Written by Andrew Seale

As the world pushes towards digital currencies and e-commerce in emerging markets like Pakistan and Nigeria, millions of dollars worth of organic, cash-based transaction still take place untracked and completely offline.

It’s something both POKET founders Kamil Shafiq, who was born in Canada but has family in Pakistan, and Abasifreke James, who was born in Nigeria, have experienced first hand. But under the system, merchants seem to exist in a vacuum, accessible only by those walking by and word of mouth stretching beyond the communities they serve.

With the POKET app, Shafiq and James are looking to bring these merchants online and make them more discoverable.

“Our grand vision is to create rich forms of digital identity for people and businesses that are undocumented and offline today, and facilitate their transactions on our platform,” explains Shafiq. “This means creating a digital identity and financial inclusion for any person on the planet who can access a smartphone.”

POKET incentivizes adoption by awarding a small bounty for “claiming” a point of interest – like a fruit stand or tailor – exists. “Passersby who are near these proposed POIs have the opportunity to vote on the accuracy of these claims, and be awarded a bounty for being on the ‘winning' side,”  says Shafiq, likening it to the traffic app Waze where users are paid to input traffic updates.

Once on the app and validated by the community, merchants can build online profiles showing details like their location, hours, and services, as well as giving customers a chance to rate them. After that, users can transact with each other in real-life and use POKET as a mobile wallet to transfer funds.

The co-founders met at York University. Both Shafiq, a student at Schulich School of Business, and, James, who was studying software engineering at the Lassonde School of Engineering, participated in a trip to Israel in 2013 alongside other York students to get a good look at the startup scene there.

“We spent a month touring Israel, living together, understanding what's happening in startup ecosystems outside of Toronto,” says Shafiq. “It really gave us this interesting outlook of the opportunities emerging markets have in the story of startups and entrepreneurship.”

They connected over their shared understanding of emerging markets, adds James. “If there's something Israel really nailed into us, it's understanding the need you're trying to solve and why you’re choosing to solve that need (before) building a startup.”

POKET has required its fair share of soul-searching with pivots along the way. But the duo says they feel like they’ve landed on a concrete framework for moving forward. And the need for services like POKET are only going to grow, says Shafiq. “What makes this really exciting is internet penetration in these emerging markets is increasing at a substantially exponential rate,” he says. “In places like Nigeria and Pakistan you're seeing 30 per cent year-over-year – tens of millions of people.”

And what better base to do that from than Toronto, he adds.

“We have this vibrant pallet of ethnicity and culture, racial identity, language, persuasion and experience, which is an insight into a world outside of Toronto,” says Shafiq. “That's how people like James and myself meet, we can take advantage of this growing, exciting, buzzing ecosystem and create something in Toronto for the rest of the world to use.”

Photo Credit: Cameron Bartlett (www.snappedbycam.com)