After heavy artillery strikes on Saturday, the federal government claimed the city of Mekelle was now under its control, but there was no way to independently confirm the assertion.
In her lifetime, the Princess of Wales was adored by many women in Africa and the diaspora, who then passed that loyalty on to their daughters.
The 86-year-old primatologist says it takes more than having opposable thumbs to save our planet.
Educate a girl. Send a young person to college. Restore a person’s sight.
Images of elephants roaming the African plains are imprinted on all of our minds and something easily recognized as a symbol of Africa. But the future of elephants today is uncertain. An elephant is currently being killed by poachers every 15 minutes, and humans, who love watching them so much, have declared war on their species. Most people are not poachers, ivory collectors or intentionally harming wildlife, but silence or indifference to the battle at hand is as deadly.
You can choose to read this article, feel bad for a moment and then move on to your next email and start your day.
Or, perhaps you will pause and think: Our opportunities to help save wildlife, especially elephants, are right in front of us and grow every day. And some of these opportunities are rooted in machine learning (ML) and the magical outcome we fondly call AI.
Open-source developers are giving elephants a neural edge
Six months ago, amid a COVID-infused world, Hackster.io, a large open-source community owned by Avnet, and Smart Parks, a Dutch-based organization focused on wildlife conservation, reached out to tech industry leaders, including Microsoft, u-blox and Taoglas, Nordic Semiconductors, Western Digital and Edge Impulse with an idea to fund the R&D, manufacturing and shipping of 10 of the most advanced elephant tracking collars ever built.
These modern tracking collars are designed to deploy advanced machine-learning (ML) algorithms with the most extended battery life ever delivered for similar devices and a networking range more expansive than ever seen before. To make this vision even more audacious, they called to fully open-source and freely share the outcome of this effort via OpenCollar.io, a conservation organization championing open-source tracking collar hardware and software for environmental and wildlife monitoring projects.
Our opportunities to help save wildlife — especially elephants — are right in front of us and grow every day.
The tracker, ElephantEdge, would be built by specialist engineering firm Irnas, with the Hackster community coming together to make fully deployable ML models by Edge Impulse and telemetry dashboards by Avnet that will run the newly built hardware. Such an ambitious project was never attempted before, and many doubted that such a collaborative and innovative project could be pulled off.
Creating the world’s best elephant-tracking device
Only they pulled it off. Brilliantly. The new ElephantEdge tracker is considered the most advanced of its kind, with eight years of battery life and hundreds of miles worth of LoRaWAN networking repeaters range, running TinyML models that will provide park rangers with a better understanding of elephant acoustics, motion, location, environmental anomalies and more. The tracker can communicate with an array of sensors, connected by LoRaWAN technology to park rangers’ phones and laptops.
This gives rangers a more accurate image and location to track than earlier systems that captured and reported on pictures of all wildlife, which ran down the trackers’ battery life. The advanced ML software that runs on these trackers is built explicitly for elephants and developed by the Hackster.io community in a public design challenge.
“Elephants are the gardeners of the ecosystems as their roaming in itself creates space for other species to thrive. Our ElephantEdge project brings in people from all over the world to create the best technology vital for the survival of these gentle giants. Every day they are threatened by habitat destruction and poaching. This innovation and partnerships allow us to gain more insight into their behavior so we can improve protection,” said Smart Parks co-founder Tim van Dam.
Open-source, community-powered, conservation-AI at work
With hardware built by Irnas and Smart Parks, the community was busy building the algorithms to make it sing. Software developer and data scientist Swapnil Verma and Mausam Jain in the U.K. and Japan created Elephant AI. Using Edge Impulse, the team developed two ML models that will tap the tracker’s onboard sensors and provide critical information for park rangers.
The first community-led project, called Human Presence Detection, will alert park rangers of poaching risk using audio sampling to detect human presence in areas where humans are not supposed to be. This algorithm uses audio sensors to record sound and sight while sending it over the LoRaWAN network directly to a ranger’s phone to create an immediate alert.
The second model they named “Elephant Activity Monitoring.” It detects general elephant activity, taking time-series input from the tracker’s accelerometer to spot and make sense of running, sleeping and grazing to provide conservation specialists with the critical information they need to protect the elephants.
Another brilliant community development came from the other side of the world. Sara Olsson, a Swedish software engineer who has a passion for the national world, created a TinyML and IoT monitoring dashboard to help park rangers with conservation efforts.
With little resources and support, Sara built a full telemetry dashboard combined with ML algorithms to monitor camera traps and watering holes, while reducing network traffic by processing data on the collar and considerably saving battery life. To validate her hypothesis, she used 1,155 data models and 311 tests!
Technology for good works, but human behavior must change
Project ElephantEdge is an example of how commercial and public interest can converge and result in a collaborative sustainability effort to advance wildlife conservation efforts. The new collar can generate critical data and equip park rangers with better data to make urgent life-saving decisions about protecting their territories. By the end of 2021, at least ten elephants will be sporting the new collars in selected parks across Africa, in partnership with the World Wildlife Fund and Vulcan’s EarthRanger, unleashing a new wave of conservation, learning and defending.
Naturally, this is great, the technology works, and it’s helping elephants like never before. But in reality, the root cause of the problem runs much more profound. Humans must change their relationship to the natural world for proper elephant habitat and population revival to occur.
“The threat to elephants is greater than it’s ever been,” said Richard Leakey, a leading palaeoanthropologist and conservationist scholar. The main argument for allowing trophy or ivory hunting is that it raises money for conservation and local communities. However, a recent report revealed that only 3% of Africa’s hunting revenue trickles down to communities in hunting areas. Animals don’t need to die to make money for the communities you live around.
With great technology, collaboration and a commitment to address the underlying cultural conditions and the ivory trade that leads to most elephant deaths, there’s a real chance to save these singular creatures.
African cross-border fintech startup Chipper Cash has raised a $30 million Series B funding round led by Ribbit Capital with participation of Bezos Expeditions — the personal VC fund of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.
Chipper Cash was founded in San Francisco in 2018 by Ugandan Ham Serunjogi and Ghanaian Maijid Moujaled. The company offers mobile-based, no fee, P2P payment services in seven countries: Ghana, Uganda, Nigeria, Tanzania, Rwanda, South Africa and Kenya.
Parallel to its P2P app, the startup also runs Chipper Checkout — a merchant-focused, fee-based payment product that generates the revenue to support Chipper Cash’s free mobile-money business. The company has scaled to 3 million users on its platform and processes an average of 80,000 transactions daily. In June 2020, Chipper Cash reached a monthly payments value of $100 million, according to CEO Ham Serunjogi .
As part of the Series B raise, the startup plans to expand its products and geographic scope. On the product side, that entails offering more business payment solutions, crypto-currency trading options, and investment services.
“We’ll always be a P2P financial transfer platform at our core. But we’ve had demand from our users to offer other value services…like purchasing cryptocurrency assets and making investments in stocks,” Serunjogi told TechCrunch on a call.
Chipper Cash has added beta dropdowns on its website and app to buy and sell Bitcoin and invest in U.S. stocks from Africa — the latter through a partnership with U.S. financial services company DriveWealth.
“We’ll launch [the stock product] in Nigeria first so Nigerians have the option to buy fractional stocks — Tesla shares, Apple shares or Amazon shares and others — through our app. We’ll expand into other countries thereafter,” said Serunjogi.
On the business financial services side, the startup plans to offer more API payments solutions. “We’ve been getting a lot of requests from people on our P2P platform, who also have business enterprises, to be able to collect payments for sale of goods,” explained Serunjogi.
Chipper Cash also plans to use its Series B financing for additional country expansion, which the company will announce by the end of 2021.
Jeff Bezos’s backing of Chipper Cash follows a recent string of events that has elevated the visibility of Africa’s startup scene. Over the past decade, the continent’s tech ecosystem has been one of the fastest growing in the world by year year-over-year expansion in venture capital and startup formation, concentrated in countries such as Nigeria, Kenya, and South Africa.
Bringing Africa’s large unbanked population and underbanked consumers and SMEs online has factored prominently. Roughly 66% of Sub-Saharan Africa’s 1 billion people don’t have a bank account, according to World Bank data.
As such, fintech has become Africa’s highest-funded tech sector, receiving the bulk of an estimated $2 billion in VC that went to startups in 2019. Even with the rapid venture funding growth over the last decade, Africa’s tech scene had been performance light, with only one known unicorn (e-commerce venture Jumia) a handful of exits, and no major public share offerings. That changed last year.
In April 2019, Jumia — backed by investors including Goldman Sachs and Mastercard — went public in an NYSE IPO. Later in the year, Nigerian fintech company Interswitch achieved unicorn status after a $200 million investment by Visa.
One of the more significant liquidity events in African tech occurred last month, when Stripe acquired Nigerian payment gateway startup Paystack for a reported $200 million.
In an email to TechCrunch, a spokesperson for Bezos Expeditions confirmed the fund’s investment in Chipper Cash, but declined to comment on further plans to back African startups. Per Crunchbase data, the investment would be the first in Africa for the fund. It’s worth noting Bezos Expeditions is not connected to Jeff Bezo’s hallmark business venture, Amazon.
For Chipper Cash, the $30 million Series B raise caps an event-filled two years for the San Francisco-based payments company and founders Ham Serunjogi and 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 Liquid 2 Ventures — co-founded by American football legend Joe Montana — to back their company with seed funds. The startup expanded into Nigeria and Southern Africa in 2019, entered a payments partnership with Visa in April and raised a $13.8 million Series A in June.
Chipper Cash founder Ham Serunjogi believes the backing of his company by a notable tech figure, such as Jeff Bezos (the world’s richest person), has benefits beyond his venture.
“It’s a big deal when a world class investor like Bezos or Ribbit goes out of their sweet spot to a new area where they previously haven’t done investments,” he said. “Ultimately, the winner of those things happening is the African tech ecosystem overall, as it will bring more investment from firms of that caliber to African startups.”
An elite commando unit supported by U.S. forces could fall apart, officials say, leaving the country more vulnerable to the Shabab and other terrorist groups.
Nigeria based startup Autochek looks to bring the sales and servicing of cars in Africa online. The newly founded venture has closed a $3.4 million seed-round co-led by TLcom Capital and 4DX ventures toward that aim.
The raise comes fresh off of Autochek’s September acquisition of digital car sales marketplace Cheki in Nigeria and Ghana. It also follows the recent departure of Autochek CEO Etop Ikpe from Cars45 — the startup he co-founded in 2016, now owned by Amsterdam based OLX Group.
That’s a lot of news in a short-time for Ikpe. His new company will likely be in direct competition with his previous venture (also located in Nigeria). Still, the Nigerian entrepreneur — who built his early tech credentials at e-commerce startups DealDey and Konga — says Autochek is a new model.
“It’s different in the type of technology we’re building and that it’s asset light. I don’t have any inventory. I don’t buy cars. I don’t transact any [physical] cars. I don’t own any inspection locations. I don’t own any dealerships,” Ikpe told TechCrunch on a call from Lagos.
Autochek’s model, according to its CEO, is aimed at creating the digital infrastructure for a new system to better coordinate sales, servicing, and vehicle records of the car market in Nigeria and broader Africa.
Ikpe characterizes that market as still largely informal and fragmented. “We’re basically focused on technology solutions to build the rails of [Africa’s] automotive sector to run on. We’re focusing on three foundations of the market: transactions and trading, maintenance, and financing,” he said.
Autochek’s platform — managed by a developer team in Lagos and Nairobi — is a network for consumers and businesses to buy cars, sell cars, service cars, and finance cars sales.
On the financing side, the startup launched with 10 bank partnerships in Nigeria and two in Ghana, according to Ikpe. Creating more financing options is both a big opportunity for the startup and consumers, he explained. “The used car market in Africa is a $45 billion a year market that has only a 5% financing penetration rate…so there’s huge upside for growth.”
Across its core product offerings, Autochek has created a network of partners and standards. The company generates revenues through fees charged on consumer transactions and commissions paid by dealers and service shops on the platform. Consumers can sign up and use the Autochek app for free.
On the sudden departure from his previous startup, Cars45, “I left because I wanted to build something else,” explained Ikpe. There’s been plenty of speculation in local tech press as to what happened, including reports of forced exits by investors. Ikpe declined to get into the details except to say, “I’ve resigned. I’ve moved on and I’m focused on doing what I’m doing right now.”
In addition to its operations in Nigeria — Africa’s most populous nation, largest economy and top VC destination — Autochek plans to use its seed-financing to expand services and geographic scope. The startup will add associated auto related services, such as insurance and blue book pricing products. Autochek is also eying possible entry in new countries such as Ivory Coast, Senegal, South Africa, Kenya, Egypt and Algeria. More M&A could also be in play. “Acquisitions are going to be a core part of our expansion strategy,” said Ikpe.
TLcom Capital Partner Andreata Muforo confirmed the fund’s co-lead on the $3.4 million seed round. Speaking to TechCrunch on a call from Nairobi, she named Autochek’s asset light model, Ikpe’s repeat founder status, and the fund’s view of auto sales and service as an underserved market in Africa as reasons for backing the venture. Golden Palm Investments, Lateral Capital, MSA Capital, and Kepple Africa Ventures also joined the investment round.
While fintech gains the majority of VC financing across Africa’s top tech hubs — such as Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa — mobility related startups operating on the continent have attracted notable support. Drone delivery venture Zipline and trucking logistics company Kobo360 have both received backing from Goldman Sachs. In 2019, FlexClub, a South African startup that matches investors and drivers to cars for ride-hailing services, used a $1.3 million round to expand to Mexico in partnership with Uber.
Tsitsi Dangarembga’s debut novel, “Nervous Conditions,” made her part of the African literary canon. Decades later, “This Mournable Body” has made her a contender for one of the world’s top book prizes.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s two-year feud with the rebellious ruling party of the Tigray region has exploded into a war, with bombings, massacres and ethnic divisions, that threatens to upend the entire Horn of Africa.
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Alphabet will soon deliver wireless Internet over light beams in Kenya using a technology that can cover distances of up to 20km. Alphabet’s Project Taara, unveiled under a different name in 2017, conducted a series of pilots in Kenya last year and is now partnering with a telecom company to deliver Internet access in remote parts of Africa.
Kenya will get the technology first, with other countries in sub-Saharan Africa to follow. Project Taara General Manager Mahesh Krishnaswamy described the project in an announcement from Alphabet today:
Project Taara is now working with Econet and its subsidiaries, Liquid Telecom and Econet Group, to expand and enhance affordable, high-speed Internet to communities across their networks in Sub-Saharan Africa. Taara’s links will begin rolling out across Liquid Telecom’s networks in Kenya first, and will help provide high-speed connectivity in places where it’s challenging to lay fiber cables, or where deploying fiber might be too costly or dangerous—for example over rivers, across national parks, or in post-conflict zones.
Like fiber, without cables
Similar to fiber-optic cables, Taara’s technology uses light to transmit data, but without the cables. Krishnaswamy continued:
The African continent is currently one of the fastest-growing regions when it comes to mobile growth, and financial technology companies that are building services to meet that rapidly-expanding market are getting a lot of attention.
In the latest development, Kuda, a startup out of Nigeria that operates a popular mobile-first challenger bank for consumers and (soon) small businesses, is announcing that it has raised $10 million — the biggest seed round ever to be raised in Africa. The funding comes on the back of strong demand for its services and its ambitions — according CEO Babs Ogundeyi — to become the go-to bank not just for those living on the continent, but for the African diaspora.
“We want to bank every African on the planet, wherever you are in the world,” he said in an interview. It’s starting first in its home market: since launching in September 2019, it has picked up around 300,000 customers — first consumers and now also small businesses — and on average processes over $500 million of transactions each month.
The $10 million is being led by Target Global, the giant VC out of Europe, with Entrée Capital and SBI Investment (once part of SoftBank, now no longer) also participating, along with a number of other notable individual fintech founders and angels.
The list includes Raffael Johnen (founder of Auxmoney), Johan Lorenzen (founder of Holvi), Brandon Krieg/Ed Robinson (founders of Stash), and Oliver and Lish Jung (angel investors in Nubank, Revolut, and Chime).
Prior to this Kuda — which is co-founded by Ogundeyi and CTO Musty Mustapha — had raised $1.6 million in a pre-seed round to launch a beta of its service, and Ogundeyi said he’s already working on a much bigger Series A. No valuation is currently being disclosed.
In a year where many have been watching the world economy with some trepidation on the back of a raging health pandemic hitting multiple geographies, fintech in Africa has been in the spotlight of late.
Most recently, Paystack — a payments startup out of Nigeria — got acquired by Stripe for over $200 million, making it not only Stripe’s biggest acquisition, but the largest exit-by-acquisition to-date for any Nigerian startup. That news followed closely on the heels of Interswitch, another payments startup, hitting a $1 billion valuation on the back of an investment from Visa.
But in truth, startups focused around the business of financial transactions — which also includes the adjacent industry of e-commerce (See: Jumia, the first venture-backed startup out of the region to go public) have been some of the most eagerly-watched, and their services mostly widely-adopted, of all tech plays in the region.
The reason is logical. As a contintent, Africa is one of the most populous, yet one of the more underdeveloped economically, continents in the world. And in our modern times, digital inclusion has become synonymous with financial inclusion. So, as the population begins to adopt mobile technology in earnest, those users represent a big opportunity: there is pent-up demand, and competition is relatively sparse.
That has meant a number of efforts, leveraging the growth in mobile phone usage to provide services to people to make transactions beyond those that they would otherwise only do in person, using cash. These have included innovative services like Mpesa, which uses a person’s phone (which can be a basic feature phone) as a proxy for a bank account, allowing people to pay in and pay out using their phone numbers and prepay accounts.
Nigeria — currently the biggest single economy in Africa — has also been at the center of a lot of fintech activity, and Kuda has been taking that opportunity by the horns.
In its case, that has started with building Kuda’s footprint from the ground up.
The rise of the challenger bank has been one of the more interesting developments in the world of consumer fintech, with companies like N26, Monzo, Starling, Chime, NuBank and Revolut finding a lot of traction with younger users.
But unlike many of these, Kuda does not partner with other banks to manage and back deposits with the challenger bank to in turn focus on customer service, and building user-friendly experiences and value-added services around money management. Instead, Kuda has obtained a microfinance banking license from the central bank of Nigeria.
This means that it manages payments, transfers, issues debit cards (in partnership with Visa and Mastercard). It also, he said, has partnerships with the incumbent banks Zenith Bank, Guaranteed Trust and Access Bank for people to come in for physical deposits and withdrawals when needed.
“We have built the core banking services in-house so we own the full stack,” he said. “It means we don’t have to piggy back on another financial institution. We may choose to partner on certain products but we don’t have to.” He added that the plan will be to get full licenses “in what we consider key regions” but possibly partner in others where the existing infrastructure makes it more logical to do so.
“The reason for the full license is because of monetization,” he added. “As a bank you need to be able to lend, and in Nigeria if you don’t have a full license it’s hard to lend and make money.”
Having an account is free, and so Kuda makes money through other services. Among them, users can top up their phones directly from the Kuda app (most accounts are prepaid), so Kuda acts as a kind of broker in that transaction and makes a percentage from it.
Users can also pay bill through the app, where Kuda also makes a percentage. And, like other banks, Kuda manages its float and invests it in treasury bills, mutual funds and soon other credit products. There are also fees collected from debit transactions but these are not the real focus, he said.
Kuda’s mobile-first interface is not unlike a lot of the new wave of banking services built around apps, including an aim to be more than just a “dumb box” for storing money.
In its case, Kuda uses machine learning to personalize every customer, Ogundeyi said, generating suggested budgets and savings plans for its users. “The plan for our credit service is that we will base how much we issue and at what terms based on your existing spending habits,” he said.
That focus on spending dovetails with the kind of customers that Kuda is targeting. Some 70% of Nigerians are under the age of 30, and they are “smart and entrepreneurial” said Ogundeyi.
Although a pared-down version of Kuda is available for feature devices — it lacks the AI-based money management features, for one thing — the startup is mainly targeting the segment of the population that is buying and using smartphones, have the kind of incomes and lifestyles that mean they are actively depositing and spending money, and — in an increasing number of cases — also running their own businesses. That overlap means that “targeting small business owners doesn’t deviate from our original business model of younger consumers too much,” he said.
While some users are already running some of their small business banking through Kuda, a more formal small business product, with more features tailored for those users, will be launched by Q1 2021, he said.
Nigerian potential, African promise
Ogundeyi said that despite the uncertainty many are feeling around the pandemic, the relative success of Kuda and the optimism around the future of challenger banks, helped the company close this seed round (and raise other money soon) relatively easily.
“The emergence of digital challenger banks, providing customers with a free, digital and significantly better banking experience compared to services offered by traditional banks, has seen huge success across the globe,” said Dr. Ricardo Schäfer, Partner at Target Global, in a statement. “Kuda is one of Africa’s leading digital challenger banks and one of the fastest growing fintechs on the continent. We are very excited to be working with Babs, Musty and the entire Kuda team to further build on the fantastic momentum they have had since inception and support them in taking the company to the next level.” He is joining Kuda’s board with this round.
“Kuda’s relentless drive and ability to execute quickly has allowed it to carve out a highly disruptive business model in the finance and banking industry,” added Avi Eyal, partner at Entrée Capital.
Funding for any startup from the continent is rare enough that stories around it must also be viewed in the context of the bigger challenges in general that African startups have with raising money in a global market, which seems to generally be heavily biased towards developed economies (and startups in specific regions like Silicon Valley) and more known-quantity founders (which often tends to skew to while males).
“Ultimately I think there is work to be done on both sides,” he said of investors, founders and the situation of building stronger African ecosystems. “On the side of investors, more of them need to appreciate the value of the continent. And from the entrepreneurial side, there is work to be done in understanding how investors invest to get them over the line.”
He thinks that having more investors from the continent itself could help.
“Unfortunately we don’t have many African investors. My belief is that people with money typically will give money to people they understand and connect with. It’s not a surprise that if you have gone through a certain establishment (work or school) it’s easier to get funding from someone who was in that organization,” he said. “My first investment came from a friend who was at school with me.”
Indeed, Ogundeyi knows something about the workings of capital from his own first-hand experience. He was actually born England to Nigerian parents, who eventually moved back to Nigeria but kept him in the UK going to British boarding schools and eventually university. Ogundeyi still splits his time between Lagos and London (which is where he was when we spoke last week). He says that he considers himself Nigerian first.
“Nigeria has the potential to be a great national economy if it’s well harnessed,” he said. “Tech is contributing significantly to that. That is why there is a lot of interest and why we are excited to be there.”
Electoral officials said Alassane Ouattara won Saturday’s vote in a landslide but his opponents boycotted the election after he defied constitutional term limits.
Those attempting to migrate from West Africa to Europe are once again taking a route so dangerous it’s known as “Barcelona or die.”
After a poll marred by accusations of widespread fraud and irregularities, one opposition leader warned that the nation could become a “one-party system.”
Humanity originated in Africa, and it remained there for tens of thousands of years. To understand our shared genetic history, it’s inevitable that we have to look to Africa. Unlike elsewhere on the planet, however, African populations were present throughout our history—they weren’t subject to the same sorts of founder effects seen as populations expanded into unoccupied areas. Instead, those populations were scrambled as groups migrated to new areas within the continent.
Sorting out all of this would be a challenge, but it’s one that has been made harder by the fact that most genome data comes from people in the industrialized world, leaving the vast populations of Africa poorly sampled. That’s starting to change, and a new paper reports on the efforts of a group that has just analyzed over 400 African genomes, many coming from populations that have never participated in genome studies before.
New genetic variants arise all the time. As a result, the oldest populations—those in Africa—should have the most novel variations. But identifying these populations can be hard when there are so many; the study mentions that there are over 2,000 ethnolinguistic groups in sub-Saharan Africa, and only a small number of those have been sampled. The new study is a huge step forward, with over 400 complete genome sequences from geographically dispersed populations. But even there, it’s limited, adding only 50 new ethnolinguistic groups and two vast regions of the continent represented by people from a single country (Zambia for Central Africa and Botswana for Southern Africa).
Climate change is shifting the habitats of endangered species and requiring conservation scientists to think outside traditional park boundaries.
A study in Mali suggests that malaria parasites hide out during the dry season by altering the properties of red blood cells.
The move clears the way for the African nation to seek international assistance and potentially to normalize relations with Israel, which officials said could happen within days.
Burkina Faso once looked like a success story for U.S. military aid. But now it’s contending with a growing insurgency, an unfolding humanitarian crisis — and a security force targeting civilians.
Presidential elections are scheduled soon in at least 10 African countries. Many incumbents are changing constitutions and bending rules to ensure they stay in power.
Regional leaders have insisted the West African country return to civilian rule. The new interim president is a retired colonel and former defense minister who served under the ousted president.
A docuseries on slavery through the lens of sunken slave ships that never reached their destination — ships that became mass graves of kidnapped Africans.
Small and medium businesses have been some of the hardest hit in the Covid-19 pandemic. And all that has been as true in emerging markets as it has been for SMBs in the developed world.
Tunde Kehinde has had a front-row seat witnessing and responding to that crisis. He’s the CEO and co-founder of Lidya, a startup out of Nigeria that has built a platform for SMBs to apply for and get loans and other financial services, aimed at markets on the African continent and increasingly also in emerging economies in Europe. We sat down with him as part of our new virtual Disrupt series, where we have been connecting with some of the biggest movers and shakers in the tech world beyond the US.
Kehinde has been called the “Jeff Bezos of Africa”, a funny title you might think sounds like tenuous or cheesy marketing until you know more about his history in business, the impact it’s had so far (he’s not that old) in the region, and until you hear him speak.
Kehinde — born in Nigeria and exposed to a lot of the US way of doing things through university years at Howard and then Harvard — was previously the co-founder of one of the biggest tech startups to have come out of the continent — Jumia — an Amazon-style marketplace that is slowly branching out into a wider web of services like payments, food delivery and more.
Initially incubated by Rocket Internet, Jumia raised hundreds of millions of dollars from VCs, scaled to multiple countries on the continent, and is now traded publicly on Nasdaq with a current market cap of $660 million — modest by Amazon standards maybe, but a real milestone for African tech.
That alone would probably merit some to wonder if he’s the “next Bezos”, but it’s been his follow-up act at Lidya that paints a broader picture. In short, there is a lot more potential for payment and online commerce services in emerging markets, and focusing on helping small businesses cross the digital chasm is not just a good business opportunity, but a developmental one, too. Capital, specifically the lack thereof, has always been a huge hindrance to growth, and these days it’s an even more critical axiom to address.
You can see the full Disrupt conversation below, where Kehinde covers a lot of ground, not just about his company but about how tech is evolving in the region.
The breakout success of a handful of startups — which include the likes of new digital payments unicorn Interswitch as well as Jumia — venturing into multiple jurisdictions, he noted, is seeing more VCs also increase their interest and investment activity. He thinks the next very important step is to have more exits, which will confer a different kind of credibility and liquidity to the market.
And there should be, he added: There are few places like the African continent that is a blank slate, where you can come in quickly and build a really dominant player, if you have the right capital and team, he said.
“It’s night and day between seven years ago and now,” he added, but also admitted that while financial services and the related world of e-commerce are obvious places to start — it was also the classic category to tackle first in the US and Europe many years earlier — he still sees more interest from VCs in the U.S., Europe and Latin America.
His advice for VCs?
“If I were a VC I would look at what have been the biggest successes from folks like me,” he said. “Seeing Jumia and others going public, as more of these things happen the more you can develop a great policy and that will make it easier. I launched, I got to scale, I got return on investment, the right infrastructure can be built.”
Tune in here to hear him also talk about China and how to handle investment from outside Africa; what other big deals in loans for SMBs, such as Kabbage getting acquired by Amex, mean for startups like Lidya, the impact of the global coronavirus pandemic on business; identifying opportunities beyond your immediate region; and more.
The Nigerian founder didn’t offer much new on the Lagos-based firm’s expected IPO, but he did reveal Interswitch will revive investments in African startups.
Founded by Elegbe in 2002, Interswitch pioneered the infrastructure to digitize Nigeria’s then predominantly cash-based economy. The company now provides much of the rails for Nigeria’s online banking system that serves Africa’s largest economy and population of 200 million people. Interswitch has expanded to offer personal and business payment products in 23 Africa countries.
The fintech firm achieved unicorn status in 2019 after a $200 million equity investment by Visa gave it a $1 billion valuation.
Reviving venture investing
But Interswitch will soon be back in the business of making startup bets and acquisitions, according to Elegbe. “We’ve just certified a team and the plan is to begin to make those kinds of investments again.”
He offered a glimpse into the new fund’s focus. “This time around we want to make financial investments and also leverage the network that Interswitch has and put that at the disposal of these companies,” Elegbe told TechCrunch.
“We’ll be very selective in the companies we invest in. They should be companies that Interswitch clearly as an entity can add value to. They should be companies that help accelerate growth by the virtue of what we do and the customers that we have,” he said.
Recent venture events in African tech have likely pressed Interswitch to get back in the investing arena. As an ecosystem, VC on the continent has increased (roughly) by a factor of four over last five years, to around $2 billion in 2019. But most of that has come from single-entity investment funds, while corporate venture funding (and tech M&A activity) has remained light. That’s shifted over the last several months and the entire uptick has occurred in African fintech around entities that could be viewed as Interswitch competitors.
In July, Dubai’s Network International acquired Kenya -based payment mobile payment processing company DPO for $288 million. Shortly after the acquisition, DPO’s CEO Eran Feinstein said the company would pursue more African acquisitions on its own. In June, another mobile-money payment processor, MFS Africa, acquired digital finance company Beyonic. And in August, South Africa’s Standard Bank—Africa’s largest by assets and lending—acquired a stake in fintech security firm TradeSafe.
Since the rise of Safaricom’s dominant M-Pesa mobile money product in Kenya, fintech in Africa has become infinitely larger and more competitive. The sector has hundreds of startups and now receives nearly 50% of all VC investment on the continent.
The opportunity investors and founders are chasing is bringing Africa’s large unbanked population and underbanked consumers and SMEs online. Roughly 66% of Sub-Saharan Africa’s 1 billion people don’t have a bank account, according to World Bank data, and mobile-based finance platforms have presented the best use-cases to shift that across the region.
Interswitch has established itself as a leader in the Africa’s digital finance race. But it’s hard to envision how it can maintain or extend that role without an active venture arm that invests in and acquires innovative, young fintech startups.
No news on IPO
Elegbe had less to offer on Interswitch’s long-anticipated IPO. Asked if the company still planned to list publicly, he offered up a non-answer answer. “At this point in time we’re focused on growing the business and creating value for our customers and that is the our primary focus.”
When pressed “yes or no” on whether an IPO was still a possibility Elegbe confirmed it was. “We have private equity investors and at some point in the life of the business they want exits.” he said. “When it is time for them to exit there are various options on the table and an IPO is an option.”
There’s been talk of an Interswitch IPO for years. In 2016, Elegbe told TechCrunch a dual-listing on the Lagos and London Stock Exchanges was possible. Then word came through other Interswitch channels that it was delayed due to recession and currency volatility in Nigeria in 2017. In November 2019, a source with knowledge of the situation told TechCrunch on background, “an IPO is still very much in the cards; likely sometime in the first half of 2020.” Then came the Covid-19 crisis and the accompanying global economic slump, which may have delayed Interswitch’s IPO plans yet again.
If and when the company goes public, it would be a major event for Nigerian and African fintech. No VC backed fintech firm on the continent has listed globally. Exits for Interswitch’s investors would likely attract to Nigeria and broader Africa more VC from major funds—many of whom remain on the fence about startup opportunities on the continent.
Focus on Africa
On global product expansion, Interswitch plans to maintain an African focus for now, Elegbe explained. “There are enough opportunities for Interswitch on the continent. We’d like to be in as many African countries as possible…and position Interswitch as the (financial) gateway to the continent,” he said.
Elegbe explained the company would continue to work through alliances with major financial services firms to open up global financial access for its African client base. In August 2019, Interswitch launched a partnership that allows its Verve cardholders to make payments on Discover’s global network.
CEO Mitchell Elegbe concluded his Disrupt session with some perspective on balancing the stigmas and possibilities of doing business in Nigeria. Over recent years the country has shifted to become an unofficial hub for big tech expansion, VC investment, and startup formation in Africa. But Nigeria continues to have a difficult operating environment with regard to infrastructure and is often associated with political corruption and instability in its Northeast region due to the Boko Haram insurgency.
“Nigeria has a very large population and a very large market. We have lots of challenges that need to be solved, but it makes sense to me that lots of money is finding its way to Nigeria because the opportunity is there,” he said.
Elegbe’s advice to tech investors considering the country, “Don’t take a short-termist view. There are good people on the ground doing fantastic work—honest people who want to make impact. You need to seek those people out.”
Walmart now has two tests for drone delivery running in the US.
Early Monday morning the company announced a new drone delivery program with Zipline, a startup that made its name delivering medical supplies across Africa.
The partnership with Zipline comes on the heels of another newly announced drone partnership with Flytrex, which started delivering packages to Walmart customers in North Carolina last week.
Zipline’s work with Walmart in Arkansas compliments a pilot delivery program that the company began in North Carolina earlier this year. Working with Novant Health, Zipline has been delivering medical equipment and personal protective gear via drone to regions of North Carolina since May.
The drone operation with Walmart will deliver health and wellness products initially, with the potential to expand to general merchandise.
A movement into the delivery of general goods would be something of a pivot for Zipline, which has touted its ability to handle medical supplies and equipment since the launch of its services across Africa in 2016.
Trial deliveries for the new service will begin in Northwest Arkansas and cover a 50-mile radius, according to a statement from Walmart.
Walmart’s forays into drone delivery come as its largest competitor, Amazon, also picks up activity in the drone aviation industry.
In late August, Amazon’s Prime Air drone delivery fleet received approval from the FAA to begin trialing commercial deliveries. It’s similar to the certification that logistics companies like UPS received to test their own drone delivery networks.
Rather than operate its own drone fleet, Walmart seems content to partner with existing companies working in the space — for now.
Former and current employees accuse Dr. Lucica Ditiu, leader of Stop TB, of harassment and bullying. The complaints threaten to slow prevention efforts worldwide.
With pledges of a coronavirus vaccine, China is on a charm offensive to repair strained diplomatic ties and bolster engagement with other countries.
The CEO of Pan-African fintech unicorn, Mitchell Elegbe, is set to speak at TechCrunch Disrupt 2020 on September 16. He founded the company in Lagos in 2002 to connect Nigeria’s — then — largely disconnected banking system.
Over the next decade plus, Interswitch accelerated the adoption of digital payments across Africa and now stands as one of the continent’s rare fintech unicorns. The company is poised to list on a global exchange, which would also create Africa’s next big tech IPO.
At Disrupt 2020, TechCrunch will seek Elegbe’s perspective on the continent’s fintech scene, Interswitch’s venture plans, and the economic impact of Covid-19 on African startups. This year’s event is 100% virtual, making it possible for anyone with an internet connection to sign in and learn more about Elegbe’s company and digital innovation in Africa.
If you’re a VC or founder in London, Bangalore or San Francisco, you’ll likely interact with some part of Africa’s tech landscape for the first time — or more — in the near future. When measured by monetary values, the continent’s tech ecosystem is small by Shenzhen or Silicon Valley standards.
But when you look at year-over-year expansion in venture capital, startup formation and tech hubs, it’s one of the fastest-growing tech markets in the world.
Bringing the continent’s large unbanked population and underbanked consumers and SMEs online has factored prominently. Roughly 66% of Sub-Saharan Africa’s 1 billion people don’t have a bank account, according to World Bank data.
As such, fintech has become Africa’s highest funded tech sector, receiving the bulk of an estimated $2 billion in VC that went to startups in 2019.
Interswitch became a pioneer of building the infrastructure to digitize finance on the continent. The company pre-dates the rise of mobile money in Kenya through Safaricom’s M-Pesa product, which is one of Africa’s most recognized fintech use-cases.
Interswitch’s path from startup to unicorn traces back to the vision of CEO Mitchell Elegbe, who was a Nigerian electrical engineering graduate before founding the firm in 2002. The company has since produced a run of product innovation and expansion, starting in Nigeria. Interswitch created the first electronic switch whereby Nigerian financial institutions could communicate and operate ATMs and point of sales operations. The company now provides much of the rails for Nigeria’s online banking system.
Interswitch has since moved into high-volume personal and business finance, with its Verve payment cards and Quickteller payment app. The fintech firm (now well beyond startup phase) has also shaped a Pan-African and global reach — selling its products in 23 African countries with a physical presence in Uganda, Gambia and Kenya . In August 2019, Interswitch launched a partnership that allows its Verve cardholders to make payments on Discover’s global network.
Interswitch also launched a venture arm in 2015 called its global ePayment Growth Fund. Another milestone came in November 2019 when Interswitch achieved a $1 billion unicorn valuation after Visa took a reported $200 million minority stake in the company. Other Interswitch backers include IFC and Helios Investment Partners.
The company’s Nigerian origins and operations have become more significant as Nigeria is now Africa’s most populous nation and largest economy. The West African country has become the continent’s unofficial tech hub and fintech capital. Nigerian startups now raise the majority of Africa’s annual VC haul, according to a study by Partech.
Heading into 2020, the momentum was there and the pieces were falling in place for Interswitch to mark that next big achievement — an IPO. Where that listing stands for the firm, particularly in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis, is one of many topics TechCrunch is excited to discuss with CEO Mitchell Elegbe at Disrupt 2020.
The event runs from September 14 through September 18 and (as mentioned) is 100% virtual this year, making it possible for anyone from London to Lagos to sign in. Get your front row seat to see Mitchell Elegbe live with a Disrupt Digital Pro Pass or a Digital Startup Alley Exhibitor Package. We’re excited to see you there.
Thunes, a Singapore-based startup developing a cross-border payments network to make financial services more accessible in emerging markets, announced today it has raised a $60 million Series B. The round was led by Africa-focused firm Helios Investment Partners, with participation from Checkout.com, and returning investors GGV Capital and Future Shape.
Thunes launched in 2019 when financial tech company TransferTo split into two companies: Thunes for business-to-business solutions, and DT One, which focuses on consumer services like mobile top-ups and data bundles.
Thunes develops APIs and other technology for financial companies, including banks, digital wallet providers, and money transfer services, that helps them reach customers in emerging economies, who often don’t have access to traditional bank accounts. Instead, many rely on digital wallets or mobile money accounts to make or receive online payments.
The company now operates in about 100 countries, up from 40 when TechCrunch covered its $10 million Series A in May 2019. The latest round will be used to grow its operations across Africa, Asia and Latin America, and brings Thunes’ total raised so far to $70 million.
Headquartered in Singapore, Thunes also has offices in London, Shanghai, New York, Dubai and Nairobi. Chief executive officer Peter De Caluwe told TechCrunch that Thunes looked for active investors who could help it work with banks and regulators in new markets, and help them connect with potential clients. Part of its Series B round will be used to hire teams in countries it wants to enter or expand its operations in, including Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, and Ethiopia.
“Having Helios, who know many of the regulators and players already in Africa, will allow us to grow faster and get introductions,” said De Caluwe. “GGV did the same for us in China, because GGV is well-established in China and the [San Francisco] Bay Area.”
In an email to TechCrunch, Helios Investment Partners co-founder and managing partner Tope Lawani said the firm focuses on fintech, especially payments, in Africa, and backed Thunes because it is building important financial infrastructure.
Its other investments include online payment platform Fawry, which recently went public on the Egyptian Stock Exchange.
“Cross-border payments represents a significant market opportunity globally given increasing cross border trade and globalization; yet, across several emerging markets, fragmented and complex payment ecosystems often leave businesses and consumers struggling with slow, costly and unreliable ways of moving money,” Lawani said. “Thunes’ unique platform which was set up to address these pain points by providing accessible, fast and reliable payment solutions stood out to us as a company very well positioned to capture this growth”
Pulling together a fragmented ecosystem
Similarly to how the SWIFT system connects traditional banks, Thunes’ cross-border payments network makes it easier to transfer money online to recipients in different countries, even if they use different financial services, by serving as a hub for financial institutions, digital wallets and other payment systems.
De Caluwe said Thunes divides its markets’ needs into four categories. The first are countries that are primarily cash-driven, like the Philippines. The second are places where there is a dominant digital wallet, like MPesa in Kenya (one of Thunes’ clients). Then there are countries like Indonesia, where there are a host of new financial instruments, like GrabPay or GoPay. Finally, Thunes also serves banks that usually work with businesses.
“Nobody really connects all these players together. It might sound very logical to do that, but it’s almost like building an infrastructure, making sure there are pipes, tunnels, or whatever you want to call it, going between a wallet in Africa, a bank in China or accounting in Southeast Asia,” said De Caluwe.
SWIFT (or the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication), founded in 1973, revolutionized the financial industry by connecting banks through a standardized messaging system. This is what enables people to deposit checks from another bank into their accounts.
Thunes wants to do the same thing with digital financial services in emerging markets. “All of these e-wallets, bank accounts, mobile money accounts, we plug them into our central platform, so they become interoperable, which means that you can easily transfer money from one country to another country over our network,” De Caluwe said.
Thunes’ market opportunity is massive: based on data from a strategic workshop it conducted with financial research firm EY, about $45 trillion flows between the countries Thunes operates in. That amount includes many different kinds of transactions, but Thunes is taking a focused approach to which ones it handles, with APIs designed for specific use cases.
The first example De Caluwe gave is for remittance companies, including MoneyGram, Western Union and Remitly (all Thunes clients), to move money into digital wallets and bank accounts. Another API was developed for processing large amounts of payments and is used by clients like VIA, a region-wide mobile wallet alliance launched by Singtel Group, the Singapore-based telecommunications conglomerate. Thunes’ technology allows people to make payments from their VIA wallets in different currencies and countries. A major part of Thunes’ business is also its B2B solutions, designed for cross-border trade, that allows companies in different countries to transfer money directly into each other’s bank accounts without needing to deal with a maze of interbank connections and long wait times.
How Thunes’ technology helps
Part of Thunes’ Series B is earmarked for product development, specifically technology that will enable more collections from countries. De Caluwe explained that so far, most of Thunes’ solutions have focused on moving money into its markets. A potential use case for collections are Chinese retailers who sell to customers in African countries. Thunes’ new solution will allow them to collect payments directly from a digital wallet like MPesa, while making it easier for people to make payments on sites that don’t accept digital wallets or mobile money accounts. To serve those customers, Thunes is also working on digital bank accounts, which it has already begun piloting in Indonesia. Users are able to deposit cash into their digital bank accounts at ATMs, and then use those funds for online payments.
Other noteworthy Thunes clients include Grab, which uses its real-time payment system to make daily transfers to drivers’ digital wallets, bank accounts or cash pick-up locations, and the National Bank of Dubai.
Traditional methods of sending money across international borders are time-consuming and expensive, and there many financial tech companies looking to solve some of those pain points. Some of the best-known are Transferwise, Revolut and Payoneer.
Thunes differentiates by focusing almost exclusively on emerging markets, where the barriers to entry are high. Transferwise theoretically is a competitor, but it doesn’t serve as many markets as Thunes, and is also a potential client for Thunes’ technology, De Caluwe said.
Thunes does compete with regional digital payment hubs, but De Caluwe said the market opportunity is so vast he’d be “happy to share that $45 trillion with many players, because even if we could get one or two percent of that, we would already be a very larger business.” He added, “the market is so large and the systems that are currently used are broken or not helpful because many consumers can’t even get access to it since they don’t have a bank accounts, they only have a digital wallet or mobile money account.”
One advantage of Thunes’ technology is that it significantly reduces the amount of transaction fees consumers or businesses need to pay. The company makes revenue by charging a fixed transaction fee between two cents to $2, depending on the destination country. If there is a currency exchange involved, it charges a small markup on the exchange rate, using mid-market rates for reference.
“We need to make money, but our price also needs to be very attractive for a bank, a financial institution, digital wallet or mobile money accounts, so they can also make a markup on what they’re selling to the customer,” De Caluwe said. “So we operate on small margins, high volumes and high frequency.”
During these lean times for tourism, travel companies are appealing to residents with special rates. But locals ask: Why didn’t you reach out before?
Danièle Obono, a French-Gabonese lawmaker, was portrayed as an enslaved African in a fictional narrative that she described as a “political and racist attack.”
A federal agency is resurrecting a version of Predict, a scientific network that for a decade watched for new pathogens dangerous to humans. Joe Biden has also vowed to fund the effort.
The market for female-focused health products (aka ‘femtech’) is set for growth via segmentation, per an analyst note from PitchBook which identifies opportunities for entrepreneurs to target a growing number of health issues that specifically affect women or affect women in a specific way — broadening out from a traditional focus on reproductive health.
Femtech remains a “significantly underdeveloped” slice of healthtech, according to the analysis, which highlights the disparity between how much women spend annually on medical expenses — estimated at ~$500BN — vs how little healthcare R&D is targeted specifically at women’s health issues (a mere 4%).
Last year the global market for female-focused health products generated $820.6M, per the note, and is estimated to reach at least $3BN by the end of 2030. While it says femtech posted $592.1M in VC investment in 2019, slightly down on 2018’s $620.3M. But so far this year it’s racked up $376.2M in VC across 57 deals — putting it on pace to match 2019’s funding levels.
Areas of growth opportunity PitchBook sees for femtech outside its traditional focus on reproductive health are: Endometriosis, a painful disorder of the womb lining affecting one in 10 women; what it calls “personalized and female-oriented approaches to general health & disease management”, with a specific focus on heart health, pain management, and diabetes and weight management within that; and the life-stage transition of the menopause.
“While we still view femtech as a niche industry, we believe secular drivers could help propel new growth opportunities in the space,” write analysts Kaia Colban and Andrew Akers. “These include the increasing representation of women in the venture-backed technology community, rising awareness and acceptance of women’s health issues, and the growing prevalence of infectious diseases among women in some countries in Africa and Asia.
“Furthermore, while the majority of femtech products have traditionally focused on reproductive health, we believe new approaches to women’s health research will help open the door to new products and services.”
Expansion of the vertical is being driven by universal growth of the personalized medicine industry — which PitchBook notes is expected to reach $3.2TR by 2025, registering a CAGR of 10.6% over the forecast period.
While the massive underrepresentation of women in the venture community goes a long way to explaining the relative lack of attention investors have paid to products addressing women’s health — with the note acknowledging pitching to male investors remains a challenge for femtech startups — it suggests investors have also been cool on the subcategory because of a relatively poor track record of “sizable” exits.
“Only six femtech exits were completed in 2019; however, this still represents a 64% increase in exit value compared to 2018,” it writes. “The largest exits in recent years include Progyny’s $130M IPO and Procter & Gamble’s acquisition of This is L. for $100M. Progyny’s stock has roughly doubled in the eight months since it went public.”
PitchBook says it expects just 14% of VC to go toward female-founded startups this year — further noting that only 17% of startups have at least one female founder. (For femtech startups the figure is considerably higher — yet still only 69% of those PitchBook tracks; NB, this does not include startups building products targeted at women where there isn’t a medical need, such as skincare & beauty etc.)
“However, we believe these barriers may be subsiding as male investors begin to recognize the femtech market opportunity and as the VC world becomes more gender-diverse,” it adds, noting that female-founded companies deliver over twice as much per dollar invested than their male-owned counterparts which it reckons could help to turn more investors’ heads.
Other key industry growth drivers the note points to are a conducive regulatory environment; a rise in preventative medicine & holistic health; and advancements in health technology that have made personalized products more accessible and affordable, such as AI and “cloud-based infomatics”.
On the M&A front, PitchBook notes this is most common for femtech startups in the general health & wellness category. And while most remain single-product companies it says it expects a maturing femtech industry to lead to product diversification — “potentially driven by M&A” — noting recent examples of pregnancy-focused apps tapping into the menopause market, which it says suggests an expanding opportunity for fertility startups.
One of the areas of autonomous driving technology with the most potential to have a near-term and dramatic impact remains trucking: There’s a growing lack of drivers for long-haul routes, and highway trucking remains a relatively uncomplicated (though still very challenging) type of driving for AV systems to tackle.
Many companies are pursuing the challenge of autonomous trucking, but TuSimple and Waymo are leading the pack. TuSimple CTO Dr. Xiaodi You, who co-founded the company in 2015, and Waymo’s Boris Sofman, who leads the company’s autonomous trucking engineering efforts, will both join us at TC Sessions: Mobility on our virtual stage. The event takes place October 6-7, and we’re excited to hear from these two technology leaders working at the forefront of the industry.
TuSimple has accomplished a lot since its debut five years ago, including recently laying the groundwork for a U.S.-wide network of shipping routes in partnership with UPS, Xpress, food service supply company McLane and Penske Truck Leasing. The company is also seeking a sizable new funding round to help it scale, while actively testing with regular routes between Arizona and Texas.
Waymo, which originated at Google as that company’s self-driving car project before spinning out under parent entity Alphabet, adding self-driving trucks to the list of technologies it’s developing in 2017. Sofman joined in 2019, when Waymo hired on much of the engineering talent from his prior company, smart toy robotics maker Anki. Sofman’s resume also includes developing off-road autonomous vehicles, which likely comes in handy as Waymo seeks to roll out testing of its autonomous long-haul trucks across Texas and New Mexico.
In case you’re wondering, this won’t just be one long webinar. We have some technical tricks up our sleeves that will bring all of what you’d expect from our in-person events, from the informative panels and provocative one-on-one interviews to the networking and even a pitch-off session. While virtual isn’t the same as our events in the past, it has provided one massive benefit: democratizing access.
If you’re a startup or investor based in Europe, Africa, Australia, South America or another region in the U.S., you can listen in, network and connect with other participants here in Silicon Valley.
Get your tickets for TC Sessions: Mobility to hear from Bryan Salesky, along with several other fantastic speakers from Porsche, Waymo, Lyft and more. Tickets are just $145 for a limited time, with discounts for groups, students and exhibiting startups. We hope to see you there!
Islanders have joined together in an effort to contain an estimated 1,000 tons of fuel oil that leaked into the waters surrounding the picturesque nation off Africa’s eastern coast.
Mobile device maker HMD Global has announced a $230M Series A2 — its first tranche of external funding since a $100M round back in 2018 when it tipped over into a unicorn valuation. Since late 2016 the startup has exclusively licensed Nokia’s brand for mobile devices, going on to ship some 240M devices to date.
Its latest cash injection is notable both for its size (HMD claims it as the third largest funding round in Europe this year); and the profile of the strategic investors ploughing in capital — namely: Google, Nokia and Qualcomm.
Though whether a tech giant (Google) whose OS dominates the world’s smartphone market (Android) becoming a strategic investor in Europe’s last significant mobile OEM (HMD) catches the attention of regional competition enforcers remains to be seen. Er, vertical integration anyone? (To wit: It’s a little over two years since Google was slapped with a $5BN penalty by EU regulators for antitrust violations related to how it operates Android — and the Commission has said it continues to monitor the market ‘remedies’.)
In a further quirk, when we spoke to HMD Global CEO, Florian Seiche, ahead of today’s announcement, he didn’t expect the names of the investors to be disclosed — but we’d already been sent press release material listing them so he duly confirmed the trio are investors in the round. (But wouldn’t be drawn on how much equity Google is grabbing.)
HMD’s smartphones run on Google’s Android platform, which gives the tech giant a firm business reason for supporting the mobile maker in growing the availability of Google-packed hardware in key growth markets around the world.
And while HMD likens its consistent (and consistently updated) flavor of Android to the premium ‘pure’ Android experience you get from Google’s own-brand Pixel smartphones, the difference is the Finnish company offers devices across the range of price points, and targets hardware at mobile users in developing markets.
The upshot is relatively little overlap with Google’s Pixel hardware, and still plenty of business upside for Google should HMD grow the pipeline of Google services users (as it makes money by targeting ads).
Connoisseurs of mobile history may see more than a little irony in Google investing into Nokia branded smartphones (via HMD), given Android’s role in fatally disrupting Nokia’s lucrative smartphone business — knocking the Finnish giant off its perch as the world’s number one mobile maker and ushering in an era of Android-fuelled Asian mobile giants. But wait long enough in tech and what goes around oftentimes comes back around.
“We’re extremely excited,” said Seiche, when we mention Google’s pivotal role in Nokia’s historical downfall in smartphones. “How we are going to write that next chapter on smartphones is a critical strategic pillar for the company and our opportunity to team up so closely with Google around this has been a very, very great partnership from the beginning. And then this investment definitely confirms that — also for the future.”
“It’s a critical time for the industry therefore having a clear strategy — having a clear differentiation and a different point of view to offer, we believe, is a fantastic asset that we have developed for ourselves. And now is a great moment for us to double down on this,” he added.
We also asked Seiche whether HMD has any interest in taking advantage of the European Commission’s Android antitrust enforcement decision — i.e. to fork Android and remove the usual Google services, perhaps swapping them out for some European alternatives, which is at least a possibility for OEMs selling in the region — but Seiche told us: “We have looked at it but we strongly believe that consumers or enterprise customers actually love [Google] services and therefore they choose those services for themselves.” (Millions of dollars of direct investment from Google also, presumably, helps make the Google services business case stack up.)
Nokia, meanwhile, has always had a close relationship with HMD — which was established by former Nokia execs for the sole purpose of licensing its iconic mobile brand. (The backstory there is a clause in the sale terms of Nokia’s mobile device division to Microsoft expired in 2016, paving the way for Nokia’s brand to be returned to the smartphone market without the prior Windows Mobile baggage.)
Its investment into HMD now looks like a vote of confidence in how the company has been executing in the fiercely competitive mobile space to date (HMD doesn’t break out a lot of detail about device sales but Seiche told us it sold in excess of 70M mobiles last year; that’s a combined figure for smartphones and feature phones) — as well as an upbeat assessment of the scope of the growth opportunity ahead of it.
On the latter front US-led geopolitical tensions between the West and China do look poised to generate a tail-wind for HMD’s business.
Mobile chipmaker Qualcomm, for example, is facing a loss of business, as US government restrictions threaten its ability to continue selling chips to Huawei; a major Chinese device maker that’s become a key target for US president Trump. Its interest in supporting HMD’s growth, therefore, looks like a way for Qualcomm to hedge against US government disruption aimed at Chinese firms in its mobile device maker portfolio.
While with Trump’s recent threats against the TikTok app it seems safe to assume that no tech company with a Chinese owner is safe.
As a European company, HMD is able to position itself as a safe haven — and Seiche’s sales pitch talks up a focus on security detail and overall quality of experience as key differentiating factors vs the Android hoards.
“We have been very clear and very consistent right from the beginning to pick these core principles that are close to our heart and very closely linked with the Nokia brand itself — and definitely security, quality and trust are key elements,” he told TechCrunch. “This is resonating with our carrier and retail customers around the world and it is definitely also a core fundamental differentiator that those partners that are taking a longer term view clearly see that same opportunity that we see for us going forward.”
HMD does use manufacturing facilities in China, as well as in a number of other locations around the world — including Brazil, India, Indonesia and Vietnam.
But asked whether it sees any supply chain risks related to continued use of Chinese manufacturers to build ‘secure’ mobile hardware, Seiche responded by claiming: “The most important [factor] is we do control the software experience fully.” He pointed specifically to HMD’s acquisition of Valona Labs earlier this year. The Finnish security startup carries out all its software audits. “They basically control our software to make sure we can live up to that trusted standard,” Seiche added.
Landing a major tranche of new funding now — and with geopolitical tension between the West and the Far East shining a spotlight on its value as alternative, European mobile maker — HMD is eyeing expansion in growth markets such as Africa, Brail and India. (Currently, HMD said it’s active in 91 markets across eight regions, with its devices ranged in 250,000 retail outlets around the world.)
It’s also looking to bring 5G to devices at a greater range of price-points, beyond the current flagship Nokia 8.3. Seiche also said it wants to do more on the mobile services side. HMD’s first 5G device, the flagship Nokia 8.3, is due to land in the US and Europe in a matter of weeks. And Seiche suggested a timeframe of the middle of next year for launching a 5G device at a mid tier price point.
“The 5G journey again has started, in terms of market adoption, in China. But now Europe, US are the key next opportunity — not just in the premium tier but also in the mid segment. And to get to that as fast as possible is one of our goals,” he said, noting joint-working with Qualcomm on that.
“We also see great opportunity with Nokia in that 5G transition — because they are also working on a lot of private LTE deployments which is also an interesting area since… we are also very strongly present in that large enterprise segment,” he added.
On mobile services, Seiche highlighted the launch of HMD Connect: A data SIM aimed at travellers — suggesting it could expand into additional connectivity offers in future, forging more partnerships with carriers.
“We have already launched several services that are close to the hardware business — like insurance for your smartphones — but we are also now looking at connectivity as a great area for us,” he said. “The first pilot of that has been our global roaming but we believe there is a play in the future for consumers or enterprise customers to get their connectivity directly with their device. And we’re partnering also with operators to make that happen.”
“You can see us more as a complement [to carriers],” he added, arguing that business “dynamics” for carriers have also changed substantially — and customer acquisition hasn’t been a linear game for some time.
“In a similar way when we talk about Google Pixel vs us — we have a different footprint. And again if you look at carriers where they get their subscribers from today is already today a mix between their own direct channels and their partner channels. And actually why wouldn’t a smartphone player be a natural good partner of choice also for them? So I think you’ll see that as a trend, potentially, evolving in the next couple of years.”
Joe Biden doesn’t need a running mate who has shown such poor judgment.