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Cash is the predominant method of sending and receiving payments in the Middle East. If you owe someone a cup of coffee or a trip over a long period, repaying via cash is your best bet. This is one problem out of many financial issues that haven’t been addressed in the region.
The good news is that startups are springing up to provide solutions. Last month Telda, a now two-month-old startup in Egypt, raised an impressive sum as pre-seed to offer digital banking services. Today, Ziina, another startup based in Dubai, has closed $7.5 million in seed funding to scale its peer-to-peer (P2P) payment service across the Middle East and North Africa.
Ziina has managed to enlist top global investors and fintech founders in the round. Avenir Growth and Class 5 Global led this latest tranche of financing. Wamda Capital, FJ Labs, Graph Ventures, Goodwater Capital, Jabbar Internet Group, Oman Technology Fund’s Jasoor Ventures, and ANIM also participated.
The founders who took part include Checkout CEO Guillaume Pousaz via his investment fund Zinal Growth; Krishnan Menon, BukuKas CEO, as well as executives from Paypal and Venmo. This adds to a roster of executives and early employees from Revolut, Stripe, Brex, Notion, and Deel that joined Ziina’s round.
According to the company, it has raised over $8.6 million since launching last year. This includes the $850,000 pre-seed raised in May 2020 and $125,000 secured after going through Y Combinator’s Winter batch early this year.
Ziina was founded by Faisal Toukan, Sarah Toukan, and Andrew Gold. It’s the latest addition to the Middle East’s bubbling fintech ecosystem and is capitalising on the region’s rapid adoption of fintech friendly regulation.
The company allows users to send and receive payments with just a phone number —no IBAN or swift code required as is the de facto method in the UAE and some parts of the Middle East. It also claims to be the country’s first licensed social peer-to-peer application “on a mission to simplify finance for everyone.”
After meeting during a hackathon in the U.S., Faisal and Gold began exchanging ideas on how to build wallets, wanting to mirror the successes platforms like WePay, Paytm have had. At the time, VCs seemed to be interested in how the wallets ecosystem intersected with banking.
“The lines between wallets and banking have become really blurred. Every wallet has a banking partner, and people who use wallets use them for their day-to-day needs,” CEO Faisal Toukan said to TechCrunch.
On the other hand, Sarah, who is Faisal’s sister, was on her personal fintech journey in London. There, she attended several meetups headlined by the founders of Monzo and Revolut. With her knowledge and the experience of the other two, the founders decided that solving P2P payments issues was their own way of driving massive impact in the Middle East.
So how far have they gone? “We launched a beta for the market but it’s restricted for regulatory reasons and basically to keep ourselves in check with the ecosystem,” Toukan remarked. “Since then, we’ve gotten regulated. We’ve got a banking partner, one of the three largest banks in the UAE, and we’ve set a new wallet a month from now. That’s also what we were working throughout our period in YC. So it’s been quite an eventful year.”
The fintech sector in MENA is growing fast; in terms of numbers, at a CAGR of 30%. Also, in the UAE, it is estimated that over 450 fintech companies will raise about $2 billion in 2022 compared to the $80 million raised in 2017. Fintechs in the region are focused on solving payments, transfers, and remittances. Alongside its P2P offering, these are the areas Ziina wants to play in, including investment and cryptocurrency services.
According to Toukan, there’s no ease of making online investments, and remittances are done in exchange houses, a manual process where people need to visit an office physically. “So what we’re looking to do is to bring all these products to life in the UAE and expand beyond that. But the first pain point we’re solving for is for people to send and receive money with two clicks,” the CEO affirmed.
Starting with P2P has its own advantages. First, peer-to-peer services is a repeat behavioural mechanism that allows companies to establish trust with customers. Also, it’s a cheaper customer acquisition model. Toukan says that as Zinna expands geographically — Saudi Arabia and Jordan in 2022; and Egypt and Tunisia some years from now — as he wants the company’s wallet to become seamless across borders. “We want a situation where if you move into Saudi or Dubai, you’re able to use the same wallet versus using different banking applications,” he added.
To be on the right side of regulation is key to any fintech expansion, and Toukan says Ziina has been in continuous dialogue with regulators to operate efficiently. But some challenges have stemmed from finding the right banking partners. “You need to make a case to the banks that this is basically a mutually beneficial partnership. And the way we’ve done that is by basically highlighting different cases globally like CashApp that worked with Southern Bank,” he said.
Now that the company has moved past that challenge, it’s in full swing to launch. Presently, Ziina has thousands of users who transacted more than $120,000 on the platform this past month. In addition, there are over 20,000 users on its waiting list to be onboarded post-launch.
Ziina has already built a team with experience across tech companies like Apple, Uber, Stanford, Coinbase, Careem, Oracle, and Yandex. It plans to double down on hiring with this new investment and customer acquisition and establishing commercial partnerships.
Investment activities in Egypt continue to gain steam, not for startups only but also the funds backing them. Today, seed accelerator Flat6Labs announced the second close of its Egypt fund to support early-stage startups and provide follow-up investment. The fund had a target for EGP50 million (~$3.2 million) but eventually closed at EGP207 million ($13.2 million).
Launched in 2011, Flat6Labs is a regional seed accelerator with offices in Egypt and Tunisia. The accelerator launched its Cairo programme in 2017 to invest in more than 100 startups across Egypt over the course of five years. Startups that get into the accelerator are provided with office space, legal and marketing help, and access to mentorship and networking, among other perks. They also receive between EGP500,000 and EGP750,000. However, with the close of this round, Flat6Labs has increased the check sizes to EGP1.5 million (~$95,000) and up to EGP3 million (~$191,000) in post-programme follow-on funding for selected startups.
The International Finance Corporation (IFC), the MSME Development Agency, Egypt Ventures, and the Egyptian American Enterprise Fund are the anchor investors in Flat6Labs’ seed fund. Sawari Ventures, which recently closed its $71 million fund, also participated in this second close, and it comes as no surprise because the firm, which is highly affiliated with the accelerator, said it would set aside 10% of its fund for Flat6Labs seed-stage companies when we covered them in April.
“At Sawari Ventures, our fund strategy has always been to allocate a percentage of our fund to the seed stage, which is a completely different proposition in terms of process, culture, and support needed,” Wael Amin, managing Partner at Sawari Ventures, said in a statement. “As investors in Flat6Labs Accelerator Company, we get the opportunity to profitably participate in Egyptian companies at a very early stage, get early indicators on ecosystem trends, and visibility into the ecosystem.”
The second close of Flat6Labs’ fund is the latest of four venture capital funds targeted at Egyptian startups. Shortly after Sawari Ventures’ close, Algebra Ventures announced launching a $90 million second fund. Subsequently, GIZ Egypt launched a €100 million funding programme to provide up to four MENA-based fund managers between €25-30 million and is exclusively targeted at Egypt-based startups.
Flat6Labs is one of the continent’s active and well-known seed-stage accelerators. Just in Egypt alone, it has run seven cycles and invested in 62 startups. The venture capital firm and seed-stage accelerator provides a filter for some early-stage investors to source what companies to back or not. A good portion of startups in Flat6Labs’ portfolio has piqued investors’ interests, and half of them who have gone on to raise more money also received follow-up investment from Flat6Labs totalling EGP145,000,000 (~$9.25 million). Some of the startups in Flat6Labs’ portfolio include Welnes, Glued, CreditGo, and Docspert Health.
Egyptian-based VC firm Sawari Ventures has closed its $71 million fund for North Africa’s rapidly growing startup ecosystem.
The firm first announced its fund in 2018, when it closed an initial $35 million (which subsequently increased to $41 million) in hopes to close at $70 million, per Menabytes. The investors in the first tranche included CDC (which forked over $12 million), European Investment Bank, Proparco and the Dutch Good Growth Fund.
Having closed an additional $30 million, Sawari Ventures’ total raise is $1 million more than its original target. And it has added a range of new backers that includes Banque Misr, Banque du Caire, Ekuity, Misr Insurance Group, National Bank of Egypt and Suez Canal Bank.
Ahmed El Alfi, Hany Al-Sonbaty and Wael Amin launched Sawari Ventures in 2010. Before venturing into the world of venture capital, El Alfi and Al-Sonbaty were investment professionals in the Egyptian tech space for more than two decades. Amin, meanwhile, was a founder of a tech company called ITWorx that made notable acquisitions in the Egyptian tech ecosystem.
In addition to Egypt, Sawari Ventures focuses on Morocco and Tunisia. For the firm, these three countries represent one of the best investment opportunities around given the mismatch between the capital available (amounts and variation at every stage) and the market opportunity. They also share common traits such as language, culture, business, governance norms and market dynamics, making it easier for cross-border cooperation.
Since launching the firm over 10 years ago, Sawari claims to have invested in more than 30 companies, mostly in Egypt. Some of these companies include ride-hailing service SWVL, software startup Instabug, and AI chat-based personal assistant Elves, but its sweet spots are the hardware, education, healthcare, cleantech and fintech sectors.
“We try to cast a wide net given that, in essence, this is a transformative moment in emerging markets tech with the rapid digitization of the underlying economy,” a company spokesperson told TechCrunch. “So as expected, we’re seeing a great deal flow in the digitization of financial services, health care and education technologies. Also, given the engineering talent, there are unique opportunities in SaaS products, semiconductors and IoT.”
Sawari Ventures invests in growth-stage companies, in particular. But it also operates Flat6Labs, a seed VC firm akin to an accelerator that has been used to perform its seed investments since establishing both Cairo and Tunis offices in 2011 and 2016.
Sawari says 10% of the now-closed investments will be earmarked for seed-stage companies as investments through Flat6Labs Cairo and Tunis. Flat6Labs Cairo will seed between 80 to 100 companies and offer follow-on investments to between 30 and 40. Flat6Labs Tunisia will seed 60 to 70 companies and offer follow-on investments for 30 to 40. The remaining 90% will be used to invest in 20 to 25 growth-stage companies across Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco, with a median investment range of $2 million to $3 million.
The investment range is a continuation of how Sawari typically cut checks for portfolio startups since closing the first tranche three years ago. The firm said it has invested between $1 million and $4 million in Elves, Brantu, and ExpandCart, Almentor, SWVL and MoneyFellows, among others.
“The Egypt-based fund is a privately held fund regulated by the Financial Regulatory Authority of Egypt (FRA), which allowed us to attract capital from top-tier local financial institutions to co-invest with foreign capital from international development financial institutions, doubling our allocation to invest in Egyptian high-growth companies to $68 million,” El Alfi said in a statement.
“Our aim is to create exceptional returns through investing in knowledge-driven companies, which have the potential of bringing transformational changes to the Egyptian economy. The fund will support local companies with dedicated capital, in addition to quality expertise from our seasoned and specialized team, and the value-add of our investors.”
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