Cairo and Dubai-based ride-sharing company Swvl plans to go public in a merger with special purpose acquisition company Queen’s Gambit Growth Capital, Swvl said Tuesday. The deal will see Swvl valued at roughly $1.5 billion.
Swvl was founded by Mostafa Kandil, Mahmoud Nouh and Ahmed Sabbah in 2017. The trio started the company as a bus-hailing service in Egypt and other ride-sharing services in emerging markets with fragmented public transportation.
Its services, mainly bus-hailing, enables users to make intra-state journeys by booking seats on buses running a fixed route. This is pocket-friendly for residents in these markets compared to single-rider options and helps reduce emissions (Swvl claims it has prevented over 240 million pounds of carbon emission since inception).
After its Egypt launch, Swvl expanded to Kenya, Pakistan, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. The company also moved its headquarters to Dubai as part of its strategy to become a global company.
Swvl offerings have expanded beyond bus-hailing services. Now, the company offers inter-city rides, car ride-sharing, and corporate services across the 10 cities it operates in across Africa and the Middle East.
Queen’s Gambit, the women-led SPAC in charge of the deal, raised $300 million in January and added $45 million via an underwriters’ overallotment option focusing on startups in clean energy, healthcare and mobility sectors.
The statement also mentions a group of investors — Agility, Luxor Capital and Zain Group — which will contribute $100 million through a private investment in public equity, or PIPE.
Per Crunchbase, Swvl has raised over $170 million. From an African perspective, Swvl features as one of the most venture-backed startups on the continent. The company has been touted to reach unicorn status in the past and will when this SPAC merger is completed.
The company will aptly trade under the ticker SWVL. The listing will make it the first Egyptian startup to go public outside Egypt and the second to go public after Fawry. It will also make the mobility company the largest African unicorn debut on any U.S.-listed exchange, beating Jumia’s debut of $1.1 billion on the NYSE. In the Middle East, Swvl joins music-streaming platform Anghami as the second startup to go public via a SPAC merger.
Swvl had annual gross revenue of $26 million in 2020, according to the statement, and the company expects its annual gross revenue to increase to $79 million this year and $1 billion by 2025 after expanding to 20 countries across five continents.
On why Queen’s Gambit picked Swvl for this deal, Victoria Grace, founder and CEO, said in a statement that the company fit the profile of what she was looking for: “a disruptive platform that solves complex challenges and empowers underserved populations.”
“Having established a leadership position in key emerging markets, we believe Swvl is ready to capitalize on a truly global market opportunity,” she added.
In May, TechCrunch wrote that SPACs didn’t target African startups for several reasons, including a lack of global appeal and private capital and market satisfaction. Judging by Grace’s comments, Swvl has that global appeal and is ready to venture into the public market despite being in operation for just four years.
Cash is the predominant method of sending and receiving payments in the Middle East. If you owe someone a cup of coffee or a trip over a long period, repaying via cash is your best bet. This is one problem out of many financial issues that haven’t been addressed in the region.
The good news is that startups are springing up to provide solutions. Last month Telda, a now two-month-old startup in Egypt, raised an impressive sum as pre-seed to offer digital banking services. Today, Ziina, another startup based in Dubai, has closed $7.5 million in seed funding to scale its peer-to-peer (P2P) payment service across the Middle East and North Africa.
Ziina has managed to enlist top global investors and fintech founders in the round. Avenir Growth and Class 5 Global led this latest tranche of financing. Wamda Capital, FJ Labs, Graph Ventures, Goodwater Capital, Jabbar Internet Group, Oman Technology Fund’s Jasoor Ventures, and ANIM also participated.
The founders who took part include Checkout CEO Guillaume Pousaz via his investment fund Zinal Growth; Krishnan Menon, BukuKas CEO, as well as executives from Paypal and Venmo. This adds to a roster of executives and early employees from Revolut, Stripe, Brex, Notion, and Deel that joined Ziina’s round.
According to the company, it has raised over $8.6 million since launching last year. This includes the $850,000 pre-seed raised in May 2020 and $125,000 secured after going through Y Combinator’s Winter batch early this year.
Ziina was founded by Faisal Toukan, Sarah Toukan, and Andrew Gold. It’s the latest addition to the Middle East’s bubbling fintech ecosystem and is capitalising on the region’s rapid adoption of fintech friendly regulation.
The company allows users to send and receive payments with just a phone number —no IBAN or swift code required as is the de facto method in the UAE and some parts of the Middle East. It also claims to be the country’s first licensed social peer-to-peer application “on a mission to simplify finance for everyone.”
After meeting during a hackathon in the U.S., Faisal and Gold began exchanging ideas on how to build wallets, wanting to mirror the successes platforms like WePay, Paytm have had. At the time, VCs seemed to be interested in how the wallets ecosystem intersected with banking.
“The lines between wallets and banking have become really blurred. Every wallet has a banking partner, and people who use wallets use them for their day-to-day needs,” CEO Faisal Toukan said to TechCrunch.
On the other hand, Sarah, who is Faisal’s sister, was on her personal fintech journey in London. There, she attended several meetups headlined by the founders of Monzo and Revolut. With her knowledge and the experience of the other two, the founders decided that solving P2P payments issues was their own way of driving massive impact in the Middle East.
So how far have they gone? “We launched a beta for the market but it’s restricted for regulatory reasons and basically to keep ourselves in check with the ecosystem,” Toukan remarked. “Since then, we’ve gotten regulated. We’ve got a banking partner, one of the three largest banks in the UAE, and we’ve set a new wallet a month from now. That’s also what we were working throughout our period in YC. So it’s been quite an eventful year.”
The fintech sector in MENA is growing fast; in terms of numbers, at a CAGR of 30%. Also, in the UAE, it is estimated that over 450 fintech companies will raise about $2 billion in 2022 compared to the $80 million raised in 2017. Fintechs in the region are focused on solving payments, transfers, and remittances. Alongside its P2P offering, these are the areas Ziina wants to play in, including investment and cryptocurrency services.
According to Toukan, there’s no ease of making online investments, and remittances are done in exchange houses, a manual process where people need to visit an office physically. “So what we’re looking to do is to bring all these products to life in the UAE and expand beyond that. But the first pain point we’re solving for is for people to send and receive money with two clicks,” the CEO affirmed.
Starting with P2P has its own advantages. First, peer-to-peer services is a repeat behavioural mechanism that allows companies to establish trust with customers. Also, it’s a cheaper customer acquisition model. Toukan says that as Zinna expands geographically — Saudi Arabia and Jordan in 2022; and Egypt and Tunisia some years from now — as he wants the company’s wallet to become seamless cross border. “We want a situation where if you move into Saudi or Dubai, you’re able to use the same wallet versus using different banking applications,” he added.
To be on the right side of regulation is key to any fintech expansion, and Toukan says Ziina has been in continuous dialogue with regulators to operate efficiently. But some challenges have stemmed from finding the right banking partners. “You need to make a case to the banks that this is basically a mutually beneficial partnership. And the way we’ve done that is by basically highlighting different cases globally like CashApp that worked with Southern Bank,” he said.
Now that the company has moved past that challenge, it’s in full swing to launch. Presently, Ziina has thousands of users who transacted more than $120,000 on the platform this past month. According to the company, there are over 20,000 users on its waiting list, and they will be onboarded post-launch.
Ziina has already built a team with experience across tech companies like Apple, Uber, Stanford, Coinbase, Careem, Oracle, and Yandex. It plans to double down on hiring with this new investment and customer acquisition and establishing commercial partnerships.
There are more than 400 million Arabic speakers globally and that number isn’t slowing down anytime soon. Arabic, to most people, is a tough language even to those who speak it. According to Duolingo, someone fluent in Egyptian Arabic might not fully understand Yemeni Arabic speakers because of the vast difference in dialect.
While individuals can easily navigate dialects, it can be relatively hard for them to find tailored Arabic content essential for everyday life.
Dr Ihab Fikry and Ibrahim Kamel founded Almentor.net in 2016 as an online video learning platform to compensate for this lack of online learning content for Arabic speakers. In collaboration with hundreds of leaders, educators, and experts, the platform offers courses and talks in various fields like health, humanities, technology, entrepreneurship, business management, lifestyle, drama, sports, corporate communication, and digital media.
In 2016, Almentor closed a $3.5 million seed round and two years ago raised $4.5 million Series A led by Egypt’s Sawari Ventures. With this Series B investment, the Dubai-based edtech company has raised $14.5 million in total. San Francisco and Paris-based VC firm Partech led the financing round with participation from Sawari Ventures, fellow Series A investor Egypt Ventures, and Sango Capital.
Almentor provides Arab learners with the necessary skills crucially needed to advance their professional careers and personal lives. The platform claims to have the biggest continuous learning library in the region and one of the biggest worldwide. With offices in Dubai, Cairo, and Saudi Arabia, its video content is developed in-house and made in Arabic and English.
“The vision and reason behind starting Almentor is we understand that in our region of more than 100 million people, of which 90% cannot properly learn with any other language other than Arabic,” Fikry said to TechCrunch. “So we wanted to have a cutting-edge state of the art platform that will change people’s ideology and help them be objective, and focus based on topics that can be taught as prodigious learning.”
For first-time products like Almentor, it can be hard to get both investors and customers on board. According to CEO Fikry, the first challenge was to convince the investment community in the MENA region that Almentor was creating a new industry in video e-learning that “had lots of potential to power tools in the region.”
Almentor’s business is an intersection of education, media, and technology. Its offerings are dissected into three: the flagship B2C product, a white-label B2B model for blue-chip companies, and the last, which Fikry calls the ‘special project’ for governmental bodies.
For its B2C product, Almentor sells courses to users for $20-$30 of which they get to keep for a lifetime. Fikry says that in June, the company is planning to introduce a subscription-based model where users can have unlimited access to all of its 12,000 video content for a fee to its more than 1 million registered users.
The B2B model is where Almentor opens its library to companies to customize their content for employees. These videos are mainly tutorials or training needed to thrive at work, and since 2016, Almentor has executed 78 deals with partner companies.
The special project’s model highlights Almentor’s work with the government. One time, the company had a partnership with the Egyptian government to upskill the country’s movie industry. It has completed 11 more similar special projects since launching five years ago.
Across all three models, Fikry says Almentor has successfully delivered more than 2 million learning experiences. With this investment, the company wants to improve content production and quality and educate people in the MENA region on why they need the product.
“We are now leading the continuous video learning industry in the Arab region, and we have a responsibility that goes beyond our ambitions for Almentor. Our responsibility now is to work unceasingly to improve the industry as a whole in the Arab region, and this can only be achieved through gaining the confidence of the Arab learners in the value, professionalism and impartiality of the content provided by the platform and working in line with the global learning trends.”
Speaking on the investment for Partech, general partner Cyril Collon said: “Since our first interaction, we have been very impressed by Ihab and Ibrahim, two fantastic mission-driven entrepreneurs who have been executing on a bold vision since 2016, and who built the leading Arabic self-learning go-to content provider in the Middle East and Africa. We are looking forward to supporting the company in its next phase of growth to serve the 430 million Arabic-speaking population and expand access to on-demand cutting-edge personal learning & developments options.”
The close was three-quarters of the target and was done in less than a year following the firm’s launch in February 2020. According to the firm, the second close should be concluded by the end of this year or Q1 2022.
Founded by partners Khaled Talhouni, Sarah Abu Risheh and Stephanie Nour Prince, Nuwa primarily targets markets in the Middle East and the wider GCC. The partners have a track record of investing in Middle Eastern companies — Careem, Mumzworld, Golden Scent and Nana Direct. However, they have also invested in Twiga Foods and AZA, two East African startups.
They have cut checks for three companies with this new fund: two Dubai-based companies, Eyewa and Flexxpay, and one Egypt-based company, Homzmart. And despite having a strong focus on the Middle East and the GCC, the firm wants to double down on investing in more African startups, particularly in Egypt and East Africa.
I spoke with the partners to discuss their past investments, why they are interested in Africa and the similarities and differences between the regions they operate in. This interview has been edited lightly for length and clarity.
TC: Why is Nuwa Capital choosing Sub-Saharan Africa as one of its target markets?
Khaled: I mean, it’s not our primary market, but it’s an area of secondary focus for us, which we’re really interested in. And we think that there are a lot of learnings from the Middle East that we can take from our experience of investing regionally here that we can use for investing in Africa, particularly in East Africa, especially as the digital adoption increases very significantly.
TC: Nuwa Capital invested in Homzmart recently. Are there any other startups Nuwa has invested in or plans to in North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa?
Sarah: So there is a lot of the deal flow we’ve seen in North Africa, and we just started in December. We are seeing a lot of companies in Egypt, Morocco, across all of North Africa, and in the coming months, we will be investing aggressively across that geography. But for now, Homzmart is our only African investment.
TC: How do you plan to make the transition in investing in Sub-Saharan Africa?
Sarah: We have a network in East Africa because, in our previous fund, we did invest in two companies in Kenya. One was Twiga and the other was BitPesa, which is now AZA. We’ve invested in those, and as part of our due diligence and network that we’ve built in Africa, that’s why we think the opportunity is there because we got to see it and understood the market with those two companies.
TC: From your perception of how the African market is, how is it different from the GCC?
Sarah: There are different ways to look at it. But Africa is different from the GCC markets in terms of the population sizes, in terms of the purchasing power of people and in terms of companies that get a lot of attraction based on mass volume. So the success of the company sometimes is based on volume. So like a large number of people signing up to a company, for example. In Twiga, for example, it was bridging the gap between farmers and vendors, so they had a large number of farmers, and that really had a lot of power. And I think that’s where we see opportunity in Africa — in the power of the population.
Stephanie: From a VC standpoint, many funds have cropped up in the GCC region in the past couple of years, so there’s a lot more capital flowing directly in the market. That may not be exactly mirrored yet in East Africa if I might say. Also, I guess what we see from where we are in East Africa is that the capital seems to be concentrated around a particular set of founders.
TC: What will be the investment strategy for Nuwa Capital in Africa?
Sarah: We look for companies that fit into our thesis. So I can talk a bit more about the sectors that we invest in. So fintech is a large one that we look at. And then, we have a big focus on SaaS across different industries. We also really like e-commerce and marketplaces, the top of private label angle and private brands selling through e-commerce marketplaces.
L-R: Khaled Talhouni, Sarah Abu Risheh and Stephanie Nour Prince
And then we also have, we also look at something that we call the rapidly digitizing industries, and that’s companies that are disrupting the traditional industries through technology in education, health tech, agritech. So these are the theses we look at, and that’s how we drive our investment strategy. In terms of ticket sizes and stages, we focus on seed and Series A, and then we could also follow on in the round.
Stephanie: So when it particularly comes to Africa, what we’ve seen, which is also very interesting for us, is an increase of companies pitching to us in healthcare, in agritech, in different variations of financial services or intersection of fintech and something else. That will be very interesting also for us as we move forward, as we start looking a bit more intently.
TC: Since you are relatively new to African investment, will you be looking to partner or liaise with other VCs based on the continent?
Stephanie: It‘s a very common practice for us. We’re quite collaborative as a fund, and that’s also due to the nature of the region where you end up co-investing with a number of funds, and sometimes they tend to be the same funds that you have a similar mindset with. So that happens quite a bit; I think it’s very likely also to happen with funds we’ve co-invested with in the past in Africa.
TC: Egypt has been one of the exciting countries in both Africa and the Middle East region. What do you think is going for the market?
Stephanie: Egypt is one of the primary markets that we focus on. We are seeing a large part of our pipeline coming from Egypt. We’ve also seen a great shift in Egypt over the past few years where the type of entrepreneurs, the type of founders that are coming to us, are more mature and more experienced and just a higher calibre than before. We used to see a lot of earlier-stage companies with inexperienced founders. But today, what we’re seeing is just amazing. We are very bullish on the market when it is one of our primary focus markets.
Sarah: When companies come out of Egypt, their expansion strategy is usually either to the rest of North Africa or East Africa. Some will come to the GCC, while some will stay in Africa, depending on what industry they’re in. But I think that as we invest more in Egypt and then actively into our East Africa strategy will give us really good exposure in Africa, and as we grow, our subsequent funds will look more into Africa.
TC: Is there a portion of the fund dedicated to the African market?
Khalid: I don’t think we have a specific percentage, but the continent is part of the major strategy. We have a significant portion of the fund targeted at Egypt but we’d like to do at least 5-10% of the fund in Africa, excluding Egypt. It depends on the final fund size but we’re really bullish on Africa.
The relationships between banks and fintechs are multi-faceted.
In some cases, they partner. In many cases, they compete. In other cases, one acquires or invests in the other.
Well, today, an announcement by global payments giant Visa is aimed at helping facilitate banks and fintechs’ ability to work together.
Specifically, Visa said today it has expanded its Visa Fintech Partner Connect, a program designed to help financial institutions quickly connect with a “vetted and curated” set of technology providers.
I talked with Terry Angelos, senior vice president and global head of fintech at Visa, to understand just exactly what that means.
“Global fintech investment last year was $105 billion,” Angelos said. “There were about 2,861 deals in venture, PE and M&A. So literally over $100 billion is going into fintech, which is more than the combined tech budgets of every bank in the U.S. As a result, a lot of innovation that is occurring in fintech is funded by venture dollars. We’re trying to bring that innovation to our clients, whether they are banks, processors or other fintechs.”
The program initially launched in Europe in November of 2020, and now is available in the U.S., Asia Pacific, Latin American and CEMEA (Central Europe, Middle East and Africa). Visa has worked to identify fintechs that can help banks and financial institutions (that are clients of Visa’s) as well as other fintechs “create digital-first experiences, without the cost and complexity of building the back-end technology in-house.”
Local teams will run programs in the respective regions, and vet and manage partners in the following categories: account opening, data aggregation, analytics and security, customer engagement and new cardholder services and operations and compliance.
So far, Visa has identified about 60 partners that offer a range of technologies — from back-office functions to new front-end services, according to Angelos. Those partners include Alloy, Jumio, Argyle, Fidel, FirstSource, TravelBank, Canopy, Hummingbird and Unit21, among others. Twenty-four are located in the U.S.
“So much of fintech focus and coverage is about disrupting existing banks. Everyone is trying to disrupt everyone, including fintechs like PayPal,” Angelos told TechCrunch. “Venture numbers are certainly very large. What we’re realizing is there is a significant opportunity to pair up a lot of venture-backed companies with our existing clients. It runs a little bit against us versus them approach you typically hear about.”
Visa clients can get in touch with program partners via the Visa Partner website and get benefits such as reduced implementation fees and pricing discounts.
“The Fintech Connect program is about both helping to identify and curate interesting fintech companies and then create a favorable commercial partnership for our clients so they can engage with these Fintech Connect partners,” Angelos said.
So, what does Visa gain from all this?
“Our goal is that all of our clients are in a position to build better digital experiences for their consumers,” he told TechCrunch. “We would love it if every bank had the latest tools in order to onboard clients and build digital experiences.”
One of its partners, for example, is virtual card startup Extend.
“There are fintechs that provide this today such as TripActions, Ramp and Divvy,” Angelos points out. “But what Visa is doing is looking at ‘How can we enable our banking clients to do something similar?’ So we’re bringing innovation into our ecosystem so that anyone can take advantage.”
It can also help companies such as TripActions, Ramp or Divvy with other complementary technologies for security posture, for example.
“The net beneficiary is to hopefully move more spending onto those rails,” Angelos said. “For example, if you look at B2B spend, there’s about $120 trillion of it annually. We believe about $20 trillion of that is card eligible. Today, Visa captures about $1 trillion of that. So, another $19 trillion is available for Visa to capture through our partners if our banks and fintechs can build these kinds of solutions to enable B2B payments.”
To be clear, Visa also invests in startups from time to time. But this initiative is distinct from those efforts, although a couple of its partners have been recipients of funding from Visa.
In most parts of Africa and the Middle East, a consumer journey and experience in buying furniture is not fun. A typical shopping process would entail looking out for the best price and quality and asking for recommendations and checking offline stores, one after another.
It is rare to find one-stop shops, especially large offline ones, that can adequately cater to the needs of consumers in the MENA region. Home goods and furniture marketplaces have launched in the last three years around the region to meet this need. Egypt’s Homzmart is one such, and today the company is announcing it has closed its $15 million Series A investment.
The company was founded in 2019 by Mahmoud Ibrahim and Ibrahim Mohamed, but it didn’t launch until the first quarter of 2020. This round of financing follows a $1.3 million seed investment raised in February last year. According to the company, this brings the total amount raised to $17.2 million.
China’s MSA Capital, one of the investors in Homzmart’s seed round, co-led this Series A investment alongside Nuwa Capital. Other participating investors include EQ2 Ventures, Impact46, Outliers Capital, Nuwa Capital and Rise Capital.
The furniture industry in Egypt has been historically characterized by poor accessibility for consumers. Homzmart’s marketplace collects designs, price ranges and other details of its retailers’ products and solves high distribution costs for them by providing access to consumers who have flexible financing options. In addition, Homzmart said it incorporates AI to optimize content for retailers and intelligent tools to help customers with their purchasing decisions.
“As a marketplace, we stand between the supply and demand. So we connect furniture and home goods suppliers with consumers,” CEO Mahmoud Ibrahim told TechCrunch in an interview. “It’s almost like a big hassle to buy furniture in Africa and the Middle East. And I think it’s a pain all over the world when it comes to having a place that you can shop all your needs when it comes to home products.”
Over the last 12 months, Homzmart claims to have grown 30x in sales. It also showcases more than 55,000 products from thousands of brands and merchants. The online marketplace is tapping into the rapidly expanding $8 billion industry where 14 million customers in the region search online for furniture monthly.
Ibrahim Mohamed (COO) and Mahmoud Ibrahim (CEO)
When Homzmark kicked off its hard launch and raised its seed round, it was right at the start of the pandemic. Ibrahim said the company was uncertain that it would survive due to anticipated behavioral changes in consumer spending. But the opposite happened. Customers in Egypt grew to like the product, resulting in more sales like most marketplaces and e-commerce platforms witnessed this past year.
“At the beginning, we were very worried and not sure how customers would react to buying furniture during the pandemic in the Middle East online. So we’re actually amazed by the traction as it seemed like the region was waiting for something like this to happen.”
The growth experienced within the pandemic was one reason MSA Capital decided to double down on the startup. As stated by Ben Harburg, the firm’s general partner, “The pandemic exposed the extreme vulnerabilities and inefficiencies of the Middle East’s archaic offline retail ecosystem, logistics and supply chain. Into the void stepped Homzmart as the next-generation, digitally enabled online marketplace and optimized logistics provider for large-item retail addressing both consumer and enterprise customers.”
Another reason behind the investment, the firm said, is the vast experience of both founders in e-commerce and fulfillment. Ibrahim was the VP of Operations for Jumia Egypt before becoming the Group COO of Daraz, a Southeast Asian company acquired by Alibaba in 2018. Mohamed is also a Jumia alumnus and was part of the logistics development and expansion team in Egypt.
Although their experience with different verticals in everyday commerce in Jumia and Daraz was invaluable, the founders chose to launch in the niche furniture market instead of building a similar model as their former employers. “We decided this was a really good vertical that we needed to focus on and hold ourselves accountable to digitizing in the region,” Ibrahim said about developing the niche product.
Homzmart’s first year in business was all about understanding supply and demand. The next couple of years is a strategy to expand across the MENA region, helping fulfill demand from a young and fast-growing consumer middle class.
“Whatever we did in Egypt, we need to do across the region. Homzmart isn’t looking to be just an Egyptian platform, rather a regional platform,” the CEO said.
The company has strategically launched operations close to Damietta City, Egypt, to focus on this regional market opportunity. The city is known to be one of the largest furniture manufacturing hubs in the Middle East and thus allows Homzmart to streamline the region’s vertical industry supply chain. An integral part of this supply chain is handling logistics and the movement of products from merchants to buyers. The company said a sizeable tranche of investments would be used for this effort.
What’s next for the company when logistics is handled?
“I’ll say the thing that keeps me awake at night is the fact that our business is growing very fast. And we need to make sure that we’re building the right institutional infrastructure for that business, to make sure that after two or three years, we’re building like a very solid, multi-billion dollar business,” Ibrahim remarked.