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The Unicornization of African Fintech


The first quarter of 2021 ended on a great note as two African fintech businesses gained unicorn status, a rare fit amidst a raging global pandemic which is finally being aggressively tackled by the speedy supply of much-needed vaccines. Such is the African story – a trail of surprises in the midst of uncertainty. On 18th March 2021, Airtel Africa announced it had received a $200M investment from TPG’s Rise Fund at a valuation of $2.65B making it the latest African unicorn. Exactly a week before, March 10th, 2021, Flutterwave from Nigeria also announced a $170M investment from Avenir Growth Capital, Tiger Global Management and others at a billion-dollar valuation. In the tech world hitting a billion-dollar valuation is a big deal – you earn the name Unicorn, a mythical animal that represents the statistical rarity of successful ventures coined in 2013 by Aileen Lee of Cowboy Ventures. Most global technology companies strive for unicorn status preferably before they go public. As of March 2021, there are about 614 unicorns globally with a total valuation of $20041B according to CB Insights. Given that the Africa tech ecosystem is maturing we are now seeing the manifestation of this mythical animal which is the subject of this essay to start the second quarter of a defining year.

These developments brought into sharp focus the uniconization of African fintech, ignited the debate whether unicornization abroad is the way to go for African tech ventures or whether according to Marieme Diop of the Dakar Network Angels, the focus should be on Gazelles (i.e. companies valued at $100M with $15M to $50M in revenues listed on the local stock exchanges) to boost the African market and create liquidity at home? There is yet a third animal in the African kingdom introduced by Keet van Zyl of Knife Capital who argues that Zebras are less spotted profitable sustainable businesses that have an impact stripe – they solve really meaningful problems. In my view we are going to have the manifestation of all three and even more as different entrepreneurs and investors pursue different approaches. After all Africa is large enough to accommodate many unicorns, gazelles, zebras, etc. What is important to all businesses is the need to build strong unit economics at the foundation as Reid Hoffman’s blitzscaling is now giving way to Tim O’Reilly argument. More importantly the recent crush of WeWork has everyone going back to the fundamentals – positive unit economics. This is more so apparent in the African context given the dynamics and challenges of operating in our markets, which led to the construct of the zebra and gazelle. Not so long ago the unicorn was a sought-after mythical construct in the African context, which has now been found.

With the addition of Airtel Money and Flutterwave, Africa now has six fintech unicorns making fintech the leading sector in Africa’s digital economy. The other four are Fawry, a local Egyptian payment company that listed on the Egyptian Stock Exchange in 2019, that started as a gazelle and became a unicorn last year at the height of the pandemic. This is a strong case study that highlights a firm’s ability to start as a gazelle (or zebra) and become a unicorn. Unicornization through acquisitions was successfully demonstrated by Vodacom and Safaricom that completed the acquisition of MPESA, which has more than 41.5M customers across Kenya, Tanzania, Lesotho, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana, Mozambique and Egypt processing more than $12B in transactions, from Vodafone last year during the pandemic. Interswitch also gained unicorn status with the $200M investment from Visa that valued the firm at a billion dollars. Finally, there is the debatable “Africa unicorn”, Jumia (an e-Commerce company which could fall in the fintech category) who debuted on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in the second quarter of 2019 but has since been in and out of unicorn status. It is no surprise that the unicornization of the African continent started with fintech enterprises since every economy thrives on payment for goods and services and the innovation in Mobile Money (MoMo) changed the dynamic in Africa significantly. In the past, commercial banks have struggled to introduce electronic payment systems like debit and credit cards, however MoMo from the Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) came from nowhere as a surprise in Kenya. During the 2007/8 election violence in the country, MoMo suddenly became the only efficient means to make payments and MPESA (M for “Mobile” and “PESA” for Money in Swahili), the Safaricom brand took off. It has since been replicated by many MNOs and successful global fintech startups such as Stripe. The global GSMA 2021 MoMo report has Africa leading in growth.

Airtel Africa’s variant is Airtel Mobile Commerce BV (“AMC BV”), a wholly owned subsidiary of Airtel Africa Plc which trades as Airtel Money – the entity into which the TPG Rise Fund invested. Airtel Africa (originally Celtel which was acquired by Zain and then sold to Bharti Airtel of India) brought in Chidi Okpala from United Bank for Africa (UBA) in 2012 to join Airtel as the founding CEO of Airtel Money. Chidi was the right man for the job, having spent twelve years at UBA and Accenture with extensive knowledge and hands-on experience. This was a brave move which panned out well, resulting in a roll out across 17 countries. At the time of Chidi’s departure from Airtel Money in December 2015, he had set the business on the right footing, with 30M customers and $2B in monthly transactions. Today, Airtel Money is a unicorn and according to Chidi “I am delighted with the exceptional foundational work myself and team did back then, and the current phenomenal work being done by the current team.” Chidi has since gone on to launched Asante Financial Services, which he hopes to make a unicorn by 2025. He reckons that his Airtel Money experience prepared him for the Asante journey giving him the first taste of entrepreneurship albeit within a larger corporate.

Olugbenga Agboola (aka “GB”), Co-Founder and CEO of the second unicorn, Flutterwave, had a similar career path. He started as an Applications Engineer at Paypal (under the Paypal Mafia..;-) with a brief stint at Google Wallet Product Management then moved into the banking sector in Nigeria where he held positions with GT Bank, Standard Bank and then at Access Bank as their head of digital factory and innovations. While at Access Bank he saw the fragmentation in payments across Africa and together with his co-founder, Iyinoluwa Aboyeji (aka “E”) who had then exited his first startup, Andela, joined forces to start Flutterwave. It is important to know that while GB had come from a corporate executive background, joining forces with E who came from a pure entrepreneurial background was a perfect fit. E started as the founding CEO and later handed the reigns over to GB in October 2018 who, in turn, has done a great job of taking the company to unicorn status within three years. According to GB “Covid-19 played a big part in our growth because we were able to quickly onboard more customers”. He reckoned that “people who might not have said yes to online payments have now said yes because of the pandemic.” This confirms my earlier claim in a previous essay that the pandemic is speeding up the digitalization of the economy in Africa. Chidi and GB are both corporate executives who turned into entrepreneurs and from my previous essay they come with unique strengths which in the case of Flutterwave combining with E’s straight up entrepreneurial genes may be partly the reason they got to unicorn status faster .

However, in his excellent oped, Dr. Israel Ovirih a Lagos-based investment banker, serial entrepreneur and tech-evangelist outlines the critical ingredients for getting to unicorn status.
1. How big is the problem, or the pain and how serious is it? What are the products, services and derivatives created by the startup to alleviate or eradicate the pain? Are they being properly product-ized? Or service-tized? Is it being done in a creative and innovative manner?
2. The GRIT in the founding team and leadership, which dovetails into measuring their unflinching commitment, smartness and, if you like, the do-or-die optimism which drives the dream and its execution.
3. The amount of traction they have gained and how clear their roadmap is, in the face of the various contradictions in the local legislation or policy.
4. The present financial health of such startups and how healthy they are capable of becoming, considering their Value Proposition and Execution Story to date.
5. Finally, the strength of the market; local, regional, continental and indeed global.

The last point has a strong bearing on whether a company can become a unicorn, gazelle or remain a zebra as the market which some call the “Hand of God” is the ultimate determinant.

African Corporate Executives turn to Tech Entrepreneurship


In the last century, the fashionable and accepted route to success for young Africans was to complete their education and join the corporate world. A few university students aspired to become entrepreneurs; most educational institutions did not offer entrepreneurial programs. With few exceptions, African families used to guide their children to join a leading multi-national or work for a state institution, hoping they would climb the corporate ladder to become CEOs or at least senior management. That was prestigious until the paradigm shifted to tech entrepreneurship with the emergence of the computer, mobile and Internet industry in the latter part of the 20th century. Whilst a lot of African families have built successful entrepreneurial ventures in the past, this essay emphasis the growing move of corporates to tech entrepreneurship.

The likes of Dr. Nii Narku Quaynor who started Network Computer Systems (NCS) in 1988 and played a key role in establishing the Internet in 1994, Ayisi Makatiani who launched AfricaOnline in 1994, Miko Rwayitare who started Telecel in 1986, Strive Masiyiwa, who started Econet in 1993, Mo Ibrahim, who built Celtel in 1994 and sold it for $3.4B in 2005, Irene Charnley who led the expansion of MTN into the rest of Africa and the world, making it a leading global telecom player whose current market capitalization is $4.8B and others deserve credit for breaking the mold and igniting a paradigm shift. Their transition from government and corporate life to building some of these leading African businesses served as a beckon of light to be followed in the 21st century. As mobile and connectivity became pervasive in Africa, a new generation of entrepreneurs – digital natives and digital immigrants — started creating digital innovations. Some of these digital immigrants are African corporate executives who are transitioning to entrepreneurship later in their career. In this two-part essay, I analyze the transitional path of some of these executives-turned-entrepreneurs highlighting their current innovative ventures that are changing the face of Africa. Starting with Ted and Adesuwa.

Ted Koka started his corporate life at CNBC & Forbes Africa as a sales lead in South Africa. He grew into business development and what followed was an exciting journey as the head of content distribution and sponsorship at Viacom International Media Networks. Managing distribution for a portfolio of amazing global brands; including MTV, MTV Base, Comedy Central, BET, Nickelodeon, Nick Jr and Nick Toons gave him the edge he would need to succeed in his next venture. According to Ted “When I felt my time in the corporate world had matured, it was time to venture out to build my vision.” In the last quarter of 2019, Ted took the plunge and launched Epic Contests a social contest platform that designs and aggregates the world’s most amazing experiences to give users the opportunity to win them and create social good. Koka’s move from the traditional corporate world to engaging with social good highlights the global change in corporate ethos. Epic Contests is premised on the fact that there is a cost and accessibility barrier between people and their most coveted bucket list experiences. Their experiences are categorized into Music & Lifestyle, Sports & Fitness, Travel & Adventure as well as Kids and Family – this makes them the “Netflix of experiences”.

In a post COVID-19 world, the $8.2T global tourism market accounting for 10% of global jobs and GDP had to adapt or die. This is where Ted’s corporate experience came in handy. He was able to lead his team to pivot their business by creating a new product called Digital Formats. This vertical positioned them to disrupt the $3.1B TV formats industry. By digitizing the formats ecosystem (X-Factor, Idols, Got Talent, etc.) they created a scalable, digital environment for participants across the world to compete in digital formats that could change their lives forever. It means an aspiring musician, DJ or dancer in Johannesburg, Lagos or Accra can compete head to head against a counterpart in New York, London or Sao Paulo in a contest without being subjected to geographical or production restrictions. This capability provides significant cost savings and flexibility to an industry battling to monetize cost-intensive TV formats. Epic Contests is a new way to engage and reward consumers – their latest World of Wonder experience is the ultimate bucket list giveaway. The opportunity to win a Ferrari California and a trip for two to Milan in a post COVID-19 world.

Having spent the last 12 years in investment banking and private equity at firms such as J.P. Morgan, TLG Capital & Syntaxis Capital Africa, Adesuwa Okunbo Rhodes launched Aruwa Capital Management with her own money in Nigeria in 2019, after leaving the comforts of a six-figure salary. In order to make an impact in society with her skills and track record – her focus is to change the narrative for women and small businesses in Africa. Aruwa Capital is one of the few African women-founded and led growth equity gender lens funds in Africa. Adesuwa had struggled at her previous fund to raise capital from institutional investors haven been on the fundraising trail for four-and-half years as the Managing Partner. She adds, “I wanted to make sure that through launching my own fund, I would be able to provide female entrepreneurs with access to capital where they otherwise traditionally wouldn’t have access due to the structural barriers that exist for any woman raising capital let alone women and people of colour”. Adesuwa also wanted to change the narrative for other female fund managers who may have struggled to raise capital despite their track record. Aruwa as a success story would motivate and inspire them.

Aruwa Capital Management was founded on the conviction that the gender imbalance amongst capital allocators on the continent, provides a unique opportunity to invest in untapped segments of the economy whilst closing gender economic gaps across society whiles generating enhanced returns. When women are empowered as capital allocators, there is a natural trickle down to women entrepreneurs. When women with agency have access to capital, society is the better off for it. Aruwa Capital is currently investing from its inaugural $20M fund, focused on Nigeria and Ghana with a successful first investment in a local manufacturer of personal hygiene goods for women, girls and babies.

I would end this first part with a quote from Adesuwa; “I believe the way to effectively provide women with more seats at the table is for us to create our own tables. More women succeeding as capital allocators means more women getting funded, more mentors, more torch-bearers, more examples to follow. We don’t need more seats, we need more tables!

Scaling Africa’s tech ventures to exit this decade


The last decade was an important experiment in Africa tech ventures moving out of the “labs” and becoming real businesses that saw investors backing them with so much capital that from 2014 to 2019, the total number of VC deals doubled every year until the advent of COVID-19, which disrupted global economic activities in 2020. However, 2020 saw some notable exits including World Remit’s acquisition of Sendwave for $500M, Network International buying DPO for $288M and Stripe taking over Paystack for $200M to enter the African market as Egypt’s Fawry gain unicorn status. The IPO of Fawry the third Africa tech venture reach market capitalization of over $1 billion after Jumia and Interswitch was oversubscribed 30 times. 2020 ended with another notable exit, with two initial shareholders in Ghanaian fintech startup, Zeepay, exiting from an initial investment of about USD24,000 in 2015 for USD940,000 on December 21st, 2020 – a remarkable 3,800% return on investment (ROI) in 5 years. This suggests that the risk profile of emerging tech ventures in Africa may be high but the returns could be outrageously rewarding. Case Study II: the early investors in Nigeria’s IrokoTV who invested $80,000 for 10% stake over 5 years realized an ROI of 3000% after selling the same stake (secondary shares) for $2.4 million. Case Study III: The angels who invested in the seed round of Paystack back in 2016 made ~1,440% ROI. That is 14.4x their money in 5 years.

In their essay “The Chicken or the Exit? Venture Capital Has an Unlikely Progenitor”, Osarumen Osamuyi and Derin Adebayo concluded that the Africa tech industry is at best in the early stages of the “Scaling” phase after a decade of being in the “Experimentation” phase before it gets to the “Liquidity” phase. Osarumen and Derin are both right and wrong – they are right about the staging, but they ignored in their analysis the exists that have happened at the experimentation phase as illustrated in their chart below. Whiles these exits may not be big, and many are far and between each other, they tell us a constructive story of an ecosystem that has outliers or the propensity to produce pockets of excellence despite the considerable financial and environmental challenges. One cannot ignore such exceptionalism in characterizing the ecosystem because they tell a certain aspect of the story that is important in the bigger scheme of things. In this case they tell us that even though the industry is still in experimentation with all its handicaps – it is able to produce outstanding profitable businesses. Those outliers defy the order of natural progression and set the course for others to follow. That course then generated ripples that came due in 2019 and 2020, where we saw some notable exits and unicorns at the end of the experimentation phase even in the midst of COVID-19. In some ways the pandemic catalyzed this development as I noted in one of my essays. One of the positive effects of the pandemic is the growth in digital transactions, for example Nigeria recorded $428 billion of transactions in 2020 – 42% higher than in 2019. On January 8, 2020, Gro Intelligence, a Kenyan digital venture focused on agriculture and climate data distribution globally closed an $85M series B round to scale – the biggest of such round to be raised in Africa to start 2021.

These positive developments beg the question: “What would the Scaling phase look like in African tech, given that it has some differentiated characteristics from others?”. In my view there are three significant developments in Africa over the last ten years that are coming due this decade that could scale up the tech ecosystem towards exists before 2030.

The three mega trends are;
1. Population growth characterized by a demographic dividend.
Africa’s population of 1.3 billion is projected to increase by 50% in the next two decades according to the United Nations. By 2090 Africa would overtake aging and slow-growing Asia in population growth. Africa’s increasingly youthful and tech savvy population, 60% of whom are under 25 years, are adopting development of mobile technology applications to address social problems in their communities – building the current generation of global technology companies. Over the last decade African entrepreneurs have being experimenting with these technologies in the “labs” and some are good enough to attract the investments and grow to become global success stories.

2. Emerging middle class with an appetite for consuming technology.
According to the Africa Development Bank, Africa’s middle class will grow to 1.1 billion and account for 42% of the predicted population. This means Africans living below the poverty line will be in the minority at 33%. The middle class is estimated to be spending between $2.2 and $20 a day. They are known for consuming technology applications and services so as the young entrepreneurs develop the relevant applications to solve their daily challenges, they would have the disposable income to afford these applications and services.

3. The common market launched at the beginning of 2021 as the biggest economic block on the planet.
On the 1st of January 2021, the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) began trading, bringing together 1.3 billion people in a $3.4 trillion market – the most significant development to open the decade after a long delay. As Africa’s population expands at a rapid rate – from a youthful workforce of 617 million in 2014 to 1.6 billion in 2060 – so would the value of the common market, creating massive opportunities for entrepreneurs building the continent’s amazing tech ventures, amidst an increasingly wealthy consumer and middle class.

These three mega trends are going to produce tectonic shifts in Africa this decades and the tech innovation industry is going to be the leading beneficiary. Africa’s tech industry is going to experience multiple exits at the Scaling phase so the Liquidity phase would be happening simultaneously. This is how we are going to be scaling Africa tech ventures to exit this decade.

Africa is already connected NOT by Facebook and Google


In the midst of the pandemic, Facebook (and partners) announced 2Africa a new subsea cable. About the same time last year, Google also announced a subsea cable called Equaino. It looks like they are trying to save Africa, but this is the problem – we have way too much capacity on the beach and not enough inland to connect to the wireless and cellphone networks to drive broadband to the masses. What Africa NEEDS today is terrestrial fiber to drive the existing subsea cable capacity inland to improve the broadband capacity of the wireless and cellphone networks. The diagrams below by Steve Song under the auspices of Many Possibilities gives you a historical account of Africa been connected to the world by subsea cables since 2001 through SAT3 – a consortium of majority Africa owned telecom operators. As per the second diagram Google and Facebook are building the 19th and 20th cables which would be live in Q4 2021 and Q4 2023 respectively. Hence Facebook and Google cannot be connecting Africa to the world in 2020 – at best their two new cables could serve as redundancy to the existing ones as well as provide capacity in the future.

In 2001, SAT3 and all other subsea cables were built through a club consortium which meant if you did not belong to the club you could not play. The club consortiums then set a high price tag for their fiber because they had a monopoly in the markets. In 2004 I started a movement under the auspices of the Ghana Internet Service Providers Association (GISPA) and Africa Internet Service Providers Association (AfrISPA) both of which I co-founded to dismantle these consortiums and monopolies with the intent to drive down the price of connectivity to make broadband more accessible and affordable. Our first victory was in November 2004 when GISPA signed an agreement with Ghana Telecom to reduce the cost of SAT3 by 1/3. GISPA then led the establishment of the Ghana Internet eXchange (GIX) to keep local Internet traffic in Ghana. AfrISPA members followed the GISPA lead and started negotiating for cheaper prices as well as building their local internet exchanges to keep Internet traffic within their countries.

In 2005, Russell Southwood, Anders Comstedt and I wrote “Open Access Models: Options for Improving backbone access in developing countries” for the WorldBank in which we presented an alternative approach to club consortiums and monopolies for the development of fiber networks. I followed this up in 2006 by writing one of two missives that made the case for “Open Access” communications infrastructure in Africa. Come 2007 I got invited by Dr. Bitange Ndemo to join the founding team that launch The East Africa Marine System (TEAMS) based on the open access model we had developed – a first in East Africa with Kenya as the nexus. 2009 saw the arrivals of the TEAMS and SEACOM cables which had Convergence Partners as one of it’s investors led by Andile Ngcaba who also led the launch of Africa’s first Dawn Satellite – by 2013 ten more subsea cables went live. According to Paul Hamilton of African Bandwidth Maps, Africa’s total subsea design capacity at 2018 was 226.461 Tbps with the sold international bandwidth at 10.962 Tbps, including subsea capacity at 10.470 Tbps and terrestrial cross-border capacity to submarine cables at 479 Gbps so the real challenge today is how to increase this terrestrial capacity.

As per the map above we have 18 cables with Google building the 19th and Facebook the 20th so the economic impact of subsea cables which Facebook funded RTI International to undertake should be attributing the impact to the existing cables and not the ones that are not yet in existence. Gillian Marcelle, PhD, Managing Member of Resilience Capital Ventures LLC who has had several decades of facilitating and mobilizing capital for the digital economy has this to say: “tackling connectivity across the continent and mobilizing positive economic and social outcomes must draw on indigenous expertise. The the days for us Africans waiting for a savior are LONG gone.” Based on her extensive investigations of African telecoms and tech industries, she went on to admonish recent efforts that render African knowledge and expertise invisible. She further added that there is considerable global and regional scholarly work that already goes much further than simple correlations between GDP, economic output and investments in connectivity enhancing projects. When asked about her key recommendations, Dr Marcelle offered this view: “Many advocates including those active in the global caucuses and multistskeholder partnerships have established conclusively that it is necessary to understand patterns of inequity and exclusion that arise from bottlenecks and blindspots. What is required now are smart and authentic partnerships that build on the foundation laid to produce tremendous positive outcomes. In Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria, Rwanda and South Africa there are ecosystems with components and actors to make good on this promise.”

What Africa NEEDS today is terrestrial fiber to drive the existing subsea cable capacity inland to improve the broadband capacity of the wireless and cellphone networks. The problem they should be solving is not bandwidth to the beaches, but bandwidth to the Savannahs and jungles. Liquid Telecom which is part of the Econet Group owned by Strive Masiyiwa has been in the forefront of building terrestrial cross-border fiber networks across the continent – they have the most extensive network from Cape Town to Cairo but yet to cover West Africa as per the map below. We need three or four more of such networks to not only increase the capacity but provide competition to drive down the price of cross-border bandwidth. CSquared which counts Google as one of its investors is building metro fibers in Ghana, Liberia, and Uganda. Others like Wannachi Group in Kenya, DFA in South Africa, Smartnet in Zambia, Spectrum Fiber in Ghana, Phase3 Telecom in Nigeria, etc and in some cases the Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) are also building metro and national fiber networks.

We are also seeing the growth of data centers to host the applications being developed by digital innovators that drive consumption of the bandwidth being built. The African Internet eXchange System (AXIS) which was founded by AfrISPA and implemented by the AU is growing the Internet fabric by increasing the routing of local traffic on the continent. In Ghana the Internet Clearing House (ICH) by Afriwave Telecom is created the framework for deploying local value-added services that the government and other institutions can take advantage of – this would drive the growth of local content. As we know “content is king” so as we develop more localized African content that is hosted in the data centers and networks on the continent, we would need less and less international bandwidth. Hence my argument that Africa does not need additional subsea cables but rather more terrestrial fiber to improve the existing capacity whiles driving prices down to offer an amazing broadband experience.

Africa’s Mobile Phone and Population Growth in the 21st Century


On the 1st of October 2020, the Global System Mobile Association (GSMA) released their “Mobile Economy Sub-Saharan Africa” report which forecasted the mobile economy in Africa into 2025. A positive outlook to start the month of October and the last quarter of 2020.

The highlight of this forecast is that by 2025, even with 1.05 billion sim connections and 614 million unique mobile subscribers and smartphone adoption reaching 65% of the total population, only 39% of Africans would be experiencing their mobile web on those smartphones. This seems to suggest that even though there would be exponential smartphone growth over the period the cost of connectivity may be a showstopper. That’s not necessarily the case because there’s more happening than meets the eye.

The Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) are going to spend collectively about $52 billion on infrastructure between now and 2025 and this would grow their revenues to $48 billion by 2025 – generating about a million formal and three million informal jobs across the continent.

By 2024, the mobile industry would contribute $184 billion to the continent’s collective GDP bringing it to the 9 to 10% of total GDP. In the first quarter of 2020, the Information Communication Technology (ICT) sector contributed 17.83% to the Nigerian economy – suggesting that the GDP contribution may be higher by the larger ICT sector.

According to the report, COVID-19 has increased the demand for digital services and so there is an urgent need for government to create policies that enhance access to connectivity and drive investment in more resilient digital infrastructure for the future. This is crucial to reactivating the region’s economy post Covid-19 as digital technologies play an even more important role in society.

The UN projects that Africa’s population of 1.3 billion would quadruple over the next two decades reaching 4.3 billion by the end of the century. While Asia’s share of global working-age population would be declining, Africa’s would be ascending eventually overtaking Asia by 2100.

Of Africa’s exponentially growing population 70% would be below 25 years old. Exactly the demographic that most embraces advanced mobile technologies and is using the mobile web platform to build solutions to the many problems they are faced with. Since the beginning of the 21st century, some of Africa’s youth have being building companies like Interswitch, Cellulant, MSF Africa, Hubtel, IrokoTV, Paga, Jumo, Farmerline, etc.

The most avid consumers of these mobile web solutions are the emerging middle class which according to the African Development Bank Group (“AfDB”) in 2011 was 313 million people accounting for 34% of the total population. This middle class spends on average $2.20 a day. The bank’s definition of middle class in Africa is people who spend the equivalent of $2 to $20 a day based on an assessment of the cost of living for Africa’s more than one billion people.

By 2060, the AfDB predicts that the number of middle-class Africans will grow to 1.1 billion and account for 42% of the predicted population. This means Africans living below the poverty line will be in the minority at 33%.
Now, to address what’s really going on with mobile growth and the seeming cost prohibitiveness of taking advantage of the growth. Given that the middle-class would grow and increase their purchasing power, they would have more disposable income to afford the cost of connectivity and more people would be able to do that. Secondly, as indicated by the GSMA in their report the cost of connectivity would reduce over the period and hence more people would experience their mobile web on smartphones.

To conclude, by the end of 2100, Africa’s population would most likely surpass Asia with a middle class that would be more than 50% of the population. Smartphone penetration would be almost 100% and the cost of connectivity would be more affordable such that majority of the population would have great mobile web experiences consuming mostly African applications developed by the African youth.

And now the EXITS courtesy of the Pandemic


As the third quarter comes to an end am going to give you a run down on EXITS – the big elephant in the Africa investing room. Yesterday, Autocheck announced the acquisition of Cheki Nigeria and Ghana from ROAM Africa. On 9th September 2020, US based blockchain investor, Digital Currency Group (DCG) bought Naspers-backed South African cryptocurrency exchange Luno and Transactions Capital took a $109M position in WeBuyCars also from South Africa. According to Bloomberg, WorldRemit acquired Sendwave for $500M on 25th August 2020. In late July, Network International, a Dubai-headquartered enabler of commerce bought Africa’s leading online commerce platform, DPO Group, for $288M. But it all started in January when Circles Gas acquired KopaGas’ proprietary technology for $25M. These are signs of the times – the EXITS are finally here. But it been a long time coming since 1999, when Mark Shuttleworth had the first exit of selling Thawte to Verisign for $575M. Since then, there have been spates of exits, like Visa’s acquisition of Fundamo for $110M, and others that have not being disclosed. The Covid-19 pandemic has not only catalyzed M&A activities, but now we are beginning to see a new wave of exits sweeping the industry and it is just the tip of the iceberg because:

1. The pandemic created a ripple effect from the dislocation of other sectors and asset classes whilst
2. The Application (tech) industry in Africa has come of age almost two decades later.

When Mobile was introduced in Africa in 1993 by Vodacom , it was least known to be a profitable venture. Then came the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) with Internet services in 1994 and then in 2004 the Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) ventured into providing Internet services on the mobile device. In 2001, Africa’s first submarine fiber cable SAT3 had been launched, but it was not until 2009 that multiple cables connected the continent to the rest of the world. The submarine cables brought high speed Internet connectivity to the mobile devices that had proliferated across the continent, making Africa not only a mobile-first but a mobile-web continent. Many African till today see the web primarily through their mobile device.

In 2014, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer conducted a study of the sector, looking at the performance of forty Telecom, Media and Technology (TMT) companies across eighteen stock markets in Africa over the decade and concluded that the TMT sector out-performed Oil and Gas, as well as the Africa MSCI Index as presented in the graph below.

This basically means if you invested in the stocks of any of these companies, you made 19%, which is more than three times what you made in Oil and Gas, so Freshfields concluded that the Africa tech sector was ready for a take-off. That take-off was the new companies building unique applications on top of the mobile web infrastructure that had been developed by the TMT sector. A decade later, we are now seeing M&A as well as exits in the sector one of which is the recent $1.4B IPO of Helios Towers.

But before the pandemic, Jumia’s IPO last year proved that the African market is the next big tech market. Jumia was started in Nigeria in 2012 (same year as Konga) and it took them almost a decade to go public. Which begs the questions, “who are the next prospects to go public?”. The leading suspect is Interswitch, founded in Nigeria in 2002, but they have been unlucky twice with going public. The third attempt is likely to be in 2021 and hopefully the gods of the capital market will eventually make peace with the Nigerian gods, due to the new world order the pandemic creates.

IrokoTV’s Jason Njoku has been forthright about his intentions of listing on the London Stock Exchange in 2021, but he has had to put this off due to the negative unintended consequence of the pandemic on his business. Why is that the case? It turned out that the salary cuts and layoffs across the job market meant that, though people were at home, they were cutting down on “entertainment costs,” since they could get some elements on free-to-air TV, so IrokoTV’s Average Revenue Per User (ARPU) did not only go down, but their subscriptions also dropped. Secondly, the sudden focus of Netflix on Africa meant there is more competition for those that can afford OTT services. These and other factors forced Jason on 28th August 2020 to announce a resizing of the business – essentially focusing on the US market, which has much higher ARPU. This is a short to medium term measure to shore up the revenues needed to go public hopefully in 2022, eleven years after IrokoTV’s founding. Even with the struggles Covid-19 has brought, all these companies coming out of Nigeria explain why the Information Communication Technology (ICT) sector contributed 17.83% to the country’s GDP in the second quarter of 2020.

Cellulant from Kenya is another prospect for an exit in this decade. Started by Ken Njoroge from Kenya and Bolaji Akinboro from Nigeria in 2004, Cellulant first raised a venture round of $1.5M from the TBL Mirror Fund in 2011. In 2014, they raised a $5.5B Series B from Velocity Capital Private Equity and then in 2018 they raised a series C of $47.5M from TPG. WeBuyCars is another prospect from South Africa, which got Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE) listed Transactions Capital to take a significant minority position this month which sets them on the path to an IPO. Other prospective candidates are Andela, MSF Africa, Jumo, Mkopa, Mall for Africa and Link Commerce which recently got an investment from DHL. From our own portfolio, Hubtel, which made $30M in revenue last year, is a candidate and HotelOnline — which became profitable during the pandemic and struck a relationship with Yanolja, the only traveltech unicorn in South Korea — is another.

An African unicorn in payments, Fawry, was started in Egypt in 2009 by Mohamed El Sayed Okasha and Ashraf Sabry. In 2015, a consortium bought 85% of the business, led by Helios Investment Partners with 40%, MENA Long Term Value Fund at 25%, and Egyptian American Enterprise Fund at 20%. The International Finance Corporation was left with 5% whiles the remaining 10% sat with the Founders and Management team. That investment was used to reinforce the company’s opportunities to diversify its activities and expand into the African continent and the UAE.

Within four years of that investment, Fawry grew significantly, processing about 600M transactions with a total value of 34.2B Egyptian pounds in 2018, making a core profit of 152M Egyptian pounds. Beginning of 2019, Fawry started the process of going public and raised $22M in IPO funding on 1st August 2019 – the first by an African company on the Egyptian Stock Exchange. After one year of being on the market, Fawry turned unicorn during the pandemic on 17th August 2020.

It’s co-founder Mohamed El Sayed Okasha left to start his own investment firm, DisrupTech Ventures with Dina H. Sherif, Malek Sultan as partners and Mohamed Aboulnaga as a Senior Advisor, in order to back the next generation of tech entrepreneurs. As more exits happen in Africa this decade, we will likely see repetitions of this phenomenon of prior founders being the next investors – establishing a new normal in Africa.

Africa’s health sector attracts more investments during the pandemic


My July op-ed focused on the increased M&A activities in Africa under Covid-19. Network International announced the acquisition of Africa’s leading online commerce platform, DPO for $288M on 28th July 2020, confirming my analysis that we are going to see more M&A activities going forward. “According to Keet van Zyl, Managing Partner of Knife Capital (which turned ten last week), who managed Mark Shuttleworth’s ‘Here Be Dragons’ Fund – this is likely the largest tech acquisition in Africa since Shuttleworth sold Thawte to Verisign for $575m in 1999“. SoftBank, which had a $16.5B loss in Q1, returned to a $12B net profit in Q2, courtesy of the merger and partial sale of its stake in Sprint to T-Mobile, as well as a recovery in its $100B vision fund portfolio. This means global M&A is also picking steam in the “valley of coronavirus” as Masayoshi Son put it.

Under COVID-19, healthcare investments in Africa have also surged due to the demand and prominence of the sector as a result of the pandemic. Healthcare investments are ascending also due to the numerous innovations around access, data, testing, therapeutics and vaccine in and around the continent. I will focus this op-ed on healthcare delivery and investment with three examples from Ghana, including Nyaho Medical Center on whose board I serve. The International Finance Corporation (IFC), the private sector arm of the WorldBank extended a $5.2M loan facility to the Nyaho Medical Center to augment their operations in Accra and to expand into other parts of Ghana. New Crystal Health Services (NCHS) also got a $2.5M loan from the IFC and an equity of 3M Euros from impact investment group, Investisseurs & Partenaires (I&P). Guidepost a diabetes telemedicine startup from South Africa received a joint investment from AlphaCode, the fintech investment of Rand Merchant Investment Holdings, and local investment fund Endeavor. Helium Health a Nigeria healthtech venture raised $10M in May to expand their services across Africa. That same month, Ghanaian healthtech company, mPharma raised $17M from the Commonwealth Development Corporation (CDC) and others. In April, another Nigerian healthtech venture, 54Gene raised $15M in their series A lead by Adjuvant Capital (which was seeded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation), Novartis, IFC, Ingressive Capital and others. Before the virus hit, Consonance Investment Managers backed Lifestores, a tech enabled platform for pharmacies to provide access to healthcare for the last mile with a $1M investment in fresh capital to expand their operations in Nigeria.

The Ghana Infectious Disease Center (GIDC), a 100-bed infectious disease and treatment center, opened on 24th July 2020 after the Ghana Covid-19 Private Sector Fund invested to get it from scratch to finish within 3 months during the pandemic. The Ghana Covid-19 Private Sector Fund, a consortium of the private sector in Ghana has so far raised GHC42M out of their targeted GHC100M and have done three things with the funds;
1. Built the Ghana Infectious Disease Center within a record time of 3 months,
2. Donated PPEs to the Ghana Health Service and
3. Fed 150,000 people over a ten-day period.

mPharma, a data and cost management platform connecting Africans to affordable quality prescription drugs led by Gregory Rockson played a critical role in sourcing and distributing PPEs during the outbreak in Ghana. Between their series B of $12M and C of $17M that happened during the pandemic – they acquired Haltons, Kenya’s second biggest pharmacy chain for less than $5M thrusting them into a critical position in the Kenyan healthcare space. Since its launch, mPharma’s focus has been to make pharmaceuticals accessible and affordable so they became the go-to company during the pandemic, since they also help pharmaceutical companies to keep stock of their inventories. Over the years, the company has grown steadily (and through acquisitions) with operations in five countries supporting over 250 pharmacies with total funding of about $40M to date. One of the investors in mPharma is Golden Palm Investments Corporation (GPIC) based in Ghana who also owns Africa Health Holdings – an investor in Carepoint and Rabbito Clinics Limited. Rabbito Clinics opened two additional branches in Accra during COVID19 bringing their total number of hospitals in Ghana to 15.

The GIDC cements Ghana’s impeccable record of growing the healthcare delivery space for the last 50 years since Nyaho Medical Center was started in March 1970 by the late Dr. Kwami Nyaho Tamaklo. His vision was to give the best in nursing and medical care in Ghana and outside of its borders, as the first private medical establishment in the then independent Ghana. Nyaho was modelled after the world renown Mayo Clinic in the USA. In 2001 his wife Mrs. Janet Tamaklo took over the baton, moving the vision to second gear until her retirement in 2015. Vako Ferguson and Janis McKenna daughters of the founder were a critical part of the second gear in executive and non-executive roles at Nyaho. Meanwhile, their son, Elikem Tamaklo had been training in medical practice in the UK and as fate would have it returned to Ghana to build on the vision and execution of his family from 2015 till now. Elikem’s gear three has technology at the core of healthcare provision the Nyaho way. The Nyaho way is the corporate culture that has been handed down by the previous leadership and at the core of it is patient centered holistic care. Elikem’s vision of the future is using technology to drive patient-centered care holistically across Africa. That started with investment in the technology infrastructure both on the airport campus which is the hub of operations and the Octagon satellite facility in old downtown Accra – the first spoke. Additional spokes are planned for Tema, Kumasi and Takoradi using high-speed links to interconnect them so they can share information and transact in real-time with patients.

Nyaho already has a state-of-the-art Health Information System (HIS), so doctors use their computers to input and extract information when consulting with patients. This means every patient’s health information is electronic and stored in very secure servers that are backed up remotely. Nyaho has partnered with Clearspace Labs to build Serenity Health – an electronic medical records (EMR) system that currently enables, online COVID-19 assessment anywhere and then connects you to a medical facility, if necessary. It also enables virtual healthcare. This is the beginning of the next 50 years of the Nyaho way – with technology driving holistic patient-centered healthcare delivery across Africa.

This oped is in honor of my friend and investor colleague Christopher Yebuah of Casey Family Program who passed away in the line of duty and is being put to rest today – fare de well Bona —- from the Chanzo Capital team.

Africa’s Mergers and Acquisitions gain momentum during COVID19


On the 10th of July 2020, Helios Holdings Limited announced a merger with Fairfax Africa Holdings Corporation to form Helios Fairfax Partners Corporation – a pan Africa focused alternative investment manager. On the same day, Eversend, an African fintech startup also announced over a $1M raise through crowdfunding. Prior to that Helios announced a $100M investment from the Commonwealth Development Corporation (CDC) into their fund IV. On the 1st of July 2020, our portfolio company, HoltelOnline announced the acquisition of two travel tech companies. On 30th June 2020, MSF Africa announced the acquisition of fellow fintech Beyonic based in Tanzania. On 23rd June, 2020 Acumen announced their exit from KopaGas of Tanzania as part of the $25M acquisition by Circle Gas. Then on 22nd January 2020, Paga announced the acquisition of Apposit an Ethiopian software company as the entry strategy into the market. These recent deals have created undeniable momentum in mergers and acquisitions in Africa – with majority in tech — setting an unexpected tone for more positive developments in the second half of 2020 during this COVID crisis.

Whilst Covid19 has brought unimaginable devastation to the world and stoked racial revolt in America, which is now spilling over to Europe, in Africa, our fast adaptation to the new normal spared us not only mass casualties and pain, but the lockdowns triggered an unintended consequence of speeding up the digital economy. This resulted in investments in the second quarter like our portfolio company Zulzi closing $2.5M and AMP Global Technologies closing a $2M prior to COVID19 setting the stage for our Africa original content format and series launching this quarter @ www.takebackthemic.com. Then on 24th June 2020, Ingressive Capital closed their maiden $10M seed fund to invest in tech companies across Africa. On the same day, the Africa Venture Capital and Private Equity Association (AVCA) published their VC in Africa report for 2014 to 2019 showing a total of 613 deals totaling $3.9B with 2019 recording $1.4B of those transactions. Majority of those deals happened in South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana and Egypt. South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria and Ghana are four of the KINGS countries (excluding Ivory Coast) that I had postulated back in 2013 would be leading the digital economy in Africa. Ivory Coast was replaced on the list by Egypt partly because of the civil war of 2011 that ousted incumbent president Gbagbo and set back the country’s development tremendously.

A lot of these deals were surely in the pipeline before COVID-19 but the fact that they still materialized is a function of resilience and the positive unintended consequence of the lockdowns across the continent. This momentum we are seeing in tech M&A is the result of the Capital, Capacity and Community building that has gone into the sector over the years which was accelerated by the COVID-19 lockdowns making online the new normal across Africa.

Off course some deals did not materialize, and we have seen some funds shut down due to the harsh environment. We have also seen African innovators launch innovations that are tackling the virus head-on and some of them could be big winners in the not too distant future. Some of these entrepreneurs have had to adapt and pivot under unusual conditions to launch these new ventures and also keep their boats sailing. The ingenuity of African entrepreneurs and tech ventures were put to great test under COVID-19 and some like HotelOnline a travel tech venture, which was severely impacted, pivoted towards a new business model. By the end of March, revenues had gone down to 20% and Endre Opdal the CEO was under intense pressure. His first move was to trim down the operations and staff which the board approved. The second step was evaluating the existing business to find the right pivot.

As investors and board members we rolled our sleeves and engaged with him to review things systematically – it was in that process that he came up with a new business line. The new line was always there in our blind spot but when necessity kicked in, we were able to spot it. We did not need to do any heavy lifting except to implement it right away with some minor tweaks. The new business line fetched $20K revenue in April increasing to $30K in May to make the business profitable again. This spoke to the speed of execution of the management team from loss-making in March to profitability in May. A second business line is now being implemented and yet to show results but a parallel process to make acquisitions of companies that were struggling under the crisis also gained momentum in April. On July 1st Hotelonline announced the acquisition of AfricaBookings and Cloud9two travel tech companies that were going under.

Cloud9 has had an existing working relationship with HotelOnline through our senior management team and that working relationship has been in place. They grew very fast and in 2019 merged with Heartbeat Venture. Cloud9 is one of the portfolio companies of the Mesozi Group whose other company is Marketforce which raised $350K from Viktoria Business Angel Network in May 2020. Whiles their Marketforce venture is doing well under the crisis Cloud9 got severely hit so instead of shutting it down they agreed to an acquisition which now gives them shares in Hotelonline. Africabookings was started by Bruce Tappings and had Kanak Puri as one of their investors who was also an investor in HotelOnline. In May, Endre saw that they were shutting down due to the crisis so he reached out and by the end of June they consummated another share swap that allows HotelOnline to leverage their existing customer base across Africa.

Whiles a lot of the current transactions have been in the pipeline prior to Covid, the acceleration to digital models has increased investment activity to support organic growth as well as expansion through acquisition and consolidation opportunities. This should continue to grow in H2 as existing portfolios are stabilized in the new normal. Suggesting that the continent’s resilience to the virus has far reaching implication on the business front. As the continent begins to re-open in the second half of the year, we are most likely going to see more of such deals that would propel Africa’s 21st century agenda.

Africa’s COVID19 platform for the new normal


President Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel once said “you never want a serious crisis to go to waste. It provides the opportunity to do things that were not possible to do before”. When the COVID-19 crisis hit the global north the fear was that it would be most devastating in Africa with Bill Gates predicting that ten million lives would be wiped out by the virus. But he was wrong because African leaders did what was not possible before – they locked down their countries and instituted adherence to the protocols of social distancing and washing of hands. These preventive measures and the sudden change of behavior slowed down the virus’s serious impact in Africa. According to Harvard Health preventing the spread of the virus is rooted in behavioral change. Starting up new behavior in the new normal was what the US and Europe could not do but Africa was able to – in record time and so was Asia. Latin America is facing the consequence of not starting up the new normal.

After a successful digital industry response to COVID-19 project in South Africa, Andile Ngcaba requested an online meeting with a group of African technology entrepreneurs and software engineers to discuss the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on the African continent. During this online meeting we discussed ways in which we could leverage technology to solve the pandemic across the continent. Andile muted that he is building of an Ubuntu driven Cloud Native Platform that will be host to African Tech Volunteers. The platform will showcase COVID-19 innovations by African entrepreneurs. After this meeting Andile got a group of software engineers together and began building Combat COVID-19 Africa. The platform allows for Africans to combat the pandemic through sharing, collaboration and resource allocation. We continued to have these meetings discussing different functions the platform should have and how it can be adopted all over the continent. The Cloud Native platform uses Kurbenetes as an orchestrator and Tensorflow for the Machine Learning Framework.

The CombatCovid19 Africa (CCA) startup was born through an open participatory process and was later described by the ATU Secretary General Mr. John OMO as a “platform of platforms”. Andile charged the team “we would be flying this aircraft whiles building it” and they launched unto it – working twenty hours a day from March 15th and by the end of April they had a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) for use. According to Andile “this is a cloud native platform built on Open Source principles and systems”. It is the birth of Africa’s indigenous knowledge and digital platform with cloud resources, virtual machines and deep learning frameworks. He has emphasized the need for a large open source community in Africa to help drive innovation around the continent. Today the platform is widely adopted with 44 countries and 263 cities on it so we would soon be showcasing Africa’s ingenuity and innovation – celebrating the entrepreneurs and engineers who made this possible in record time. It is an African platform built by African that has gone global virally with no markeing spend or advertising.

Some of the platforms running on the platform are; Covi-ID – a privacy-preserving, open-source platform that uses QR codes to share health credentials from South Africa. Existing track and trace solutions to fight COVID-19 depend critically on widespread adoption of smartphone usage, but 55% of users in Africa do not own a smartphone. Alternative methods to obtain geo-location data, including cell tower triangulation are imprecise and likely to be ineffective so QR codes are one way to go.
AfrikanCreate is a free online volunteer platform for African creatives to share ideas and collaborate on relief projects aimed at addressing COVID-19 challenges. These creative works by volunteers on the platform is used in campaigns to provide messages of hope to affected communities. Echoing messages of encouragement to the people that are working in the front lines of the pandemic. Of course, other people may not be as expressive but do want to share their creative perspective on what is happening around them, this is the platform for that, as long as it raises awareness or education about the pandemic to make the situation bearable.
OurEC is a food donation and volunteer platform for people living in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. The platform connects individuals who wish to donate food, medication and clothing with underprivileged communities around the province. It does this through what it describes as District Committees (DCs), who are groups of volunteers that represent the different districts in the province. Angolan entrepreneurs led by Julio Chilela of Angola Cables have designed an artificial intelligence application that helps the government track potential COVID-19 cases. They were able to predict close to 85% of new cases in Angola.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) one of the solutions developed is www.stopcoronavirus.cd aimed at raising awareness about COVID-19 in the country. A second application developed by some of our platform volunteers from the DRC is a smartphone application called STOP Coronavirus that offers users tips on how to prevent the virus. In Botswana some of our volunteers were involved in helping build a COVID-19 dashboard for the government, they also built a digital platform for applying for movement permits in the country.

According to Andile, Africans are future proofing the continent from pandemics and other tougher challenges ahead. His vision of an open source driven Africa is clear when one looks at how this platform is actively enabling open source solutions. Another initiatives on the platform is Open Source Africa, a platform aimed at developing the open source ecosystem on the continent. This initiative will help with knowledge sharing, whilst also reducing costs for companies that wish to adopt open source around the continent. The open source initiative will also allow entrepreneurs deploying open source solutions to be more flexible and agile when developing. This initiative will lead to the increased use of OpenStack around the continent for cloud computing. Andile also believes that advocating for more open source projects around the continent will reduce the barriers to entry for young entrepreneurs looking to deploy solutions by using community version of open source technology online. Lastly, Andile believes that open source allows companies to attract more talent, this is because professionals in the technology space can see that is where the industry is headed, so they are embracing it.

Other startups have risen to the occasion, like the online COVID-19 self-assessment chatbot developed by the Nyaho Medical Centre in Ghana in collaboration with ClearSpace Labs on their Serenity health platform. It basically allows you to take a self-assessment at home and also get virtual care so that you only go the hospital if necessary – reducing the pressure on the limited medical facilities to take care of COVID-19 patients.

Given the numerous innovations we were seeing, on May 27th, 2020, Andile and I partnered with Teresa Clarke of www.africa.com to host the first Africa online pitch competition under the auspices of “Brilliant African Innovations Against COVID-19”. Through the Angel Fair Africa platform, Africa.com shortlisted six leading African innovations from the KINGS countries to pitch in a virtual environment. Laud Basing of Incas Diagnostics from Ghana who has built a rapid COVID-19 diagnostics kit won the first prize followed by a tie of Mary Mwangi from Data Integrated, Kenya who has built a passenger app for public transport to ensure social distancing, online ticket purchasing, etc. and Dr. Wale Adeosun from Wellvis, Nigeria who built a COVID-19 self-assessment platform with a link to patient care. The other three innovations in the competition were, AfrikanCreate by Aya Dlova from South Africa, Maisoin by Dede Tounkara from Cote d’Ivoire and Epione Health by Jessica Chivinge from South Africa.

All these platforms and applications are being built by young Africans who have taken to digital. It is important to emphasize that Africa has more digital native than any other continent or put differently Africa’s young people present the largest digital demographic dividend of the 21st century. Responding to Rahm Emanuel, they are not wasting the pandemic haven taken the opportunity to do things that were not possible before. Who would have thought that African entrepreneurs whom the odds were stuck against would be starting up the new normal? But as Nelson Mandela once said, “it always seems impossible until it is done”.

Africa’s four MEGA TRENDS that are overcoming COVID19


Africa appears to have narrowly escaped the level of devastation that COVID19 is wrecking in the global north with China as its entry. As if the virus followed the global supply chain to destroy it. The global supply chain links China to the global north before connecting to Africa so by the time the virus got here African leaders shut the boarders – that is the saving grace despite the doom’s day prophecies of Bill Gates. Africa got it right this time around without the help of the western saviors which begs George Ayittey’s famous quote “Africa is poor because she is not free”.

According to the IMF and WorldBank, Africa would experience her first recession in 25 years, but it would not be as severe as the global north. Her recovery in my view could be fast tracked by four MEGA TRENDS that are already in motion before COVID19 ever invaded the continent. The first of these trends has actually gained speed on the back of the virus – digitization. With the lockdowns in Africa many went online (in my previous post I alluded to how we are seeing this in our portfolio companies). Virtualized services are doing very well, while mobility businesses are struggling to keep up. Semi-mobilized businesses that qualify as essential services like food and grocery delivery are going strong. The World Economic Forum has said “Diverse sourcing and digitization will be the key to building stronger, smarter supply chains and ensuring a lasting recovery“.

Digital Innovation
Digital innovative ventures that are software-based (and, in some cases hardware-based) businesses leveraging mobile web technology to solve pain points, fix bottlenecks and address market gaps that make financial returns and, in some cases, impact. The huge investment in telecom infrastructure like submarine and terrestrial fiber cables, satellite stations and mobile/wireless networks all over the continent, has enabled the leveraging of these new technologies. The private sector has predominantly led these investments, while in some cases, public private partnerships (PPPs) have charted the course.

These innovations are permeating all sectors of the economy like financial services, education, agriculture, health and energy creating “new” sectors like Fintech, Edtech, Agtech, Healthtech and Cleantech just to mention a few which make up the digital economy.
• Fintechs are startups using mobile web and internet technology to disrupt the financial services industry, enabling and deepening financial inclusion with mobile money as the basis for electronic transactions like Zeepay, Finaccess, Hubtel, etc;
• Cleantechs are the fusion of off-grid renewable energy generation and mobile web tools which produce a “mobile-sun” disruption that drive means of supplying power like Mkopa Solar, SolarLight, Freedom Won etc;
• Edtechs are online platforms that make learning available, interactive and fun, breaking down traditional barriers and transforming education like eCampus, Eneza, Imano etc;
• Healthtechs are scaleups developing technologies that make access and delivery of health services available through teleconsulting and telemedicine technologies like CombatCovid-19 Africa, Serenity Health, Talamus, Helium Health etc; and
• Agtechs go beyond access to weather information and market prices provided by startups like Farmerline to those that disrupt and create value within the agriculture ecosystem like Complete Farmer, etc.
For a long time, Africa has arguably leapfrogged the west in terms of telecom infrastructure. Building on this, we can leapfrog our counterparts abroad in terms of business models that make both fiscal and impact returns. Hubtel is an example of such business that is profitable with demand going through the roof and Zulzi who just raised $2.6M in the midst of the pandemic have become a moment to treasure. Africa’s digitizing economy can make real the concept of People, Planet and Profit rising together interdependently. Below is a picture of global tech giants who have visited Africa because of the digital innovation – before the lockdown began, Jack Dorsey of Twitter said he planned to come live in Africa for three months in 2020.


Entrepreneurial Youth
These entrepreneurial ventures arise out of Africa’s youthful brain trust. Just a generation ago, starting a business in Africa was not the “in” thing, but we are now in the midst of a paradigm shift – it is cool to be a tech entrepreneur. This is the result of the world’s youngest population expressing itself through the availability of mobile web technology. Most of these young entrepreneurs believe in themselves and their ability to create the next Facebook or Google out of Africa. They argue that if Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates can do it without college degrees, they are no less. This phenomenon of self-discovery, identification with web technology and expression through entrepreneurship is powering the digital renaissance that is changing the narrative led by the youthful population of Africa.

Almost 60% of Africa’s population in 2019 is under the age of 25, making Africa the world’s youngest continent. According to the UN’s demographic projections, the median age in Africa is going to be 19.8 in 2020. And Africa’s population is going to double by 2050. The Mo Ibrahim Foundation titled their 2019 report “Africa’s first challenge in this regard is the youth bulge currently stuck in ‘waithood’. I come from the school of thought that whiles some are waiting, the others are busy building entrepreneurial ventures. In my view that is the only way out because those ventures would in turn hire the rest of the youth who are not entrepreneurial. Therefore, African policy makers need to wake up to the realization that they must create an environment that cultivates more entrepreneurial ventures. That would in turn solve the unemployment predicament we have on the continent. The way to solve unemployment is to enable new businesses that would scale by employing more hands. There is arguably no continent more entrepreneurial than Africa, where we have had to innovate solutions to overcome the export of our resources elsewhere. By making Africa a digital technology powerhouse, we will re-center our resources, and talent here, so that our tide of innovation can raise all boats.

Common Market
The common market came into effect last year when the 54 African states signed the protocol after many years of discussion – this could not be more timely. The IMF estimate puts the common market in Africa at four trillion dollars, so this is a big enough market for these entrepreneurial ventures according to the WEF. The first generation of these ventures have started scaling into multiple markets so are already leveraging the common market that has been created. These ventures are actually acting as the proof point for the common market phenomenon in Africa. As the continent opens up more and more, African multinational businesses would be created through intra-Africa trade and development.

The doubling of Africa’s population by 2050 would most likely double the four trillion dollar common market. This means that more global businesses would be coming into Africa to leverage the market. They would create jobs and add value to raw materials because labor is cheaper and available in Africa. The youthful population would be supplying that needed labor in all sectors — especially technology. This means that we need to be creating the educational opportunities that the youth need to enhance their skills. Guess what – that can now be done online. Harvard is offering fifty-seven free online courses during the pandemic. Many local and international educational institutions are moving their classrooms online, so distance is no longer a barrier to education. eCampus is experiencing exponential growth due to the demand.

Returning Diaspora
The phenomenal success of Ghana’s Year of Return initiative is a result of succeeding initiatives like Panafest, Joseph Project, etc., which were all aimed at getting people of African descent to return home. December 2019 was the climax of this movement which saw 1.5 million people of African descent from the US, Europe and Asia coming to Accra. Racial injustice in the US has led to movements like #BlackLivesMatter resulting in more and more African Americans relocating to Africa. Ghana has actually become the preferred destination because of — among other reasons — the setup of the Diaspora African Forum (DAF). DAF is recognized by the African Union and has worked with the Ghana government to secure citizenship for a lot of the returning diaspora.

Marcus Garvey in 1914 started pushing people of color to connect to their roots – he envisioned an African nation through the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). Garvey is known for saying “Our success educationally, industrially and politically is based upon the protection of a nation founded by ourselves. And the nation can be nowhere else but in Africa.” Bob Marley who was inspired by Garvey pushed the message in his songs. He personally came to Africa first to visit Ethiopia and Kenya then again in 1980 to visit Gabon by way of his love affair with Pascaline Bongo and then played at the Independence Day of Zimbabwe – paying his own way for the trip. Rita Marley later moved the entire Marley family to Ghana in 2000 making their abode in the mountains of Aburi overlooking Accra. W.E.B DuBois moved to Ghana in 1961 at the invitation of Kwame Nkrumah, where we lived until his death – that history resonates deeply with many African Americans seeking a society that embraces them, rather than treating them as second-class citizens.

Rabbi Kohain Halevi, owner of Mabel’s table guesthouse and restaurant, has lived in Ghana for 25 years. “I was 33 years old in 1987 when I fell in love with Ghana,” said Halevi, 65. “It took me seven years and 13 trips before I could finally move to Ghana and make this my home.” Dr. Marcus Manns moved to Ghana in June 2000 to start his chiropractic and wellness center which is now a successful business and in the process met his wife – they now live between Accra and the US with their five kids. Muhammida el-Muhajir says as an African American in the US, she felt she could ‘never win’ so she relocated to Ghana to setup her business WaxPrint Media which is thriving. Voltaire Xodus moved to Ghana without first visiting to launch his startup, WeUp, because according to him it is peaceful. His sister Ramona, who is a co-founder, has since joined him in Accra. 28-year-old Deijha Gordon left her family in Brooklyn, New York to start a food truck business in Ghana after visiting for the year of return. Ingrid LaFleur who ones run for the mayor of Detroit could not return after her “Year of Return” visit. She has gone on to launch The Afrofuture Strategies Institute (TASI) with a triangulated location in Accra, Kigali and Johannesburg. Derrick Ashong and Lucia Brawley, co-founders of Amp Global Technologies, moved from Los Angeles to Mauritius to launch The Mic: Africa, the first multi-platform TV format created in Africa to be exported around the world, all powered by their Take Back The Mic (TBTM) app.

In conclusion, COVID19 has generated an unintended consequence of speeding up the digital innovation in Africa led by the youthful population with the common market as their reach and the returning diaspora as the icing on the cake – welcome to the new normal.

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