African incubator MEST has a new MD and 11 fresh startup investments

Pan-African incubator MEST announced investments in 11 startups from its 2019 cohort that will each receive $100,000 in financing.

The $1.1 million backing for a graduating class is the largest to date for the Accra-based organization — which operates as a training program and seed fund for African innovators to build successful commercial tech companies.

By country presence and membership, MEST is one of Africa’s largest tech hubs, and has a new managing director — Ashwin Ravichandran — who succeeded Aaron Fu in July.

This year’s investment recipients come from four countries: Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana and South Africa. The startups offer goods and services across diverse sectors, from agtech to fintech to beauty and entertainment (see full list below).

Ghanaian fintech startup Bezo Money will use the funding from MEST to launch its app aimed at formalizing and digitizing West Africa’s traditional savings groups, founder Mubarak Sumaila told TechCrunch on a call from MEST’s Accra offices.

MEST 2019 cohort graduate and investment recipient Zuri has created a platform to organize, review and connect beauty services and professionals to clients online. “The global beauty services industry is worth over $100 billion and the African market is worth over $30 billion,” said Zuri founder Onyinye Nnedolisa. The company will use its investment funds on product development and business development.

Zuri Mest Startup Africa

MEST takes equity in its portfolio startups, which have 18 months of incubation support from the organization, including the option to work out of MEST incubators in multiple African markets, MEST’s new MD Ashwin Ravichandran told TechCrunch.

On future focus, MEST is looking to expand to additional countries. It currently has incubator spaces in Ghana, South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya and has a strong eye on setting up shop in Cote d’Ivoire, according to Ravichandran.

MEST will continue its entrepreneurial training programs, aimed at shaping founders who can launch companies, and maintain a strong focus on developing and investing in Africa’s early-stage startups.

MEST is funded primarily by Norwegian entrepreneur and philanthropist Jorn Lyseggen’s Meltwater Foundation. For several years, the incubator has discussed forming a full on VC fund.

That could be imminent. “We have all the pieces in place right now, I think Jorn’s just figuring out the last steps before announcing it,” said Ashwin. The VC fund would have more capital and go beyond MEST’s seed-stage investments to consider Series stage rounds to African startups.

Africa has seen a boom in tech hubs over the last decade that have become focal points for startup formation, digital skills building, events and IT activity.

A joint GSMA, Briter Bridges report tallied 618 tech hubs across the continent. Like MEST, many of the hubs got their start from grant funding, and there’s an ongoing conversation about viability and sustainability for these spaces going forward.

TechHubsinAfricain2019 Briter BridgesIncreasingly, some of the largest African hubs — such as MEST, Nigeria’s CcHub and Kenya’s iHub — have moved toward more fee-based services and investment activities to generate greater operating revenue. On whether this is a future model for Africa’s tech hubs, “Yes, it definitely is,” Ravichandran said.

Startups interested in joining MEST’s 2020 cohort, and potentially gaining investment upon graduation, can get recruitment updates online.

Here’s MEST’s list and description of the 11 ventures from its 2019 class that earned $100K seed rounds:

  • Massira: a social support network and healthcare service aggregator for women,
    launching in Ghana
  • BezoMoney: a digital savings platform for traditional savings groups, launching in Ghana
  • Farmula: a web and USSD platform to create a direct connection between farmers and businesses using an automated process to increase order efficiency, launching in Kenya
  • CoFundie: a platform for crowd-sourcing funds for the development of buildings using cost efficient and time-saving techniques, launching in Nigeria
  • Niqao: a financing platform that connects merchants and lenders to enable them to offer customers the option of paying in installments, launching in Ghana
  • Saada: a messaging and mobile money ticketing services for increasing digital sales and data collection, launching in Kenya
  • Nadia: a personalized automated health companion that provides quick medical attention and prescriptions, launching in Kenya
  • Kweza: a service that enables informal retailers to order products at the best price and receive deliveries directly to their stores, launching in South Africa
  • CoVibes: a platform that pairs verified studios and producers, allowing them to list their profiles and manage bookings while enabling artists to find and collaborate with them and each other, launching in Nigeria
  • Adi+Bolga: a platform using the power of technology and community to gather data and create conversations around the black skin and black skincare, launching in Ghana
  • Zuri: a platform that helps beauty professionals manage their customers and provides an easy way for people to find and book beauty services, launching in Nigeria

Y Combinator-backed Holy Grail is using machine learning to build better batteries

For a long, long time, renewable energy proponents have considered advancements in battery technology to be the holy grail of the industry.

Advancements in energy storage has been among the hardest to achieve economically thanks to the incredibly tricky chemistry that’s involved in storing power.

Now, one company that’s launching from Y Combinator believes it has found the key to making batteries better. The company is called Holy Grail and it’s launching in the accelerator’s latest cohort.

With an executive team that initially included Nuno Pereira, David Pervan, and Martin Hansen, Holy Grail is trying to bring the techniques of the fabless semiconductor industry to the world of batteries.

The company’s founders believe that the only way to improve battery functionality is to take a systems approach to understanding how different anodes and cathodes will work together. It sounds simple, but Pereira says that the computational power hadn’t existed to take into account all of the variables that go along with introducing a new chemical to the battery mix.

“You can’t fix a battery with just a component,” Pereira says. “All of the batteries that were created and failed in the past. They create an anode, but they don’t have a chemical that works with the cathode or the electrolyte.”

For Pereira, the creation of Holy Grail is the latest step on a long road of experimentation with mechanical and chemical engineering. “As a kid I was more interested in mechanical engineering and building stuff,” he says. But as he began tinkering with cars and became fascinated with mobility, he realized that batteries were the innovation that gave the world its charge.

In 2017 Pereira founded a company called 10Xbattery, which was making high-density lithium batteries. That company, launching with what Pereira saw as a better chemistry, encapsulated the industry’s problem at large — the lack

So, with the help of a now-departed co-founder, Pereira founded Holy Grail. “He essentially told me, ‘Do you want to take a step back and see if there’s a better way to do this?'” said Pereira.

The company pitches itself as science fiction coming from the future, but it relies on a combination of what are now fairly standard (at least in the research community) tools. Holy Grail’s pitch is that it can automate much of the research and development process to create new batteries that are optimized to the specifications of end customers.

“It’s hard for a human to do the experiments that you need and to analyze multidimensional data,” says Pereira. “There are some companies that only do the machine-learning part and the computational science part and sell the results to companies. The problem is that there’s a disconnection between experimental reality and the simulations.”

Using computer modeling, chemical engineering and automated manufacturing, Holy Grail pitches a system that can get real test batteries into the hands of end customers in the mobility, electronics, and utility industries orders of magnitude more quickly than traditional research and development shops.

Currently the system that Holy Grail has built out can make 700 batteries per day. The company intends to  build a pilot plant that will make batteries for electronics and drones. For automotive and energy companies, Holy Grail says it will partner with existing battery manufacturers that can support the kind of high-throughput manufacturing big orders will require.

Think of it like bringing the fabless chip design technologies and business models to the battery industry, says Pereira.

Holy Grail already has $14 million in letters of intent with potential customers, according to Pereira and is expecting to close additional financing as it exits Y Combinator.

To date the company has been backed by the London-based early stage investment firm Deep Science Ventures, where Pereira worked as an entrepreneur in residence.

Ultimately, the company sees its technology being applied far beyond batteries as a new platform for materials science discoveries broadly. For now, though the focus is on batteries.

“For the low volume we sell direct,” says Pereira. “While on high volume production, we will implement a pilot line through the system… we are able to do the research engineering with the small ones and test the big ones. In our case when we have a cell that works, it’s not something that works in a lab it’s something that works in the final cell.”

With Y Combinator’s seal of approval, MyPetrolPump raises $1.6 million for its car refueling business

Before even pitching on stage at Y Combinator, href="https://mypetrolpump.com/"> MyPetrolPump, the Indian startup with a car refueling business has managed to snag $1.6 million in its seed financing.

The business, which is similar to startups in the U.S. like Filld, Yoshi, and Booster Fuels, took ten months to design and receive approvals for its proprietary refueling trucks that can withstand the unique stresses of providing logistics services in India.

Together with co-founder Nabin Roy, a serial startup entrepreneur, MyPetrolPump co-founder and chief executive Ashish Gupta pooled together $150,000 to build the company’s first two refuelers and launch the business.

MyPetrolPump began operating out of Bangalore in 2017 working with a manufacturing partner to make the 20-30 refuelers that the company expects it will need to roll out its initial services. However, demand is far outstripping supply, according to Gupta.

“We would need hundreds of them to fulfill the demand,” Gupta says. In fact the company is already developing a licensing strategy that would see it franchise out the construction of the refueling vehicles and regional management of the business across multiple geographies. 

Bootstrapped until this $1.6 million financing, MyPetrolPump already has five refueling vehicles in its fleet and counts 2,000 customers already on its ledger.

These are companies like Amazon and Zoomcar, which both have massive fleets of vehicles that need refueling. Already the company has delivered 5 million liters of fuel with drivers working 12-hour-per-day shifts, Gupta says.

While services like MyPetrolPump have cropped up in the U.S. as a matter of convenience, in the Indian context, the company’s offering are more of a necessity, says Gupta.

“In the Indian context, there’s pilferage of fuel,” says Gupta. Bus drivers collude with gas station operators to skim money off the top of the order, charging for fifty liters of fuel but only getting 40 liters pumped in. Another problem that Gupta says is common is the adulteration of fuel with additives that can degrade the engine of a vehicle.

There’s also the environmental benefit of not having to go all over to refill a vehicle, saving fuel costs by filling up multiple vehicles with a .  single trip from a refueling vehicle out to a location with a fleet of existing vehicles.

The company estimates it can offset 1 million tons of carbon in a year — and provide over 300 billion liters of fuel. The model has taken off in other geographies as well. There’s Toplivo v Bak in Russia (which was acquired by Yandex), Gaston in Paris and Indonesia’s everything mobility company, Gojek, whose offerings also include refueling services.

And Gupta is preparing for the future as well. If the world moves to electrification and electric vehicles, the entrepreneur says his company can handle that transition as well.

We are delivering a last mile fuel delivery system,” says Gupta. “If tomorrow hydrogen becomes the dominant fuel we will do that… If there is electricity we will do that. What we are building is the convenience of last mile delivery to energy at the doorstep.”

SpaceX aims to provide commercial Starship launches by 2021

SpaceX is only getting started launching Falcon Heavy commercial missions, but it already has its eyes on the next prize – launching Starship. Now, we know that it’s hoping to start commercial service for this next-generation, fully reusable rocket by 2021, according to SpaceX Vice President of Commercial Sales Jonathan Hofeller.

Hofeller was speaking at a conference in Indonesia (via SpaceNews), and noted that the private space launch company is currently talking to three different telecom companies about selecting which will be the first mission aboard the new spacecraft. Starship, formerly knowns as ‘BFR’ or ‘Big Falcon Rocket’) is currently in development at two separate SpaceX facilities, one in Texas and one in Florida, in what amounts to an internal company ‘bake-off’ to see which team can delivery the better solution faster. An engineering show-down of this kind is not uncommon among tech companies, and often produces results from both efforts that complement or enhance whatever the final product ends up being, rather than being a ‘winner take all’ scenario.

Starship, once complete, will include a launch system propelled to orbit by a ‘Super Heavy’ booster, with even more lift capacity than the existing Falcon Heavy rocket. It’ll be able to delivery as many as 20 metric tons to geostationary transfer orbit, or over 100 tons to low-Earth orbit. It’s also intended to be the spacecraft that enables SpaceX to achieve its goal of running crewed missions to Mars.

Previously stated target dates for Starship milestones include achieving orbital launches by 2020, though based on this new info those will be test or demonstration missions rather than for paying customers. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk also previously said that the company is looking at 2023 as the earliest target date for providing a Moon circuit space trip to his first paying tourist customer, Japanese entrepreneur Yusaku Maezawa.

Creative Destruction Lab’s second Super Session is an intense two-day startup testbed

Canadian startup program Creative Destruction Lab (CDL) escapes succinct description in some ways – it’s an accelerator, to be sure, and an incubator. Startups show up and present to a combined audience of investors, mentors, industry players (some of whom, like former astronaut Chris Hadfield, verge on celebrity status) – but it’s not a demo day, per se, and presentations happen in focused rooms with key, vertically aligned audience members who can provide much more than just funding to the startups who participate.

North founder Stephen Lake on stage at CDL’s Super Session 2019.

Seven years into its existence, CDL really puts on a show for its cornerstone annual event (itself only two years old) clearly shows the extent to which the program has scaled. From an inaugural cohort of just 25 startups with a focus on science, CDL has grown to the point where it’s graduating 150 startups spanning cohorts across six cities associated with multiple academic institutions. It has consistently added new areas of focus, including a space track this year, for which Hadfield is a key mentor, as is Anousheh Ansari, the first female private space tourist to pay her own way to the International Space Station and the co-founder and CEO of Prodea Systems.

The ‘Super’ in Super Session

This is the second so-called ‘Super Session’ after the event’s debut in 2017. It includes roughly 850 attendees, made up of investors, mentors, industry sponsors and the graduating startups themselves. As CDL Fellow Chen Fong put it in his welcoming remarks, CDL’s Super Session is an opportune moment for networking, mentorship and demonstration of the companies the program has helped foster and grow.

A keynote track included talks by Ansari and Hadfield, as well as from Celmatix CEO and founder Piraye Beim, and a fireside chat with North founder and CEO Stephen Lake. Subjects ranged from the importance of the linkage between exploration and technology, to what Beim described as “probably the first CDL talk to include menstrual health, vibrators, incontinence, and menopause, all in the span of 15 minutes.” Lake meanwhile discussed the future of seamless human-computer interfaces, and Ansari discussed her work founding the XPRIZE program and the impetus behind the current moment and interest in private space innovation.

Celmatix CEO and founder Piraye Beim speaking at the 2019 Creative Destruction Lab Super Session in Toronto.

The variety in the keynote speaker mix and topic selection is reflective of the eclectic and comprehensive nature of CDL’s modern program, which scouts globally for prospective startup participants. Its six hubs then enter into a matching process with startups signed on to take part, where each scores the other and that leads to placement.

How CDL works

CDL’s originating thesis is all about supplying the limiting resource in a startup ecosystem; the thing which the program’s organizers think is the missing ingredient that differentiates Silicon Valley from any other innovation hub in the world. Namely, CDL theorizes that this missing ingredient is what CDL Associate Director Kristjan Sigurdson calls “entrepreneurial judgement.”

Sigurdson explains that this basically boils down to the ability to know what are the most important things you need to do as an entrepreneur, and in what order. The missing piece, he says, isn’t ideas, funding availability or a lack of effort – instead it’s the kind of judgement that results from experience. CDL’s model, which emphasizes five sessions held periodically during which a panel of mentors helps startups set three clearly defined objectives they can accomplish within the next eight weeks.

After each of these sessions, some triage occurs – essentially CDL mentors gathered in closed door meetings and are asked if they’d work with any of the startups that presented during the session. If startups don’t receive sponsorship in these closed door meetings, then they’re not asked to participate in the next session, and effectively are out of the program. All told, the program graduates around 40-45 percent of the startups that enter the program, Sigurdson said.

Group session with small group mentoring on site at Creative Destruction Lab’s 2019 Super Session in Toronto.

CDL is also a bit out of the ordinary in that it takes no equity from the startups it works with – it’s fundamentally an academic program, started by the University of Toronto, and its designed to provide real-world business cases for the school’s MBA students to work on. But it’s become so much more – providing mentorship and guidance as described, and also connecting researchers who often enter into formal advisory roles with CDL companies.

Sigurdson also noted that CDL has actually seen “much higher investment levels” vs. the average for more traditional incubation or acceleration programs. “It’s a program that I think allows companies to raise money much more organically even though it’s an artificial program we created,” he said, referencing CDL’s own comparative research.

Lab-grown and forged in fire

True to its name, Creative Destruction Lab in practice feels like a generative cauldron of ideas, shared with peers and industry specialists for debate, discussion and reformation. Sessions are remarkable to witness – where else are you going to see brand new companies get direct feedback from astronauts and representatives of global space agencies, for instance.

Creative Destruction Lab opening keynote for its Super Session 2019 event.

The model is unique, but clearly effective, and able to scale – as evidenced from its growth to what it is today, from its starting point in 2012, when one founder described it as ‘7 people in a room.’ The room featuring presentations from space track companies alone featured around 50 people in attendance for instance – almost all of which were top-flight industry leaders and investors, including Hadfield, Ansari, CDL alumni Mina Mitry of Kepler Communications, and prominent Toronto angel investor Dan Debow. Startups presenting in the space track included Wyvern, a hyperspectral imaging company; Mission Control, a startup that wants to be the software layer for Moon rovers; and Atomos, which is building space tug for extra-atmospheric ‘last-mile’ transportation solutions.

It’s easy to see why this program results in solid investment pipeline, given the profile of the sponsors and mentors involved. And it’s another strong stake in the ground for the claim that Canada’s startup scene, with Toronto as its locus of gravity, is increasingly earning (and outperforming) its reputation as a global center of innovation.

This entrepreneur is donating unwanted bike-sharing cycles to underprivileged students in Myanmar

What is the world to do with the graveyards of dockless bicycles left over after China’s bike sharing startups retreated from global markets?

One man has come up with the best idea to date: donate them to students who need them.

Entrepreneur Mike Than Tun Win has bought 10,000 bikes from bike-sharing companies which he plans to provide to school children across Myanmar, many of who walk miles to school and, more broadly, lack transportation for their families.

“It’s a common sight to see lines and lines of students walking long distances from home to school in rural villages,” Than explained. “Some students can walk up to one hour from home to school and the families can hardly afford a simple form of transport like bicycle or motorcycle… a school bus is almost unheard of to the students in rural villages.”

To bridge the gap, Than — whose companies include tech entrepreneurship project 8bod.com and travel startup flymya.com — created a non-profit organization called LessWalk which is buying up the bikes and making them suitable for students.

That means fitting them with a second seat, switching the QR code-scan lock for a regular key lock and then shipping them to Myanmar. Many of the bikes have been bought from liquidators — who took control of oBike’s shuttered business in Singapore and inherited Ofo’s abandoned fleets — which makes their acquisition cheaper than regular bikes. But still, the fixes and shipping costs are estimated at around $35-$40 per bike.

FreeWalk is modifying bikes to make them suitable for underprivileged students who walk to school in Myanmar

Than described those prices as “a rare once in a lifetime opportunity” to make a positive impact, but there’s still a significant cost attached to the project.

Than told TechCrunch that the project is funded with around $400,000 in capital, half of which has come from donations and sponsors with Than himself providing the rest.

Suddenly, there was an opportunity to buy [these bikes] at fraction of price,” he said in an interview. “The benefit it can develop is well beyond that cost.”

Right now, Than said that he has received around 4,000 bikes, which are currently warehoused in Myanmar. Rather than sad, well-used or damaged cycles, LessWalk has bought itself unused, new-generation products that hadn’t been deployed to the streets. Once sitting in a warehouse awaiting a rollout with startups, the adapted bikes will be distributed to students this year.

LessWalk has around 4,000 former bike sharing cycles in its warehouse in Myanmar

But giving out thousands of bicycles is no easy feat given that Myanmar has a population of over 50 million people and more than nine million students.

Than said he’s currently in contact with government organizations and civic groups in Myanmar to identify potential beneficiaries. The primary focus is students aged 13-16 who walk 2km or more to school each day and part of families without transport. He envisages that bikes will be given out in batches every two weeks for two or three months with support from volunteer groups and the government, but a lot of the operational approach is still to be defined.

“I’m only halfway through the journey. The remaining 50 percent is making sure we have an impact,” Than told TechCrunch.

Volunteers from LessWalk move former Ofo bikes into storage ahead of their distribution to students in Myanmar

Further down the line, he is hopeful that he can inspire “global friends” to follow his lead and set up similar donation programs that will put the hundreds of thousands of abandoned bikes to work, instead of creating yet more urban trash. Already, Than said he is fielding interest from Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia.

Donations aren’t the only sustainable future for fleets of former Mobike and Ofo bikes, in some cases the people who ran the services are taking control. Indeed, a number of Mobike executives got together to buy out the company’s European business from Meituan — the on-demand giant that owns Mobike — for $20 million. That deal is scheduled to close this month.

The Slack origin story

Let’s rewind a decade.

It’s 2009. Vancouver, Canada.

Stewart Butterfield, known already for his part in building Flickr, a photo-sharing service acquired by Yahoo in 2005, decided to try his hand — again — at building a game. Flickr had been a failed attempt at a game called Game Neverending followed by a big pivot. This time, Butterfield would make it work.

To make his dreams a reality, he joined forces with Flickr’s original chief software architect Cal Henderson, as well as former Flickr employees Eric Costello and Serguei Mourachov, who like himself, had served some time at Yahoo after the acquisition. Together, they would build Tiny Speck, the company behind an artful, non-combat massively multiplayer online game.

Years later, Butterfield would pull off a pivot more massive than his last. Slack, born from the ashes of his fantastical game, would lead a shift toward online productivity tools that fundamentally change the way people work.

Glitch is born

In mid-2009, former TechCrunch reporter-turned-venture-capitalist M.G. Siegler wrote one of the first stories on Butterfield’s mysterious startup plans.

“So what is Tiny Speck all about?” Siegler wrote. “That is still not entirely clear. The word on the street has been that it’s some kind of new social gaming endeavor, but all they’ll say on the site is ‘we are working on something huge and fun and we need help.’”

Siegler would go on to invest in Slack as a general partner at GV, the venture capital arm of Alphabet .

“Clearly this is a creative project,” Siegler added. “It almost sounds like they’re making an animated movie. As awesome as that would be, with people like Henderson on board, you can bet there’s impressive engineering going on to turn this all into a game of some sort (if that is in fact what this is all about).”

After months of speculation, Tiny Speck unveiled its project: Glitch, an online game set inside the brains of 11 giants. It would be free with in-game purchases available and eventually, a paid subscription for power users.

Nigeria’s Gokada raises $5.3M round for its motorcycle ride-hail biz

In many large cities across Africa, motorcycle taxies are as common as yellow-cabs in New York.

That includes Lagos, Nigeria, where ride-hail startup Gokada has raised a $5.3 million Series A round to grow its two-wheel transit business.

Gokada has trained and on-boarded over 1000 motorcycles and their pilots on its app that connects commuters to moto-taxis and the company’s signature green, DOT approved helmets.

The startup has completed nearly 1 million rides since it was co-founded in 2018 by Fahim Saleh—a Bangladeshi entrepreneur who previously founded and exited Pathao, a motorcycle, bicycle, and car transportation company.

For Gokada’s Series A, Rise Capital led the investment joined by Adventure Capital, IC Global Partners, and Illinois based First MidWest Group. Coinciding with the round, Nigerian investor and Jobberman founder Ayodeji Adewunmi will join Gokada as co-CEO.

Gokada will use the financing to increase its fleet and ride volume, while developing a network to offer goods and services to its drivers. “We’re going to start a Gokada club in each of the cities with a restaurant where drivers can relax, and we’ll experiment with a Gokada Shop, where drivers can get things they need on a regular basis, such as plantains, yams, and rice,” Saleh told TechCrunch.

The startup differs from other ride-hail ventures in that it doesn’t split fare revenue with drivers. Gokada charges drivers a flat-fee of 3000 Nigerian Naira a day (around $8) to work on their platform. The company is looking to generate a larger share of its revenue from building a commercial network around its rider community.

“We don’t do anything with the fares. We want to create an Amazon prime type membership…and ecosystem around the driver where we’re going to provide them more and more services, such as motorcycle insurance, maintenance, personal life-insurance, micro-finance loans,” Saleh said.

“We’re trying to provide a network of great services for our drivers that makes them stick with us, and not necessarily see a reason to switch to other platforms,” said Saleh.

Competition among those platforms is heating up, as global players enter Africa’s motorcycle taxi market and local startups raise VC and expand to new countries.

Uber began offering a two-wheel transit option in East Africa in 2018, around the same time Bolt (previously Taxify) started motorcycle taxi service in Kenya.

Rwanda has motorbike taxi startups SafeMotos and Yegomoto. Uganda based motorcycle ride-hail company Safeboda expanded into Kenya in 2018 and this month raised a Series B round of an undisclosed amount co-led by the venture arms of Germany’s Allianz and Indonesia’s GoJek.

Safeboda will use the round to further expand in East Africa and Nigeria in the near future, the startup’s CEO Maxime Diedonne confirmed to TechCrunch.

In Nigeria, Gokada faces a competitor in local startup MAX.ng, which offers mobile based passenger and logistics delivery services.

Overall, Africa’s motorcycle taxi market is becoming a significant sub-sector in the continent’s e-transport startup landscape. Two-wheel transit startups are vying to digitize a share of Africa’s boda boda and okada markets (the name for motorcycle taxis in East and West Africa)—representing a collective revenue pool of $4 billion and expected to double to $9 billion by 2021, according to a TechSci study.

“There is a formalization of an informal sector play here…to make it safer and higher quality,” Gokada investor Nazar Yasin of Rise Capital told TechCrunch.

The appeal to passengers is the lower cost of motorbike transit compared to buses or cabs ($1.85 is Gokada’s average fare) and the ability of two-wheelers to cut through the heavy congestion in cities such as Lagos and Nairobi.

A notable facet of motorcycle ride-hail companies in Africa is better organizing a space with a reputation for being somewhat chaotic and downright dangerous (see Nigeria’s past bans on the sector entirely due to safety).

For Gokada that includes training courses and certification of riders, the ability to track trips and safety stats from the app, and quality control for motorcycles—something that’s been lacking in East and West Africa’s non-digital moto-taxi space.

The company’s rider program offers a way for drivers to buy, own, and maintain their motorcycles as they earn. Gokada has entered into partnership with Indian motorcycle maker TVS Motors to create a custom version of the company’s TVS Apache motorcycles for Gokada drivers.

Gokada is also experimenting with adding sensors to its fleet to better track safety standards. “We’re looking at seat sensors and another GPS sensor to track things like ‘did this driver add more than one passenger on the bike’ and all that data will feed back into our servers,” Saleh said.

The company won’t enter any new countries in Africa in the near future. “We plan to expand all over Nigeria. We think its a large enough market for now,” said Gokada CEO Fahim Saleh. Nigeria is Africa’s most populous nation (190 million) and largest economy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bringing tech efficiencies to the agribusiness market, Silo harvests $3 million

Roughly $165 billion worth of wholesale produce is bought and sold every year in the U.S. And while that number is expected to go up to $1 trillion by 2025, the business of agribusiness remains unaffected by technology advancements that have reshaped almost every other industry. ‘

Now Silo, a company which has recently raised $3 million from investors led by Garry Tan and Alexis Ohanian’s Initialized Capital and including Semil Shah from Haystack Ventures; angel investors Kevin Mahaffey and Matt Brezina; and The Penny Newman Grain Company, an international grain and feed marketplace, is looking to change that. 

Silo’s chief executive, Ashton Braun, spent years working in commodities marketplaces as a coffee trader in Singapore and moved to California after business school. As part of the founding team at Kite with Adam Smith, Braun worked on getting Kite’s software to automate computer programming off the ground, but he’d never let go of creating a tool that could help farmers and buyers better communicate and respond to demand signals, Braun says.

“I was a super young, green, bright-eyed potential entrepreneur,” says Braun. Eventually, when Kite sold to Microsoft, Braun took the opportunity to develop the software that had been on his mind for four-and-a-half years.

He’d seen the technology work in another industry closer to home. Growing up in Boston, Braun had seen how technology was used to update the fishing industry, giving ships a knowledge of potential buyers of their catch while they were still out in ocean waters.

“When you’re moving a product that’s worth tens of thousands of dollars and has a shelf life of a few days there’s literally no room for error and there’s a lot you need to do,” says Braun. It’s a principle that applies not only to seafood but to the hundreds of millions of dollars of produce and meat that comes from farms in places like California. “What we want to do is we want communication and data to live int he right places at the right time.”

Braun says there’s limited data coming in to farmers to let them know what demand for certain produce looks like, so they’re making guesses that have real financial outcomes with very little data.

Silo’s software vets and supports buyers and suppliers to give farmers a window into demand and potential buyers a view into available supply and quality.

“What Silo is building has the potential to make marketing and distribution of agriculture incredibly more efficient, which is a win both for the suppliers and buyers. We’re excited to support and assist this team as they work to move agriculture forward,” said Eric Woersching, General Partner at Initialized Capital, in a statement.

Silo is using the new financing to make a hiring push and develop new products and services to support liquidity in its perishable goods marketplace.

While an earlier generation of agribusiness software focused on increasing productivity on farms, a new crop of companies is targeting the business of farming itself. Companies like AgriChain and GrainChain, also offer supply chain management software for farming, and WorldCover is creating insurance products for small farmowners in emerging markets.

The penetration of technology through near ubiquitous mobile devices, coupled with sensing technologies and machine learning enhanced predictive software is transforming one of the world’s oldest industries.

“I’ve come across quite a few marketplace platforms attempting to serve different segments of the agriculture supply chain, and none of which have come close to impressing me to the degree Silo has in their tech-forward approach to reducing the friction that comes with managing all aspects of the supply chain on their platform. Silo’s deployment of machine learning streamlines the process, requiring little to no change in their users’ workflow, and removes many barriers of their platform reaching critical mass,” said Matthew Nicoletti, commodity trader at The Penny Newman Grain Company.  

Meet ‘The Prepared,’ the media company pitching disaster preparedness for everyone

A little over two years ago, The New Yorker ran a story about the survivalism craze sweeping Silicon Valley. The moneyed elite behind the tools of convenience that make modern life were, it turned out, making detailed contingency plans for the collapse of the civilization they’d help architect.

Now, there’s a media company for that.

The Prepared, a new site launched a little over a year ago by three men — two who have their own ties to the tech world — is aiming to make the world of survivalism more approachable to a wide audience.

Taking away the stigma or stereotype of lone wolves hoarding caches of weapons and food and waiting for the zombie apocalypse, The Prepared bills itself as a sort of scouting class for adults — if the Scouts BSA and Girl Scouts posed the question, “Should You Worry About EMPs?

As John Ramey, The Prepared founder and a serial entrepreneur, puts it, “I’ve been a prepper my whole adult life.”

The company operates a web site offering columns and “how to” videos; it has a YouTube channel and also runs disaster preparedness-focused events.

Ramey thinks he was one of the first “outed preppers” in Silicon Valley. It all started with a coffee meeting between Ramey and a prominent investor at a venture capital fund around 2010. The investor saw Ramey’s “get-home” bag in his car and began asking questions.

The questions didn’t stop. “A bunch of people started reaching out to me,” Ramey said.

Survivalism in left and right

For John Stokes, who co-founded Ars Technica and is the deputy editor of The Prepared, it was the financial crisis of 2008 that prompted his interest in disaster preparedness:

“I got hit up by private wealth managers after they read about the sale [of Ars] on TechCrunch. In May of 2008 some guys from Lehman came to the house when I was in Chicago. I still hadn’t signed on with any private bankers and then the week before TARP passed I met with a private wealth manager at Credit Suisse and he said if it doesn’t pass everything stops,” Stokes recalled. “It was this ‘shit-hits-the-fan’ scenario, where there’s no money in ATMs and people don’t go to work and there’re rats in the streets… This guy is telling me the world is going to end next week… and that’s when I got serious about this preparedness stuff.”

He wasn’t alone. The 2008 financial crisis, its political aftermath, and the ensuing eight years of the Obama administration gave birth to an image of a certain kind of survivalist. It’s one that Stokes and Ramey actually think marginalized what would be a mainstream movement if not for its early associations with a radical fringe.

“As a rational person I was frustrated by the way the prepping business market worked,” says Ramey. “In the 2008 to 2016 time period was when the stereotype of preppers was developed. It went down the wrong path and a very vocal minority took over that industry… The vast majority was amateur, cuckoo, fringe-type stuff.”

John Ramey, former Innovation Advisor to the Obama White House and founder of The Prepared

In some ways, Steve Huffman, the Reddit chief executive and co-founder interviewed by The New Yorker, embodies the particularly Silicon Valley-style of survivalist that Ramey and Stokes think is more representative of a broad swathe of American thinking.

“I think, to some degree, we all collectively take it on faith that our country works, that our currency is valuable, the peaceful transfer of power—that all of these things that we hold dear work because we believe they work,” Huffman (echoing Stokes) told The New Yorker. “While I do believe they’re quite resilient, and we’ve been through a lot, certainly we’re going to go through a lot more.”

Huffman was one of a number of Valley voices to share their concerns about the fragility of modern American political society — while also being concerned about the possibility of some sort of environmental catastrophe.

It’s possible — likely even — that this embrace of survivalism by certain corners of Silicon Valley is an equal and opposite reaction to the political climate that saw more politically conservative Americans reach for their revolvers under the Obama administration. (It’s well-documented that gun sales go up under Democratic administrations when gun owners perceive that there’s a greater threat to their Second Amendment right to bear arms.)

John Stokes, co-founder of “Ars Technica” deputy editor of “The Prepared”

“I’ve seen this decline in this space,” says Stokes. “A part of the opportunity and the story of the opportunity of this website is that the first zombie wave and the Alex Jones kind of stuff… is dead… What’s left is the more traditional emergency defense stuff… and a new group of people worried about climate change and political instability.”

Indeed, the advent of the Trump administration caused the collapse of media properties and entities that had thrived during the Obama years — a (maybe not-so-curious) consequence of shifting politics and a greater sense of security among Americans who feared greater government intervention into their lives.

“There were 1 million of those people — and that market had basically collapsed,” says Ramey. “Those million people are, by and large, gone. But there are millions more people who ask, ‘What are reasonable steps to protect my home?’ ”

Guns, germs and steel

HOUSTON, TX – AUGUST 28: People walk down a flooded street as they evacuate their homes after the area was inundated with flooding from Hurricane Harvey on August 28, 2017 in Houston, Texas. Harvey, which made landfall north of Corpus Christi late Friday evening, is expected to dump upwards to 40 inches of rain in Texas over the next couple of days. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

If there’s a through-line that connects Ramey and Stokes and their other collaborator, Tom Rader, a Navy corpsman who previously worked as the editor-in-chief of “The Firearm Blog,” it’s guns. 

All three are longtime gun owners, and Stokes has written about guns for this site, and several others, with a focus on hunting, the outdoors and smart guns.

“[Rader] came at it from the firearm side. Stokes came at it from the outdoors side,” says Ramey. “All of us saw the core point that the audience [for survivalism] was changing. This fat middle was growing and they were closeted and underserved.”

Tom Rader, managing editor at The Prepared and editor-in-chief of The Firearm Blog

So the material on The Prepared runs more in the scouting-for-adults vein rather than toward stockpiling for the zombie apocalypse

“So much of prepping is about more of the ‘Eagle Scout’ stuff,” says Ramey. “Not the, ‘I’m going to have four machine guns and 10,000 rounds of ammo.’ I would say half of our audience doesn’t have a gun.”

Besides, the audience for doomsday preppers is already well served by, well, “Doomsday Preppers.”

Even the kind of stories that Stokes, Ramey and Rader are pushing out has antecedents in television programs like “Man vs. Wild” or “Naked and Afraid.”

The litany of threats that could cause civilizational collapse has not necessarily changed, but the nature of the current administration and its ability to respond effectively to climate-related natural disasters, civil disobedience and revolution, disease outbreaks, nuclear strikes or any other of the potential calamities that could ring the death knell of society as we know it has unified Americans in a belief in the overall incompetence of government to achieve anything.

In the 2016 election there was this pendulum swung in the opposite direction,” says Ramey. “Tens of millions of Americans are into this… they had to be closeted for a while.”

Photo by Cheriss May/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Prepping for the “woke” survivalist

What The Prepared gives these folks is a modern-looking website that doesn’t traffic in terror or predictions of the apocalypse in a sensational way. The concerns, as presented, are more matter of fact, with tutorials on how to prepare a “bug out bag” or a “get home” bag (the essential supplies for 72 hours of survival in the event of a catastrophe), or tie a tourniquet.

“To be a prepper means to think about those things and to be a more responsible adult,” says Stokes. 

For the first months of its existence, the site was self-funded, but as it has grown, The Prepared has managed to attract some backers in the beginning of the year.

The financing path that Ramey, a former innovation advisor to the Obama administration, decided to pursue was novel. The company did a priced round (Ramey would not disclose the size) with a small group of angel investors. Uniquely, the co-founders built the structure of the round around cash-flow and has committed to regular distributions to investors whenever the company makes a profit.

“Any year we have a profit we distribute 35% of that profit,” says Ramey. “We do it to cover people’s tax liability and I have the discretion to either give it as dividends or keep in the business to reinvest.”

The site is running on affiliate marketing for much of its revenues, something that makes sense, given that its how-to sections would naturally include reviews of tourniquets. Other revenue could come from live events that would potentially operate like training sessions from scout camp.

In the meantime, Ramey and Stokes caution that the world is calling for greater preparedness.

“It’s extremely unlikely that we get to a Walking Dead level of collapse.. What’s more likely on the extreme end is climate collapse like forced migration, or extreme weather… You can describe that as collapse but it’s not going to be two people in a bunker,” says Ramey. “To get to that level of preparedness, homesteading is growing…. People are thinking more about tiny homes, a burner lifestyle, van life.”

Call them the “woke” end of the survivalist spectrum.

“I started with the 72 hours, and then two weeks because of the earthquake stuff, and now I’m up to four or five months for my family of five,” says Stokes of his own level of preparedness. “In Austin we just had two weeks without city water because of the flooding… I don’t prepare for a specific thing like a solar storm or nuclear war, I think of duration of time without access to basic services… how many weeks am I prepared to go if there’s no lights or no water?”

Stokes says this kind of thinking is just sensible.

“We’re all long on civilization,” says Stokes. “I am fully invested in civilization as an entrepreneur and as an owner of a stock portfolio. Almost all of my chips are on civilization, but I keep some of my chips as a hedge.”