of trust in banks and people—people show you fake alerts, is one common story—now trust OPay because the bloody thing is near instant. So bye-bye to waiting around at the market while waiting for the seller to release you, OPay’s got you.
Yet, on my first day in Senegal, I noticed that whatever OPay is doing is pretty much like child’s play to what Wave is offering. Wave is what instant transfers look like. I used Mpesa while I was in Kenya and that is super impressive, but Wave is mental. You can scan anyone’s Wave QR code and the second you hit send, the other person gets the money. It has left me thinking that I must get to the root of whatever sorcery the company uses to achieve these results. Beyond this, the Wave app is pretty intuitive, and it’s especially impressive because Senegal is a French-speaking country and you don’t need to understand a lick of French to use the app. There’s no need for any tutorials or needing to watch YouTube to navigate the app. Once you see it, it’ll intuitively make sense. What’s not to love?
I’ve got to round this up with a few thoughts I shared with two of my friends as I went for dinner. My message to them was this: “It represents a failure of imagination that a city like Lagos has no free beach or waterfront.” Everything has been thrown behind a paywall that extracts a N3,000-N4,000 fee to gain entrance. While I don’t think there’s anything wrong with private businesses providing these services, I believe that coastal cities should treat their beaches like public amenities. As I travel through Africa, I find that most other African countries let have free beachfront options. In Ghana, Cote D’Ivoire, Kenya, and Senegal, you can go to the beach for free–they also have paid options. But my point still stands, if the government of a coastal city cannot keep a small slice of its coast–basically a free resource–accessible to everyone for free, it shows on some level that the government doesn’t really need a rat’s race. I know most Lagosians reading this would argue that they don’t need a lecture about coastlines to have figured that last part out.
As promised, here’s what I’ve been reading:
Neeva, the search engine that asked users to pay in exchange for their privacy, is shutting down. It’s a good reminder for everyone that Google’s control of the market is really a distribution thing; the company pays to be the default search engine on Apple devices and its popular Chrome browsers also have Google as the default search engine. Chrome has billions of users by the way. When it comes to search engines, if Google is bad, people don’t know what they’re missing because they don’t even know where the alternatives are.
This brilliant Financial Times feature on the South African gangs that risk life and limb to steal copper is riveting. It’s a reminder that poverty and trying to get out of it make people take big risks.
This story prompted an interesting argument in my group chat today so it’s worth sharing. The subject of the story placed his first wager when he was ten and has gambled more than $1 million since then.
That’s it for this weekend. See you next week!