This month, MTN Uganda — Uganda’s largest telco — opened several APIs as the first step in a carefully planned strategy to leverage its mobile money platform to grow its business and increase innovation in Uganda. From the beginning of this process, the company was clear about its reasons for opening its APIs. Open APIs would make it easier for third-party developers to connect to the company’s mobile money infrastructure, creating more innovative services and increasing usage and revenue. In the longer term, MTN Uganda hopes to position itself at the center of Uganda’s digital financial services (DFS) ecosystem, where a growing number of innovators are eagerly awaiting easier access to payments rails to build a variety of products. What was less clear was how to open APIs smoothly and effectively.
CGAP has been working with MTN Uganda for the past year to help answer this question. Opening APIs can be complicated, and there are many implementation challenges. Below are some of the key lessons we have learned that may be relevant to other providers who are starting to open their APIs.
Address difficult questions from the start
Shifting toward open APIs is a sizeable effort that raises difficult questions regarding reputational risks, use of the brand, customer service, access control and revenue cannibalization, among other issues. These questions need to be identified and candidly discussed with the company's executive team. MTN Uganda's strong executive leadership was key to identifying and mitigating risks early on. A defined controlled growth plan coupled with a thorough partner onboarding plan put key concerns to rest and enabled teams to focus on delivery.
Don’t over-complicate pricing
A business model based on open APIs calls for a radically new pricing scheme. Many principles should guide the open APIs pricing strategy, but perhaps the most notable lesson from MTN Uganda’s approach is to keep it simple. MTN Uganda offers two API packages that are free of charge for a limited time. This is designed to drive early adoption from different customer segments, ranging from developers building new solutions to large corporations wanting to integrate with MTN Mobile Money. It will also enable the company to monitor developer subscriptions before setting final price points.
Break the process into its components
When treated as a single project or deliverable, a full-blown API offering can be overwhelming for the staff tasked with developing it. Among other things, a complete API offering usually includes several exposed APIs; a sandbox where developers can test APIs; a developer portal where users can sign up, find user resources and access the APIs; and a gateway that links APIs back to the enterprise. Although dividing the project into a series of smaller, more manageable pieces may make it seem more achievable, doing so may call for a different way of delivering projects and prioritizing tasks.
The MTN Uganda team first decided to expose payment assets via APIs based on the company’s business objectives, demand from third parties and levels of internal effort required. There is strong market demand in Uganda for access to payment functionalities. Payments APIs are also easier to open from a business model, governance and operational perspective than more complex APIs, such as data, at least initially. With support from executive management, MTN Uganda developed an agile approach in which the project was broken into smaller, more manageable work packages to be delivered in a time-boxed manner. This allowed for smoother interaction with vendors and better project management. More importantly, it created interim milestones that the team could celebrate and fostered a sense of common purpose across MTN Uganda and its vendors. In the end, this contributed to the timeliness of the project, which was delivered in less than a year.
Build the developer portal as an attractive, primary interface
The developer portal is the entry point for third-party developers who want to use a company’s APIs, so the developer experience in the portal is important. MTN Uganda worked with an experienced developer to build a digital interface that makes it easy for developers to browse the company’s API products and integrates tools like a developer forum, a community chat, live chats via WhatsApp and Skype and exhaustive documentation. These features make the portal user friendly and positions it as the main forum for developers to engage with MTN Uganda.
Involve third-party developers whenever possible
At every stage of its open APIs initiative, MTN Uganda invited developers to test its API offerings and provide feedback. During one session, developers provided useful feedback on portal usability and language, which led to a complete revamping of the API documentation and developer journey. This enabled MTN Uganda to significantly improve the developer experience and generate excitement within the local developer community.
Engage the market
It is not enough to simply build a useful API product. Providers must also come up with a market engagement plan that ensures developers are aware of the product and know how to use it. MTN Uganda’s plan incorporates a mix of awareness-building activities and developer training sessions. One tactic involves moving away from one-off hackathons in favor of developer challenges that promote sustainable use of the APIs by having developers solve real-life challenges and pre-identified business opportunities. This approach secured broad support, not only from developers but also from the international development community, which is keen to bring solutions to development challenges.
What MTN Uganda’s move toward open APIs means for Uganda’s DFS market remains to be seen. But the fact that any developer can now “be live on MTN’s mobile money platform in a matter of minutes, rather than months,” as some developers put it during testing sessions, will likely bring new products and businesses to the digital economy.