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Alphabet’s Loon launches its balloon-powered Kenyan internet service

By Darrell Etherington

Alphabet’s Loon has officially begun operating its commercial internet service in Kenya . This is the first large-scale commercial offering that makes use of Loon’s high-altitude balloons, which essentially work as cell service towers that drift on currents in the Earth’s upper atmosphere. Loon’s Kenyan service is offered in partnership with local telecom provider Telkom Kenya, and provides cellular service through their network to an area covering roughly 50,000 square kilometres (31,000 square miles) that normally hasn’t had reliable service due to the difficulty of setting up ground infrastructure in the mountainous terrain.

Loon has been working towards deploying its first commercial service deployment in Kenya since it announced the signed deal in 2019, but the company says that the mission has taken on even greater significance and importance since the onset of COVID-19, which has meant that reliable connectivity, especially in light of the restrictions upon travel that the epidemic has placed, making the ability to remotely contact doctors, family members and others all the more important.

Some of the technical details of how Loon’s stratospheric balloons will offer this continuous service, and what kind of network quality people can expect include that the fleet includes around 35 balloons acting together which are moving constantly to maintain the target area coverage. Average speeds look to be around 18.9Mbps down, and 4.74 Mbps up, with 19 second latency, and real-world testing has shown that this has served well for use across voice and video calls, as well as YouTube streaming, WhatsApp use and more, according to Loon.

The path followed by Alphabet’s balloons as they provide service to the target area in Kenya.

The company actually began testing its service earlier this year, with many customers connecting to the network without even realizing it during those tests, and Loon says it has served over 35,000 customers and provided the services listed during those tests.

Prior to today’s commercial service launch, Loon has also employed its balloons to provide emergency service to areas affected by disaster, including Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in 2017. It’s now working with a number of commercial telecom partners to deploy non-emergency service in a number of underserved regions globally.

African payment startup Chipper Cash raises $13.8M Series A

By Jake Bright

African cross-border fintech startup Chipper Cash has closed a $13.8 million Series A funding round led by Deciens Capital and plans to hire 30 new staff globally.

The raise caps an event filled run for the San Francisco based payments company, founded two years ago by Ugandan Ham Serunjogi and Ghanaian Maijid Moujaled.

The two came to America for academics, met in Iowa while studying at Grinnell College and ventured out to Silicon Valley for stints in big tech: Facebook for Serunjogi and Flickr and Yahoo! for Moujaled.

The startup call beckoned and after launching Chipper Cash in 2018, the duo convinced 500 Startups and and Liquid 2 Ventures — co-founded by American football legend Joe Montana — to back their company with seed funds.

Two years and $22 million in total capital raised later, Chipper Cash offers its mobile-based, no fee, P2P payment services in seven countries: Ghana, Uganda, Nigeria, Tanzania, Rwanda, South Africa and Kenya.

“We’re now at over one and a half million users and doing over a $100 million dollars a month in volume,” Serunjogi told TechCrunch on a call.

Chipper Cash does not release audited financial data, but does share internal performance accounting with investors. Deciens Capital and Raptor Group co-led the startup’s Series A financing, with repeat support from 500 Startups and Liquid 2 Ventures .

Deciens Capital founder Dan Kimmerling confirmed the fund’s lead on the investment and review of Chipper Cash’s payment value and volume metrics.

Parallel to its P2P app, the startup also runs Chipper Checkout: a merchant-focused, fee-based mobile payment product that generates the revenue to support Chipper Cash’s free mobile-money business.

The company will use its latest round to hire up to 30 people across operations in San Francisco, Lagos, London, Nairobi and New York — according to Serunjogi.

Image Credits: Chipper Cash

Chipper Cash has already brought on a new compliance officer, Lisa Dawson, whose background includes stints with the U.S. Department of Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network and Citigroup’s anti-money laundering department.

“You know in the world we live in the AML side is very important so it’s an area that we want to invest in from the get go,” said Serunjogi.

He confirmed Dawson’s role aligned with getting Chipper Cash ready to meet regulatory requirements for new markets, but declined to name specific countries.

With the round announcement, Chipper Cash also revealed a corporate social responsibility component to its business. Related to current U.S. events, the startup has formed the Chipper Fund for Black Lives.

“We’ve been huge beneficiaries of the generosity and openness of this country and its entrepreneurial spirit,” explained Serunjogi. “But growing up in Africa, we’ve were able to navigate [the U.S.] without the traumas and baggage our African American friends have gone through living in America.”

The Chipper Fund for Black Lives will give 5 to 10 grants of $5,000 to $10,000. “The plan is to give that to…people or causes who are furthering social justice reforms,” said Serunjogi.

In Africa, Chipper Cash has placed itself in the continent’s major digital payments markets. As a sector, fintech has become Africa’s highest funded tech space, receiving the bulk of an estimated $2 billion in VC that went to startups in 2019.

Africa Top VC Markets 2019

Image Credits: TechCrunch

Those ventures, and a number of the continent’s established banks, are in a race to build market share through financial inclusion.

By several estimates — including The Global Findex Database — the continent is home to the largest percentage of the world’s unbanked population, with a sizable number of underbanked consumers and SMEs.

Increasingly, Nigeria has become the most significant fintech market in Africa, with the continent’s largest economy and population of 200 million.

Chipper Cash expanded there in 2019 and faces competition from a number of players, including local payments venture Paga. More recently, outside entrants have jumped into Nigeria’s fintech scene.

In 2019, Chinese investors put $220 million into OPay (owned by Opera) and PalmPay — two fledgling startups with plans to scale first in West Africa and then the broader continent.

Over the next several years, expect to see market events — such as fails, acquisitions, or IPOs — determine how well funded fintech startups, including Chipper Cash, fare in Africa’s fintech arena.

Africa’s top angel Tomi Davies eyes startups and co-investors

By Jake Bright

When Nigerian angel investor Tomi Davies backed his first company — Strika Entertainment in 2001 — he admits he wasn’t aware of his future role.

“I was just helping out friends. I didn’t know it was angel investing. I didn’t know there was a structure to it,” he said.

Seven years later, Davies received a 20x return on his first exit and a decade after that he’s recognized as an architect of early-stage investing across Africa.

Davies is President of The African Business Angel Network and continues to fund and mentor young tech entrepreneurs in multiple countries.

On a call with TechCrunch, he shared advice for startups on fundraising, surviving COVID-19 and suggestions for global investors on entering Africa.

VC in Africa

Davies’ ascendance in fundraising runs parallel to the boom in startup formation and VC on the continent over the last decade.

When he began In 2001, there wasn’t much measurable venture or digital entrepreneurial activity in Sub-Saharan Africa, outside South Africa. In fact, there was limited data on VC investing on the continent until around five years ago.

An early Crunchbase assisted study estimated VC to African startups annually grew from $40 million in 2012 to $500 million by 2015. A recent assessment by investment firm Partech tallied $2 billion going to the continent’s digital entrepreneurs in 2019, across top markets Nigeria, South Africa and Kenya.

Africa Top VC Markets 2019

Image Credits: TechCrunch

There are now thousands of VC backed startup entrepreneurs across the continent descending on every conceivable use-case — from fintech to on demand electric motorcycle mobility.

Increasingly, Davies’ home country of Nigeria has become the continent’s unofficial capital for venture investment and startup formation, given its market thesis of having Africa’s largest economy and population of 200 million people.

Even with the boom in VC to the continent’s startups — which has drawn investors such as Goldman Sachs and Steve Case — for years panels at African tech conferences have echoed the need for more early-stage funding options.

Davies has worked to meet that. He came to investing at the friends and family level after receiving an MBA at the University of Miami and an earlier career that spanned roles in management consulting, telecoms and IT.

After emerging as one of the early angels to Africa’s startups, supporting the continent’s innovation ecosystem became a mission for the Nigerian investor.

“My raison d’etre became, and will remain until the day I die, tech in African,” Davies said on a call from Lagos.

How to pitch

In his role as President of The African Angel Business Network, or ABAN, Davies has worked with a team to build out a local investor web across the continent.

“ABAN is very simply a network of networks…we have 49 networks in 33 African countries,” he explained.

Those include Lagos Angel Network, which Davies co-founded, Cairo Angels and Angel Investor Ethiopia, announced in Addis Ababa in 2019.

Tomi Davies (L) judges pitches with Cellulant CEO Ken Njoroge at Startup Ethiopia 2019, Image Credits: Jake Bright

ABAN establishes certain guidelines and criteria for how member networks operate, but each chapter sets its own investment terms, according to Davies.

For example, ABAN affiliated Dakar Angel Network — founded in 2018 to support startups in French speaking Africa — offers seed investments of between $25,000 to $100,000 to early-stage ventures.

Where and how startups seek funds from ABAN’s family of networks depends on where they operate. “One thing I say to everybody, from presidents to business people to investors, is Africa is about cities,” Davies said.

“When you know which city your looking to invest in or seek investment in, automatically we’ll be in a position to say, ‘here’s your network.'”

For the Lagos Angel Network in Nigeria, the team has a pitch night the third Thursday of each month with a 30 day rule. “Before you leave, you’ll hear if we’re interested or not. If we’re interested, we’ve got 30 days to make you an offer,” explained Davies.

Advice to startups

In addition to his work with ABAN, Davies continues to invest in his own portfolio of startups — now at 32 ventures — and is a regular judge on Africa’s tech competition circuit.

He’s developed a framework to assess companies and shared parts of it with TechCrunch.

Tomi Davies (center) at Startup Battlefield Africa 2017

“What I say to any startup raising is the first thing any investor is listening to is how do I get my money back. That’s question number one, ‘How do I get my exit?,'” he said.

Davies stressed three things to satisfy that question: “The product service offering that you have, the customers who see value in that product service offering and the nature of the relationship in terms of channel and price offering,” he said.

“That’s what you’re always tinkering with after you start with some kind of value proposition.”

Weathering recession

Davies referenced the increased significance of referrals, given the coronavirus has cancelled a number of events and limited mobility to pitch in person in Africa’s top VC markets.

“Because of COVID-19, networks have become critically important. Because investors can’t touch, can’t feel, can’t see [founders] people are looking now for referential integrity, ‘Who sent me this deck?,'” Davies said.

On how a coronavirus induced Nigerian recession may impact startups, Davies flagged the country’s non-stop informal commercial activity — and the adaptability of Nigerian entrepreneurs — as factors that could carry ventures through.

“There’s a significant chunk of the economy that’s in the informal market. So even if you look back at the recessions we’ve had…it hasn’t been felt on the streets,” he said.

Davies is also collaborating with partners on creating working capital solutions for startups whose revenues have been impacted by slowdown.

Co-investors

Tomi Davies is direct about his desire to draw new partners from tech centers such as Silicon Valley, into early-stage investing in Africa.

“We are always looking for co-investors and I speak on behalf of all 49 networks in ABAN,” he said. Davies highlighted the local expertise each network brings to their market as a benefit to VCs looking to invest on the continent through an African Business Angel Network affiliate.

Africa Roundup: DHL invests in MallforAfrica, Zipline launches in US, Novastar raises $200M

By Jake Bright

Events in May offered support to the thesis that Africa can incubate tech with global application.

Two startups that developed their business models on the continent — MallforAfrica and Zipline — were tapped by international interests.

DHL acquired a minority stake in Link Commerce, a turn-key e-commerce company that grew out of MallforAfrica.com — a Nigerian digital-retail startup.

Link Commerce offers a white-label solution for doing online-sales in emerging markets.

Retailers can plug into the company’s platform to create a web-based storefront that manages payments and logistics.

Nigerian Chris Folayan founded MallforAfrica in 2011 to bridge a gap in supply and demand for the continent’s consumer markets. While living in the U.S., Folayan noted a common practice among Africans — that of giving lists of goods to family members abroad to buy and bring home.

With MallforAfrica, Folayan aimed to allow people on the continent to purchase goods from global retailers directly online.

The e-commerce site went on to onboard more than 250 global retailers, and now employs 30 people at order processing facilities in Oregon and the U.K.

Folayan has elevated Link Commerce now as the lead company above MallforAfrica.com. He and DHL plan to extend the platform to emerging markets around the world and offer it to companies who want to wrap online stores, payments and logistics solution around their core business.

“Right now the focus is on Africa…but we’re taking this global,” Folayan said.

Another startup developed in Africa, Zipline, was tapped by U.S. healthcare provider Novant for drone delivery of critical medical supplies in the fight against COVID-19.

The two announced a partnership whereby Zipline’s drones will make 32-mile flights on two routes between Novant Health’s North Carolina emergency drone fulfillment center and the nonprofit’s medical center in Huntersville — where front-line healthcare workers are treating coronavirus patients.

Zipline and Novant are touting the arrangement as the first authorized long-range drone logistics delivery flight program in the U.S. The activity has gained approval by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and North Carolina’s Department of Transportation.

The story behind the Novant, Zipline UAV collaboration has a twist: The capabilities for the U.S. operation were developed primarily in Africa. Zipline has a test facility in the San Francisco area, but spent several years configuring its drone delivery model in Rwanda and Ghana.

Image Credits: Novant Health

Co-founded in 2014 by Americans Keller Rinaudo, Keenan Wyrobek and Will Hetzler, Zipline designs its own UAVs, launch systems and logistics software for distribution of critical medical supplies.

The company turned to East Africa in 2016, entering a partnership with the government of Rwanda to test and deploy its drone service in that country. Zipline went live with UAV distribution of life-saving medical supplies in Rwanda in late 2016, claiming the first national drone-delivery program at scale in the world.

The company expanded to Ghana in 2016, where in addition to delivering blood and vaccines by drone, it now distributes COVID-19-related medication and lab samples.

In addition to partner Novant Health, Zipline has caught the attention of big logistics providers, such as UPS — which supported (and studied) the startup’s African operations back to 2016.

The presidents of Rwanda and Ghana  — Paul Kagame and Nana Akufo-Addo, respectively — were instrumental in supporting Zipline’s partnerships in their countries. Other nations on the continent, such as Kenya, South Africa and Zambia, continue to advance commercial drone testing and novel approaches to regulating the sector.

African startups have another $100 million in VC to pitch for after Novastar Ventures’ latest raise.

The Nairobi and Lagos-based investment group announced it has closed $108 million in new commitments to launch its Africa Fund II, which brings Novastar’s total capital to $200 million.

With the additional resources, the firm plans to make 12 to 14 investments across the continent, according to Managing Director Steve Beck .

On-demand mobility powered by electric and solar is coming to Africa.

Vaya Africa, a ride-hail mobility venture founded by Zimbabwean mogul Strive Masiyiwa, launched an electric taxi service and charging network in Zimbabwe this week with plans to expand across the continent.

The South Africa-headquartered company is using Nissan Leaf EVs and has developed its own solar-powered charging stations. Vaya is finalizing partnerships to take its electric taxi services on the road to countries that could include Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa and Zambia, Vaya Mobility CEO Dorothy Zimuto told TechCrunch.

The initiative comes as Africa’s on-demand mobility market has been in full swing for several years, with startups, investors and the larger ride-hail players aiming to bring movement of people and goods to digital platforms.

Uber and Bolt have been operating in Africa’s major economies since 2015, where there are also a number of local app-based taxi startups. Over the last year, there’s been some movement on the continent toward developing EVs for ride-hail and delivery use, primarily around motorcycles.

Beyond environmental benefits, Vaya highlights economic gains for passengers and drivers of shifting to electric in Africa’s taxi markets, where fuel costs compared to personal income is generally high for drivers.

Using solar panels to power the charging station network also helps Vaya’s new EV program overcome some of challenges in Africa’s electricity grid.

Vaya is exploring EV options for other on-demand transit applications — from mini-buses to Tuk Tuk taxis.

In more downbeat news in May, Africa-focused tech talent accelerator Andela had layoffs and salary reductions as a result of the economic impact of the COVID-19 crisis, CEO Jeremy Johnson confirmed to TechCrunch.

The compensation and staff reductions of 135 bring Andela’s headcount down to 1,199 employees. None of Andela’s engineers were included in the layoffs.

Backed by $181 million in VC from investors that include the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the startup’s client-base is comprised of more than 200 global companies that pay for the African developers Andela selects to work on projects.

There’s been a drop in the demand for Andela’s services, according to Johnson.

More Africa-related stories @TechCrunch  

African tech around the ‘net

Vaya Africa launches electric ride-hail taxi network

By Jake Bright

Vaya Africa, a ride-hail mobility venture founded by Zimbabwean mogul Strive Masiyiwa, has launched an electric taxi service and charging network in Zimbabwe with plans to expand across the continent.

The South Africa headquartered company has acquired a fleet of Nissan Leaf EVs and developed its own solar powered charging stations.

The program goes live in Zimbabwe this week, as Vaya finalizes partnerships to begin on-demand electric taxi and delivery services in markets that could include Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa and Zambia.

“Zimbabwe is a sandbox really. We’ve moved on to doing pilots with other countries right across Africa,” Vaya Mobility CEO Dorothy Zimuto told TechCrunch on a call from Harare.

Vaya is a subsidiary of Strive Masiyiwa’s Econet Group, which includes one of Southern Africa’s largest mobile operators and Liquid Telecom, an internet infrastructure company.

Masiyiwa has become one of Africa’s Gates, Branson type figures, recognized globally as a business leader and philanthropist with connections and affiliations from President Obama to the Rockefeller Foundation.

Working with Zimuto on the Vaya EV product is Liquid Telecom’s innovation partnerships lead, Oswald Jumira.

The initiative comes as Africa’s on demand mobility market has been in full swing for several years, with startups, investors, and the larger ride-hail players aiming to bring movement of people and goods to digital product models.

Ethiopia has local ride-hail ventures Ride and Zayride. Uber’s been active in several markets on the continent since 2015 and like competitor Bolt, got into the motorcycle taxi business in Africa in 2018.

Over the last year, there’s been some movement on the continent toward developing EV’s for ride-hail and delivery use, primarily around two-wheeled transit.

In 2019, Nigerian mobility startup MAX.ng raised a $7 million Series A round backed by Yamaha, a portion of which was dedicated to pilot e-motorcycles powered by renewable energy.

Last year the Government of Rwanda established a national plan to phase out gas motorcycle taxis for e-motos, working in partnership with EV startup Ampersand.

Vaya Mobility CEO Dorothy Zimuto, Image Credits: Econet Group

The appeal of shifting to electric in Africa’s taxi markets — beyond environmental benefits — is the unit economics, given the cost of fuel compared to personal income is generally high for most of the continent’s drivers.

“Africa is excited, because we are riding on the green revolution: no emissions, no noise and big savings… in terms of running costs of their vehicles,” Zimuto said.

She estimates a cost savings of 40% on the fuel and maintenance costs for drivers on the ride-hail platform.

At the moment, with fuel prices in Vaya’s first market of Zimbabwe at around $1.20 a liter, the average trip distance is 22 kilometres for a price of $19, according to Econet Group’s Oswald Jumira.

With the Nissan Leaf vehicles on Vaya’s charging network, the cost to top up will be around $5 for a range of 150 to 200 kilometres.

Image Credits: Vaya Africa

“It’s the driver who benefits. They take more money home. And that also means we can reduce the tariff for ride hailing companies to make it more affordable for people,” Jumira told TechCrunch .

The company has adapted its business to the spread of COVID-19 in Africa. Vaya provides PPE to its drivers and sanitizes its cars four to five times a day, according to Zimuto.

Vaya is exploring EV options for other on-demand transit applications — from delivery to motorcycle and Tuk Tuk taxis.

On the question of competing with Uber in Africa, Vaya points to the reduced fares offered by its EV program as one advantage.

The CEO of Vaya Mobility, Dorothy Zimuto, also points to certain benefits of knowing local culture and preferences.

“We speak African. That’s the language we understand. We understand the people and what they want across our markets. That’s what makes the difference.” she said.

It will be something to watch if Vaya’s EV bet and local consumer knowledge translates into more passenger flow and revenue generation as it goes head to head with other ride-hail companies, such as Uber, across Africa.

Kenya’s Apollo Agriculture raises $6M Series A led by Anthemis

By Jake Bright

Apollo Agriculture believes it can attain profits by helping Kenya’s smallholder farmers maximize theirs.

That’s the mission of the Nairobi-based startup that raised $6 million in Series A funding led by Anthemis.

Founded in 2016, Apollo Agriculture offers a mobile-based product suit for farmers that includes working capital, data analysis for higher crop yields and options to purchase key inputs and equipment.

“It’s everything a farmer needs to succeed. It’s the seeds and fertilizer they need to plant, the advice they need to manage that product over the course of the season. The insurance they need to protect themselves in case of a bad year…and then, ultimately, the financing,” Apollo Agriculture CEO Eli Pollak told TechCrunch on a call.

Apollo’s addressable market includes the many smallholder farmers across Kenya’s population of 53 million. The problem it’s helping them solve is a lack of access to the tech and resources to achieve better results on their plots.

The startup has engineered its own app, platform and outreach program to connect with Kenya’s farmers. Apollo uses M-Pesa mobile money, machine learning and satellite data to guide the credit and products it offers them.

The company — which was a TechCrunch Startup Battlefield Africa 2018 finalist — has served over 40,000 farmers since inception, with 25,000 of those paying relationships coming in 2020, according to Pollak.

Apollo Agriculture Start

Apollo Agriculture co-founders Benjamin Njenga and Eli Pollak

Apollo Agriculture generates revenues on the sale of farm products and earning margins on financing. “The farm pays a fixed price for the package, which comes due at harvest…that includes everything and there’s no hidden fees,” said Pollak.

On deploying the $6 million in Series A financing, “It’s really about continuing to invest in growth. We feel like we’ve got a great product. We’ve got great reviews by customers and want to just keep scaling it,” he said. That means hiring, investing in Apollo’s tech and growing the startup’s sales and marketing efforts.

“Number two is really strengthening our balance sheet to be able to continue raising the working capital that we need to lend to customers,” Pollak said.

For the moment, expansion in Africa beyond Kenya is in the cards but not in the near-term. “That’s absolutely on the roadmap,” said Pollak. “But like all businesses, everything is a bit in flux right now. So some of our plans for immediate expansion are on a temporary pause as we wait to see things shake out with with COVID.”

Apollo Agriculture’s drive to boost the output and earnings of Africa’s smallholder farmers is born out of the common interests of its co-founders.

Pollak is an American who studied engineering at Stanford University and went to work in agronomy in the U.S. with The Climate Corporation. “That was how I got excited about Apollo. I would look at other markets and say, ‘wow, they’re farming 20% more acres of maize, or corn, across Africa but farmers are producing dramatically less than U.S. farmers,'” said Pollak.

Pollak’s colleague, co-founder Benjamin Njenga, found inspiration from his experience in his upbringing. “I grew up on a farm in a Kenyan village. My mother, a smallholder farmer, used to plant with low-quality seeds and no fertilizer and harvested only five bags per acre each year,” he told the audience in 2018 at Startup Battlefield Africa in Lagos.

Image Credits: Apollo Agriculture”We knew if she’d used fertilizer and hybrid seeds her production would double, making it easier to pay my school fees.” Njenga went on to explain that she couldn’t access the credit to buy those tools, which prompted the motivation for Apollo Agriculture.

Anthemis Exponential Ventures’ Vica Manos confirmed its lead on Apollo’s latest raise. The UK-based VC firm — which invests mostly in the Europe and the U.S. — has also backed South African fintech company Jumo and will continue to consider investments in African startups, Manos told TechCrunch.

Additional investors in Apollo Agriculture’s Series A round included Accion Venture Lab, Leaps by Bayer and Flourish Ventures.

While agriculture is the leading employer in Africa, it hasn’t attracted the same attention from venture firms or founders as fintech, logistics or e-commerce. The continent’s agtech startups lagged those sectors in investment, according to Disrupt Africa and WeeTracker’s 2019 funding reports.

Some notable agtech ventures that have gained VC include Nigeria’s Farmcrowdy, Hello Tractor — which has partnered with IBM and Twiga Foods, a Goldman-backed B2B agriculture supply chain startup based in Nairobi.

On whether Apollo Agriculture sees Twiga as a competitor, CEO Eli Pollak suggested collaboration. “Twiga could be a company that in the future we could potentially partner with,” he said.

“We’re partnering with farmers to produce lots of high-quality crops, and they could potentially be a great partner in helping those farmers access stable prices for those…yields.”

African countries need ‘startup acts’ more than ever to support innovation

By Walter Thompson
Adedana Ashebir Contributor
Adedana Ashebir is regional manager for Africa for Village Capital, which has supported more than 100 entrepreneurs and 15 entrepreneur support organizations in Sub-Saharan Africa since 2012.

As the fallout from COVID-19 continues to grip Africa’s major economies, the tech ventures in those countries need state support.

National legislation that creates clear frameworks and operational support for startups are one of the best ways to help Africa’s digital companies survive and thrive through the coronavirus crisis — and improve their environment over the long term.

Africa has dozens of thriving startup ecosystems that are persevering through this crisis, but now more than ever, they need a boost. The gains made by founders thus far are in danger due to the ongoing economic slowdown. The World Bank estimates that economic growth in sub-Saharan Africa alone will decline from 2.4% last year to -2.1 to -5.1% this year. If correct, the region will experience its first recession in a quarter of a century.

Now is the time for something that was already long-overdue in many African countries: political leaders should support startups through national startup acts.

Village Capital’s Adedana Ashebir, Image Credits: Village Capital

Last December, Senegal became the second African nation to enact a national Startup Act, following Tunisia’s landmark bill that passed in April 2018. Other countries may follow soon: startup legislation was being discussed in Ghana and Mali before the novel coronavirus monopolized headlines.

The rest of the continent can learn a lot from Tunisia, which passed its Startup Act in 2018 after receiving input from entrepreneurs and economists. In addition to clarifying rules surrounding angel, seed and venture capital funding, the act bestows benefits on companies designated as startups. This includes alleviating their tax and social security contribution burdens, providing access to forex bank accounts and offering subsidized salaries for founders. More than 50 startups have taken advantage of the “startup” label. A number of Tunisian entrepreneurs have told me that thanks to the new legislation, they are able reinvest savings from these incentives back into their businesses.

Andela CEO confirms staff cuts as layoffs hit African tech

By Jake Bright

Africa-focused tech talent accelerator Andela has let go 135 employees, CEO Jeremy Johnson confirmed to TechCrunch.

Senior staff at the company — with offices in New York and four African countries — will also take salary cuts of 10% to 30%.

The compensation and staff reductions are a result of the economic impact of the COVID-19 crisis and bring Andela’s headcount down to 1,199 employees. None of Andela’s engineers were included in the layoffs.

Backed by $181 million in VC from investors that include the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the startup’s client-base is comprised of more than 200 global companies that pay for the African developers Andela selects to work on projects.

There’s been a drop in the demand for Andela’s services, according to its CEO.

“The vast majority of our customers have stayed with us. But new business has slowed down dramatically,” Johnson told TechCrunch on a call.

“Like any venture-backed startup, we’re built for growth. And so if growth is gonna slow dramatically, your [cost] burden has to come down.”

Andela Nigeria Office

Andela’s Nigeria office (Image Credits: Andela)

The company is also preparing for the possibility of hard economic times moving forward.

“We already know this is going to have a material impact on pace of growth. And as a result of that, we’ve got to make sure we’re prepared to weather the storm,” Johnson said.

The American CEO noted the latest measures weren’t entirely due to external factors. They also connect to a strategic direction change for the company, the details of which will follow, according to Johnson.

Andela’s staff cuts mark the first notable round of layoffs in African tech coming from one of the continent’s best funded and most visible startups (by press volume).

The company launched in 2014 with co-founders who included Nigerian entrepreneur Iyinoluwa Aboyeji and American Christina Sass. Aboyeji has since departed and Sass stepped down as Andela president in 2019, but maintains an advisory role with the company.

In Africa, Andela has offices in Nigeria, Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda. The company cut 400 junior engineers in September, but that announcement came with news it had attained a $50 million run rate as a Series D startup.

News of Andela’s recent layoffs broke late afternoon Lagos time on Tuesday, after CEO Jeremy Johnson announced the cuts on an all-hands staff call.

Alphabet’s Loon partners with AT&T to extend coverage globally in case of disasters

By Darrell Etherington

Alphabet-owned Loon, the company focused on providing connectivity via high-altitude, stratosphere skimming balloons that can act as on-demand, deployable cell towers, has signed a new agreement with AT&T. This partnership will help Loon ensure it’s in a much better position to address any potential need for disaster response cellular network coverage, thanks to AT&T and it global network partners.

The main benefit of the tie-up is that Loon’s system will now be fully integrated with AT&T, and this will also extend to any third-party mobile service provider that is already partnered with the U.S. carrier in order to provide international roaming for its network. That’s a key ingredient because the nature of disaster preparedness means you can’t really be sure when or where service will be needed, so the extended AT&T network provides a good swath of global coverage ready to be turned on in relatively short notice.

This is actually one of the most time-consuming elements of the entire process of setting up an emergency response Loon deployment, and can take “weeks or months” according to the company. Perhaps not surprisingly to anyone who has worked with carriers, there’s a lot of discussion and negotiation involved, which in many ways is more difficult than launching balloons to the stratosphere and navigating them thousands of miles with sensitive antenna attached.

The new partnership means that Loon should have over 200 global roaming partners ready to go in case of need, thanks to AT&T’s existing agreements. Loon notes that this won’t mean they don’t still work with local operators directly in order to improve and expedite response, and it still needs to work with local regulators and ensure that there is ground infrastructure present that can work with its equipment.

Loon is also tackling those potential hurdles, however, securing agreements with various regulatory bodies and governments for fly-over permission (it has signed over 50 thus far), and it’s also placing ground infrastructure where it’s likely to be needed most – like in the Caribbean, where it’s in the process of installing ground stations in anticipation of the forthcoming hurricane season for this year.

Loon previously worked with AT&T during its disaster response efforts in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, so the two have a history of working collaboratively in times of need.

Meanwhile, Loon is also readying its first commercial service deployment in Kenya, which will be a big milestone in terms of its broader goals of providing reliable service to hard-to-reach areas around the world.

Why COVID-19 could delay Interswitch, Africa’s next big IPO

By Jake Bright

The economic effects of COVID-19 could delay Africa’s next big IPO — that of Nigerian fintech unicorn Interswitch.

If so, it wouldn’t be the first time the Lagos-based payments company’s plans for going public were postponed; the tech world has been anticipating Interswitch’s stock market debut since 2016.

For the continent’s innovation ecosystem, there’s a lot riding on the digital finance company’s IPO. After e-commerce venture Jumia, it would become only the second listing of a VC-backed African tech company on a major exchange. And Interswitch’s stock market debut — when it occurs — could bring more investor attention and less controversy to the region’s startup scene.

What is Interswitch?

TechCrunch reached out to Interswitch on the window for listing, but the company declined to comment. The tech firm’s path from startup to IPO aspirant traces back to the vision of founder Mitchell Elegbe, a Nigerian electrical engineering graduate whose entire career has pretty much been Interswitch.

Africa’s tech scene is still fairly young, but it does have a timeline with several definitive points. An early one would be the success of mobile money in East Africa, with the launch of Safaricom’s M-Pesa in 2007. Another is the notable wave of VC-backed startups and founders that launched around 2010.

Interswitch CEO Mitchell Elegbe (Photo Credits: Interswitch)

With Interswtich, Elegbe pre-dated both by a number of years, founding his fintech company back in 2002 to connect Nigeria’s largely disconnected banking system. The firm became a pioneer of the infrastructure to digitize Nigeria’s economy.

Interswitch created the first electronic switch whereby Nigerian financial institutions could communicate and thereby operate ATMs and point of sales operations. The company now provides much of the rails for Nigeria’s online banking system.

Africa Roundup: Visa connects to M-Pesa, Flutterwave enters e-commerce

By Jake Bright

It seems the demand for Safaricom’s M-Pesa payment product never eases. Since its 2007 launch in Kenya, the fintech app has commanded over 70% of the mobile money market in that country. When COVID-19 hit the East African nation of 53 million in March, the Kenyan Central Bank turned to M-Pesa as a public health tool to reduce use of cash.

And last month, one of the world’s financial services giants — Visa — connected M-Pesa to its global network.

Visa and Safaricom — which is Kenya’s largest telecom and operator of M-Pesa — announced a partnership on payments and tech.

The arrangement opens up M-Pesa’s own extensive financial services network in East Africa to Visa’s global merchant and card network across 200 countries.

The companies will also collaborate “on development of products that will support digital payments for M-Pesa customers.” The partnership is still subject to regulatory approval.

The details remain vague, but the payment providers also said they will use the collaboration to facilitate e-commerce.

Images Credits: Getty Images

On a continent that is still home to the largest share of the world’s unbanked population, Kenya has one of the highest mobile-money penetration rates in the world. This is largely due to the dominance of M-Pesa in the country, which has 24.5 million customers and a network of 176,000 agents.

As we detailed in ExtraCrunch, Visa has been on a VC and partnership spree with African fintech companies. The global financial services giant has named working with the continent’s payments startups as core to its Africa expansion strategy.

One of those fintech ventures Visa has teamed up with, Flutterwave, launched an e-commerce product in April. The San Francisco and Lagos-based B2B payments company announced Flutterwave Store, a portal for African merchants to create digital shops to sell online.

The product is less Amazon  and more eBay — with no inventory or warehouse requirements. Flutterwave insists the move doesn’t represent any shift away from its core payments business.

The company accelerated the development of Flutterwave Store in response to COVID-19, which has brought restrictive measures to SMEs and traders operating in Africa’s largest economies.

After creating a profile, users can showcase inventory and link up to a payment option. For pickup and delivery, Flutterwave Store operates through existing third party logistics providers, such as Sendy in Kenya and Sendbox in Nigeria.

The service will start in 15 African countries and the only fees Flutterwave will charge (for now) are on payments. Otherwise, it’s free for SMEs to create an online storefront and for buyers and sellers to transact goods.

While the initiative is born out of the spread of coronavirus cases in Africa, it will continue beyond the pandemic. And Flutterwave’s CEO Olugbenga Agboola — aka GB — is adamant Flutterwave Store is not a pivot for the Y-Cominator backed fintech company.

“It’s not a direction change. We’re still a B2B payment infrastructure company. We are not moving into becoming an online retailer, and no we’re not looking to become Jumia,” he told TechCrunch .

In early stage startup activity, a relatively new company — Okra — has created a unique platform that allows it to generate revenue on both sides of the fintech aisle.

Founded in June 2019 by Nigerians Fara Ashiru Jituboh and David Peterside, the company refers to itself as a “super-connector API” with a platform that links bank accounts to third party applications.

Okra’s clients include fintech startups and large financial institutions in Nigeria. The company got the attention of TLcom Capital — a $71 million Africa focused VC firm —that backed Okra with $1 million in pre-seed funding. The Nigerian startup is using the funds to hire and expand to new markets in Africa, most likely Kenya .

More Africa-related stories @TechCrunch               

Nigeria’s Okra raises $1M from TLcom connecting bank accounts to apps

By Jake Bright

A new Nigerian fintech venture, Okra, has racked up a unique mix of accomplishments in less than a year.

The Lagos based API developer created a product that generates revenues from both payment startups and established financial institutions.

Okra has raised $1 million in pre-seed funding from TLcom Capital — a $71 million Africa focused VC firm that rarely invests in early-stage companies or fintech.

The startup is also poised to enter new markets and it’s hiring.

Founded in June 2019 by Nigerians Fara Ashiru Jituboh and David Peterside, Okra casts itself as a motherboard for the continent’s 21st century financial system.

“We’re building a super-connector API that…allows individuals to connect their bank accounts directly to third party applications. And that’s their African bank accounts starting in the largest market in Africa, Nigeria,” said Ashiru Jituboh.

As a sector, fintech has become the continent’s highest funded tech space, receiving the bulk of an estimated $2 billion in VC that went to African startups in 2019. Those ventures, and a number of the continent’s established banks, are in a race to build market share through financial inclusion.

By several estimates — including The Global Findex Database — the continent is home to the largest percentage of the world’s unbanked population, with a sizable number of underbanked consumers and SMEs.

With 54 countries, 1.2 billion people and thousands of relatively young startups, there are a lot of moving parts in Africa’s fintech space. Similar to U.S. company Plaid, Okra is shaping a platform that connects accounts and financial data to banking apps into a revenue generating product.

With Africa’s largest population of 200 million people, Nigeria serves as a major financial hub — but there’s still a disconnect between fintech apps and banks, according to Okra’s Ashiru Jituboh.

“Here in this market there’s no way to directly connect your bank account through an API or directly to an application,” she said.

Okra offers several paid packages for those types of integrations and opens up the code to its five product categories —  authorization, balance, transactions, identity and accounts — to developers.

Image Credits: Okra

Okra has already created a diverse client list that includes mobile payments startup PalmPay, insurer Axa Mansard and Nigerian digital lender Renmoney.

The startup generates revenues through product fees and earns each time a user connects a bank account to a customer, according to Ashiru Jituboh.

On how the Okra differs from other well-funded fintech companies in Nigeria, such as Flutterwave or Interswitch, “The answer is we’re not doing payments, but what we’re doing is making processes with [payment providers] even smoother,” she said.

Ashiru Jituboh comes to her CEO position with a software engineering background and a strong connection to the U.S. Born in Nigeria, she grew up in and studied computer science in North Carolina.

She did stints in finance — JP Morgan Chase and Fidelity Investments — and then in tech companies before making the leap to founder. “I went to work in startups, but I was always employee number two or three,” said Ashiru Jituboh.

She decided to go all in on Okra after returning to Nigeria and noting the need for linking together the country’s emerging digital financial infrastructure.

“When we knew that it was a big addressable market is when we realized that all these fintech CEOs and CTOs were struggling with this use case,” she said.

Shortly after its launch, Okra attracted the attention of TLcom Capital in second quarter 2019, according to VC Andreata Muforo.

With offices in London, Lagos, and Nairobi, the group closed its $71 million Tide Africa fund this year. TLcom has focused primarily on Series A and later investments, including backing Kenyan agtech startup Twiga Foods and Nigerian trucking logistics company Kobo360.

In an interview last year, the fund’s managing partner, Maurizio Caio, explained that TLcom was steering more toward investments in infrastructure oriented tech companies and away from Africa’s more commoditized payments and lending startups.

The VC firm was attracted to Okra for its ability to serve the continent’s broader financial sector. “It’s a service that other fintechs can plug into and utilize, so it’s accelerating the growth of fintech across the continent…That to us was a big hook,” TLcom’s Andreata Muforo told TechCrunch on a call.

Founder Fara Ashiru Jituboh was also a factor in the fund making a $1 million pre-seed investment in Okra. “We found her to be very strong and also liked the fact that she’s a technical founder,” said Muforo. As part of the investments, she and TLcom Capital partner Ido Sum will join Okra’s board.

In addition to hiring fresh engineering talent, the startup aims to take its product offerings that connect bank accounts to apps to new African countries — though it would not disclose where or when.

“We’re looking at three target markets that our clients are already in,” said Ashiru Jituboh. Okra investor Andreata Muforo named Kenya — with one of the highest mobile money penetration rates in the world — as a likely candidate for the startup’s product services.

In Nigeria PalmPay waives fees and creates ₦100M COVID-19 payout fund

By Jake Bright

Africa focused payment startup PalmPay will waive transfer fees in Nigeria and offer direct payouts to customers who have contracted COVID-19 in the West African country.

The venture — that launched in 2019 backed by China’s Transsion —  has created the PalmPay Support Fund. The initiative will start with 100 million Naira (≈ $300K) and offer individual payments of 100,000 Naira (≈ $250) to PalmPay customers who have contracted the coronavirus.

The startup will expand the fund’s value by providing a matching gift per customer transaction for at least on month. PalmPay will also extend the fund to offer grants to organizations working on coronavirus mitigation and assistance efforts in Nigeria.

On the structure of the initiative — and adding a matching function — PalmPay aims to create interactivity with its clients on coronavirus relief efforts. “We want to provide relief…and get our customers feeling that they’re adding something to it as well,” PalmPay CEO Greg Reeve told TechCrunch on a call.

The company has created a page on its app for applications and funds dispersal. PalmPay is working with Nigeria’s Center for Disease Control on a verification process to confirm those who apply have tested positive for COVID-19, according to Reeve.

Image Credits: PalmPay

PalmPay’s initiative comes as COVID-19 has hit Africa’s largest economies and the continent’s fintech platforms have been mobilized as tools to stem the spread.

Early in March, Africa’s coronavirus numbers by country were in the single digits, but by mid-month those numbers had spiked, leading the World Health Organization’s Regional Director Dr Matshidiso Moeti to sound an alarm.

By WHO stats Tuesday there were 14,922 COVID-19 cases in Africa and 702 confirmed virus related deaths, up from 345 cases and 7 deaths on March 18.

Countries such as South Africa, Kenya and Nigeria — which happen to be Africa’s top tech hubs — have imposed social distancing and lockdown practices.

Governments and startups on the continent have also turned to measures to shift a greater volume of financial transactions to digital payments and away from cash — which the World Health Organization flagged as a conduit for the coronavirus.

It’s an option facilitated by the boom in fintech that’s occurred in Africa over the last decade. By several estimates, the continent is home to the largest share of the world’s unbanked population and has a sizable number of underbanked consumers and SMEs.

But because of that opportunity, fintech startups now receive the majority of VC funding annually in Africa, according to recent data.

Increasingly, Nigeria has become the focal point for digital finance development on the continent, boasting Africa’s largest economy and population (200 million).

The country has multiple new digital-payments entrants — see Chippercash — and several firmly rooted later-stage fintech players, such as Paga and recently confirmed unicorn Interswitch.

PalmPay launched in Nigeria last year on the back of one of Africa’s largest 2019 seed-rounds — $40 million led by Transsion. In addition to a lot of capital, the investment came with an additional competitive advantage for the startup. Through its Tecno brand, Transsion is the largest seller of smartphones in Africa and PalmPay now comes preinstalled on all Tecno devices.

Image Credits: Jake Bright

While PalmPay reamins in the race to capture fintech market share in Nigeria, for now the startup looks to weather the COVID-19 crisis in the country. Like most of Nigeria — and much of the world — PalmPay’s staff are on lockdown and working from home, according to the company’s CEO.

Commercial times in the country could be tough into the next year. Nigeria has already seen a reduction in economic activity as a result of COVID-19, and as a major oil producer, the country will face an additional economic blow due to the drop in demand the pandemic has dealt to petroleum markets.

A trend that could come out of the crisis that benefits fintech players, according to PalmPay CEO Greg Reeve, is greater digital finance adoption in Nigeria. In the past, the country has shown a cash-is-king reluctance by parts of the population to use mobile payments and lagged Africa’s digital finance leaders Kenya and South Africa.

The current health crisis could shift consumer habits in Nigeria, according to Reeve. “We’ve seen an increased use in our service, whilst people aren’t able to move around,” he said.

“There is a natural uptake right now for services like mobile money and I think when people start to use it, they’ll continue to use it when the COVID-19 ceases.”

Alphabet’s Loon deploys internet connectivity balloons to Kenya for first commercial service launch

By Darrell Etherington

Alphabet-owned Loon, the high-altitude broadband connectivity company for hard-to-reach places, has launched the first balloons that will provide its first ever commercial connectivity services to Kenyans following the approval of its service deployment by the government of Kenya a couple of weeks ago. The balloons are now in testing, but pending the results of those tests, they’ll turn on service “in the coming weeks,” according to the company.

Loon is working with partner Telkom Kenya to provide services to that network’s subscribers in the country. Its balloons fly at a height of roughly 65,000 feet, in the Earth’s stratosphere, with the goal of providing stable, reliable and fast connectivity to a specific area without requiring satellites and with access for remote areas not served by ground cell tower infrastructure.

The Loon balloons actually have quite the journey to make to get to the area they’ll service in Kenya, taking off from either Puerto Rico or Nevada, as Loon CTO Sal Candido explains in a Medium post. From there, they navigate on air currents to make their way to their target destination, using “the fastest route that drifting on the stratospheric winds allow,” to traverse upwards of 6,800 miles through a somewhat circuitous route, which is determined by Loon’s automated navigation software.

Upon arrival in Kenya, those same machine learning powered-algorithms are used to help the balloons maintain a relatively stable position over the target coverage area. Balloons move up and down in the stratosphere to catch different air currents, taking short trips in a fixed geographic area to provide 24-hour coverage to customers on the ground.

Loon’s model and partnership with Telkom means that it can provide access through Telkom’s network to that company’s customers instantly once the system is tested and proven, but that also means Telkom sets the rates, which African internet accessibility startup BRCK has noted might be a barrier to some. Still, this first commercial deployment is a significant milestone for Loon, and should help make the case for more and more varied deployments to follow, including a range of different business model approaches.

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