Darren Langbein, one of the co-founders of United African Stokvel (UASV), worked as a property reseller before he moved into the stokvel sphere. Langbein says he would buy distressed property to fix it up and resell it.
“[We would] get them at a very good rate from the banks, refurbish them ourselves and sell them. And we did this for a long time. Then my right knee gave in, so I wasn’t as efficient as I used to be. It became a little bit scary because now I couldn’t work with my hands, which is what I’ve done the whole of my life. I was kind of forced to find a new direction in life, and I’ve been always very keen on this fourth industrial revolution.”
While looking for a new direction, Langbein stumbled across the stokvel concept. He says what he liked most about stokvels is the historical aspect.
“The nice thing I liked about stokvels from the original stories, is that 18th century farmers and the labourers would save together, specifically the women. Come the end of the year, they would have enough money to go and buy stock, which is cattle, so they could feed themselves for the following year.”
The aspect of working together really appealed to Langbein, which is ultimately what motivated him to move into the stokvel industry. At first, he says, the model for UASV was simple.
“Let’s just do a simple saving stokvel where we encourage members to save money with us. But then I want to do something different. We reward [people] for saving with us, but we wanted to make it something special. We wanted to engineer it with the fourth industrial revolution, to be able to speak to people countrywide.”
A stokvel with a digital difference
Langbein says it was important for them to operate the stokvel digitally. Usually, stokvels come with monthly or weekly meetings, endless discussions, joining fees, and other administrative aspects. He explains that UASV is operated online, and members get to interact with their staff whenever they want.
He also says UASV needed to be the kind of operation that allowed people to save towards their own specific goals, which is one of the reasons he feels the stokvel is different.
“That’s our biggest difference. You can save for your exact personal reasons in a community of savers, which is very cool. So that’s kind of how stokvel started in 2019 and how we got to get it going.”
Like with any company, UASV did not have an easy start. Langbein says that he was entirely unaware of the amount of scamming that happened in the industry, and did not realise that his business success depended on gaining the trust of the stokvel community.
“I was pretty green to the industry, and I started learning about all sorts of nonsense, with people taking advantage of other people, so we had a continuous fight every day online because online people can be quite nasty. And they can accuse you of doing things where they’ve never met you or they don’t know what you’re talking about. So, the first year was very ugly online because every morning, I would wake up to death threats online.”
A turning point
While 2019 was etched in Langbein’s memory, 2020 was an unexpectedly good year for the company. Langbein says UASV grew 12-fold, something that they found deeply surprising.
“From a psychological point of view, in times of stress or worry, people tend to save money more. So, we didn’t realise we kind of landed our backsides in the butter in that year.”
2021 continued to be a blessed year for UASV, with the company continuing to grow by another tenfold. He says that in 2022, they have done more than previous years for their member savings, and now have pay out more or less every day.
“Unlike traditional stokvels, we don’t just sign people up in December and January. You can sign up and join us whenever you want because we’re all about convenience. We’ve got this angle where, if it’s your birthday tomorrow, start saving today, then next year, the day before your birthday, we’re going to pay you out.”
UAS has many members of many different demographics. Langbein says that their 50+ members are more cautious, as they are not really technology savvy, but that they have an excellent rapport with their younger members.
“There’s something there that the younger savers – I would say from the ages of 22 to 23, just out of university, up until maybe 35 or 36, before they get married – [have that is] very dynamic. They are constantly communicating with us, finding out what’s coming next.”
Despite the initial difficulties, Langbein says the work is rewarding and the messages they receive from their members make the work worth it.
“It’s the messages we get back from our members when they receive their savings. It doesn’t matter if it’s a first-time saver or somebody who has multiple plans. It’s ‘I can’t believe you’ve paid me out my savings with the interest you promised’, ‘you’ve changed my life’, ‘you’ve changed the way our family saves money’, ‘you’re making a difference in our lives’.
“And that’s pretty special because, for random people you’ve never met face to face – and it’s purely on a digital platform that you’re talking to each other – it’s very sincere emotional communication, and it kind of motivates you to do better.”