Interswitch CEO Mitchell Elegbe to discuss African fintech at TechCrunch Disrupt

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.

Africa Top VC Markets 2019

Image Credits: TechCrunch

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 Quickteller

Image Credits: Interswitch

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.

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Opera’s OPay still plans Africa expansion on Nigerian super app

Opera’s Africa fintech startup OPay remains committed to building a multi-service super app in Nigeria as the foundation to expand on the continent.

OPay also continues to operate ORide for limited passenger service — though the company is shifting the motorcycle ride-hail operation toward logistics businesses.

These were some of the updates offered by Opera’s Derrick Nueman, a VP of Investor Relations and advisor to OPay.

He spoke to TechCrunch amid a flurry of recent reporting questioning OPay’s Nigeria strategy and speculating on its departure from certain verticals.

This is playing out in the context of fierce competition among fintech and mobility companies in the West African country. Nigeria is home to the continent’s largest economy, biggest population and is the top destination for VC to African startups, as of 2019.

Opera launched the OPay mobile money platform in Lagos in 2018 on the popularity of its internet search engine in Africa. A year later, the Norway-based, Chinese-owned company sent jitters through Nigeria’s startup world when it rallied investors to back OPay with $170 million in VC. The financing haul amounted to nearly one-fifth of all venture funding raised for African startups the previous year.

Image Credits: Opera

Opera tapped its capital to go work building a large suite of internet-based commercial products in Nigeria using OPay as the financial utility.

In a 2019 prospectus, Opera referred to this multi-product strategy as creating “Africa’s super app.” Pursuing that platform put OPay in competition with dozens of local startups — such as payment firm Paga and logistics venture Max.ng — without deep pocketed corporate parents.

Opera remains committed to the super app strategy, according to Derrick Nueman. He referred to OPay as “the glue that holds it all together and within there you can offer all sorts of products.”

Nueman compared the approach to other multi-service internet services models such as Grab or Gojek.

“It’s taking what has worked in Asia and and ascribing it to Africa and that to my knowledge is still the plan,” he said.

Opera has tested a number of services verticals in Nigeria. So many it’s been a bit difficult to keep track. A few — such as OBus — have already been jettisoned. Nueman confirmed a list of five current product offerings around Opay in Nigeria:

  • OMall, a B2C e-commerce app
  • OTrade, a B2B e-commerce platform
  • OExpress, a logistics delivery service
  • OFood, for restaurant delivery; and
  • ORide, a motorcycle ride-hail service

OPay — whose Nigerian country manager is Iniabasi Akpan — is also moving into device sales with Olla, a mobile phone line pre-loaded with its apps.

Image Credits: Opera

On ORide in particular, there’s been some speculation the motorcycle ride-hail service will continue, particularly after the Nigeria’s Lagos State severely restricted two wheeled, on-demand passenger services early this year. Nigerian outlet TechCabal reported this week ORide was selling off some of its fleet.

According to Opera’s Derrick Nueman, ORide still offers limited ride-hail taxi service. “On the passenger side, it continues to operate where it can.” Many of motorcycles are being transitioned to other functions within OPay. “What they’ve done is redirected a bunch of their drivers to do things like delivery and logistics,” said Nueman.

Several of ORide’s competitors — such as Max .ng and Gokada — have also shifted away from passenger transit and toward delivery logistics in response to regulatory restrictions on motorcycle taxis.

Opera still plans on taking its super app model on the road in Africa, according to Nueman. “OPay continues to look into other markets. The idea is to take what’s worked in Nigeria and export it,” he said.

In a 2019 release, Opera named Ghana, South Africa and Kenya as potential growth markets.

On timing for expansion, Nueman said it depends on obtaining proper licenses and then, gauging shifting variables related to COVID-19 in Africa.

The economic impact of the global pandemic has cast uncertainty over the continent’s largest economies and tech hubs — such as Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa — where lockdown measures have restricted startup revenues and operations.

By several accounts, Nigeria is either already in or headed for another recession due to the slowdown in economic activity and drop in global demand for oil.

On OPay’s plans to weather a stormy economic environment in its primary market, Opera’s Nueman points to the company’s VC coffers.

“At a high level, if you don’t need capital, or your well funded, you’re ahead of the game,” he said.

Nueman also highlighted the growth of OPay’s payment volume. “Between January and April…the offline and online transaction volume increased by 44%. So even in the lockdown, it’s doing really well.”

Where does this put Opera’s Africa venture in Nigeria’s competitive startup landscape? Traction with payment volume is obviously a good sign for the company. Still, recession and restricted movement could make business as difficult for OPay in Nigeria as its competitors.

Having more capital — and ability to endure a higher burn-rate — places OPay in a strong position vis-a-vis other startups. But it will take more time to determine if OPay can align its super app products to local consumer preferences as well (or better) than offerings by local tech companies.

As has been proven in other markets, all the VC in the world won’t necessarily buy product market fit.

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Nigeria’s Helium Health raises $10M Series A for Africa expansion

Nigerian startup Helium Health sits in a good position during a difficult period, according to its co-founder.

The Lagos based healthtech venture is in the black, has batted away acquisition offers, and just raised a $10 million Series A round, CEO Adegoke Olubusi told TechCrunch.

The startup offers a product suit that digitizes data, formalizes monetization and enables telemedicine for health care systems in Nigeria, Liberia, and Ghana.

Helium plans to use the latest funding round to hire and expand to North and East Africa, including Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda and Morocco, Olubusi confirmed on a call.

He co-founded the startup in 2016 — with Dimeji Sofowora and Tito Ovia — to bring better delivery of medical services in Nigeria and broader Africa.

“It’s really about tackling three core problems that we see in the healthcare sector in Africa: inefficiency, fragmentation and a lack of data,” said Olubusi.

When he and co-founders Sofowora and Oviato set out doing research for Helium, they noted a data desert on medical info across the continent’s healthcare infrastructure.

“We figured out very quickly that that is a long term problem to solve. And the best way to get the data and access to it is to give simple technology to the providers and let them use it to make their lives more efficient.”

Helium Health has since developed several core product areas for healthcare entities with application for providers, payment, patients, and partners.

It offers tech solutions and developer resources for administration, medical records and financial management. Helium Health has digital payment and credit products for hospitals and insurance providers.

As part of the latest financing, the startup is launching several new products — such as the MyHelium Patient app to facilitate appointments and information sharing between healthcare providers and citizens.

Images Credits: Helium Health

Helium also accelerated deployment of a telemedicine platform in response to the coronavirus hitting Nigeria and the lockdowns that ensued.

“In the last three weeks since we launched we’ve had roughly 360 hospitals sign up, and they’ve had thousands of [online] visits already,” Olubusi said.

Helium Health generates revenues by charging percentages and fees on its products, services and accompanying transactions. Current clients include several hospitals in the West Africa region, such as Paelon Memorial in Lagos.

Helium Health’s model got the attention of the startup’s $10 million Series A backers and Silicon Valley accelerator Y-Combinator — which accepted the startup into its spring 2017 batch.

Global Ventures and Africa Healthcare Masterfund co-led the investment with participation that included Tencent and additional Y-Combinator support.

Global Ventures General Partner Noor Sweid confirmed the Dubai based fund’s co-lead of the round and that the firm will take a Helium Health board seat.

The path of the startup’s CEO —  Adegoke Olubusi — to tech founder passed through the U.S. and traditional corporate roles. He went to Maryland in 2014 to complete an advanced degree in engineering at Johns Hopkins University, then did a stint at Goldman Sachs before landing positions in big tech with eBay and PayPal.

Olubusi found work with big corporates less than stimulating and gravitated to forming his own company and returning to Nigeria.

“When I was at eBay and Goldman I was really bored and I wanted to do something more challenging,” he said. “We thought, ‘why don’t we pick a problem that is a long-term problem in Africa,’” Olubusi explained.

Helium Health founders (L to R) Dimeji Sofowora, Tito Ovia, and Adegoke Olubusi: Image Credits: Helium Health

The founder believes the products Helium Health creates can improve the poor health care stats in countries such as Nigeria — which stands as Africa’s largest economy and most populous nation.

Nigeria also ranked 142nd out of 195 countries on health performance indicators in The Lancet’s 2018 Healthcare Access and Quality Index.

On the dismal stats, “We need more properly run hospitals, and we need more profitable hospitals, health systems and health care providers,” said Olubusi.

Better monetization and organization of hospitals could lure more doctors back to African countries, he believes.

“Half my family are doctors but none of them practice in Nigeria. Everyone’s practicing all over the place, but Nigeria,” Olubusi said.

The founder also sees a more digitized and data driven health care sector as something that can draw more entrepreneurs to African healthtech. Compared to dominant sectors, such as fintech, health related startups in Africa gain a small percentage of the continent’s annual VC haul — only 9.3% by Partech’s 2019 stats.

“There are people who want to invest in the market but they can’t…and founders can’t really tackle a healthcare problem because they don’t know what’s going on,” he said.

As for his venture, Olubusi expects growth even given the precarious economic outlook COVID-19 is creating for countries, such as Nigeria — which is expected to enter recession this year.

The coronavirus and lockdowns are shining a light on the country’s healthcare inadequacies (according to Helium Health’s CEO) that people can’t ignore, including the elite.

“This is the first time they can’t get on their jet and leave so they have to go to the hospitals we have. The system was neglected for the last few decades because people had that [previous] option,” said Olubusi.

“I’m hoping this coronavirus crisis will be a period that forces everyone to rethink what we’re doing [on healthcare].”

That could lead to more business for Helium Health.

The startup doesn’t release financial information but has positive net income. “We do generate revenues in millions of dollars and are profitable,” Olubusi said.

Helium Health has received acquisition offers, but declined them, according to its CEO. Olubusi and team intend to grow the venture to the point where it can list on a major global exchange.

“We know this is the kind of business we can take public, without having to sell,” he said.

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African fintech firm Flutterwave launches SME e-commerce portal

San Francisco and Lagos-based fintech startup Flutterwave has launched 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 fintech company, which is an alum of Silicon Valley accelerator Y-Combinator.

“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,” GB told TechCrunch on a call.

Image Credits: Flutterwave

He was referring to Africa’s largest e-commerce company, which operates in 11 countries and listed in an NYSE IPO last year.

Flutterwave has a very different business than the continent’s big e-commerce players and plans to stick with it, according to GB.

When it comes to reach, VC and partnerships, the startup is one of the more connected and visible operating in Africa’s tech ecosystem. The Nigerian-founded venture’s main business is providing B2B payments services for companies operating in Africa to pay other companies on the continent and abroad.

Launched in 2016, Flutterwave allows clients to tap its APIs and work with Flutterwave developers to customize payments applications. Existing customers include Uber and Booking.com.

In 2019, Flutterwave processed 107 million transactions worth $5.4 billion, according to company data. Over the last 12 months the startup has been on a tear of investment, product and partnership activity.

In July 2019, Flutterwave joined forces with Chinese e-commerce company Alibaba’s Alipay to offer digital payments between Africa and China.

The Alipay collaboration followed one between Flutterwave and Visa to launch a consumer payment product for Africa, called GetBarter.

Then in January of this year, the startup raised a $35 million Series B round and announced a partnership with Worldpay FIS for payments in Africa.

On the potential for Flutterwave Store, there’s certainly a large pool of traders and small businesses across Africa that could appreciate the opportunity to take their businesses online. The IFC has estimated that SMEs make up 90% of Sub-Saharan Africa’s business serving the region’s one-billion people.

Flutterwave confirmed Flutterwave Store’s initial 15 countries will include Africa’s top economies and population countries of Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya and South Africa.

Those markets already have a number of players driving digital commerce, including options for small businesses to post their wares online. Jumia’s Jumia Marketplace allows vendors register on its platform and use the company’s resources to do online retail.

Facebook has made a push into Africa that includes its overall push to get more users to sell on Facebook Marketplace. The social media giant now offers the service in Nigeria — with 200 million people and the continent’s largest economy.

GB Flutterwave disrupt

Flutterwave CEO GB, Image Credits: TechCrunch

eBay has not yet gone live in Africa with its business to consumer website, that allows any cottage industry to create a storefront. The American company does have an arrangement with e-commerce startup MallforAfrica.com for limited sales of African goods on eBay’s U.S. shopping site.

On where Flutterwave’s new product fits into Africa’s online sales space, CEO GB says Flutterwave Store will maintain a niche focus on mom and pop type businesses.

“The goal is not be become like eBay, that’s advocating for everybody. We’re just giving small merchants the infrastructure to create an online store at zero cost right from scratch,” he said.

That’s something Flutterwave expects to be useful to Africa’s SMEs through the COVID-19 crisis and beyond.

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

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.

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

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.”

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Zindi taps 12,000 African data scientists for solutions to COVID-19

Since its inception, Cape Town based crowdsolving startup Zindi has been building a database of data scientists across Africa.

It now has 12,000 registered on its its platform that uses AI and machine learning to tackle complex problems and will offer them cash-prizes to find solutions to curb COVID-19.

Zindi has an open challenge focused on stemming the spread and havoc of coronavirus and will introduce a hackathon in April. The current competition, sponsored by AI4D, tasks scientists to create models that can use data to predict the global spread of COVID-19 over the next three months.

The challenge is open until April 19, solutions will be evaluated against future numbers and the winner will receive $5000.

The competition fits with Zindi’s business model of building a platform that can aggregate pressing private or public-sector challenges and match the solution seekers to problem solvers.

Founded in 2018, the early-stage venture allows companies, NGOs or government institutions to host online competitions around data oriented issues.

Zindi’s model has gained the attention of some notable corporate names in and outside of Africa. Those who have hosted competitions include Microsoft, IBM and Liquid Telecom. Public sector actors — such as the government of South Africa and UNICEF — have also tapped Zindi for challenges as varied as traffic safety and disruptions in agriculture.

Zindi Team in Cape Town 1

Image Credits: Zindi

The startup’s CEO didn’t imagine a COVID-19 situation precisely, but sees it as one of the reasons she co-founded Zindi with South African Megan Yates and Ghanaian Ekow Duker.

The ability to apply Africa’s data science expertise, to solve problems around a complex health crisis such as COVID-19 is what Zindi was meant for, Lee explained to TechCrunch on a call from Cape Town.

“As an online platform, Zindi is well-positioned to mobilize data scientists at scale, across Africa and around the world, from the safety of their homes,” she said.

Lee explained that perception leads many to believe Africa is the victim or source of epidemics and disease. “We wanted to show Africa can actually also contribute to the solution for the globe.”

With COVID-19, Zindi is being employed to alleviate a problem that is also impacting its founder, staff and the world.

Lee spoke to TechCrunch while sheltering in place in Cape Town, as South Africa went into lockdown Friday due to coronavirus. Zindi’s founder explained she also has in-laws in New York and family in San Francisco living under similar circumstances due to the global spread of COVID-19.

Lee believes the startup’s competitions can produce solutions that nations in Africa could tap as the coronavirus spreads. “The government of Kenya just started a task force where they’re including companies from the ICT sector. So I think there could be interest,” she said.

Starting April, Zindi will launch six weekend hackathons focused on COVID-19.

That could be timely given the trend of COVID-19 in Africa. The continent’s cases by country were in the single digits in early March, but those numbers spiked last week — prompting the World Health Organization’s Regional Director Dr Matshidiso Moeti to sound an alarm on the rapid evolution of the virus on the continent.

By the WHO’s stats Wednesday there were 1691 COVID-19 cases in Sub-Saharan Africa and 29 confirmed deaths related to the virus — up from 463 cases and 10 deaths last Wednesday.

The trajectory of the coronavirus in Africa has prompted countries and startups, such as Zindi, to include the continent’s tech sector as part of a broader response. Central banks and fintech companies in Ghana, Nigeria, and Kenya have employed measures to encourage more mobile-money usage, vs. cash — which the World Health Organization flagged as a conduit for the spread of the virus.

The continent’s largest incubator, CcHub, launched a fund and open call for tech projects aimed at curbing COVID-19 and its social and economic impact.

Pan-African e-commerce company Jumia has offered African governments use of its last-mile delivery network for distribution of supplies to healthcare facilities and workers.

Zindi’s CEO Celina Lee anticipates the startup’s COVID-19 related competitions can provide additional means for policy-makers to combat the spread of the virus.

“The one that’s open right now should hopefully go into informing governments to be able to anticipate the spread of the disease and to more accurately predict the high risk areas in a country,” she said.

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