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The Unicornization of African Fintech

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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: Part 2

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Three significant news items went on the global wire on 25th February 2021 as follows;
1. Liquid Telecom, a member of the Econet Group that has laid more than 70,000km of fiber optic cable across Africa, raised $840M financing package (US$620M bond and a US$220M equivalent term loan in Rand). This was Liquid Telecom’s second bond issue and it was 5.5 times oversubscribed with JP Morgan Chase & Co, Standard Chartered Plc and Standard Bank Group Ltd as joint global bookrunners.
2. Convergence Partners, a leading Pan African Private Equity fund entered into an agreement with Nasdaq listed Inseego (INSG) to acquire 100% of their subsidiary Ctrack’s operations in Africa and the Middle East.
3. Ecobank Nigeria, the largest country operations of Ecobank Transnational Incorporated (ETI), issued a London listed $300M bond that was 3 times oversubscribed and drew significant international interest with Citibank, Mashreq, Renaissance Capital and Standard Chartered Bank as joint lead managers and bookrunners.

These stories are significant because these companies are owned by a vanguard of African corporate executives turned entrepreneurs who have built their respective ventures into global success stories such that these news items are first in their class (Liquid Telecom is majority owned by Strive Masiyiwa from Zimbabwe, the shares of Convergence Partners is controlled by South African Andile Ngcaba, ETI was co-founded by Gervais Djondo from Togo and Adeyemi Lawson from Nigeria and built as the first indigenous Pan-African bank by Nigeria’s Arnold Ekpe). Gervais, Adeyemi, Andile, Strive and Arnold worked in government and corporate Africa at the highest level before becoming leading lights for the new generation of top-performing African entrepreneurs. Accordingly, in this concluding segment to end the first quarter of 2021, I present the stories of Ghana’s Marcia Ashong, Kenya’s Aziz Omar and Ivory Coast’s Alexandre N’Dore highlighting their unique strengths at the end.

As Adesuwa Okonbo Rhodes advocates for more tables in this quote “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 torchbearers, more examples to follow. We don’t need more seats, we need more tables!” which ended part one of this essay, Marcia Ashong, CEO of TheBoardroom Africa, has being getting more women at the tables in corporate boardrooms since launching her venture in January 2016 in Ghana. Prior to this Marcia was in Ivory Coast heading the country operations for a major oil service company with responsibility for over 100 employees and contractors. According to Marcia, leadership ladders are shaped like pyramids: women are well-represented at the bottom, and yet, based on her experience, as one ascends women become more scarce and, for her, it was obvious that the problem started with the structure of corporate boards. There is a strong link between the diversity of a board and the collective intelligence that leads to improved decision-making and better governed entities” Marcia said. Women bring openness to new perspectives, collaboration, inclusiveness, strength in ethics and fairness and, as such, the lack of women in the corporate boards has tremendous implications on governance standards and business performance. They have placed more than 37 women on boards of which 25% are first timers and graduated over 100 women in their governance programme.

Aziz Omar started in the international NGO world then moved to government earlier in his career. Aziz’s day of reckoning came in early 2011 when he faced the loss of an employment opportunity in the Kenyan government because his appointment letter was stuck in the post office and by the time, he got it, the job was already offered to someone else. That led him to co-found and build the world’s first mobile postal office known as MPost. Aziz and his team have grown MPost to a stage where his co-founder has taken over the management of the operations. In the middle of the pandemic (January 2021) Aziz launched his second venture SaveApp – a platform that allows one to roundup their spare change and save it. Clients can later redeem those savings via instant gratification options like promotional vouchers or convert them into retirement savings through direct pension contributions. Launching a new venture in a pandemic speaks to the enormous experience and grit that Aziz had gained from his previous ventures. According to him “We believe as a company that our solution targeting SMEs and Africa’s grow youth in regard to micro-pensions and savings seeks to guarantee Africa’s socio-economic development and the move to a more digital future”.



Alexandre N’djore started his corporate career at MTN Cote D’Ivoire as Logistics Manager, was there for almost three years and then moved to Millicom which owns the Tigo mobile brand. At Millicom he rose through the ranks and became head of digital operations in Tanzania. Tigo Kilimo, a platform he had built for farmers got one of them almost in tears because the poor farmer had been able to multiple his income threefold through the platform. He then built Tigo Bima which went viral, quickly accumulating over 562,000 users in just 18 months with zero budget for advertising. Realizing that he could do this on his own, Alex left Tigo to start Digitech, an insuretech platform in January 2016 that allows the purchasing and processing of insurance digitally. The company which offices in Seychelles and South Africa has leading insurance and reinsurance companies such as Sanlam who have sold more than 10,000 policies and CICA-RE who have processed 7M policies for 200 companies from 14 countries worth 55MUSD on their platform.

The journey from the corporate world to entrepreneurship, as outlined in the aforementioned case studies, comes with three distinct advantages;

1. Experience – Corporate exposure gives former executives tremendous business experience, enabling them to avoid costly mistakes. They would have also learnt the ropes of business using the corporate cheque book, so those expertise and experiences give them a competitive advantage in the entrepreneurship arena. That experience may also compromise or retard their business ability to think outside the box and take potential game-changing risks, so it is a two-edged sword.
2. Savings – Most of them have savings from their previous corporate salaries, which often serve as handy and helpful temporary cushion in the rocky startup universe. and finally
3. Networks – Middle and top-tier corporate life facilitates the building of extensive business networks, which are indispensable in building and growing a successful business venture.

Africa’s COVID19 platform for the new normal

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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”.