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Several users from Zambia have taken to Twitter informing the general public that WhatsApp has been restricted in the country amidst ongoing general elections holding today.
The president and parliamentary elections culminate in a face-off between current President Edgar Lungu and opposition Hakainde Hichilema.
Internet monitoring organization Netblocks further corroborated these reports adding that multiple internet providers in Zambia had restricted access to the American social messaging platform. Some of these networks include Zambian government-owned Zamtel, Airtel Zambia, Liquid Telecom, and MTN.
Just this week, reports circulated that the Zambian government had threatened to shut down the internet if Zambians “failed to use the cyberspace during this year’s election correctly.” The reports say the government intended to go through with its plans from Thursday, the polling day, till Sunday, when vote counts are expected to have ended.
However, the Zambian government, via its Information and Broadcasting Services Permanent Secretary, Amos Malupenga, came out to deny the reports, calling them ‘malicious.’ Nevertheless, he mentioned that the government would not tolerate abuse of the internet and if any mischief occurred, there would be no hesitation to take appropriate measures.
“The government, therefore, expects citizens to use the internet responsibly. But if some people choose to abuse the internet to mislead and misinform, the government will not hesitate to invoke relevant legal provisions to forestall any breakdown of law and order as the country passes through the election period,” Malupenga said.
Zambia isn’t the first African country to witness this during an election as social media restrictions and internet shutdowns are now a recurring theme for most African states.
Countries like Cameroon, Congo, Uganda, Tanzania, Guinea, Togo, Benin, Mali, Mauritania have faced social media restrictions and internet shutdowns during elections. A handful of others like Chad, Nigeria, and Ethiopia, on the other hand, have experienced similar restrictions for unrelating events.
Most governments argue that they carry out social media restrictions and internet shutdowns to maintain security during elections; however, it’s glaring to see the process as a means to curb the spread of vital information among voters and the media within and outside the country.
Today’s event shows that despite denying reports about an imminent internet shutdown, the Zambian government is heading in that direction by first cutting off WhatsApp. While writing on the WhatsApp restriction, Netblocks also reported that the Zambian government has proceeded to restrict other social media platforms, including Facebook, Instagram, Messenger, and Twitter.
Still, internet users in Zambia are now using VPN services to bypass the restrictions on WhatsApp and these other social media platforms. Yet, it remains to be seen if the government will enforce a full internet shutdown.
Here’s another edition of “Dear Sophie,” the advice column that answers immigration-related questions about working at technology companies.
“Your questions are vital to the spread of knowledge that allows people all over the world to rise above borders and pursue their dreams,” says Sophie Alcorn, a Silicon Valley immigration attorney. “Whether you’re in people ops, a founder or seeking a job in Silicon Valley, I would love to answer your questions in my next column.”
Extra Crunch members receive access to weekly “Dear Sophie” columns; use promo code ALCORN to purchase a one- or two-year subscription for 50% off.
I started a tech company about two years ago, and ever since I’ve dreamed of expanding my company in the United States.
I would love to have a green card. Someone mentioned that I should apply for a diversity green card. Would you please provide me with more details about it and how to apply?
— Technical in Tanzania
As a startup founder from Tanzania, you have several immigration options available to you, including the Diversity Immigrant Visa (green card) Program.
My law partner, Anita Koumriqian, and I recently discussed the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program (DV Program) on a podcast episode. Take a listen for how to apply and tips for applying. Each year, the U.S. Department of State, which oversees the DV Program, reserves 50,000 green cards for individuals born in countries that have low rates of immigration to the United States. The State Department publishes instructions each year, which includes the countries whose natives are eligible to register for the annual diversity lottery. Here is the latest version.
How does the diversity lottery work?
You must register online in the fall — usually from early October through early November — for the annual random lottery by completing the Electronic Diversity Visa Entry Form (DS-5501). There is no cost to register for the lottery, but be aware that you will be automatically disqualified if you register yourself more than once, and incomplete forms will not be accepted.
Once you complete the online registration form, you will get a confirmation number. Do not lose this number! It is the only way to access the online system that will tell you whether you were selected in the lottery and are eligible to submit a green card application. In May, registrants can log into the online system to find out whether they’ve been selected. No notification will be sent by email or snail mail; checking online by entering your confirmation code is the only way to find out. After you enter your confirmation code online, you will receive a diversity visa number, which you will use to determine when you can file your green card application.
Every startup is trying to fix something but Terraformation is tackling the only problem that must matter to all of us: Climate change.
This is why it’s in such a big huge hurry. Its mission — as a ‘forest tech’ startup — is to accelerate tree planting by applying a startup-y operational philosophy of scalability to the pressing task of rapidly, sustainably reforesting denuded landscapes — bringing back native trees species to revive former wastelands and shrinking our carbon emissions in the process.
Forests are natural carbon sinks. The problem is we just don’t have enough trees with roots in the ground to offset our emissions. So that at least means the mission is simple: Plant more trees, and plant more trees fast.
Terraformation’s goal is to restore three billion acres of global native forest ecosystems by scaling tree replanting projects in parallel, scaling the use of existing techniques, and working with all the partners it can. (For a little context, the U.S. contains some 2.27BN acres of total land area, per Wikipedia).
So far it says it’s planted “thousands” of trees — with live projects in North America, South America, Africa and Europe which it hopes will yield up to 20,000 replanted acres. It’s also in talks with partners about more projects that could clad hundreds of thousands of acres with carbon-consuming (and biodiversity-prompting) trees, if they come to full fruition.
That’s still a long way off the 3BN-acre-wooded moonshot, of course. But Terraformation claims it’s been able to achieve a forestry restoration work-rate that’s 5x the average already. And that’s definitely the kind of ‘gas stepping’ that climate change needs.
Its elevator pitch is also punchy: “Our mission is explicitly to solve climate change through mass reforestation,” says founder Yishan Wong — whose name may be familiar as the ex-Reddit CEO (and also a former early-stage engineer at PayPal/Facebook). “So it’s getting trees in the ground and getting faster at getting trees in the ground.”
It’s not going it alone, either. It’s just announced a first closing of a $30 million Series A funding round, led by Sam & Max Altman at Apollo Projects, the brothers’ ‘moonshot’ fund; plus several high-profile institutional investors (whose names aren’t being disclosed); along with nearly 100 angel investors, including Sundeep Ahuja, Lachy Groom, Sahil Lavingia, Joe Lonsdale, Susan Wu, and OVN Cap.
“The [Series A] was a bit larger than we anticipated and the idea is to get us to the next stage of planting orders of magnitude more trees every year,” says Wong. “So it’ll be used both for supporting forestry projects directly, as well as for the development and deployment of forestry acceleration products and technology.”
“The very, very nice thing about mass reforestation or mass restoration as a solution to climate change is that it’s extremely parallelizable,” he adds. “You can plant any tree at the same time as your planting some other tree. This is the primary reason why this solution can potentially be implemented within the timetable that we have left. But in order to do so we have to start and drive an enormous, decentralized reforestation campaign across multiple continents and countries.”
The funding follows a $5M seed last year, as the young startup worked to hone its approach.
Terraformation is targeting the main barriers to successful reforesting: Through early research and pilots it says it’s identified three key bottlenecks to large-scale forest restoration — namely, land availability, freshwater, and seed. It then seeks to address each of these pinch-points to viable reforesting — identifying and fashioning modular, sharable solutions (tools, techniques, training etc) that can help shave off friction and build leafy, branching success.
These products include a seed bank unit it’s devised, housed in a standard shipping container and kitted out with all the equipment (plus solar off-grip capability, if required) to take care of on-site storage for the thousands of native seeds each projects needs to replant a whole forest.
It also offers a nursery kit which also ships in a shipping container — a flat-packed greenhouse that it says a couple of people can put together, and where thousands of seedlings can then be tended and irrigated in pots until they’re ready to plant out.
A third support it offers to the replanting projects it wants to work with is expertise in building solar-powered desalination rigs so young trees can be supplied with adequate water to survive in locations where poor land management may have made conditions for growth difficult and harsh.
It goes without saying that planted trees which fail because of poor processes won’t help cut carbon emissions. Badly managed replanting is at best wasteful — and may be closer to cynical greenwashing in some cases. (Poor quality projects can be a known problem where claims of corporate carbon offsetting are being made, for example.)
Terraformation is thus zeroing in on repeatable ways to scale and accelerate the successful planting and nurturing of trees, from seed to sapling and beyond, to accelerate sustainable reforesting.
Ultimately, it’s the only kind of tree planting that will really count in the fight against climate change.
Its first pilot restoration projects begun in Hawai’i in 2019 — where it’s been able to plant thousands of trees at a site called Pacific Flight, reviving a native tropical sandalwood forest that had been logged unsustainably. To enable the young trees to grow in land which had also become arid as a result of cattle grazing, the team built the world’s largest fully off-grid, solar-powered desalination system to supply sustainable freshwater to the baby forest.
“The arid environment, high winds, and degraded soils meant that if a team could restore a forest there, they could do it anywhere,” is the pitch on its website.
The Series A will go toward spinning up lots more such native species forest restoration projects — working via partnerships, with organizations such as Environmental Defenders in Uganda, and other groups in Ecuador, Haiti and Tanzania — as well as on more R&D (additional products are in the pipeline, we’re told); and on expanding headcount so its team has the legs to run faster.
Interestingly, for a startup with Silicon Valley engineering pedigree at its core, the team’s approach is intentionally light on technology — leaning only on vital tech (like solar and desalination), rather than experimental bells and whistles (drones, robotics etc) to ensure the processes it’s packaging up for massive replanting parallelism remain as simple, accessible and reliable as possible. So they are able to scale all over the globe.
It’s clear that sci-fi robotic gadgetry isn’t the answer here. It’s sweating toil plus tried and tested horticulture processes, done systematically and repeatedly, in mass parallelism all over the world that’s required, argues Wong, whose years in tech have given him a healthy scepticism on the issue of over-engineering. (“The biggest lesson I learned was, you want to solve a big problem? You want to use as little technology as possible… Technology’s always breaking, it’s always got flaws. The biggest problem with technology is technology.”)
“I would say that the key contribution that ‘tech’ — if you think of a monolith or a culture or whatever — will make to climate change, is not in fact some new invention or some gadget or some sort of special magical technology… I think it really is the practice of scalability,” he goes on. “Which is an organizational end. A management way of thinking. Because that is actually something that has been carefully and painfully developed… over the past 20 years in Silicon Valley. How to take small working solutions, how to solve very big problems, how to scale them. And it isn’t a very glamorous thing — which is why I think it’s one of the more pure disciplines.
“It just has been less corrupt… Scalability is just people thinking hard and grinding it out to address really hard big problems. And I think that practice and all the little tips and rules that we have to doing that is the real contribution that tech is going to make — with one of those principles being use as little tech as you can.”
Terraformation is building software tools too — such as a mobile app to help with cataloguing and monitoring seeds. But the really critical technologies involved, solar and desalination, are very much at the ‘tried and tested’ end of the tech scale (“very, very reliable and refined”.).
Wong points out that a key development for solar and desalination is related to the unit economics — with falling costs allowing for scalability and thus speed.
Asked whether Terraformation is a business in the typical startup sense, Wong says it’s been set up in a familiar way — as a Delaware C Corp — but purely because he says that’s just the quickest way to be able to operate. Doing stuff as a non-profit would be way too slow, he says, describing it thusly as a “non non-profit” (rather than a business with a for-profit mission).
Aka: “It’s a corporate with investors but primarily the aim is to solve climate change.”
Startup investors are of course often betting their money on the chance of a quick and meaty return. But not here, confirms Wong. “When we raised funding all of our investors invested primarily because they wanted to see climate change solved,” he tells TechCrunch. “To many of them this was the first time that a plausible, full-scale solution to solving climate change had been presented.
“It’s still very, very hard. It’s very, very large. It’s really daunting. But it’s the first time someone has mapped out a path that could actually get us there. And so all of our investors invested because they want to see that happen.”
So how will a ‘non non-profit’ startup (even with $30M just banked) get its hands on enough land to plant enough trees? A variety of ways, per Wong. (Perhaps even, in some instances, landowners could end up paying it to turn their dirt into beautiful woodland.)
“The short answer is anywhere we can!” he adds. “The solution is structured to give us maximum flexibility, given that we can use a large variety of land. We don’t want to count on any particular land owning entity — and I use that very broad term to mean like people, communities, governments, municipalities — we don’t want to rely on any one particular land-owning entity wanting to work with us or allowing us to reforest the land, because you can’t guarantee that.”
He also notes that Terraformation’s plan to fix climate change is based on “worse case scenarios” — where “no one who owns any land that gets enough natural rainfall for forest restoration will allow it to reforest it”. “We use the least valuable land — basically desertified, degraded land,” he adds. “Is there enough of that? And it turns out there is.”
Even though personal financial upside clearly isn’t front of mind for Terraformation’s investors, Wong still believes there’s plenty of ‘value’ to be unlocked as a byproduct of spreading leafy-green goodness all over the planet vs funding more extractive exploitation.
“It turns out that solving climate change is actually a huge value creating act,” he argues. “My experience in Silicon Valley is if you have people who believe in you and believe in the thing that you’re creating is ultimately value-creating then it’s actually also wealth creating. If you do something that is fundamentally very, very valuable and you’re right next to it, you will be able to monetize it in some way. You will capture some of that value for your shareholders. So it’s a bet that if you really can solve climate change, that’s super valuable, both for the world and to the entity that’s [investing].”
Of course climate change is more than just a problem; it’s an existential threat to all life on Earth — one which affect humans and every other living creature and thing on the planet.
Given such terminal stakes, reversing climate change should be the highest global priority. Instead, humans have procrastinated — putting dealing with rises in atmospheric CO2 on the back-burner and worse (cutting down existing forests like the Amazon Rainforest, for one).
Set against that backdrop, Terraformation’s answer to humanity’s greatest crisis looks compellingly simple. Its bet is that climate change can be fixed by scaling the most proven technology possible (trees) to capture carbon emissions. Who can argue with that?
But it does also seem clear that reforesting will need to go hand in hand with a mainstreaming of conservation, as a prevailing societal attitude, if the mission is to be pulled off — otherwise all these beautiful baby trees could just meet the same sad fate as all the Earth’s already lost forests.
Nonetheless, conservation is something Wong’s team is deliberately not focusing on.
Not because they don’t care. Rather their hope is that by building the baby forests, the protective partners will come — to watch over and get value from the trees as they grow.
“I don’t want to make it seem like we don’t care about [forestry conservation] but one of the things that I try to do is figure out where people are already doing work and things are already moving in the right direction — and then go work on the thing that other people are not working on,” he says when we ask about this. “When I talk to people in the forestry world many, many people are working on avoiding deforestation, helping solve the broader socioeconomic issues that result in deforestation. And so I feel like there is momentum moving in that direction — so we have to work on this other issue that other people aren’t working on.”
Wong also argues that forests are naturally more valuable than the denuded waste/scrub ground they’re replanting — implying that pure economic interest should help these baby forests survive and thrive far into the future.
However the history of humanity shows that unequal wealth distribution can wreak all sorts of havoc on a resource-rich natural environment. And people who live in poverty may well be disproportionately more likely to like in a rural location, on or near land that Terraformation hopes to target for replanting. So if these forests can’t provide — in crude terms — ‘value’ for their local communities the risk is the same cycle of short-term economic harm will rip all this hard work (and hope) out of the ground once again.
Wealth inequality lies at the core of much of humanity’s counterproductive destruction of the environment. So, seen from that angle, reforesting the planet may require just as much effort toward tackling — root and branch — the wider socioeconomic fault-lines of our world, as it will washing, sorting and storing seed, watering seedlings and nurturing and planting saplings.
And that further dials up an already massive climate challenge. But, again, Wong is quietly hopeful.
“People aren’t cutting down trees because they’re evil, they’re cutting down trees because they need to make a living. So we have to provide them with ways to make a living that is more valuable than cutting down the trees. I think that recognition is moving in the correct direction — so I’m hopeful there,” he says.
Asked what keeps him up at night, he also has a straightforward answer to hand — one we’ve heard many times already from a new generation of climate campaigners, like Greta Thunberg, whose futures will be irrevocably stamped by the effects of climate change: Humanity simply isn’t moving fast enough.
“In order to do this we have to make order of magnitude improvements in both speed and scale — which is technically a thing that we know how to do but is among the most daunting things that you ever try to undertake. So… are we moving fast enough? Are we doing enough? Because time is running out,” warns Wong.
“The timeframe that we have left is very small when compared to the planetary scale of the problem. And so I think the only way that we’re going to get there is with proven solutions, moving, growing at exponential speed.”
“I am [hopeful],” he adds. “I’m a big fan of humans working together. People can really do it. I’m very I guess what you’d call pro-human. We have a lot of flaws, we fight amongst ourselves a lot, but I really think that when people work together they can really do amazing, amazing things… Trees gave us life and so now it’s our time to repay that debt.”
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.
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German drone technology startup Wingcopter has raised a $22 million Series A – its first significant venture capital raise after mostly bootstrapping. The company, which focuses on drone delivery, has come a long way since its founding in 2017, having developed, built and flown its Wingcopter 178 heavy-lift cargo delivery drone using its proprietary and patented tilt-rotor propellant mechanism, which combines all the benefits of vertical take-off and landing with the advantages of fixed-wing aircraft for longer distance horizontal flight.
This new Series A round was led by Silicon Valley VC Xplorer Capital, as well as German growth fund Futury Regio Growth. Wingcopter CEO and founder Tom Plümmer explained to the in an interview that the addition of an SV-based investor is particularly important to the startup, since it’s in the process of preparing its entry into the U.S., with plans for an American facility, both for flight testing to satisfy FAA requirements for operational certification, as well as eventually for U.S.-based drone production.
Wingcopter has already been operating commercially in a few different markets globally, including in Vanuatu in partnership with Unicef for vaccine delivery to remote areas, in Tanzania for two-way medical supply delivery working with Tanzania, and in Ireland where it completed the world’s first delivery of insulin by drone beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS, the industry’s technical term for when a drone flies beyond the visual range of a human operator who has the ability to take control in case of emergencies).
While Wingcopter has so far pursued a business as an OEM manufacturer of drones, and has had paying customers eager to purchase its hardware effectively since day one (Plümmer told me that they had at least one customer wiring them money before they even had a bank account set up for the business), but it’s also now getting into the business of offering drone delivery-as-a-service. After doing the hard work of building its technology from the ground up, and seeking out the necessary regulatory approvals to operate in multiple markets around the world, Plümmer says that he and his co-founders realized that operating a service business not only meant a new source of revenue, but also better-served the needs of many of its potential customers.
“We learned during this process, through applying for permission, receiving these permissions and working now in five continents in multiple countries, flying BVLOS, that actually operating drones is something we are now very good at,” he said. This was actually becoming a really good source of income, and ended up actually making up more than half of our revenue at some point. Also looking at scalability of the business model of being an OEM, it’s kind of […] linear.”
Linear growth with solid revenue and steady demand was fine for Wingcopter as a bootstrapped startup founded by university students supported by a small initial investment from family and friends. But Plümmer says the company say so much potential in the technology it had developed, and the emerging drone delivery market, that the exponential growth curve of its drone delivery-as-a-service model helped make traditional VC backing make sense. In the early days, Plümmer says Wingcopter had been approached by VCs, but at the time it didn’t make sense for what they were trying to do; that’s changed.
“We were really lucky to bootstrap over the last four years,” Plümmer said. “Basically, just by selling drones and creating revenue, we could employ our first 30 employees. But at some point, you realize you want to really plan with that revenue, so you want to have monthly revenues, which generally repeat like a software business – like software as a service.”
Wingcopter has also established a useful hedge regarding its service business, not only by being its own hardware supplier, but also by having worked closely with many global flight regulators on their regulatory process through the early days of commercial drone flights. They’re working with the FAA on its certification process now, for instance, with Plümmer saying that they participate in weekly calls with the regulator on its upcoming certification process for BVLOS drone operators. Understanding the regulatory environment, and even helping architect it, is a major selling point for partners who don’t want to have to build out that kind of expertise and regulatory team in-house.
Meanwhile, the company will continue to act as an OEM as well, selling not only its Wingcopter 178 heavy-lift model, which can fly up to 75 miles, at speeds of up to 100 mph, and that can carry payloads up to around 13 lbs. Because of its unique tilt-rotor mechanism, it’s not only more efficient in flight, but it can also fly in much windier conditions – and take-off and land in harsher conditions than most drones, too.
Plümmer tells me that Wingcopter doesn’t intend to rest on its laurels in the hardware department, either; it’s going to be introducing a new model of drone soon, with different capabilities that expand the company’s addressable market, both as an OEM and in its drones-as-a-service business.
With its U.S. expansion, Wingcopter will still look to focus specifically on the delivery market, but Plümmer points out that there’s no reason its unique technology couldn’t also work well to serve markets including observation and inspection, or to address needs in the communication space as well. The one market that Wingcopter doesn’t intend to pursue, however, is military and defense. While these are popular customers in the aerospace and drone industries, Plümmer says that Wingcopter has a mission “to create sustainable and efficient drone solutions for improving and saving lives,” and says the startup looks at every potential customer and ensures that it aligns with its vision – which defense customers do not.
While the company has just announced the close of its Series A round, Plümmer says they’re already in talks with some potential investors to join a Series B. It’s also going to be looking for U.S. based talent in embedded systems software and flight operations testing, to help with the testing process required its certification by the FAA.
Plümmer sees a long tail of value to be built from Wingcopter’s patented tilt-rotor design, with potential applications in a range of industries, and he says that Wingcopter won’t be looking around for any potential via M&A until it has fully realized that value. Meanwhile, the company is also starting to sow the seeds of its own potential future customers, with training programs in drone flights and operations it’s putting on in partnership with UNICEF’s African Drone and Data Academy. Wingcopter clearly envisions a bright future for drone delivery, and its work in focusing its efforts on building differentiating hardware, plus the role it’s playing in setting the regulatory agenda globally, could help position it at the center of that future.
Few foreigners welcomed President Biden’s election victory as enthusiastically as the tens of thousands of Muslims who have been locked out of the United States for the past four years.
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.
African cross-border fintech startup Chipper Cash has raised a $30 million Series B funding round led by Ribbit Capital with participation of Bezos Expeditions — the personal VC fund of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.
Chipper Cash was founded in San Francisco in 2018 by Ugandan Ham Serunjogi and Ghanaian Maijid Moujaled. The company offers mobile-based, no fee, P2P payment services in seven countries: Ghana, Uganda, Nigeria, Tanzania, Rwanda, South Africa and Kenya.
Parallel to its P2P app, the startup also runs Chipper Checkout — a merchant-focused, fee-based payment product that generates the revenue to support Chipper Cash’s free mobile-money business. The company has scaled to 3 million users on its platform and processes an average of 80,000 transactions daily. In June 2020, Chipper Cash reached a monthly payments value of $100 million, according to CEO Ham Serunjogi .
As part of the Series B raise, the startup plans to expand its products and geographic scope. On the product side, that entails offering more business payment solutions, crypto-currency trading options, and investment services.
“We’ll always be a P2P financial transfer platform at our core. But we’ve had demand from our users to offer other value services…like purchasing cryptocurrency assets and making investments in stocks,” Serunjogi told TechCrunch on a call.
Chipper Cash has added beta dropdowns on its website and app to buy and sell Bitcoin and invest in U.S. stocks from Africa — the latter through a partnership with U.S. financial services company DriveWealth.
“We’ll launch [the stock product] in Nigeria first so Nigerians have the option to buy fractional stocks — Tesla shares, Apple shares or Amazon shares and others — through our app. We’ll expand into other countries thereafter,” said Serunjogi.
On the business financial services side, the startup plans to offer more API payments solutions. “We’ve been getting a lot of requests from people on our P2P platform, who also have business enterprises, to be able to collect payments for sale of goods,” explained Serunjogi.
Chipper Cash also plans to use its Series B financing for additional country expansion, which the company will announce by the end of 2021.
Jeff Bezos’s backing of Chipper Cash follows a recent string of events that has elevated the visibility of Africa’s startup scene. Over the past decade, the continent’s tech ecosystem has been one of the fastest growing in the world by year year-over-year expansion in venture capital and startup formation, concentrated in countries such as Nigeria, Kenya, and South Africa.
Bringing Africa’s large unbanked population and underbanked consumers and SMEs online has factored prominently. Roughly 66% of Sub-Saharan Africa’s 1 billion people don’t have a bank account, according to World Bank data.
As such, fintech has become Africa’s highest-funded tech sector, receiving the bulk of an estimated $2 billion in VC that went to startups in 2019. Even with the rapid venture funding growth over the last decade, Africa’s tech scene had been performance light, with only one known unicorn (e-commerce venture Jumia) a handful of exits, and no major public share offerings. That changed last year.
In April 2019, Jumia — backed by investors including Goldman Sachs and Mastercard — went public in an NYSE IPO. Later in the year, Nigerian fintech company Interswitch achieved unicorn status after a $200 million investment by Visa.
One of the more significant liquidity events in African tech occurred last month, when Stripe acquired Nigerian payment gateway startup Paystack for a reported $200 million.
In an email to TechCrunch, a spokesperson for Bezos Expeditions confirmed the fund’s investment in Chipper Cash, but declined to comment on further plans to back African startups. Per Crunchbase data, the investment would be the first in Africa for the fund. It’s worth noting Bezos Expeditions is not connected to Jeff Bezo’s hallmark business venture, Amazon.
For Chipper Cash, the $30 million Series B raise caps an event-filled two years for the San Francisco-based payments company and founders Ham Serunjogi and Maijid Moujaled. The two came to America for academics, met in Iowa while studying at Grinnell College and ventured out to Silicon Valley for stints in big tech: Facebook for Serunjogi and Flickr and Yahoo! for Moujaled.
The startup call beckoned and after launching Chipper Cash in 2018, the duo convinced 500 Startups and Liquid 2 Ventures — co-founded by American football legend Joe Montana — to back their company with seed funds. The startup expanded into Nigeria and Southern Africa in 2019, entered a payments partnership with Visa in April and raised a $13.8 million Series A in June.
Chipper Cash founder Ham Serunjogi believes the backing of his company by a notable tech figure, such as Jeff Bezos (the world’s richest person), has benefits beyond his venture.
“It’s a big deal when a world class investor like Bezos or Ribbit goes out of their sweet spot to a new area where they previously haven’t done investments,” he said. “Ultimately, the winner of those things happening is the African tech ecosystem overall, as it will bring more investment from firms of that caliber to African startups.”
After a poll marred by accusations of widespread fraud and irregularities, one opposition leader warned that the nation could become a “one-party system.”
The Tanzanian president is nicknamed “the Bulldozer,” and he has brooked little dissent as he seeks a second term.
President Trump said on Monday that the U.S. plans to lift Sudan’s 27-year designation as a state sponsor of terrorism, enabling Sudan to access international financial networks.
Strong winds and dry weather have hampered efforts to extinguish the spreading blaze on Africa’s highest peak.
Presidential elections are scheduled soon in at least 10 African countries. Many incumbents are changing constitutions and bending rules to ensure they stay in power.
During these lean times for tourism, travel companies are appealing to residents with special rates. But locals ask: Why didn’t you reach out before?
Poor regions where internet access is scarce are turning to an older technology to reach students. That strategy could also help in wealthy countries that have focused on online classes.
For Americans eager to resume international travel, here are the countries that currently allow U.S. citizens to enter, though there may be restrictions.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
The arrangement will allow riders to top up Uber wallets using the dozens of remittance partners active on Flutterwave’s Pan-African network.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In a unanimous ruling, the court said a 2008 law allowing punitive damages applied retroactively to 1998 bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.
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