Africa isn’t just a victim of the climate crisis; it’s also a place where infrastructure decisions will shape how it unfolds.
The conflict has driven up the cost of food in a region that depends heavily on crops from Russia and Ukraine and is facing what could be its worst drought in four decades.
The inquiry also found shortcomings in the sharing of intelligence before the deadly assault by the Shabab in 2020.
Nigerian automotive tech company Autochek today is announcing the acquisition of Cheki Kenya and Uganda from Ringier One Africa Media (ROAM) for an undisclosed amount.
Per a statement, Autochek will finalize the deal in the coming weeks. With the acquisition, Autochek completes its expansion into East Africa and follows the first acquisition made almost a year ago when it acquired both Nigeria and Ghana businesses from Cheki.
In 2010, Cheki launched as an online car classified for dealers, importers, and private sellers in Nigeria. The startup, headquartered in Lagos, expanded operations to Kenya, Ghana, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.
Cheki got acquired by ROAM in 2017 and joined a list of online marketplaces and classifieds in its network like Jobberman.
Per ROAM’s website, Cheki still has operations in Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. However, these markets are quite inactive so it is safe to say Autochek has fully acquired all of Cheki’s main operations.
Cheki Kenya is an exciting market for both parties. The subsidiary has 700,000 users and lists over 12,000 vehicles monthly. It also claims to have grown 80% year-on-year in the last two years, making it a valuable asset for Autochek’s plan for regional expansion.
“Cheki Kenya has always been sort of the crown jewel,” Autochek CEO Etop Ikpe said to TechCrunch. “At the time, when we completed the Nigeria and Ghana acquisition, it wasn’t a conscious effort to make this happen, but it’s great that it happened.”
Credit penetration in terms of vehicle financing is higher in Kenya than in Nigeria and Ghana. The East African country has a 27.5% penetration compared to the whole West African market at 5%. Therefore, it explains why Autochek is optimistic about the East African market. Before making the acquisition, the one-year-old company ran a stealthy pilot with some banks in Kenya — a similar strategy used in Ghana and Nigeria — to provide car owners with financing. So, the acquisition cements the company’s position in the market, Ikpe says.
The sale of Cheki operations in all of its major markets, which happened within a year, might lead some to ask if the four entities did poorly and forced the classifieds giant to find a suitable buyer quickly.
But CEO Ikpe refuted any claims of a distress sale when asked. He stated that the acquisition happened in quick succession because both parties understood that the classifieds model (run by Cheki) needed to make way for the more modern transactional model (employed by Autochek and leading automotive players in Africa). Therefore, ROAM Africa saw it as a needed transition for Cheki.
Building off Ikpe’s past relationship with Ringier (one arm of ROAM before the merger), where he ran DealDey, a classifieds deal company Ringier eventually bought, it wasn’t a tough decision to sell the company to Autochek, Ikpe tells TechCrunch.
“I think for them it’s really long term strategy and they believe in our business model. And there’s a lot of hope that we can do things in the future. It was also really about finding the right home for the business and their employees.”
From a statement, ROAM CEO Clemens Weitz said, “Across the world, we see a new evolution of digital automotive platforms, requiring deep specialization. Specifically in Africa, we believe that Autochek is the one player with the best team and expertise to truly create a game-changing consumer experience. For ROAM Africa, this deal is more than a very good transaction: It unleashes even more focus on our strategic playbook for our other businesses.”
Autochek’s expansion to East Africa is coming at a time when automotive tech companies like Moove, Planet42, and FlexClub are receiving attention from investors as the need for flexible vehicle financing keeps growing across the continent.
The most important car financing market on the continent is arguably South Africa. Other automotive companies have some form of presence in the market and for Autochek, the plan is to expand there too, and understandably why.
South Africa is the crème de la crème market and has the highest car financing penetration on the continent. Yet despite the seeming competition, Ikpe believes opportunities exist for the company to provide services tailored to the market different from what other companies have.
“The beauty of our platform is that we can be diverse; for instance, we can have a retail or B2B approach. There’s a lot of dynamic ways we can work. So I think it’s natural that our goal is to typically be in every region. We’ve made our inroads into East and West, and we’ll continue to work as we want to be in North and South Africa,” he said.
Autochek says a funding round is in the works to execute on this front and might close before the end of the year.
Despite the prevalence of shopping malls and the emergence of VC-backed e-commerce companies like Jumia, informal retail in Africa is still king.
A 2016 study by PwC states that 90% of sales in Africa’s major economies come through informal channels — markets and kiosks.
This presents a large market ripe for digitization, and over the past five years, African startups have risen to the challenge, raising millions of dollars in the process. Today, Omnibiz, a Lagos-based startup, joins the fray and has raised a seed round of $3 million to expand into new markets.
Omnibiz is a B2B e-commerce platform that connects fast-moving consumer goods (FMCGs) manufacturers to retailers by digitizing the supply chain stakeholders.
The platform offers a mobile app, WhatsApp channel and a phone number that retailers can use to stock their shops. Omnibiz says in a statement that retailers “can place orders at their convenience and have goods delivered to their doorstep at no cost.”
Omnibiz was launched in 2019 by Deepankar Rustagi. The Indian founder and CEO who has stayed in Nigeria for over two decades started his first startup, VConnect, in 2011 as an online marketplace and search engine to find local professionals for service needs.
The platform connected individuals with more than 100 services and over 500,000 listed businesses across the country before shutting down in 2017, Rustagi claims.
Post-VConnect, Rustagi consulted for multiple FMCG brands. He figured a need existed for manufacturers and retailers of goods to digitize their processes leading to the launch of Omnibiz in late 2019.
Omnibiz operates an asset-light retail distribution model. When a retailer makes an order on the Omnibiz platform, it is requested from partner distributors who store goods on behalf of manufacturers and are traditionally known to help out with warehousing and transportation.
With Omnibiz, these distributors can focus solely on warehousing and pass on the responsibility of transporting goods to Omnibiz’s third-party logistics providers. The drivers of these logistics providers use Omnibiz to efficiently distribute the orders to the retailers within 24 hours.
“We work with manufacturers to provide visibility. Then buy goods from them and keep them in partner hubs that act as warehouses and distributors. Then, use the services of drivers that work with third-party logistics drivers who get paid on every delivery made,” Rustagi told TechCrunch.
Digitizing this value chain helps retailers save working capital while Omnibiz connects them with more than 20 brands, including Coca-Cola, Nestlé, Kellogg’s, Unilever, Procter & Gamble and Kimberly-Clark.
The B2B e-commerce retail company is currently in four cities across Nigeria — Lagos, Abuja, Port Harcourt, and Kaduna. The company will add two more cities, Ibadan and Kano, before the end of August, Rustagi adds.
By Rustagi’s account, Omnibiz will feed off his experience at VConnect, his prior business that struggled to monetize and scale despite the huge traction it got as a popular local marketplace.
“We knew about small businesses and what sort of technology they like. That was our specialization, but our business model didn’t work. But in this case [Omnibiz], the monetization happens on our platform, and there’s money to be made for the small business. We’ve been growing 30% month-on-month for the last 12 months,” he said.
The B2B informal e-commerce market has seen a resurgence in the last couple of years. Kenya’s Sokowatch and Twiga, Nigeria’s TradeDepot and Egypt’s MaxAB have longed vied for market-leader positions in their respective markets.
The pandemic spiked more interest in their activities as all the aforementioned startups have raised money this past year, including newcomers Kenya’s MarketForce and now Omnibiz.
Some operate asset-light models, while others take up the responsibility of managing the end-to-end digitization process. Rustagi believes the former is perfect for the company because it helps distributors expand their reach rather than eliminate them.
“I think scaling in one city with assets is not that difficult. But if you have to scale in 20, 24 cities in a country like Nigeria or Ghana, or Ivory Coast or East Africa, the investment required will be very high.” Rustagi continued. “So we think without significant investment in assets, we will be able to scale much faster. And since we took the tech-first approach, we have good control over the business. I believe we’re in the right space and the right time with the right model.”
Omnibiz’s seed round was led by V&R Africa, Timon Capital and Tangerine Insurance. The round also included Lofty Inc., Musha Ventures, Sunu Capital, Launch Africa, and Rising Tide Africa. It takes the company’s total investment to $4 million. Rustagi also disclosed that the company also got funding from Seedstars and will participate in the accelerator’s growth program.
“I think Omnibiz will be the role model for B2B retail in Africa and can scale well into other emerging markets. We are excited and happy to be supporting Omnibiz in all ways beyond just providing capital,” Raj Kulasingam and Vishal Agarwal of V&R Africa said in a statement.
Over the next few months, Omnibiz will use the investment to expand in other West African cities outside Nigeria — Abidjan, Takoradi, Kumasi and Accra. Food, non-alcoholic beverages, personal care, and baby care products are the top categories on the Omnibiz platform. The company is planning to expand into new categories like alcoholic beverages and OTC pharmaceutical products.
Omnibiz will also use the investment to create new tech products that will enhance value for the retailers. The company will work with partners to increase the working capital availability for the retailers and digital tools to manage their business more efficiently.
“One of the key things we intend to do is to bring on medium-scale manufacturers who find it difficult to get the last-mile delivery to reach customers. We want to scale them so they can reach a large number of retailers. That’s something we are rolling out so we can onboard more and more manufacturers,” said the CEO on Omnibiz’s next plans.
According to the World Bank, it is more expensive to send money to sub-Saharan African than to any region in the world. It is also the most expensive region to send money from. In Q1 2020, people spent an average of 8.9% to send money to the region, much higher than the global average of 6.8%.
There’s much talk around sending money from Africa to the West, which has led to many startups using traditional (fiat) and non-traditional (crypto) means to facilitate cross-border payments between the two corridors. However, there’s little noise about the corridors between Africa and other regions like Latin America or Asia.
South Asia, for instance, has the lowest average remittance costs across all regions at 4.95% (these percentages are reported on a standard $200 transfer); therefore, it makes sense to tap into the opportunities the market presents. Wapi Pay, a Kenyan startup with offices in China and Singapore, is carrying out this play and has carved a market for itself by facilitating payments between both extreme remittance worlds of Africa and Asia.
Most of the focus on remittance has been the flow of money into Africa for sustenance. Therefore, digitizing has been mostly around delivery rather than building new infrastructure and payment processing models for African individuals and businesses to make cross-border payments.
Financial institutions are left with traditional systems and correspondence models to offer service to their customers. These transactions are inherently complex in nature, given their compliance requirements. The lack of new infrastructure or processes make them further opaque, longer to process and far too expensive. Crypto remittance startups claim to solve this problem, but no one has successfully scaled to effective usage.
“We started Wapi Pay having seen how fragmented the payment infrastructure is and how horrifying the experience and expense of making or receiving a payment to and from Asia,” Peter Ndichu said to TechCrunch.
“We spent some time in Asia given the growing trade relationship between the two corridors [Africa and Asia] and saw the growing need to make this more efficient, faster and cheaper, evolving from remittances to global payments. These transactions are already complex in nature; how do we make them as simple and easy as mobile money?” he added.
In Q1 2021, Africa-China trade jumped 27% to $52.1 billion compared with 2020. Despite the economic recovery from the pandemic, African merchants still find it expensive to send and receive money. In some cases, these costs can be as high as 20%, especially in Southern African regions. The wait time can also be ridiculous too, with some spending up to a week before payment is processed. Wapi Pay says it can process payments within a day and charges as low as 3%.
“Wapi Pay bypasses traditional payment networks, optimizing efficiency and cost for our customers. Users choose the delivery channels they want, such as bank to bank, wallet to wallet, bank to wallet and wallet to bank options to transfer funds as well as make merchant payments, with settlement done within 24 hours,” said CEO Eddie in a statement.
Presently, Wapi Pay works with local banks and platforms in China, Indonesia, India, Japan, Malaysia, Phillippines, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, and Vietnam. The company claims to be growing at 396% year-on-year since 2019 and has hopes to continue in that fashion. By the end of next year, Wapi Pay wants to process $500 million in remittances and increase the number of African merchants and Asian suppliers to half a million and 100,000, respectively.
The $2.2 million pre-seed investment announced today will be vital to meeting those targets to scale up global payments and remittances between Africa and Asia.
The round is one of the largest of its kind in East Africa and the continent. The venture firms that took part include China-based fund MSA Capital, known to have invested in unicorns Meituan, Nubank and Klarna; Pan-African and Africa-focused firms EchoVC, Kepple Africa, Future Hub; and Pan-Asian firms Transsion Holdings and Gobi Ventures.
Wapi Pay will use the investments to engage regulators for licensing across Africa and for scale, product and geographical expansion.
“These funds will help Wapi Pay diversify our products range and drive growth so that we can evolve remittances into real-time global cross-border payments, starting with Africa and Asia. All while minimising the cost of transactions, it needs to be as easy as sending M-PESA,” Eddie added.
“Africa to Asia is a large trading corridor overlooked and underserved by tech today. We believe Wapi Pay is the best team to build the necessary infrastructure to support its growing trade volumes. We are excited to support them with our extensive China fintech network and playbook,” Tim Chen, vice president at MSA Capital, said in a statement.
There are over 1 billion mobile money accounts globally. Africa leads the way in transaction value and volume thanks to M-Pesa, largely used in East Africa. Other regions across the continent are also growing fast.
In 2019, West Africa reported the most live mobile money services in any region, with 56 million active accounts. In Ivory Coast, one of Francophone Africa’s largest mobile money markets, 75% of the population own a mobile money account, compared to 20% who own bank accounts. The difference is staggering and clearly shows the region’s huge appetite for the service.
While telecom operators have largely dominated mobile money services across most of sub-Saharan Africa, a few startups are trying to change the mobile money experience for customers. Ivory Coast-based fintech startup Julaya is one such company, and today, it announced a $2 million pre-Series A funding to expand its products across West Africa.
Léopoldie told TechCrunch that the experience introduced them to how mobile money worked across Francophone Africa. LemonWay acts as a payment solution for marketplaces. So, while working on expanding the fintech’s service in both countries, the pair noticed the massive potential businesses had to reach the unbanked via the large consumer penetration of telecom operators.
Julaya was launched to digitize trade payments but started in the Ivory Coast instead of Mali and Burkina Faso. The platform enables companies to streamline their accounting and improve their operational efficiency by digitizing payments to workers and suppliers instead of relying on cash.
The company helps African businesses and institutions disburse payments to mobile money and mobile banking wallets. It achieves this by working with telecom operators and other fintech startups in the region.
“Mobile money is coming to a mature stage where business and public institution use-cases provide new growth opportunities for the sector. The pandemic has opened up minds about the urge to digitize payments. Fintech competition in West Africa is making digital finance more affordable for consumers, and technical integrations with telecom operators are becoming more reliable,” Talbot said in a statement.
Yet, these partnerships haven’t come without their own share of challenges. For one, payments technology in Francophone Africa remains quite fragmented, and APIs from telecoms are still burgeoning and somewhat unreliable.
Léopoldie added that challenges come from distribution channels, making it difficult for the company to sell en masse at a cheap cost, as well as from the untrustworthiness of businesses toward digitized payments.
“In Ivory Coast, a wire transfer takes between one to three days, and you always have to check with your bank branch as a customer. … Businesses do not trust digital experiences as they often have shortcomings, and educating the market bears a high cost on acquisition. Then, talents that have a startup mindset are still difficult to find,” Léopoldie said of some of the challenges facing the three-year-old startup.
Despite this, the startup, which has an R&D and technical team in France, has bagged customers from SMBs and large corporates to government institutions. The company says it’s currently processing over $1.5 million monthly for 50 of these customers, including Jumia, SODECI, Ministry of Education, Ivory Coast and the World Bank.
Julaya closed a pre-seed investment of $250,000 in 2018 and a seed investment of $550,000 a year later, all from angel investors. But the company has introduced VC firms in its pre-Series A round. They include corporate venture capital firms Orange Ventures and MFS Africa Frontiers; VC firms Saviu Ventures, Launch Africa and 50 Partners Capital; and some angel investors in Africa and Europe. Julaya will use the investment to broaden its market share in Ivory Coast and launch digital payment products and expand across West Africa.
More than 20 million people use Orange as a mobile money service across 15 African countries. The telecom operator also recently launched a mobile banking platform in Ivory Coast and has surpassed 500,000 users. Thus, what’s the rationale behind this strategic investment, which marks its third check in an African fintech startup after South Africa’s Yoco and Senegal’s SudPay?
“Fintech’s environment in Africa is distinguished by its competitiveness and strong dynamism. Orange Group, through its technology investment fund, intends to participate in this boom by supporting fintechs such as Julaya. The goal is to target local technology champions at the service of the transition to a more digital and responsible world,” said Habib Bamba, the director of Transformation, digital and media at Orange Ivory Coast.
Orange, other telecom operators, fintechs and banks remain big competitors to Julaya. So how does it plan to stay on top of people’s minds across the region? Léopoldie thinks that focusing on the best user experience might do the trick.
“This sounds like an overheard statement, but we understand that what the customer values most is reliable customer support and a predictable and smooth online experience, for instance, a reliable platform with very little downtime,” he said. “Even if you only have a 90% success rate on your transactions, as long as you give this information in a transparent communication to the customer, they will trust you.”
A 2016 study by global consultancy PwC states that an estimated 90% of sales in Africa’s major economies come through informal channels like markets and kiosks. In sub-Saharan Africa, 90% of these household retail transactions are carried out via a network of about 100 million MSMEs.
Africa’s retail payments, mostly cash-based, is expected to reach $2.1 trillion by 2025. Kenya’s MarketForce wants to digitize a large portion of them. Today, the B2B retail end-to-end distribution platform is announcing the close of its $2 million pre-Series A round.
The investors who took part in this round include existing ones — P1 Ventures and Y Combinator, and new ones like Launch Africa, V8 Capital, Future Africa, GreenHouse Capital, Rebel Fund, Remapped Ventures, and some unnamed angel investors.
MarketForce has raised a total of $2.5 million, which includes its $350,000 seed round last year and $150,000 check from Y Combinator as part of the accelerator’s Summer 2020 batch.
Tesh Mbaabu and Mesongo Sibuti founded MarketForce in 2018. The founders wanted to solve the fragmentation issue they noticed among small retail shops and their distribution networks. In addition, these shops are often used as points for offering financial services to the everyday Kenyan. Thus, MarketForce’s play enables the optimized distribution of FMCG goods and financial services through this network of agents.
It was this business that got the startup into Y Combinator. But upon graduation, MarketForce decided to tests its hands on another model: RejaReja, a B2B e-commerce marketplace for merchants.
RejaReja was launched in December 2020. The platform helps informal retail merchants buy and sell FMCGs and digital financial services. With RejaReja, MarketForce joins a growing list of startups like TradeDepot and Sokowatch trying to revamp supply-chain markets for Africa’s informal retailers.
RejaReja offers next-day delivery for hundreds of SKUs from a handful of FMCG brands. Though the trademark MarketForce retail distribution product is still very much thriving, RejaReja is where the founders think most of the company’s best opportunities lie.
“We’ve run both models simultaneously and we’ve seen much faster traction on the e-commerce side of the marketplace. We’re investing more and more resources into that, and the pre-Series A round was raised to focus on scaling that platform,” CEO said to TechCrunch.
Last month, MarketForce announced the acquisition of another Kenyan retail platform Digiduka. The platform allows informal retailers to resell digital services like airtime, electricity tokens, and bill payments. Digiduka’s acquisition saw that it was fully integrated into RejaReja, which now provides a wallet for retailers to act as agents and collect mobile money and bank payments via mobile app, WhatsApp bots or USSD shortcodes.
MarketForce’s RejaReja runs an asset-light model where it doesn’t own capital assets like warehouses and delivery trucks. Most of the assets are provided by the company’s partners (distributors, manufacturers, and third-party logistics providers) who lease their assets to fulfil orders.
Kiosks using RejaReja have access to various SKUs through an app and can place orders on it. And based on their ordering habits, MarketForce can extend working capital loans to them.
With this round of funding, MarketForce plans to launch RejaReja in Nigeria and scale up the product across more towns in East Africa. The startup has a presence in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania, where over 15,000 retail customers use RejaReja to process thousands of orders daily.
On the other hand, MarketForce’s trademark SaaS product has garnered over 10,000 monthly active users despite giving RejaReja a year headstart, and they have performed 300,000 transactions worth more than $500 million. MarketForce clients include Pepsi, Safaricom, Fort Beverages, Lami, Platinum Credit, among others.
“Our clients and partners understand MarketForce’s power to increase sales performance and productivity across markets and industries,” CTO Mesongo said in a statement. “We are building the operating system for retail distribution in Africa, and we have the right combination of technology and team to make our Pan-African vision a reality.”
With computer science degrees, the founders say it was a struggle to scale MarketForce initially. Although both founders didn’t have any prior experience and expertise in fintech or e-commerce before launching the company, they have compensated for that gap by making good hires.
“Retail distribution is a very hardcore business so getting the right talent, the right people who understand the traditional elements in the business but are also willing to innovate and revolutionize the space has also been interesting for us,” the CEO said.
Another challenge the company faced in its early years was that it took a while for partners to get on board because they didn’t understand how MarketForce would operate without owning warehouses and logistics. But over time, as the company generated value to its partners, orders and revenue have started to increase rapidly, with the latter metric recording a 100% month-on-month growth, according to Mbaabu.
“…MarketForce has proven that they know how to leverage the entire retail supply chain as a gateway for digital payments. Their organic, as well as acquisition-driven growth and expansion strategy thus far, has proven that their understanding of unit economics and marginal customer acquisition costs is solid. As a pan-African fintech company, they are very well positioned to tap into the $700 billion that gets transacted in this space every year,” managing partner at Launch Africa, Zachariah George, said in a statement.
While there has been a wave of innovation in food tech worldwide, it’s still in early days for Africa. There are only a handful of African food-tech startups, and a year and a half’s worth of global pandemic has added a couple to that list.
Kune is one of the most recent food-tech startups, and today, the six-month-old Kenyan-based company is announcing that it has closed a $1 million pre-seed round to launch its on-demand food service in August.
Pan-African venture capital firm Launch Africa Ventures led the pre-seed round. Other investors that took part include Century Oak Capital GmbH and Consonance, with a contribution from ecosystem management firm Pariti.
Founded by CEO Robin Reecht in December 2020, Kune delivers freshly made, ready-to-eat meals at arguably affordable prices. When Reetch first came to Kenya from France in November 2020, it wasn’t easy to get affordable ready-to-eat meals.
“After three days of coming into Kenya, I asked where I can get great food at a cheap price, and everybody tell me it’s impossible,” he told TechCrunch. “It’s impossible because either you go to the street and you eat street food, which is really cheap but with not-so-good quality, or you order on Uber Eats, Glovo or Jumia, where you get quality but you have to pay at least $10.”
Reetch noticed a gap in the market and sought to fill it. The next month, he decided to start Kune. The goal? To provide affordable, convenient and tasty meals. It took a week to develop a pilot, and with a ready waitlist of 50 customers in a particular office space, his plans were in motion. Kune sold more than 500 meals ($4 average) and tripled its customer base from 50 to 150.
Customers were particularly excited about the product and Kune raised $50,000 from them to continue operations, Reetch said. After that, however, the orders became too large for the small team that they couldn’t keep up; at one point, it received 50 orders per day. Thus, instead of advancing with a momentum that could break down, the team took a hiatus.
“We had started to mess up the order because, you know, it’s complicated to get food right when you’re just in a small kitchen setting. So I said okay, that there is no point doing that, and the demand is so high and better to do things right.”
The next months were spent restructuring the company, making hires and building a factory to produce 5,000 meals per day. Then, when the company was ready to raise, Reetch said he saw the same enthusiasm from customers and investors. In two months, Kune closed this round, one of the largest in East Africa, and is one of the few non-fintechs to have raised a seven-figure pre-seed round on the continent.
In a fast-growing and crowded restaurant and food delivery marketplace in Kenya, Kune wants to offer a new way for busy people in Nairobi to access meals by finding a balance between Kibanda pricing (usually referred to as the typical local roadside food shop) and on-demand food delivery prices from global companies.
Kune applies a hybrid model, combining both cloud and dark kitchen concepts. Kune meals are cooked and packaged in its factory and delivered directly to online, retail and corporate customers.
The hybrid model speaks to why Launch Africa cut a check for Kune. And according to the director of the firm, Baljinder Sharma, “leveraging the cloud kitchen model and owning the entire supply chain provides a massive growth and scaling opportunity for Kune Africa.” He added: “We are looking forward to seeing the business take off and grow.”
Kune plans to fully launch in August after its new factory is completed. Per details on its site, the company is promising customers that delivery will be done on an average of 30 minutes daily.
To achieve this, Kune ensures that it owns the entire supply chain, from cooking to packaging to delivery with its own drivers and motorbikes. “Our strategy is to internalize all production and human resources capacities,” he stated. That’s where Kune will put most of the funds to use going forward. In addition to the factory, which costs about 10% of the total investment, Kune will be looking to build a huge team. Reetch tells me that judging by how operations-heavy Kune is, the team size will reach 100 come December.
Once launched, the company will build its own fleet of 100 electric motorcycles by early 2022. In addition, there are plans to hire 100 female drivers.
Currently, Kune showcases three different meals daily: two continental dishes and one foreign meal. In the coming months and quarters, Kune’s offerings will cut across microwavable meals, weight reduction meals and retail meals to target European and U.S. clients. For the latter, Reetch is enthusiastic about exporting the African food culture to Western countries. As someone who travels a lot, the CEO thinks Kenya, unlike other countries, doesn’t have a strong food culture. He references food media like TV shows where various meals and cuisines and tutorings on how to cook food are showcased. Reetch wants Kune to be the go-to for such programs in Kenya.
“In Kenya, we don’t have any culinary show. So we are going to take that position as the culinary major of Kenya, and how do you create this? By creating amazing content, which we plan to do by creating videos and writing articles on how to cook or maybe just food business in general.”
The close was three-quarters of the target and was done in less than a year following the firm’s launch in February 2020. According to the firm, the second close should be concluded by the end of this year or Q1 2022.
Founded by partners Khaled Talhouni, Sarah Abu Risheh and Stephanie Nour Prince, Nuwa primarily targets markets in the Middle East and the wider GCC. The partners have a track record of investing in Middle Eastern companies — Careem, Mumzworld, Golden Scent and Nana Direct. However, they have also invested in Twiga Foods and AZA, two East African startups.
They have cut checks for three companies with this new fund: two Dubai-based companies, Eyewa and Flexxpay, and one Egypt-based company, Homzmart. And despite having a strong focus on the Middle East and the GCC, the firm wants to double down on investing in more African startups, particularly in Egypt and East Africa.
I spoke with the partners to discuss their past investments, why they are interested in Africa and the similarities and differences between the regions they operate in. This interview has been edited lightly for length and clarity.
TC: Why is Nuwa Capital choosing Sub-Saharan Africa as one of its target markets?
Khaled: I mean, it’s not our primary market, but it’s an area of secondary focus for us, which we’re really interested in. And we think that there are a lot of learnings from the Middle East that we can take from our experience of investing regionally here that we can use for investing in Africa, particularly in East Africa, especially as the digital adoption increases very significantly.
TC: Nuwa Capital invested in Homzmart recently. Are there any other startups Nuwa has invested in or plans to in North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa?
Sarah: So there is a lot of the deal flow we’ve seen in North Africa, and we just started in December. We are seeing a lot of companies in Egypt, Morocco, across all of North Africa, and in the coming months, we will be investing aggressively across that geography. But for now, Homzmart is our only African investment.
TC: How do you plan to make the transition in investing in Sub-Saharan Africa?
Sarah: We have a network in East Africa because, in our previous fund, we did invest in two companies in Kenya. One was Twiga and the other was BitPesa, which is now AZA. We’ve invested in those, and as part of our due diligence and network that we’ve built in Africa, that’s why we think the opportunity is there because we got to see it and understood the market with those two companies.
TC: From your perception of how the African market is, how is it different from the GCC?
Sarah: There are different ways to look at it. But Africa is different from the GCC markets in terms of the population sizes, in terms of the purchasing power of people and in terms of companies that get a lot of attraction based on mass volume. So the success of the company sometimes is based on volume. So like a large number of people signing up to a company, for example. In Twiga, for example, it was bridging the gap between farmers and vendors, so they had a large number of farmers, and that really had a lot of power. And I think that’s where we see opportunity in Africa — in the power of the population.
Stephanie: From a VC standpoint, many funds have cropped up in the GCC region in the past couple of years, so there’s a lot more capital flowing directly in the market. That may not be exactly mirrored yet in East Africa if I might say. Also, I guess what we see from where we are in East Africa is that the capital seems to be concentrated around a particular set of founders.
TC: What will be the investment strategy for Nuwa Capital in Africa?
Sarah: We look for companies that fit into our thesis. So I can talk a bit more about the sectors that we invest in. So fintech is a large one that we look at. And then, we have a big focus on SaaS across different industries. We also really like e-commerce and marketplaces, the top of private label angle and private brands selling through e-commerce marketplaces.
And then we also have, we also look at something that we call the rapidly digitizing industries, and that’s companies that are disrupting the traditional industries through technology in education, health tech, agritech. So these are the theses we look at, and that’s how we drive our investment strategy. In terms of ticket sizes and stages, we focus on seed and Series A, and then we could also follow on in the round.
Stephanie: So when it particularly comes to Africa, what we’ve seen, which is also very interesting for us, is an increase of companies pitching to us in healthcare, in agritech, in different variations of financial services or intersection of fintech and something else. That will be very interesting also for us as we move forward, as we start looking a bit more intently.
TC: Since you are relatively new to African investment, will you be looking to partner or liaise with other VCs based on the continent?
Stephanie: It‘s a very common practice for us. We’re quite collaborative as a fund, and that’s also due to the nature of the region where you end up co-investing with a number of funds, and sometimes they tend to be the same funds that you have a similar mindset with. So that happens quite a bit; I think it’s very likely also to happen with funds we’ve co-invested with in the past in Africa.
TC: Egypt has been one of the exciting countries in both Africa and the Middle East region. What do you think is going for the market?
Stephanie: Egypt is one of the primary markets that we focus on. We are seeing a large part of our pipeline coming from Egypt. We’ve also seen a great shift in Egypt over the past few years where the type of entrepreneurs, the type of founders that are coming to us, are more mature and more experienced and just a higher calibre than before. We used to see a lot of earlier-stage companies with inexperienced founders. But today, what we’re seeing is just amazing. We are very bullish on the market when it is one of our primary focus markets.
Sarah: When companies come out of Egypt, their expansion strategy is usually either to the rest of North Africa or East Africa. Some will come to the GCC, while some will stay in Africa, depending on what industry they’re in. But I think that as we invest more in Egypt and then actively into our East Africa strategy will give us really good exposure in Africa, and as we grow, our subsequent funds will look more into Africa.
TC: Is there a portion of the fund dedicated to the African market?
Khalid: I don’t think we have a specific percentage, but the continent is part of the major strategy. We have a significant portion of the fund targeted at Egypt but we’d like to do at least 5-10% of the fund in Africa, excluding Egypt. It depends on the final fund size but we’re really bullish on Africa.
BuffaloGrid, a startup that provides phone charging and digital content to people in off-grid environments, is teaming up with the Techfugees refugee non-profit to provid free educational content and device charging to displaced people across East Africa and the Middle-East.
The initial service will see solar-powered ‘BuffaloGrid Hubs’ deployed in refugee camps across Kenya and Uganda, providing unlimited free access to education and health content, as well as other streaming services and mobile power charging.
The “Knowledge is Freedom” joint campaign has a goal of raising $3 million over the course of the next two years.
Daniel Becerra, CEO of BuffaloGrid, said: “Our mission is to remove barriers for internet adoption and provide the next billion with information, energy, and digital skills. I hope this campaign will raise awareness of the plight of displaced people and how collectively we have the power to change things. The entire team is excited to work with Techfugees. I believe together we have the technical expertise, experience, and connections to make a real difference.”
Raj Burman, Techfugees CEO, said: “In an increasingly digital and climate change stricken world, our mission is to make sure forcibly displaced people don’t get left behind. Around 400,000 marginalized refugees reside in the Rwamwanja and Kakuma-Kalobeyei settlements camp in Uganda and Kenya respectively. Our collaboration with BuffaloGrid presents a unique opportunity for an innovative, responsible digital solution to empower displaced communities with the support of our Chapters in Kenya and Uganda to overcome the access barriers to education and health content to better their livelihoods.”
Techfugees says 80 million people (roughly one percent of humanity) have been displaced because of climate change, war, conflict, economic challenges, and persecution. This figure is expected to grow to over 1 billion displaced people by 2050.
Belfast HQ’d BuffaloGrid has raised $6.4 million to date and counts, Tiny VC, ADV, Seedcamp, Kima Ventures and LocalGlobe among its investors.
(Disclosure: Mike Butcher is Chairman of Techfugees)
Africa’s insurance market stands at a 3% penetration rate, per a McKinsey study in 2018 comparing six insurance regions on the continent. If the South African market is excluded, this number drops to a measly 1.12%.
Unlike other parts of the world, most African insurance providers neglect the importance of tailored and affordable insurance products to the average African consumer. Lami Technologies, a startup out of Kenya armed with $1.8 million in seed money, is looking to change that.
The round was led by Accion Venture Lab, a seed-stage investment firm that supports financial services targeted at underserved markets. Other VCs that participated include AAIC, Consonance, P1 Ventures, Acuity Ventures, The Continent Venture Partners and Future Africa.
Low insurance uptake in Africa is somewhat due to the traditional distribution of insurance policies. They customarily rely on brick-and-mortar channels to sell and process policies. This takes a long processing cycle and has poor customer satisfaction and higher distribution costs.
Sequentially, the ways premiums are paid is affected. From the McKinsey report in 2018, the total gross written premiums (GWP) in Eastern Africa was $3.3 billion. In comparison, South Africa did $48.3 billion worth of GWP that same year.
For this reason, CEO Jihan Abass founded the company in 2018 to democratize insurance products in Kenya.
“For us, the main problem we wanted to solve was that 97% of Africans don’t buy insurance. We were trying to understand the methodology behind that, especially in Kenya where there are over 50 insurance companies but the penetration level is 2.4%,” she told TechCrunch.
“The driving force for us was making insurance widely available. We felt that building the technological infrastructure to facilitate the distribution of insurance was the best way to increase the penetration level in Africa.”
But selling directly to consumers would be a meticulous process as they rarely buy insurance from trusted organizations, let alone a third-party company. So Lami adopted a B2B2C approach to leverage the trust already built by platforms that converse with customers daily and innovate around it.
Via an API, it allows businesses like banks, startups, and organizations to offer digital insurance products to their users. The product can also be used by partner businesses to manage their own insurance needs.
Some customers like Stanbic Bank in Kenya use Lami’s API to run insurance operations; HR platform WorkPay makes insurance products available to the businesses using its platform. With over 20 insurance writers, the company is also launching an insurance marketplace on e-commerce platform Jumia.
Users can get a quote for motor, medical or other tailored insurance products through its API. They also can customize the benefits and adjust the premium to suit them, get their policy documents and access claims.
Typically, it takes about 90 days for claims to be processed for an average African insurer. Abass said Lami has reduced this to a week — it is one way the three-year-old company has developed trust with customers.
Another challenge that Lami has been able to overcome is getting insurance companies onboard. According to the CEO, transitioning from a traditional way of offering insurance to digital distribution channels only worked because Lami began to show early the value of customer experience and journey which requires getting the right insurance to the right customer at the right time.
This is what makes Lami stand out, Abass continued. It co-designs products with its underwriting partners. And approaching design in this manner helps the businesses to offer unique insurance products to their underlying customer base.
She illustrates an offering with a bus-booking platform where passengers’ insurance points are calculated on a per-trip basis. It counts when they board the bus and stops when they alight. She believes an innovative process like this will take the continent’s insurance play to a more desirable place.
“I think there’s huge potential in the insurance industry. Despite the low penetration, the annual market is worth more than $60 billion a year. I think people are starting to open their eyes to insurance as opposed to other financial services.”
Since its inception, the insurtech startup has sold more than 5,000 policies. It has partnered with more than 25 active underwriters, including Britam, Pioneer and Madison Insurance. These underwriters help distribute more than 30 products from medical and employee benefits to motor and device insurance.
Lami will use the seed investment to hire more people, improve its technology and grow its presence across Africa.
Accion Venture Lab is placing a bet on Lami’s embedded finance play. Here’s what its African director, Ashley Lewis said of the investment. “… By embedding customized insurance within businesses that customers know and trust, Lami is making insurance accessible for underserved populations in Africa and enabling them to build financial resilience.”
Lami’s investment also represents a spark in a Kenyan tech ecosystem where being both an indigenous and female founder is an incongruous mix. A study in 2019 showed that Kenya had the strongest presence of expat co-founders of any of the Big Four tech ecosystems. While the country has a better female co-founder representation than other countries (1 in 4), the percentage of those from Kenya is about 12%.
There are just a handful of female founders who have raised million-dollar rounds. Though Abass sits comfortably in this illustrious club, it took thick skins and confidence in her product to get in.
“The funding landscape in Kenya is generally biased towards male founders and in East Africa, especially to foreign founders. So it was a lot harder to get investors excited and onboard with us. For us, we’ve built something quite exciting, although it took some time. One key thing why we wanted to make this publicized is so other female founders can see that there’s an opportunity to do the same too,” she said.
A hastily formed crowdsourcing operation to contain the insects in Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia could help manage climate-related disasters everywhere.
According to a McKinsey report, the total number of mobile money services worldwide was 282 in 2017, with more than half of those operating in sub-Saharan Africa.
In 2020, these numbers increased significantly, but the ratio remained similar. In 96 countries, there are 310 live mobile money services, according to a GSMA report. Out of that number, 171 are from Africa, while 157 are in sub-Saharan Africa.
In Tanzania, mobile money services can be relatively difficult to use due to unstable internet and high service fees. Benjamin Fernandes noticed this as a national television host while building a mobile money service to enable people to pay for TV subscriptions in East Africa back in 2011.
Six years later, he would start his own mobile money and wallet aggregator, NALA, to solve these issues. Its first mobile application allowed users to make mobile money payments and utilize mobile banking without an internet connection. The business grew to 250,000 users in over a year after its official launch.
Last year, the WorldBank predicted a sharp decline of international remittances to Africa. But even though Africa is still the most expensive region to send money to with averages of 10.6% in transaction fees, the opposite happened. There was an increase in remittance activity on the continent.
Kenya, for instance, had its highest-ever inbound remittance at $3 billion, while WorldRemit acquired Sendwave in August 2020 for $500 million and Mama Money claimed to have grown 500% within the year.
NALA also noticed an uptick in remittance requests where 1 in 7 users wanted to receive money internationally. This happened despite not being in that business at the time. It’s not hard to see why: Presently, over 70% of money sent to Sub-Saharan Africa is transacted through physical stores. When many over-the-counter services were suspended or limited due to coronavirus restrictions, people were left with expensive, unreliable or hard-to-access alternatives.
Combined with the increasing trend for digital-first financial services and listening to some users’ requests, NALA began testing international money transfers in August 2020 to facilitate payments from the U.K. to Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. By building a multi-currency ledger where people can send money from the U.K. to Tanzania and back to the U.K., Fernandes says NALA can build a Wise for Africa.
“I believe international payments are only 1% built today. Until you can send money both ways seamlessly, our work isn’t done,” Fernandes told TechCrunch. “We believe African markets should be ‘sender’ markets, too; there is a lot of trade happening with other countries, and most of the money is sent via costly bank wires or at physical stores. It doesn’t need to be this way; it’s time for something better.”
Various platforms are trying to achieve this, but none specifically targets the East African region. That is NALA’s play, according to the CEO. “This is where we see a big advantage for us. We are local, we understand mobile money, we built bill payments on our previous product, and this is an extension of that,” he added.
Since graduating as the first East African company from Y Combinator in 2019, NALA has brought other interesting investors on board to support its mission. The most notable is Accel, which has been kept under wraps for some time. The VC firm rarely makes deals on the continent and has only invested in NALA and Egypt’s Instabug. Other backers include NYCA Partners and angel investors like Shamir Karkal (co-founder of Simple), Peeyush Ranjan (former Flipkart CTO and current head of Google Payments), and Thomas Stafford (DST Global).
NALA also enlisted the services of Nicolas Esteves, who was the VP of engineering at Osper and had a stint at Monzo to become the company’s CTO which, according to Fernandes, will considerably improve the company’s chances of achieving its goal. “When we brought someone of his calibre on our team, it just opened up the doors of what we could accomplish because he has built multi-currency ledgers across different large companies.”
For now, though, the company will be rolling out a beta product next month for U.K.-based customers sending money to Kenya and Uganda (Tanzania will come later). The company claims that the service will support instant payments to all major mobile money accounts and says it is closing some banking partnerships that will allow it to facilitate money transfers from East Africa to the U.K.
Ugandan technology-enabled asset finance company Tugende today announced that it has closed $3.6 million in a Series A extension round.
The investment, which, according to the company, was agreed on and structured in 2020, follows the $6.3 million raised in November 2020 and led by Toyota Tsusho investment fund Mobility 54. This brings Tugende’s total Series A financing to $9.9 million.
San Francisco and Paris-based VC firm, Partech led the round. Enza Capital participated, alongside some unnamed angel investors.
Michael Wilkerson founded Tugende in 2012. The company uses asset finance, technology and a customer support model to help micro, small and medium-sized enterprises own income-generating assets.
While primarily based in East Africa, the company wants to tackle the $331 billion credit gap facing these businesses across Africa. Its core product is for motorcycle riders in Kenya and Uganda, with a lease-to-own or hire-purchase package. These riders get some training, medical and life insurance, safety equipment and hands-on support from their first use of the motorcycle to owning it.
Between 2006 and 2010, CEO Wilkerson, then a journalist and researcher, spent a great deal of time using motorcycles (Boda bodas) for quick and flexible transport. It was such an effective means for transport for him that he built a large contact list of “go-to” boda boda riders he would call for rides when need be. This was long before ride-hailing made its way to East Africa.
These boda boda riders earned enough to pay motorcycle rent and survive, but not enough to build significant savings. While the little amounts they paid for rent could actually service a loan, traditional banks either required significant collateral or very high down payments.
So in 2010, Wilkerson launched Own Your Own Boda, a for-profit enterprise to put these riders on a path toward owning their motorcycles. They began informally with handwritten contracts, but progressed into using technology to scale the solution from 2013 when it rebranded to Tugende.
Once boda boda riders get on board, they can double their take-home profit from $5 per day to $10 per day after becoming owners, the CEO claims.
“With an average household of five people, this can really transform the lives of our client and their families. Besides just increased daily profit, ownership of an asset is also wealth in itself,” Wilkerson told TechCrunch. “Some clients sell the fully owned motorcycle and use that lump sum of capital to make other investments while coming back to Tugende for a new lease, which is affordable from their daily cash flow.”
In addition to motorcycle taxis, Tugende has broadened the productive assets it finances to boat engines, cars, equipment for retail shops, refrigerators and other income-generating equipment. The company is also currently piloting financing for e-mobility assets.
The pivot to using technology in 2013 allowed Tugende to move fully to digital payments, build its own interoperable payment gateway in 2017 and launch an in-house credit score in 2019 to allow clients to see how they are performing.
Talking about clients, Tugende currently has more than 43,000 across Kenya and Uganda. Out of that number, 16,000 have achieved full ownership of at least one asset.
Last year was a challenging one for the company, as the pandemic disrupted some of its activities; excluding 2020, Tugende has doubled in team size year-on-year. The company currently has more than 520 employees, with 20 branches in Uganda and four in Kenya.
While the pandemic presented challenges that the company has since maneuvered, it also brought a new investor in Partech. “Last year, in the middle of the pandemic, we decided to invest in Tugende”, said Tidjane Deme, partner at the firm that invested in 82 startups across 24 countries in 2020. “Tugende combines technology and strong operations to aid millions of professionals to grow their businesses and drive economies forward. We will support Michael and his team to build up the tech platform, fine-tune the model and expand in new markets.”
Over the years, Tugende’s demand has come mainly via word of mouth, a strategy Wilkerson says the company has struggled to keep up with. That’s the purpose of the new investment — to provide supply for growing demand. Also, the investment will support the closure of new debt capital to fuel Tugende’s strong portfolio growth in Uganda and Kenya.
Because of the nature of its business, Tugende needs a steady influx of debt capital. Since its inception, it has raised more than $20 million from debt partners like Partners Group Impact Investments and the U.S. Development Finance Corporation.
So why opt for equity financing this time when it mostly thrives on debt capital? Wilkerson says with the company’s long waiting list of new clients, Tugende has been trying to close new capital fast enough to keep up with this demand.
You see, most lenders require a minimum equity cushion, and even though Tugende has been net income positive for most of the last five years through 2019, its internally generated equity couldn’t anchor enough debt to meet its word of mouth client demand. Now, when you add the company’s goals to grow in new geographies and new asset products, the reason for this equity financing is apparently clear.
“Debt is Tugende’s fuel for growth. But good equity financing is like upgrading the engine, getting a top-notch mechanic and driving coach thrown in on top to help you handle the speed,” the CEO added.
There is also the need for balance sheet strength, leading to more capital runway with larger and better-priced debt deals. Besides, there is the multiplier effect of having hands-on equity support.
Unlike many digital or digitally-enabled lenders, Wilkerson says Tugende’s prime focus on long-term value, not today’s credit transaction alone, is what will keep customers in the Tugende ecosystem in the coming years.
“We are particularly enthused by the team’s innovative application of technology, which incorporates a range of social considerations to build a new type of credit score, and which will increase access to capital across a range of African markets where entrepreneurs currently have a limited credit history or access to collateral,” added Mike Mompi, partner at Enza Capital of the investment.
Umba, a digital bank for emerging markets and aiming first at Africa, has secured a $2 million seed funding round from new investors including Lachy Groom, ex-Head of Issuing at Stripe; Ludlow Ventures; Frontline Ventures and Act Venture.
Currently operating in Kenya and Nigeria, Umba offers a digital financial service alternative to legacy African banks. Its mobile app gives customers a free checking account, free instant peer-to-peer money transfers, lending, deposits, BillPay and cashback. This is in contrast to the generally high-cost barriers found among traditional banking institutions in African countries.
Right now it’s available in Kenya and Nigeria, which have a combined population of over a quarter of a billion people.
Umba competes with Kudao, Carbon, Eversend and ‘Chip or cash’ methods.
Umba’s CEO, Tiernan Kennedy said: “From the outset we built our platform to serve multiple markets, currencies and payment infrastructures. This flexibility is an extremely important consideration as it’s much harder to upgrade your systems at a later date. For example, bank and debit card penetration is high in Nigeria, so Umba is deeply integrated into those payment methods, while across Kenya and East Africa mobile money is dominant so our platform is tightly integrated with those services, too.”
Ludlow Ventures Partner, Brett DeMarrais said: “Umba is the first investment we’ve made in the African market and it’s one we were excited to participate in. The team at Umba have an excellent service that drives down the cost of banking for their customers and democratizes access. The move away from physical branch infrastructure was already underway and it has accelerated this year. It’s clear the African market is maturing and that we’re entering a very interesting phase.”
The news comes shortly after Stripe’s $200M acquisition of Nigerian payment service startup Paystack as well as the acquisition of DPO Group for $288m and Sendwave for $500m, showing a booming ecosystem breaking records in venture rounds and acquisitions.
The world’s food supply must double by the year 2050 to meet the demands from a growing population, according to a report from the United Nations. And as pressure mounts to find new crop land to support the growth, the world’s eyes are increasingly turning to the African continent as the next potential global breadbasket.
While Africa has 65% of the world’s remaining uncultivated arable land, according to the African Development Bank, the countries on the continent face significant obstacles as they look to boost the productivity of their agricultural industries.
On the continent, 80% of families depend on agriculture for their livelihoods, but only 4% use irrigation. Many families also lack access to reliable and affordable electricity. It’s these twin problems that Samir Ibrahim and his co-founder at SunCulture, Charlie Nichols, have spent the last eight years trying to solve.
Armed with a new financing model and purpose-built small solar power generators and water pumps, Nichols and Ibrahim, have already built a network of customers using their equipment to increase incomes by anywhere from five to ten times their previous levels by growing higher-value cash crops, cultivating more land and raising more livestock.
The company also has just closed on $14 million in funding to expand its business across Africa.
“We have to double the amount of food we have to create by 2050, and if you look at where there are enough resources to grow food and a lot of point — all signs point to Africa. You have a lot of farmers and a lot of land, and a lot of resources,” Ibrahim said.
African small farmers face two big problems as they look to increase productivity, Ibrahim said. One is access to markets, which alone is a huge source of food waste, and the other is food security because of a lack of stable growing conditions exacerbated by climate change.
As one small farmer told The Economist earlier this year, ““The rainy season is not predictable. When it is supposed to rain it doesn’t, then it all comes at once.”
Ibrahim, who graduated from New York University in 2011, had long been drawn to the African continent. His father was born in Tanzania and his mother grew up in Kenya and they eventually found their way to the U.S. But growing up, Ibrahim was told stories about East Africa.
While pursuing a business degree at NYU Ibrahim met Nichols, who had been working on large scale solar projects in the U.S., at an event for budding entrepreneurs in New York.
The two began a friendship and discussed potential business opportunities stemming from a paper Nichols had read about renewable energy applications in the agriculture industry.
After winning second place in a business plan competition sponsored by NYU, the two men decided to prove that they should have won first. They booked tickets to Kenya and tried to launch a pilot program for their business selling solar-powered water pumps and generators.
Conceptually solar water pumping systems have been around for decades. But as the costs of solar equipment and energy storage have declined the systems that leverage those components have become more accessible to a broader swath of the global population.
That timing is part of what has enabled SunCulture to succeed where other companies have stumbled. “We moved here at a time when [solar] reached grid parity in a lot of markets. It was at a time when a lot of development financiers were funding the nexus between agriculture and energy,” said Ibrahim.
Initially, the company sold its integrated energy generation and water pumping systems to the middle income farmers who hold jobs in cities like Nairobi and cultivate crops on land they own in rural areas. These “telephone farmers” were willing to spend the $5000 required to install SunCulture’s initial systems.
Now, the cost of a system is somewhere between $500 and $1000 and is more accessible for the 570 million farming households across the word — with the company’s “pay-as-you-grow” model.
It’s a spin on what’s become a popular business model for the distribution of solar systems of all types across Africa. Investors have poured nearly $1 billion into the development of off-grid solar energy and retail technology companies like M-kopa, Greenlight Planet, d.light design, ZOLA Electric, and SolarHome, according to Ibrahim. In some ways, SunCulture just extends that model to agricultural applications.
“We have had to bundle services and financing. The reason this particularly works is because our customers are increasing their incomes four or five times,” said Ibrahim. “Most of the money has been going to consuming power. This is the first time there has been productive power.”
SunCulture’s hardware consists of 300 watt solar panels and a 440 watt-hour battery system. The batteries can support up to four lights, two phones and a plug-in submersible water pump.
The company’s best selling product line can support irrigation for a two-and-a-half acre farm, Ibrahim said. “We see ourselves as an entry point for other types of appliances. We’re growing to be the largest solar company for Africa.”
With the $14 million in funding, from investors including Energy Access Ventures (EAV), Électricité de France (EDF), Acumen Capital Partners (ACP), and Dream Project Incubators (DPI), SunCulture will expand its footprint in Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, Zambia, Senegal, Togo, and Cote D’Ivoire, the company said.
Ekta Partners acted as the financial advisor for the deal, while CrossBoundary provided additional advisory support, including an analysis on the market opportunity and competitive landscape, under the United States Agency for International Development (USAID)’s Kenya Investment Mechanism Program.
In several countries, entrenched leaders are taking advantage of coronavirus restrictions and a world distracted by the pandemic to clamp down hard on prominent political opponents.
The officer’s combat death came as President Trump considers pulling back on American operations in the region.
South Africa based renewable energy startup Sun Exchange has raised $3 million to close its Series A funding round totaling $4 million.
The company operates a peer-to-peer, crypto enabled business that allows individuals anywhere in the world to invest in solar infrastructure in Africa.
How’s that all work?
“You as an individual are selling electricity to a school in South Africa, via a solar panel you bought through the Sun Exchange,” explained Abe Cambridge — the startup’s founder and CEO.
“Our platform meters the electricity production of your solar panel. Arranges for the purchasing of that electricity with your chosen energy consumer, collects that money and then returns it to your Sun Exchange wallet.”
It costs roughly $5 a panel to get in and transactions occur in South African Rand or Bitcoin.
“The reason why we chose Bitcoin is we needed one universal payment system that enables micro transactions down to a millionth of a U.S. cent,” Cambridge told TechCrunch on a call.
He co-founded the Cape Town headquartered startup in 2015 to advance renewable energy infrastructure in Africa. “I realized the opportunity for solar was enormous, not just for South Africa, but for the whole of the African continent,” said Cambridge.
“What was required was a new mechanism to get Africa solar powered.”
Sub-Saharan Africa has a population of roughly 1 billion people across a massive landmass and only about half of that population has access to electricity, according to the International Energy Agency.
Recently, Sun Exchange’s main market South Africa — which boasts some of the best infrastructure in the region — has suffered from blackouts and power outages.
Sun Exchange has 17,000 members in 162 countries who have invested in solar power projects for schools, businesses and organizations throughout South Africa, according to company data.
The $3 million — which closed Sun Exchange’s $4 million Series A — came from the Africa Renewable Power Fund of London’s ARCH Emerging Markets Partners.
With the capital the startup plans to enter new markets. “We’re going to expand into other Sub-Saharan African countries. We’ve got some clear opportunities on our roadmap,” Cambridge said, referencing Nigeria as one of the markets Sun Exchange has researched.
There are several well-funded solar energy startups operating in Africa’s top economic and tech hubs, such as Kenya and Nigeria. In East Africa, M-Kopa sells solar hardware kits to households on credit then allows installment payments via mobile phone using M-Pesa mobile money. The venture is is backed by $161 million from investors including Steve Case and Richard Branson.
In Nigeria, Rensource shifted from a residential hardware model to building solar-powered micro utilities for large markets and other commercial structures.
Sun Exchange operates as an asset free model and operates differently than companies that install or manufacture solar panels.
“We’re completely supplier agnostic. We are approached by solar installers who operate on the African continent. And then we partner with the best ones,” said Cambridge — who presented the startup’s model at TechCrunch Startup Battlefield in Berlin in 2017.
“We’re the marketplace that connects together the user of the solar panel to the owner of the solar panel to the installer of the solar panel.”
Sun Exchange generates revenues by earning margins on sales of solar panels and fees on purchases and kilowatt hours generated, according to Cambridge.
In addition to expanding in Africa, the startup looks to expand in the medium to long-term to Latin America and Southeast Asia.
“Those are also places that would really benefit from from solar energy, from the speed in which it could be deployed and the environmental improvements that going solar leads to,” said Cambridge.
Events in May offered support to the thesis that Africa can incubate tech with global application.
Two startups that developed their business models on the continent — MallforAfrica and Zipline — were tapped by international interests.
Link Commerce offers a white-label solution for doing online-sales in emerging markets.
Retailers can plug into the company’s platform to create a web-based storefront that manages payments and logistics.
Nigerian Chris Folayan founded MallforAfrica in 2011 to bridge a gap in supply and demand for the continent’s consumer markets. While living in the U.S., Folayan noted a common practice among Africans — that of giving lists of goods to family members abroad to buy and bring home.
With MallforAfrica Folayan aimed to allow people on the continent to purchase goods from global retailers directly online.
The e-commerce site went on to onboard over 250 global retailers and now employs 30 people at order processing facilities in Oregon and the UK.
Folayan has elevated Link Commerce now as the lead company above MallforAfrica.com. He and DHL plan to extend the platform to emerging markets around the world and offer it to companies who want to wrap an online stores, payments and logistics solution around their core business
“Right now the focus is on Africa…but we’re taking this global,” Folayan said.
Another startup developed in Africa, Zipline, was tapped by U.S. healthcare provider Novant for drone delivery of critical medical supplies in the fight against COVID-19.
The two announced a partnership whereby Zipline’s drones will make 32-mile flights on two routes between Novant Health’s North Carolina emergency drone fulfillment center and the non-profit’s medical center in Huntersville — where frontline healthcare workers are treating coronavirus patients.
Zipline and Novant are touting the arrangement as the first authorized long-range drone logistics delivery flight program in the U.S. The activity has gained approvals by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and North Carolina’s Department of Transportation.
The story behind the Novant, Zipline UAV collaboration has a twist: the capabilities for the U.S. operation were developed primarily in Africa. Zipline has a test facility in the San Francisco area, but spent several years configuring its drone delivery model in Rwanda and Ghana.
Co-founded in 2014 by Americans Keller Rinaudo, Keenan Wyrobek and Will Hetzler, Zipline designs its own UAVs, launch systems and logistics software for distribution of critical medical supplies.
The company turned to East Africa in 2016, entering a partnership with the government of Rwanda to test and deploy its drone service in that country. Zipline went live with UAV distribution of life-saving medical supplies in Rwanda in late 2016, claiming the first national drone-delivery program at scale in the world.
The company expanded to Ghana in 2016, where in addition to delivering blood and vaccines by drone, it now distributes COVID-19-related medication and lab samples.
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.
African startups have another $100 million in VC to pitch for after Novastar Ventures’ latest raise.
The Nairobi and Lagos-based investment group announced it has closed $108 million in new commitments to launch its Africa Fund II, which brings Novastar’s total capital to $200 million.
With the additional resources, the firm plans to make 12 to 14 investments across the continent, according to Managing Director Steve Beck .
On demand mobility powered by electric and solar is coming to Africa.
Vaya Africa, a ride-hail mobility venture founded by Zimbabwean mogul Strive Masiyiwa, launched an electric taxi service and charging network in Zimbabwe this week with plans to expand across the continent.
The South Africa-headquartered company is using Nissan Leaf EVs and has developed its own solar-powered charging stations. Vaya is finalizing partnerships to take its electric taxi services on the road to countries that could include Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa and Zambia, Vaya Mobility CEO Dorothy Zimuto told TechCrunch.
The initiative comes as Africa’s on-demand mobility market has been in full swing for several years, with startups, investors and the larger ride-hail players aiming to bring movement of people and goods to digital platforms.
Uber and Bolt have been operating in Africa’s major economies since 2015, where there are also a number of local app-based taxi startups. Over the last year, there’s been some movement on the continent toward developing EVs for ride-hail and delivery use, primarily around motorcycles.
Beyond environmental benefits, Vaya highlights economic gains for passengers and drivers of shifting to electric in Africa’s taxi markets, where fuel costs compared to personal income is generally high for drivers.
Using solar panels to power the charging station network also helps Vaya’s new EV program overcome some of challenges in Africa’s electricity grid.
Vaya is exploring EV options for other on-demand transit applications — from min-buses to Tuk Tuk taxis.
In more downbeat news in May, Africa-focused tech talent accelerator Andela had layoffs and salary reductions as a result of the economic impact of the COVID-19 crisis, CEO Jeremy Johnson confirmed to TechCrunch.
Backed by $181 million in VC from investors that include the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the startup’s client-base is comprised of more than 200 global companies that pay for the African developers Andela selects to work on projects.
There’s been a drop in the demand for Andela’s services, according to Johnson.
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African tech around the ‘net
Drones are being deployed in the fight to curb COVID-19 in the U.S.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
African startups have another $100 million in VC to pitch for after Novastar Ventures’ latest raise.
The Nairobi and Lagos based investment group announced it has closed $108 million in new commitments to launch its Africa Fund II, which brings Novastar’s total capital to $200 million.
With the additional resources, the firm plans to make 12 to 14 investments across the continent, according to Managing Director Steve Beck. He spoke to TechCrunch on Novastar Ventures’ plans for the new fund.
A notable update to Novastar’s VC focus is geographic scope. The firm was originally co-founded in Kenya by Beck and British investor Andrew Carruthers and built its first portfolio largely around companies based in East Africa. Novastar Ventures made 15 investments with its first fund, including companies such as Uganda and Kenya focused energy startup SolarNow and agtech venture M-Farm.
“The second fund is basically the same strategy as the first, but…the biggest difference is that we opened up a second front in West Africa — more particularly to be in and around the entrepreneurial system in Lagos,” Beck told TechCrunch on a call.
Before closing its Africa Fund II, Novastar Ventures had already made several investments in West Africa, including leading a round in Nigerian on demand motorcycle transit startup Max.ng and backing Ghanaian health company, MPharma. Novastar opened an office Lagos in 2019.
On the types of startups Novastar will target with its new fund, the focus is more on mission than industry silos, according to co-founder Steve Beck. “We’re sector agnostic. I would describe us more as a segment fund than a sector fund,” he said.
“We really try to look for businesses called breakthrough businesses, [those] that are addressing the biggest problems in the largest markets.”
That has led Novastar Ventures to invest in digital companies in education, information access, agtech, mobility and off-grid energy.
“Essentially what we’re doing is looking for those businesses that are addressing the basic needs, basic goods and services across the true mass markets of the continent,” said Beck.
On whether the firm is a dedicated impact fund, Beck said, “The way we characterize ourselves is we’re a commercial venture fund with an impact screen.”
On investment amounts and types, Novastar Ventures is fairly flexible on ticket size, from seed to later stage.
“We’re gonna…have some portfolio companies where we put to work a million dollars or less or were going to have some where we put $8 or $9 million dollars in through capital rounds. That’s…the deployment strategy,” Beck said.
Novastar Ventures works closely with its portfolio companies, according to its co-founder.
“We’re very active investors and always take a board seat to be close to the entrepreneurs. We often are the first institutional investor that they have.”
Startups who want to pitch to the company can reach out to the fund’s founders and directors via the website or LinkedIn, according to Beck. He added that Novastar Ventures is recruiting to add another member to its investor team in 2020.
The firm’s latest raise and $200 million capital amount creates another high value fund focused on African startups.
Other large Africa focused VC shops include TLcom Capital — which closed a $71 million fund in February — and Partech, which doubled its Africa fund to $143 million in 2019. The venture arms of major global companies have also become more active in African tech recently, including that of Goldman Sachs and Visa.
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 ter