For global venture capitalists still on the fence about entering Africa, a first move could be co-investing with a proven fund that’s already working in the region.
Africa’s startup scene is performance-light — one major IPO and a handful of exits — but there could be greater returns for investors who get in early. For funds from Silicon Valley to Tokyo, building a portfolio and experience on the continent with those who already have expertise could be the best start.
Africa has one of the fastest-growing tech sectors in the world, as ranked by startup origination and year-over-year increases in VC spending. There’s been a mass mobilization of capital toward African startups around a basic continent-wide value proposition for tech.
Significant economic growth and reform in the continent’s major commercial hubs of Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana and Ethiopia is driving the formalization of a number of informal sectors, such as logistics, finance, retail and mobility. Demographically, Africa has one of the world’s fastest-growing youth populations, and continues to register the fastest global growth in smartphone adoption and internet penetration.
Africa is becoming a startup continent with thousands of entrepreneurs and ventures who have descended on every problem and opportunity.
Cape Town based startup Zindi has registered 10,000 data-scientists on its platform that uses AI and machine learning to crowdsolve complex problems in Africa.
Founded in 2018, the early-stage venture allows companies, NGOs or government institutions to host online competitions around data-oriented challenges.
Zindi opens the contests to the African data scientists on its site who can join a competition, submit solution sets, move up a leader board and win — for a cash prize payout.
The highest purse so far has been $12,000, according to Zindi co-founder Celina Lee. Competition hosts receive the results, which they can use to create new products or integrate into their existing systems and platforms.
It’s free for data scientists to create a profile on the site, but those who fund the competitions pay Zindi a fee, which is how the startup generates revenue.
The South African National Roads Agency sponsored a challenge in 2019 to reduce traffic fatalities in South Africa. The stated objective is “to build a machine learning model that accurately predicts when and where the next road incident will occur in Cape Town… to enable South African authorities… to put measures in place that will… ensure safety.”
Attaining 10,000 registered data-scientists represents a more than 100 percent increase for Zindi since August 2019, when TechCrunch last spoke to Lee.
The startup — which is in the process of raising a Series A funding round — plans to connect its larger roster to several new platform initiatives. Zindi will launch a university wide hack-competition, called UmojoHack Africa, across 10 countries in March.
“We’re also working on a section on our site that is specifically designed to run hackathons…something that organizations and universities could use to upskill their students or teams specifically,” Lee said.
Lee (who’s originally from San Francisco) co-founded Zindi with South African Megan Yates and Ghanaian Ekow Duker. They lead a team in the company’s Cape Town office.
For Lee, the startup is a merger of two facets of her experience.
“It all just came together. I have this math-y tech background, and I was working in non-profits and development, but I’d always been trying to join the two worlds,” she said.
That happened with Zindi, which is for-profit — though roughly 80% of the startup’s competitions have some social impact angle, according to Lee.
“In an African context, solving problems for for-profit companies can definitely have social impact as well,” she said.
With most of the continent’s VC focused on fintech or e-commerce startups, Zindi joins a unique group of ventures — such as Andela and Gebeya — that are building tech-talent in Africa’s data-scientist and software engineer space.
If Zindi can convene data-scientists to solve problems for companies and governments across the entire continent that could open up a vast addressable market.
It could also see the startup become an alternative to more expensive consulting firms operating in Africa’s large economies, such as South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya .
VC firm TLcom Capital has closed its Tide Africa Fund at $71 million with plans to make up to 12 startup investments over the next 18 months.
“We’re rather sector agnostic, but right now we are looking at companies that are more infrastructure type tech rather than super commoditized things like consumer lending,” he told TechCrunch on a call.
On geographic scope, TLcom Capital will focus primarily on startups in Africa’s big-three tech hubs — Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa — but is also eyeing rising markets, such as Ethiopia.
Part of the fund’s investment approach, according to Caio, is backing viable companies with strong founders and then staying out of the way.
“We are venture capitalists that believe in looking at Africa as an investment opportunity that empowers local entrepreneurs without…coming in and explaining what to do,” said Caio.
TLcom’s team includes Caio (who’s Italian), partners Ido Sum and Andreata Muforo (from Zimbabwe) and senior partner Omobola Johnson, the former Minister of Communication Technology in Nigeria.
Speaking at TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin in 2018, Johnson offered perspective on next startups in Africa that could reach billion-dollar valuations. “When I look at the African market I suspect it’s going to be a company that’s very much focused on business to business and business to very small business — a company that can that can solve their challenges,” she said.
TLcom’s current Africa portfolio reflects startups similar to what Johnson described. The fund has invested in Nigerian trucking logistics venture Kobo360, which is working to reduce business delivery costs in Africa.
Both of these companies have gone on to expand in Africa and receive subsequent investment by U.S. investment bank, Goldman Sachs .
The firm’s close of the $71 million Tide Africa Fund comes on the high-end of a several-year mobilization of capital for the continent’s startup scene. Investment shops specifically focused on Africa have been on the rise. A TechCrunch and Crunchbase study in 2018 tracked 51 viable Africa specific VC funds globally, TLcom included.
This trend has moved in tandem with a quadrupling of venture funding for the continent over the past six years. Accurately measuring VC for Africa is a work in progress, but one of the earlier reliable estimates placed it at just over $400 million in 2014. Recent stats released by Partech peg Africa focused VC funding at over $2 billion for 2019.
TLcom’s listed in a number of the larger rounds that made up Partech’s tally.
The fund’s latest $71 million raise, which included support from Sango Capital and IFC, reversed the roles a bit for TLcom founder Maurizio Caio.
The VC principal — who usually gets pitches from African startups — needed to sell the value of African tech to other investors.
“It’s been tough to raise the fund, there’s no doubt about it,” Caio said. TLcom highlighted its past exit record and the viability of the African market and founders to bring investors on board.
“We had the advantage of showing some good exits…The emphasis was also on the gigantic size of these markets that are underserved, the role that technology can play, and the fact that the entrepreneurs in Africa are just as good as anywhere else,” said Caio.
He also referenced African startups being constrained by the social impact factors often placed on them from outside investors.
“The equation is not just about ensuring employment and inclusion, but also about the fact that African entrepreneurs have to be in charge of their own destiny without instructions from the West,” he said.
For those startups who wish to pitch to TLcom Capital, Caio encouraged founders to contact one of the fund’s partners and share a value proposition. “If it’s something we find vaguely interesting, we’ll make a decision,” he said.
When Uber and Lyft went public, it wasn’t the drivers who got rich — it was the executives, investors and some early employees. In an era when it has become clear that tech executives and investors are frequently the only ones who’ll reap rewards for a company’s success, cooperative startups are getting more attention.
Depending on how it’s set up, a cooperative model offers workers and users true ownership and control in a company; any profits that are generated are returned to the members or reinvested in the company.
Co-ops aren’t new: The nation’s longest-running example is The Philadelphia Contributionship, a mutually owned insurance company founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1752. In 1895, the International Co-operative Alliance formed to serve as a way to unite cooperatives across the world. Some colleges have student-run housing co-ops where cleaning, food preparation and other responsibilities are shared. Today, there are many well-known large-scale co-ops, including outdoor recreation store REI, Arizmendi Bakery in San Francisco and Blue Diamond Growers, one of the world’s largest tree-nut processors.
What’s novel, however, is applying the co-op model to technology startups. Start.coop, an accelerator for cooperative startups, is just one group trying to facilitate that practice.
The Catalyst Fund has gained $15 million in new support from JP Morgan and UK Aid and will back 30 fintech startups in Africa, Asia, and Latin America over the next three years.
The Boston based accelerator provides mentorship and non-equity funding to early-stage tech ventures focused on driving financial inclusion in emerging and frontier markets.
That means connecting people who may not have access to basic financial services — like a bank account, credit or lending options — to those products.
Catalyst Fund will choose an annual cohort of 10 fintech startups in five designated countries: Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, India and Mexico. Those selected will gain grant-funds and go through a six-month accelerator program. The details of that and how to apply are found here.
“We’re offering grants of up to $100,000 to early-stage companies, plus venture building support…and really…putting these companies on a path to product market fit,” Catalyst Fund Director Maelis Carraro told TechCrunch.
Program participants gain exposure to the fund’s investor networks and investor advisory committee, that include Accion and 500 Startups. With the $15 million Catalyst Fund will also make some additions to its network of global partners that support the accelerator program. Names will be forthcoming, but Carraro, was able to disclose that India’s Yes Bank and University of Cambridge are among them.
Catalyst fund has already accelerated 25 startups through its program. Companies, such as African payments venture ChipperCash and SokoWatch — an East African B2B e-commerce startup for informal retailers — have gone on to raise seven-figure rounds and expand to new markets.
Those are kinds of business moves Catalyst Fund aims to spur with its program. The accelerator was founded in 2016, backed by JP Morgan and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Catalyst Fund is now supported and managed by Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors and global tech consulting firm BFA.
African fintech startups have dominated the accelerator’s startups, comprising 56% of the portfolio into 2019.
That trend continued with Catalyst Fund’s most recent cohort, where five of six fintech ventures — Pesakit, Kwara, Cowrywise, Meerkat and Spoon — are African and one, agtech credit startup Farmart, operates in India.
The draw to Africa is because the continent demonstrates some of the greatest need for Catalyst Fund’s financial inclusion mission.
Roughly 66% of Sub-Saharan Africa’s 1 billion people don’t have a bank account, according to World Bank data.
Collectively, these numbers have led to the bulk of Africa’s VC funding going to thousands of fintech startups attempting to scale finance solutions on the continent.
Digital finance in Africa has also caught the attention of notable outside names. Twitter/Square CEO Jack Dorsey recently took an interest in Africa’s cryptocurrency potential and Wall Street giant Goldman Sachs has invested in fintech related startups on the continent.
This lends to the question of JP Morgan’s interests vis-a-vis Catalyst Fund and Africa’s financial sector.
For now, JP Morgan doesn’t have plans to invest directly in Africa startups and is taking a long-view in its support of the accelerator, according to Colleen Briggs — JP Morgan’s Head of Community Innovation
“We find financial health and financial inclusion is a…cornerstone for inclusive growth…For us if you care about a stable economy, you have to start with financial inclusion,” said Briggs, who also oversees the Catalyst Fund.
This take aligns with JP Morgan’s 2019 announcement of a $125 million, philanthropic, five-year global commitment to improve financial health in the U.S. and globally.
More recently, JP Morgan Chase posted some of the strongest financial results on Wall Street, with Q4 profits of $2.9 billion. It’ll be worth following if the company shifts any of its income-generating prowess to business and venture funding activities in Catalyst Fund markets like Nigeria, India and Mexico.
Bolt, the billion-dollar startup out of Estonia that’s building a ride-hailing, scooter and food delivery business across Europe and Africa, has picked up a tranche of funding in its bid to take on Uber and the rest in the world of on-demand transportation.
The company has picked up €50 million (about $56 million) from the European Investment Bank to continue developing its technology and safety features, as well as to expand newer areas of its business, such as food delivery and personal transport like e-scooters.
With this latest money, Bolt has raised more than €250 million in funding since opening for business in 2013, and as of its last equity round in July 2019 (when it raised $67 million), it was valued at over $1 billion, which Bolt has confirmed to me remains the valuation here.
Bolt further said that its service now has more than 30 million users in 150 cities and 35 countries and is profitable in two-thirds of its markets.
The timing of the last equity round, and the company’s ambitious growth plans, could well mean it will be raising more equity funding again soon. Bolt’s existing backers include the Chinese ride-hailing giant Didi, Creandum, G Squared and Daimler (which owns a ride-hailing competitor, Free Now — formerly called MyTaxi).
“Bolt is a good example of European excellence in tech and innovation. As you say, to stand still is to go backwards, and Bolt is never standing still,” said EIB’s vice president, Alexander Stubb, in a statement. “The Bank is very happy to support the company in improving its services, as well as allowing it to branch out into new service fields. In other words, we’re fully on board!”
The EIB is the nonprofit, long-term lending arm of the European Union, and this financing in the form of a quasi-equity facility.
Also known as venture debt, the financing is structured as a loan, where repayment terms are based on a percentage of future revenue streams, and ownership is not diluted. The funding is backed in turn by the European Fund for Strategic Investments, as part of a bigger strategy to boost investment in promising companies, and specifically riskier startups, in the tech industry. It expects to make and spur some €458.8 billion in investments across 1 million startups and SMEs as part of this plan.
Opting for a “quasi-equity” loan instead of a straight equity or debt investment is attractive to Bolt for a couple of reasons. One is the fact that the funding comes without ownership dilution. Two is the endorsement and support of the EU itself, in a market category where tech disruptors have been known to run afoul of regulators and lawmakers, in part because of the ubiquity and nature of the transportation/mobility industry.
“Mobility is one of the areas where Europe will really benefit from a local champion who shares the values of European consumers and regulators,” said Martin Villig, the co-founder of Bolt (whose brother Markus is the CEO), in a statement. “Therefore, we are thrilled to have the European Investment Bank join the ranks of Bolt’s backers as this enables us to move faster towards serving many more people in Europe.”
(Butting heads with authorities is something that Bolt is no stranger to: It tried to enter the lucrative London taxi market through a backdoor to bypass the waiting time to get a license. It really didn’t work, and the company had to wait another 21 months to come to London doing it by the book. In its first six months of operation in London, the company has picked up 1.5 million customers.)
While private VCs account for the majority of startup funding, backing from government groups is an interesting and strategic route for tech companies that are making waves in large industries that sit adjacent to technology. Before it was acquired by PayPal, IZettle also picked up a round of funding from the EIB specifically to invest in its AI R&D. Navya, the self-driving bus and shuttle startup, has also raised money from the EIB in the past, as has MariaDB.
One of the big issues with on-demand transportation companies has been their safety record, a huge area of focus given the potential scale and ubiquity of a transportation or mobility service. Indeed, this is at the center of Uber’s latest scuffle in Europe, where London’s transport regulator has rejected a license renewal for the company over concerns about Uber’s safety record. (Uber is appealing; while it does, it’s business as usual.)
So it’s no surprise that with this funding, Bolt says that it will be specifically using the money to develop technology to “improve the safety, reliability and sustainability of its services while maintaining the high efficiency of the company’s operations.”
Bolt is one of a group of companies that have been hatched out of Estonia, which has worked to position itself as a leader in Europe’s tech industry as part of its own economic regeneration in the decades after existing as part of the Soviet Union (it formally left in 1990). The EIB has invested around €830 million in Estonian projects in the last five years.
“Estonia is as the forefront of digital transformation in Europe,” said Paolo Gentiloni, European Commissioner for the Economy, in a statement. “I am proud that Europe, through the Investment Plan, supports Estonian platform Bolt’s research and development strategy to create innovative and safe services that will enhance urban mobility.”
To kick off 2020, one of Europe’s newer — and more successful — investment firms has closed a fresh, oversubscribed fund, one sign that VC in the region will continue to run strong in the year ahead after startups across Europe raised between $35 billion and $36 billion in 2019.
Felix Capital, the London VC founded by Frederic Court that was one of the earlier firms to identify and invest in the trend of direct-to-consumer businesses, has raised $300 million, money that it plans to use to continue investing in creative and consumer startups and platform plays as well as begin to tap into a newer area, fintech — specifically startups that are focused on consumer finance.
Felix up to now has focused mostly on earlier-stage investments — it now has $600 million under management and 32 companies in its portfolio in eight countries — based across both Europe and the US. Court said in an interview that a portion of this fund will now also go into later, growth rounds, both for companies that Felix has been backing for some time as well as newer faces.
As with the focus of the investments, the make-up of the fund itself has a strong European current: the majority of the LPs are European, Court noted. Although Asia is something it would like to tackle more in the future both as a market for its current portfolio and as an investment opportunity, he added, the firm has yet to invest into the region or substantially raise money from it.
Felix made its debut in 2015, founded by Court after a strong run at Advent Capital where he was involved in a number of big exits. While Court had been a strong player in enterprise software, Felix was a step-change for him into more of a primary focus on consumer startups focused on fashion, lifestyle and creative pursuits.
That has over the years included investing in companies like the breakout high-fashion marketplace Farfetch (which he started to back when still at Advent and is now public), Gwyneth Paltrow’s GOOP, the jewellery startup Mejuri, trend-watching HighSnobiety, and fitness startup Peloton (which has also IPO’d).
It’s not an altogether easygoing, vanilla list of cool stuff. Peloton and GOOP have had been mightily doused in snarky and sharky sentiments; and sometimes it even seems as if the brands themselves own and cultivate that image. As the saying goes, there’s no such thing as bad press, I guess.
Although it wasn’t something especially articulated in startup land at the time of Felix’s launch, what the firm was honing in on was a rising category of direct-to-consumer startups, essentially all in the area of e-commerce and building brands and businesses that were bypassing traditional retailers and retail channels to develop primary relationships with consumers through newer digital channels such as social media, messaging and email (alongside their own DTC websites).
This is not Felix’s sole focus, with investments into a range of platform businesses like corporate travel site TravelPerk, Amazon -backed food delivery juggernaut Deliveroo and Moonbug (a platform for children’s entertainment content); and increasingly later stage rounds (for example it was part of a $104 million round at TravelPerk; a $70 million round for marketplace-building service Mirakl; and $23 million for Mejuri.
Court’s track record prior to Felix, and the success of the current firm to date, are two likely reasons why this latest fund was oversubscribed, and why Court says it wants to further spread its wings into a wider range of areas and investment stages.
The interest in consumer finance is not such a large step away from these areas, when you consider that they are just the other side of the coin from e-commerce: saving money versus spending money.
“We see this as our prism of opportunity,” said Court. “Just as we had the intuition that there was a space for investors looking at [DTC]… we now think there is enough evidence that there is demand from consumers for new ways of dealing with money and personal finance.”
The firm has from the start operated with a board of advisors who also invest money through Felix while also holding down day jobs.
They include the likes of executives from eBay, Facebook, and more. David Marcus –who Court backed when he built payments company Zong and eventually sold it to eBay before he went on to become a major mover and shaker at Facebook and is now has the possibly Sisyphean task of building Calibra — is on the list, but that has not translated into Felix dabbling in cryptocurrency.
“We are watching cryptocurrency, but if you take a Felix stance on the area, it’s only had one amazing brand so far, bitcoin,” said Court. “The rest, for a consumer, is very difficult to understand and access. It’s still really early, but I’ve got no doubt that there will be some things emerging, particularly around the idea of ‘invisible money.'”