Finance and the digital divide: a conversation with Tunde Kehinde of Lidya

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.

#africa, #african-tech, #disrupt, #ecommerce, #emerging-markets, #finance, #fintech, #jumia, #lidya, #loans, #nigeria, #smbs, #smes, #startups, #tc, #tcuk, #techcrunch-disrupt, #tunde-kehinde

Interswitch to revive its Africa venture fund, CEO confirms

Pan-African fintech company Interswitch plans to fire up its corporate venture arm again—according to CEO Mitchell Elegbe—who spoke at TechCrunch Disrupt on Wednesday.

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

Interswitch, which is well beyond startup phase, launched a $10 million venture arm in 2015 that has been dormant since 2016, after it acquired Vanso—a Nigerian fintech security company.

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.”

#africa, #african-tech, #ceo, #corporate-finance, #dubai, #economy, #finance, #financial-technology, #interswitch, #kenya, #lagos, #m-pesa, #mitchell-elegbe, #money, #nigeria, #safaricom, #south-africa, #tc, #tech-in-africa, #venture-capital, #visa, #world-bank

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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African payment startup Chipper Cash raises $13.8M Series A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image Credits: Chipper Cash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Africa Top VC Markets 2019

Image Credits: TechCrunch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Uber Africa launches Uber Cash with Flutterwave and explores EVs

Uber is launching its Uber Cash digital wallet feature in Sub-Saharan Africa through a partnership with San Francisco based — Nigerian founded — fintech firm Flutterwave.

The arrangement will allow riders to top up Uber wallets using the dozens of remittance partners active on Flutterwave’s Pan-African network.

Flutterwave operates as a B2B payments gateway network that allows clients to tap its APIs and customize payments applications.

Uber Cash will go live this week and next for Uber’s ride-hail operations in South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, Uganda and Ghana, Ivory Coast and Tanzania, according to Alon Lits — Uber’s General Manager for Sub-Saharan Africa.

“Depending on the country, you’ve got different top up methods available. For example in Nigeria you can use your Verve Card or mobile money. In Kenya, you can use M-Pesa and EFT and in South Africa you can top up with EFT,” said Lits.

Uber Cash in Africa will also accept transfers from Flutterwave’s Barter payment app, launched with Visa in 2019.

The move could increase Uber’s ride traffic in Africa by boosting the volume of funds sent to digital wallets and reducing friction in the payment process.

Uber still accepts cash on the continent — which has one of the world’s largest unbanked populations — but has made strides on financial inclusion through mobile money.

Update on Uber Africa

Uber has been in Africa since 2015 and continued to adapt to local market dynamics, including global and local competition and more recently, COVID-19. The company’s GM Alon Lits spoke to TechCrunch on updates — including EV possibilities — and weathering the coronavirus outbreak in Africa.

Uber in Sub-Saharan Africa continued to run through the pandemic, with a couple exceptions. “The only places we ceased operations was where there were government directives,” Lits said. That included Uganda and Lagos, Nigeria.

Though he couldn’t share data, Lits acknowledged there had been a significant reduction in Uber’s Africa business through the pandemic, in line with the 70% drop in global ride volume Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi disclosed in March.

“You can imagine in markets where we were not allowed to operate revenues obviously go to zero,” said Lits.

Like Africa’s broader tech ecosystem, Uber has adapted its business to the outbreak of COVID-19 in Africa, which hit hardest in March and April and led to lockdowns in key economies, such as Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa

On how to make people feel safe about ride-hailing in a coronavirus world, Lits highlighted some specific practices. In line with Uber’s global policy, it’s mandatory in Africa for riders and drivers to wear masks.

“We’re actually leveraging facial recognition technology to check that drivers are wearing masks before they go,” said Lits. Uber Africa is also experimenting with impact safe, plastic dividers for its cars in Kenya and Nigeria.

Uber Africa Nairobi

Image Credits: Uber

In Africa, Uber has continued to expand its services and experiment with things the company doesn’t do in in any major markets. The first was allowing cash payments in 2016 — something Uber hopes the introduction of Uber Cash will help reduce.

Along with rival Bolt, Uber connected ride-hail products to Africa’s motorcycle and three-wheeled tuk-tuk taxi markets in 2018.

Uber moved into delivery in Africa, with Uber Eats, and recently started transporting medical supplies in South Africa through a partnership with The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Mobility Africa

In addition to global competitors, such as Bolt, Uber faces local competition as Africa’s mobility sector becomes a hotspot for VC and startups.

A couple trends worth tracking will be Uber’s potential expansion to Ethiopia and moves toward EV development in Africa.

On Ethiopia, the country has a nascent tech scene with the strongest demographic and economic thesis — Africa’s second largest population and seventh biggest economy — to become the continent’s next digital hotspot.

Ethiopia also has a burgeoning ride-hail industry, with local mobility ventures Ride and Zayride. Uber hasn’t mentioned (that we know of) any intent to move into the East African country. But if it does, that would serve as a strong indicator of the company’s commitment to remaining a mobility player in Africa.

Ampersand Africa e motorcycle

Ampersand in Rwanda, Image Credits: Ampersand

With regards to electric, there’s been movement on the continent over the last year toward developing EVs for ride-hail and delivery use.

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

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

And in May, Vaya Africa — a ride-hail mobility venture founded by mogul Strive Masiyiwa — launched an electric taxi service and solar charging network in Zimbabwe. Vaya plans to expand the program across the continent and is exploring e-moto passenger and delivery products.

On Uber’s moves toward electric in Africa, it could begin with two or three wheeled transit.

“That’s something we’ve been looking at in South Africa…nothing that we’ve launched yet, but it is a conversation that’s ongoing,” said Uber’s Sub-Saharan Africa GM Alon Lits.

He noted one of the challenges of such an electric model on the continent is lack of a robust charging infrastructure.

Even so, if Uber enters that space — with Vaya and others — emissions free ride-hail and delivery EVs buzzing around African cities could soon be a reality.

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Carry1st has $4M to invest in African mobile gaming

Gaming development startup Carry1st has raised a $2.5 million seed round led by CRE Venture Capital .

That brings the company’s total VC to $4 million, which Carry1st will deploy to support and invest in game publishing across Africa.

The startup — with offices in New York, Lagos, and South Africa — was co-founded in 2018 by Sierra Leonean Cordel Robbin-Coker, American Lucy Parry, and Zimbabwean software engineer Tinotenda Mundangepfupfu.

Robbin-Coker and Parry met while working in investment banking in New York, before forming Carry1st.

“I convinced her to avoid going to business school and instead come to South Africa to Cape Town,” Robbin-Coker told TechCrunch on a call.

“We launched with the idea that we wanted to bring the gaming industry…to the African continent.”

Carry1st looks to match gaming demand in Africa to the continent’s fast growing youth population, improving internet penetration and rapid smartphone adoption.

The startup has already launched two games as direct downloads from its site, Carry1st Trivia and Hyper!.

“In April, [Carry1st Trivia] did pretty well. It was the number one game in Nigeria, and Kenya for most of the year and did about one and a half million downloads.” Robbin-Coker said.

Carry1st Africa

Image Credit: Carry1st

The startup will use a portion of its latest round and overall capital to bring more unique content onto its platform. “In order to do that, you need cash…to help a developer finish a game or entice a strong game to work with you,” said Robbin-Coker.

The company will also expand its distribution channels, such as partnerships with mobile operators and the Carry1st Brand Ambassador program — a network of sales agents who promote and sell games across the continent.

The company will also invest in the gaming market and itself.

“We want to dedicate at least a million dollars to actually going out and acquiring users and scaling our user base. And then, the final piece is really around the tech platform that we’re looking to build,” said Robbin-Coker.

That entails creating multiple channels and revenue points to develop, distribute, and invest in games on the continent, he explained.

Image Credits: Carry1st

Robbin-Coker compared the Carry1st’s strategy in Africa as something similar to Sea: an Asia regional mobile entertainment distribution platform — publicly traded and partially owned by Tencent — that incubated the popular Fornite game.

“We’re looking to be the number one regional publisher of [gaming] content in the region…the publisher of record and the app store,” said Robbin-Coker.

That entails developing and distributing not only games originating from the continent, but also serving as channel for gaming content from other continents coming into Africa.

That generates a consistent revenue stream for the startup, Robbin-Coker explained, but also creates opportunities for big creative wins.

“It’s a hits driven business. A single studio will work and toil in obscurity for a decade and then they’ll make Candy Crush. And then that would be worth $6 billion, very quickly,” Carry1st’s CEO said.

He and his team will use a portion of their $4 million in VC to invest in that potential gaming success story in Africa.

The company’s co-founder Lucy Parry directs aspirants to the company’s homepage. “There’s a big blue button that says ‘Pitch Your Game’ at the bottom of our website.”

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Zipline begins US medical delivery with UAV program honed in Africa

Drones are being deployed in the fight to curb COVID-19 in the U.S.

Novant Health and California based UAV delivery startup Zipline have launched distribution of personal protective gear and medical equipment in North Carolina.

Novant is a non-profit healthcare provider with a network in the Southeastern United States.

Through the partnership, Zipline’s drones will make 32 mile flights on two routes between Novant Health’s emergency drone fulfillment center in Kannapolis to the company’s medical center in Huntersville, North Carolina — where front line healthcare workers are treating coronavirus patients.

Zipline and Novant are touting the arrangement as the first authorized long-range drone logistics delivery flight program in the U.S. The program has gained approvals by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and North Carolina’s Department of Transportation — though the FAA offered TechCrunch nuanced guidance on how it classifies the undertaking.

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

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

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

Zipline co-founder Keller Rinaudo (L) with Rwandan President Paul Kagame (Middle) in 2016

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

Based on its Africa operations, Zipline was selected by regulators to participate in medical drone delivery testing in the U.S. in 2016, in coordination with the FAA.

The company’s Africa business also led to its pandemic response partnership with Novant Health. The North Carolina based company was in discussion with Zipline on UAV delivery before the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S., but the crisis spurred both parties to speed things up, according to Hank Capps, a Senior Vice President at Novant.

That included some improvisation. For its current launch site the operation is using space donated by a local NASCAR competition team, Stewart-Haas Racing.

According to Capps, the current collaboration using drones to deliver medical supplies from that site could grow beyond the 32 mile route Zipline and Novant began flights on last Friday.

“Right now we plan to expand it geographically within our footprint, which is fairly large within North Carolina, South Florida, and Virginia,” he told TechCrunch on a call.

That, of course, will depend on regulatory approval. The FAA granted Novant Health permission to operate the current program — which the FAA classifies as a distribution vs. delivery operation — through a 107 waiver. This rolls up into the evolving federal code on operation of unmanned aircraft in the U.S. and allows Novant and Zipline to operate “until Oct. 31, 2020, or until all COVID-related restrictions on travel, business and mass gatherings for North Carolina are lifted, whichever occurs first,” according to the FAA. The U.S. regulatory body also stipulated that “Part 107 is a waiver, not a drone licence.”

The FAA offered cautious confirmation that the Zipline, Novant partnership is the first approved long range unmanned delivery service in the United States.

“I am not aware of any that are flying routes as far as what they are doing in North Carolina, but I try to be careful when talking about firsts,” an FAA spokesperson told TechCrunch.

Last month UPS and CVS announced a shorter range drone delivery program of prescription drugs to a retirement village in Florida.

Image Credits: Novant Health

The arrangement between Zipline and Novant is not for financial gain — according to both parties — but still supports Zipline’s profitability thesis advanced by co-founder Keller Rinaudo.

“Healthcare logistics is a $70 billion global industry, and it’s still only serving a golden billion on the planet,” he told me in a 2016 interview.

On a recent call, Rinaudo noted the startup is generating income on operations to serve that market, through the company doesn’t release financial data.

“At the distribution centers that have been operating for more than a year, Zipline is making money on the deliveries that we do,” he said.

Rinaudo pointed to the more favorable margins of autonomous delivery using small, electric powered UAVs versus large internal combustion vehicles.

“I think that these kinds of services are going to operate, much more profitably than traditional logistic services,” he said.

Zipline sold investors on that value proposition. The company has raised (a reported) $233 million in VC from backers including Andreeson Horowitz and Goldman Sachs. Zipline intends to expand its drone delivery business in the U.S. and anywhere in the world it finds demand, according to its CEO.

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

The Zipline, Novant launch of UAV delivery of medical supplies in the U.S. is a high-point for the thesis that Africa’s tech ecosystem — which has become a hotbed for VC and startups — can produce innovation with global application.

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

Image Credits: HHP/Harold Hinson

For all the talk that COVID-19 may force an isolationist shift across countries, the Zipline, Novant Health partnership is very much a globally incubated solution — applied locally in the U.S. — to an international problem.

The program combines a medical drone delivery startup founded in San Francisco with a model tested in Africa to an American healthcare venture in North Carolina, with a little help from a NASCAR race team. This could reflect the unique application of tech and partnerships to come in the fight against COVID-19.

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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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Visa partners with Paga on payments and fintech for Africa and abroad

Visa has entered a partnership with Nigeria based startup Paga on payments and technology.

Founded in Lagos, Paga scaled its fintech business in West Africa, before targeting expansion in Ethiopia and Mexico.

The startup has created a multi-channel network for over 14 million customers in Nigeria to transfer money, pay-bills and buy things digitally through its mobile-app or 24,840 agents.

The new arrangement allows Paga account holders to transact on Visa’s global network. It will also see both companies work together on tech.

The collaboration reflects a strategy of the American financial services giant to expand in Africa working with the continent’s top startups.

Visa’s partnership with Paga doesn’t include investment in the startup, but it is expected to drive larger payment volumes for both companies — and Visa’s priorities in Africa.

“We want to digitize cash, that’s a strategic priority for us. We want to expand merchant access to payment acceptance and we want to drive financial inclusion,” said Otto Williams, Visa’s Head of Strategic Partnerships, Fintech and Ventures for Africa.

The Paga-Visa arrangement will bring new merchant options to Paga’s network.

“Based on the partnership we’re going to launch QR codes and NFC [payments] into the market in Nigeria — alternative ways of receiving payments than bringing out a physical card,” said Oviosu.

Tayo Oviosu

Visa and Paga’s engineering teams have already started working together, according to Oviosu, and Paga expects to roll-out these new options in Nigeria sometime in second-quarter 2020.

The startup is pivoting toward becoming less of a Nigeria-centered company and more an emerging markets fintech platform. In January, Paga acquired Ethiopian software development company Apposit, on plans to launch in the East African country.  After Nigeria, Ethiopia has Africa’s second-largest population of 114 million.

Paga has also opened an office in Mexico and will launch its payments products there this year.

“There are several very large countries around the world in Africa, Latin America, Asia where these [financial inclusion] problems still exist. So our strategy is not an African strategy…We want to go where these problems exist in a large way and build a global payments business,” Oviosu told Techcrunch in January.

The Visa-Paga partnership comes as fintech has become Africa’s best funded startup sector — according to latest VC reporting — with thousands of ventures vying to scale digital-finance products to the continent’s unbanked and underbanked consumers and SMEs.

As a company, Visa maintains multiple partnerships with Africa’s largest banks, but collaborating with the continent’s VC backed fintech ventures has taken center-stage. This was confirmed in Visa’s recent 2020 Investor Day presentation, which dedicated several slides to its strategy of “partnering with leading African players” in the startup ecosystem.

The global financial services company has entered into collaborations with several African fintech ventures, such as B2B payments company Flutterwave and South African startup Yoco, which is focused on enterprise payments services and hardware for SMEs.

Visa has also jumped into the venture funding realm in African fintech. In 2019 Nigerian financial services company Interswitch reached a $1 billion valuation and unicorn status after Visa acquired a minority equity stake.

Visa’s Otto Williams, who has taken a lead on the company’s Africa strategy, noted non-equity collaborations will remain the primary focus — though those could lead to VC down the road.

“If we have a commercial partnership in place that creates the right…investment thesis…you know those strategic partnerships inform venture investments,” Williams said.

Of course, Visa’s isn’t the only American financial services firm backing African tech companies. In 2019, its rival Mastercard invested $50 million in Pan-African e-commerce venture Jumia. The two are working together on developing fintech services across Jumia’s customer network.

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