Nomanini modernizes informal markets with Google Cloud Platform

Based in Cape Town, South Africa, Nomanini uses Google Cloud Platform to build and support a platform that enables transactions services such as mobile phone airtime, electricity and insurance in the cash-based informal retail sector.

Digitizing a ‘cash is king’ market

Big as they are, giant retailers like Walmart are only one small part of the global retail market. More than half of the world’s population relies on informal markets, buying from street vendors or marketplaces where cash is king. Many around the world don’t have a bank account, and instead use prepaid vouchers to buy services such as phone airtime, electricity and insurance through a network of regional distributors. However, managing payments and distributing vouchers to customers living in far-flung locales presents logistical challenges.

That’s where Nomanini comes in. The Cape Town, South Africa-based company has built a handheld prepaid vending terminal tied to a cloud-based transactional platform. The Nomanini platform creates a direct conduit from remote points-of-sale to service providers and prepaid distributors. “This increases voucher availability, gives resellers a better margin and enables more people in remote areas to access these basic services at a fair price,” says Vahid Monadjem, CEO of Nomanini.

The company serves two client bases: local merchants, who use the terminal to enable people to make payments on the spot, and regional distribution partners who serve as on-the-ground experts in each market area. Satisfying both sectors demands simple, ruggedized hardware backed by an extremely dependable transactional platform. “These businesses operate on very thin margins, and we need a high level of reliability from our platform,” Monadjem says. Nomanini also needs to easily support continuous delivery and deployments from their agile development practice.

Nomanini is expanding fast. The company has over 1,000 terminals active in Africa – specifically in Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique, Namibia and South Africa. One million end-user transactions hit the company’s cloud platform each month, with 800 to 2,000 transactions per terminal per month. “Our target is to have one million merchants’ point of sale terminals active by 2020,” says Monadjem.

Providing reliability for remote vendors

Google Cloud Platform provides Nomanini the high availability and maintenance-free platform it needs to reach that aspirational mark.

“For us it was all about the availability,” says Monadjem. “Any time the system goes down, it will have a huge impact on our clients.” Having previously worked with Google App Engine, Monadjem was confident that Cloud Platform could deliver.

The company uses a number of Cloud Platform components. Each point-of-sale terminal in the field connects to an endpoint on App Engine, which uploads transaction data and sends pertinent data such as vouchers and sales times back to the terminals. From there, the data moves into processing task queues running concurrently on App Engine. Google Cloud Datastore serves as a transactional database, running batch jobs to reconcile each day’s financial information.

The company also relies on Google BigQuery and Google Prediction API to analyze terminal data and send sales trends and predictions back to the regional distributors, who use a dashboard to access the information.

The platform averages about 20 to 30 queries per second running on 10 to 20 instances on App Engine. “It’s not huge, but it’s very consistent,” Monadjem says.

Supporting an underserved market

GCP supports Nomanini’s need for a high-performance platform while obviating the need for software engineers to spend time on administrative chores. “We don’t have to worry about the infrastructure, because Google does that for us,” Monadjem says. He estimates that App Engine saves the equivalent of one full-time position in a team of six. “That gives us a 15 percent to 20 percent productivity boost because now that person can work on new features for our product,” he says.

On top of that, the coherency of the stack further simplifies development and management tasks. “It’s just an API call to copy data from App Engine into the Datastore or move it into BigQuery,” says Monadjem. “It’s a very integrated solution.”

Nomanini uses App Engine to deploy six to 10 continuous software updates each day, as well as a firmware update across all of Africa about once a week. “Continuous improvement on products is huge for us and Google Cloud Platform makes it really easy. We just set up scripts, click a button to deploy to App Engine and seconds later we are live,” says Monadjem.

nomanini-releases-per-month

The company has started using Cloud Monitoring to pinpoint possible technical issues, such as a problem with connectivity. “We can instantly see it and notify the client, often before they even notice,” says Monadjem. Taking such a proactive approach strengthens Nomanini’s customer relationships, as does the BigQuery-based market analysis the company shares with clients. A misstep with ordering stock can cost a vendor a day’s worth of sales, a costly mistake in such a narrow-margin marketplace. “BigQuery gives us very rich reports that help our partners understand how much stock they need to have on hand and how to better deploy their field workers,” says Monadjem.

In the long run, the company hopes to expand across many markets in the developing world, which is generally underserved when it comes to technology. Using Cloud Platform gives Nomanini a platform that can easily grow along with them.