Telebirr, a mobile money service run by the state-owned telecom company, Ethiotelecom launched in May 2021. As of April 2022, Telebirr reached over 17.6 million subscribers with a total transaction of about 245 million USD. Telebirr can be said to be the successful one among other fintech apps which vanished in their early days such as M-Birr.
Telebirr’s short time success with regard to attaining a significant number of users and aggressive marketing campaign, its partnership, and integration with the services of all the major banks can be attributed to the attention it is given by the state-owned Ethio Telecom and the upcoming prospect competition from giants in the sector such as Safaricom’s M-Pesa.
However, apart from Telebirr’s promissory journey, software developers are raising concerns over its application programming interface (API).
An application programming interface (API) is code documentation that allows two software programs to communicate with each other, as a translator for two individuals speaking different languages.
Yafet Getachew, a software developer and DevOps Engineer, is one of the professionals who shared their observation on the technical flaws Telebirr’s API is claimed to have.
In his elaborate article on Linkedin, Yafet wrote, “The first issue I encountered was understanding the documentation, a poorly written Huawei document (probably app translated) that described an intricate request”.
According to API architecture and design principles commonly known are easily discoverable, should be designed for reuse, APIs should be independent and execute one function, secured and manageable.
Yafet states that Building/designing APIs certainly requires insight into how they might be used by other developers. System designers or developers of platforms like Telebirr, e-commerce platforms, or others are expected to prepare wisely written API documentation and provide it for other developers who are interested in integrating their software with the provider’s app.
A developer and founder of a prominent software and web development company in Addis Ababa, who is named Daniel in this article on grounds of speaking anonymously, told Addis Zeybe that APIs comprise commands that describe how information is exchanged between programs, done in the form of a request for processing and a return of the necessary data.
Daniel says that his company is also being seriously challenged to integrate newly developed software to Telebirr application API, which is a partner API type used to facilitate business-to-business activities.
“I was annoyed to have wasted my time with the badly written, incomplete documentation,” reflects Yafet in his article.
APIs' main purpose is to work as a common language. For example, as Telebirr is an electronic payment platform, the API works by accepting payment orders by birr from the integrated software and executing this order to Telebirr.
Telebirr’s API documentation should contain the appropriate codes to allow and direct the newly integrated software on how to order payment, calculate the amount, and the money transfer methods.
Daniel, who experienced similar challenges as Yafet, says any software developer will prepare a manual containing the software’s documentation. The main problem with Telebirr’s API manual is the documentation prepared to guide the integration of Telebirr with other software.
“What’s stated in the documentation and the actual process do not meet. For successful integration, this documentation would require the developer to go through a trial and error process which consumes more time,” he explains.
According to Daniel, the other problems with Telebirr API are authentication and encryption. The API authentication process validates the identity of the client attempting to make a connection by using an authentication protocol. The protocol sends the credentials from the remote client requesting the connection to the remote access server in either plain text or encrypted form.
The encryption and decryption APIs allow one to store information or to communicate with other parties while preventing uninvolved parties from understanding the stored information or the communication.
Daniel highlights the fact that data transmitted within Telebirr and the integrated software or application should be encrypted so that any third party can not define and understand these codes.
Telebirr provides documentation on how to integrate using its API, but when working based on the documentation, it will not respond to the errors in the process.
Errors are obvious on integration, say the professionals, but the documentation needs to contain error documentation to handle them. Understanding error codes usually will allow developers to quickly solve these errors. Telebirr’s error documentation and the real errors are not similar.
Both Yafet Getachew and Daniel called on Telebirr software engineers to identify these challenges and review its documentation to alleviate the drawbacks developers are facing. Until Telebirr solves its documentation problems, they advise software developers that they only have to engage in trial and error.
“Trial and error processes cause unplanned costs and time wastage. Telebirr may also lose software with the need to be integrated with the service as a result of documentation problems and discourage new developers to opt for Telebirr to integrate with their software,” says Daniel.
The experts' suggestion indicates that since Telebirr is primarily a system registered on the sandbox server, which is a trial stage, any form of error has a chance to be corrected at this stage before it is registered on the production server.
Yafet notes in the opening lines of his article, “ I write this short article with three aims: to describe my experience working with the API, to help guide other developers that might run into the same set of issues, and to appeal to any managers at Ethiotelecom to correct course”.
Addis Zeybe reached Ethiotelecom’s Telebirr officials for replies on these challenges but was left with no answer till the publication of this story.
Recognizing the multiple opportunities Telebirr offered them in the mobile finance service, these professionals stress that Telebirr had to improve its technical competence and simplify API-related problems mentioned earlier as it's on the course of being a major fintech app and ensure its competitiveness with giants in the industry.