Despite pledges for debt relief and expanded programs, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund have delivered meager aid, say economists.
The country debates women’s honor inexhaustibly but pays little attention to the ferocious and imminent dangers of climate disasters.
The Nigerian founder didn’t offer much new on the Lagos-based firm’s expected IPO, but he did reveal Interswitch will revive investments in African startups.
Founded by Elegbe in 2002, Interswitch pioneered the infrastructure to digitize Nigeria’s then predominantly cash-based economy. The company now provides much of the rails for Nigeria’s online banking system that serves Africa’s largest economy and population of 200 million people. Interswitch has expanded to offer personal and business payment products in 23 Africa countries.
The fintech firm achieved unicorn status in 2019 after a $200 million equity investment by Visa gave it a $1 billion valuation.
Reviving venture investing
But Interswitch will soon be back in the business of making startup bets and acquisitions, according to Elegbe. “We’ve just certified a team and the plan is to begin to make those kinds of investments again.”
He offered a glimpse into the new fund’s focus. “This time around we want to make financial investments and also leverage the network that Interswitch has and put that at the disposal of these companies,” Elegbe told TechCrunch.
“We’ll be very selective in the companies we invest in. They should be companies that Interswitch clearly as an entity can add value to. They should be companies that help accelerate growth by the virtue of what we do and the customers that we have,” he said.
Recent venture events in African tech have likely pressed Interswitch to get back in the investing arena. As an ecosystem, VC on the continent has increased (roughly) by a factor of four over last five years, to around $2 billion in 2019. But most of that has come from single-entity investment funds, while corporate venture funding (and tech M&A activity) has remained light. That’s shifted over the last several months and the entire uptick has occurred in African fintech around entities that could be viewed as Interswitch competitors.
In July, Dubai’s Network International acquired Kenya -based payment mobile payment processing company DPO for $288 million. Shortly after the acquisition, DPO’s CEO Eran Feinstein said the company would pursue more African acquisitions on its own. In June, another mobile-money payment processor, MFS Africa, acquired digital finance company Beyonic. And in August, South Africa’s Standard Bank—Africa’s largest by assets and lending—acquired a stake in fintech security firm TradeSafe.
Since the rise of Safaricom’s dominant M-Pesa mobile money product in Kenya, fintech in Africa has become infinitely larger and more competitive. The sector has hundreds of startups and now receives nearly 50% of all VC investment on the continent.
The opportunity investors and founders are chasing is bringing Africa’s large unbanked population and underbanked consumers and SMEs online. Roughly 66% of Sub-Saharan Africa’s 1 billion people don’t have a bank account, according to World Bank data, and mobile-based finance platforms have presented the best use-cases to shift that across the region.
Interswitch has established itself as a leader in the Africa’s digital finance race. But it’s hard to envision how it can maintain or extend that role without an active venture arm that invests in and acquires innovative, young fintech startups.
No news on IPO
Elegbe had less to offer on Interswitch’s long-anticipated IPO. Asked if the company still planned to list publicly, he offered up a non-answer answer. “At this point in time we’re focused on growing the business and creating value for our customers and that is the our primary focus.”
When pressed “yes or no” on whether an IPO was still a possibility Elegbe confirmed it was. “We have private equity investors and at some point in the life of the business they want exits.” he said. “When it is time for them to exit there are various options on the table and an IPO is an option.”
There’s been talk of an Interswitch IPO for years. In 2016, Elegbe told TechCrunch a dual-listing on the Lagos and London Stock Exchanges was possible. Then word came through other Interswitch channels that it was delayed due to recession and currency volatility in Nigeria in 2017. In November 2019, a source with knowledge of the situation told TechCrunch on background, “an IPO is still very much in the cards; likely sometime in the first half of 2020.” Then came the Covid-19 crisis and the accompanying global economic slump, which may have delayed Interswitch’s IPO plans yet again.
If and when the company goes public, it would be a major event for Nigerian and African fintech. No VC backed fintech firm on the continent has listed globally. Exits for Interswitch’s investors would likely attract to Nigeria and broader Africa more VC from major funds—many of whom remain on the fence about startup opportunities on the continent.
Focus on Africa
On global product expansion, Interswitch plans to maintain an African focus for now, Elegbe explained. “There are enough opportunities for Interswitch on the continent. We’d like to be in as many African countries as possible…and position Interswitch as the (financial) gateway to the continent,” he said.
Elegbe explained the company would continue to work through alliances with major financial services firms to open up global financial access for its African client base. In August 2019, Interswitch launched a partnership that allows its Verve cardholders to make payments on Discover’s global network.
CEO Mitchell Elegbe concluded his Disrupt session with some perspective on balancing the stigmas and possibilities of doing business in Nigeria. Over recent years the country has shifted to become an unofficial hub for big tech expansion, VC investment, and startup formation in Africa. But Nigeria continues to have a difficult operating environment with regard to infrastructure and is often associated with political corruption and instability in its Northeast region due to the Boko Haram insurgency.
“Nigeria has a very large population and a very large market. We have lots of challenges that need to be solved, but it makes sense to me that lots of money is finding its way to Nigeria because the opportunity is there,” he said.
Elegbe’s advice to tech investors considering the country, “Don’t take a short-termist view. There are good people on the ground doing fantastic work—honest people who want to make impact. You need to seek those people out.”
The CEO of Pan-African fintech unicorn, Mitchell Elegbe, is set to speak at TechCrunch Disrupt 2020 on September 16. He founded the company in Lagos in 2002 to connect Nigeria’s — then — largely disconnected banking system.
Over the next decade plus, Interswitch accelerated the adoption of digital payments across Africa and now stands as one of the continent’s rare fintech unicorns. The company is poised to list on a global exchange, which would also create Africa’s next big tech IPO.
At Disrupt 2020, TechCrunch will seek Elegbe’s perspective on the continent’s fintech scene, Interswitch’s venture plans, and the economic impact of Covid-19 on African startups. This year’s event is 100% virtual, making it possible for anyone with an internet connection to sign in and learn more about Elegbe’s company and digital innovation in Africa.
If you’re a VC or founder in London, Bangalore or San Francisco, you’ll likely interact with some part of Africa’s tech landscape for the first time — or more — in the near future. When measured by monetary values, the continent’s tech ecosystem is small by Shenzhen or Silicon Valley standards.
But when you look at year-over-year expansion in venture capital, startup formation and tech hubs, it’s one of the fastest-growing tech markets in the world.
Bringing the continent’s large unbanked population and underbanked consumers and SMEs online has factored prominently. Roughly 66% of Sub-Saharan Africa’s 1 billion people don’t have a bank account, according to World Bank data.
As such, fintech has become Africa’s highest funded tech sector, receiving the bulk of an estimated $2 billion in VC that went to startups in 2019.
Interswitch became a pioneer of building the infrastructure to digitize finance on the continent. The company pre-dates the rise of mobile money in Kenya through Safaricom’s M-Pesa product, which is one of Africa’s most recognized fintech use-cases.
Interswitch’s path from startup to unicorn traces back to the vision of CEO Mitchell Elegbe, who was a Nigerian electrical engineering graduate before founding the firm in 2002. The company has since produced a run of product innovation and expansion, starting in Nigeria. Interswitch created the first electronic switch whereby Nigerian financial institutions could communicate and operate ATMs and point of sales operations. The company now provides much of the rails for Nigeria’s online banking system.
Interswitch has since moved into high-volume personal and business finance, with its Verve payment cards and Quickteller payment app. The fintech firm (now well beyond startup phase) has also shaped a Pan-African and global reach — selling its products in 23 African countries with a physical presence in Uganda, Gambia and Kenya . In August 2019, Interswitch launched a partnership that allows its Verve cardholders to make payments on Discover’s global network.
Interswitch also launched a venture arm in 2015 called its global ePayment Growth Fund. Another milestone came in November 2019 when Interswitch achieved a $1 billion unicorn valuation after Visa took a reported $200 million minority stake in the company. Other Interswitch backers include IFC and Helios Investment Partners.
The company’s Nigerian origins and operations have become more significant as Nigeria is now Africa’s most populous nation and largest economy. The West African country has become the continent’s unofficial tech hub and fintech capital. Nigerian startups now raise the majority of Africa’s annual VC haul, according to a study by Partech.
Heading into 2020, the momentum was there and the pieces were falling in place for Interswitch to mark that next big achievement — an IPO. Where that listing stands for the firm, particularly in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis, is one of many topics TechCrunch is excited to discuss with CEO Mitchell Elegbe at Disrupt 2020.
The event runs from September 14 through September 18 and (as mentioned) is 100% virtual this year, making it possible for anyone from London to Lagos to sign in. Get your front row seat to see Mitchell Elegbe live with a Disrupt Digital Pro Pass or a Digital Startup Alley Exhibitor Package. We’re excited to see you there.
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The vow to accelerate help, made during a video call with other heads of state, comes amid furious demonstrations in Beirut against the Lebanese government.
“You know we don’t drive down that road,” my father said.
I had asked him why we never took the shortest path to the beach. Just eight years old, I was fascinated by maps and was questioning my father’s choice. Years later I would learn the route I suggested was mired with armed groups of all stripes whose interests didn’t align with mine or that of other Colombian families.
You may be familiar with the conflicts that plagued Colombia for decades, but you might not be aware of the progress institutions, advocacy groups and its government have made with regard to building a future where citizens have options and mobility that’s not constrained by armed conflict.
In fact, Colombia has at times improved its “ease of doing business” ranking as measured by the World Bank. The country, its institutions and its leaders have a longer way to go when it comes to ensuring that opportunity reaches all corners of the country, particularly at a time that COVID-19 magnifies the inequities that persist. But one thing is for sure, the path to prosperity would look a lot better if Colombia further embraced innovation.
I have dedicated the last decade to Colombia’s path to prosperity. I have done so by studying at Colombia’s most prestigious Universidad de Los Andes, raising more than $10 million in venture capital and building two companies that generate direct and indirect earnings for more than 70,000 Colombians. I have directly retained hundreds of computer engineers by showing young Colombians that it’s possible to earn a good living without emigrating for professional opportunities. Heck, I’ve even convinced a few past emigrants to return to Colombia and work for me at Picap.
My contribution to Colombia’s prosperity and the contribution of thousands of talented engineers that build technology in Colombia is at risk. It’s at risk because the Colombian authorities and the legislative branch have been slow to update transportation and technology regulation designed for an era when regulation could last decades because the pace of societal innovation was measured in, well, decades.
In Colombia, we need to update regulations governing technology and transportation. The ever present threats that Colombian authorities and regulators have imposed on Uber and Picap are not only futile attempts to put the technology genie back into the bottle, but also delay the critical conversations that would build long-term partnership for mutual success.
It’s urgent that Colombia and countries around the globe construct regulatory frameworks that simultaneously advance the public good and technology innovation. We, in fact, have evidence of the kinds of benefits that can expand when new mobility models and technologies are embraced. Take GoJek or Grab which started, like Picap, as two-wheel ride-hailing platforms. Each is now worth billions and facilitates commerce, financial services and more, all for the benefit of societies which then produce more consumer surplus, formalize economic activity and stimulate new forms of innovation. Picap, and others, can do this in Colombia and more places across Latin America with regulatory advancements.
There are congressional leaders in Colombia who have made considerable efforts to advance their understanding of technology platforms, but their efforts, however laudable, have not advanced. Now, more than ever, Colombia’s leaders must, for example, recognize that private transport services need regulation that works for the citizens that power new mobility options. Every country in the globe faces a reckoning based on how easily COVID-19 weakened state-supported and independent systems of health, mobility and economic activity. Technology will be an inevitable component of strengthening health, mobility and economic activity in every country. We’ve already seen that delivery platforms, including Pibox by Picap, increasingly play a role in helping countries preserve social distancing. And yet there’s an opportunity for states to differentiate and think about not just defensive strategies during the pandemic, but also how to remake themselves for the future.
Colombia can learn from the example of South Korea, which for years positioned itself to fulfill the world’s future demands for the types of silicon chips that subsequently made LG and Samsung household names. South Korea did this not by impeding technological advancement, but by facilitating the development of know-how, investing in education and partnering with technology. As technologists, there’s nothing that would make us prouder than helping Colombia develop the kinds of economic activity that will strengthen the country in the long-term. I’ve seen the future, I practice it daily, and I know that Latin America, and Colombia in particular, need to invest in retaining tech talent and advancing regulatory frameworks that attract technology investment, or our economies will struggle even further in the coming years of potential recovery from COVID-19.
Recently, the Alianza IN, a mobility platform trade group, launched in Colombia with the goal of advancing conversations with Colombian lawmakers and regulators on the principles that the Colombian MinTIC (Ministry of Information Technologies and Communications) could incorporate to help attract more investment, retain talent and proactively prepare for a future in which mobility and technology platforms are critical partners of the country’s economic future. Technology platforms are already a part of the present, and the Alianza IN’s actions are a great step on the path toward ensuring that updated regulatory frameworks serve the millions of Colombian citizens who depend on mobility and technology platforms for income, mobility and improved quality of life.
Last year, Colombian technology companies received more than $1.2 billion of investment capital. I am impressed with the new headlines my generation and Colombian colleagues across technology have achieved in only 20 years. But I can assure you that Colombia’s headlines in the 21st century will be stunted if Colombian politicians and authorities do not address the underlying need to improve regulation that embraces technology and new mobility, including Picap. We have room to grow and show the world how our tenacity and resilience will help address not just Colombian or Latin American challenges, but global challenges.
I look forward to soon meeting the young Colombian woman who in 20 or even three years will have developed a renewable energy or disease-prevention innovation that serves billions of people. We have to remove roadblocks. We’ve begun doing so across Colombia on some fronts; we need to continue to do so on the technology front. I, alongside, my generation, will continue to attract the capital, retain the talent and further develop the competitive advantages that will position Colombia to lead in the 21st century.
I hope that the Colombian government, regulators and the Duque administration does this, as well.
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As the fallout from COVID-19 continues to grip Africa’s major economies, the tech ventures in those countries need state support.
National legislation that creates clear frameworks and operational support for startups are one of the best ways to help Africa’s digital companies survive and thrive through the coronavirus crisis — and improve their environment over the long term.
Africa has dozens of thriving startup ecosystems that are persevering through this crisis, but now more than ever, they need a boost. The gains made by founders thus far are in danger due to the ongoing economic slowdown. The World Bank estimates that economic growth in sub-Saharan Africa alone will decline from 2.4% last year to -2.1 to -5.1% this year. If correct, the region will experience its first recession in a quarter of a century.
Now is the time for something that was already long-overdue in many African countries: political leaders should support startups through national startup acts.
Last December, Senegal became the second African nation to enact a national Startup Act, following Tunisia’s landmark bill that passed in April 2018. Other countries may follow soon: startup legislation was being discussed in Ghana and Mali before the novel coronavirus monopolized headlines.
The rest of the continent can learn a lot from Tunisia, which passed its Startup Act in 2018 after receiving input from entrepreneurs and economists. In addition to clarifying rules surrounding angel, seed and venture capital funding, the act bestows benefits on companies designated as startups. This includes alleviating their tax and social security contribution burdens, providing access to forex bank accounts and offering subsidized salaries for founders. More than 50 startups have taken advantage of the “startup” label. A number of Tunisian entrepreneurs have told me that thanks to the new legislation, they are able reinvest savings from these incentives back into their businesses.
Experts say that for the first time since 1998, global poverty will increase. At least a half a billion people could slip into destitution by the end of the year.
More suffering is ahead for the developing world.
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