Opera and the firm short-selling its stock (alleging Africa fintech abuses) weigh in

Internet services company Opera has come under a short-sell assault based on allegations of predatory lending practices by its fintech products in Africa.

Hindenburg Research issued a report claiming (among other things) that Opera’s finance products in Nigeria and Kenya have run afoul of prudent consumer practices and Google Play Store rules for lending apps.

Hindenburg — which is based in NYC and managed by financial analyst Nate Anderson — went on to suggest Opera’s U.S. listed stock was grossly overvalued.

That’s a primer on the key info, though there are several additional shades of the who, why, and where of this story to break down, before getting to what Opera and Hindenburg had to say.

A good start is Opera’s ownership and scope. Founded in Norway, the company is an internet services provider, largely centered around its Opera browser.

Opera was acquired in 2016 for $600 million by a consortium of Chinese investors, led by current Opera CEO Yahui Zhou.

Two years later, Opera went public in an IPO on NASDAQ, where its shares currently trade.

Web Broswers Africa 2019 Opera

Though Opera’s web platform isn’t widely used in the U.S. — where it has less than 1% of the browser market — it has been number-one in Africa, and more recently a distant second to Chrome, according to StatCounter.

On the back of its browser popularity, Opera went on an African venture-spree in 2019, introducing a suite of products and startup verticals in Nigeria and Kenya, with intent to scale more broadly across the continent.

In Nigeria these include motorcycle ride-hail service ORide and delivery app OFood.

Central to these services are Opera’s fintech apps: OPay in Nigeria and OKash and Opesa in Kenya — which offer payment and lending options.

Fintech focused VC and startups have been at the center of a decade long tech-boom in several core economies in Africa, namely Kenya and Nigeria.

In 2019 Opera led a wave of Chinese VC in African fintech, including $170 million in two rounds to its OPay payments service in Nigeria.

Opera’s fintech products in Africa (as well as Opera’s Cashbean in India) are at the core of Hindenburg Research’s brief and short-sell position. 

The crux of the Hindenburg report is that due to the declining market-share of its browser business, Opera has pivoted to products generating revenue from predatory short-term loans in Africa and India at interest rates of 365 to 876%, so Hindenburg claims.

The firm’s reporting goes on to claim Opera’s payment products in Nigeria and Kenya are afoul of Google rules.

“Opera’s short-term loan business appears to be…in violation of the Google Play Store’s policies on short-term and misleading lending apps…we think this entire line of business is at risk of…being severely curtailed when Google notices and ultimately takes corrective action,” the report says.

Based on this, Hindenburg suggested Opera’s stock should trade at around $2.50, around a 70% discount to Opera’s $9 share-price before the report was released on January 16.

Hindenburg also disclosed the firm would short Opera.

Founder Nate Anderson confirmed to TechCrunch Hindenburg continues to hold short positions in Opera’s stock — which means the firm could benefit financially from declines in Opera’s share value. The company’s stock dropped some 18% the day the report was published.

On motivations for the brief, “Technology has catalyzed numerous positive changes in Africa, but we do not think this is one of them,” he said.

“This report identified issues relating to one company, but what we think will soon become apparent is that in the absence of effective local regulation, predatory lending is becoming pervasive across Africa and Asia…proliferated via mobile apps,” Anderson added.

While the bulk of Hindenburg’s critique was centered on Opera, Anderson also took aim at Google.

“Google has become the primary facilitator of these predatory lending apps by virtue of Android’s dominance in these markets. Ultimately, our hope is that Google steps up and addresses the bigger issue here,” he said.

TechCrunch has an open inquiry into Google on the matter. In the meantime, Opera’s apps in Nigeria and Kenya are still available on GooglePlay, according to Opera and a cursory browse of the site.

For its part, Opera issued a rebuttal to Hindenburg and offered some input to TechCrunch through a spokesperson.

In a company statement opera said, “We have carefully reviewed the report published by the short seller and the accusations it put forward, and our conclusion is very clear: the report contains unsubstantiated statements, numerous errors, and misleading conclusions regarding our business and events related to Opera.”

Opera added it had proper banking licenses in Kenyan or Nigeria. “We believe we are in compliance with all local regulations,” said a spokesperson.

TechCrunch asked Hindenburg’s Nate Anderson if the firm had contacted local regulators related to its allegations. “We reached out to the Kenyan DCI three times before publication and have not heard back,” he said.

As it pertains to Africa’s startup scene, there’ll be several things to follow surrounding the Opera, Hindenburg affair.

The first is how it may impact Opera’s business moves in Africa. The company is engaged in competition with other startups across payments, ride-hail, and several other verticals in Nigeria and Kenya. Being accused of predatory lending, depending on where things go (or don’t) with the Hindenburg allegations, could put a dent in brand-equity.

There’s also the open question of if/how Google and regulators in Kenya and Nigeria could respond. Contrary to some perceptions, fintech regulation isn’t non-existent in both countries, neither are regulators totally ineffective.

Kenya passed a new data-privacy law in November and Nigeria recently established guidelines for mobile-money banking licenses in the country, after a lengthy Central Bank review of best digital finance practices.

Nigerian regulators demonstrated they are no pushovers with foreign entities, when they slapped a $3.9 billion fine on MTN over a regulatory breach in 2015 and threatened to eject the South African mobile-operator from the country.

As for short-sellers in African tech, they are a relatively new thing, largely because there are so few startups that have gone on to IPO.

In 2019, Citron Research head and activist short-seller Andrew Left — notable for shorting Lyft and Tesla — took short positions in African e-commerce company Jumia, after dropping a report accusing the company of securities fraud. Jumia’s share-price plummeted over 50% and has only recently begun to recover.

As of Wednesday, there were signs Opera may be shaking off Hindenburg’s report — at least in the market — as the company’s shares had rebounded to $7.35.

African fintech firm Flutterwave raises $35M, partners with Worldpay

San Francisco and Lagos-based fintech startup Flutterwave has raised a $35 million Series B round and announced a partnership with Worldpay FIS for payments in Africa.

With the funding, Flutterwave will invest in technology and business development to grow market share in existing operating countries, CEO Olugbenga Agboola — aka GB — told TechCrunch.

The company will also expand capabilities to offer more services around its payment products.

More than payments

“We don’t just want to be a payment technology company, we have sector expertise around education, travel, gaming, e-commerce, fintech companies. They all use our expertise,” said GB.

That means Flutterwave will provide more solutions around the broader needs of its clients.

The Nigerian-founded startup’s main business is providing B2B payments services for companies operating in Africa to pay other companies on the continent and abroad.

Launched in 2016, Flutterwave allows clients to tap its APIs and work with Flutterwave developers to customize payments applications. Existing customers include Uber, Booking.com and e-commerce company Jumia.

In 2019, Flutterwave processed 107 million transactions worth $5.4 billion, according to company data.

Flutterwave did the payment integration for U.S. pop-star Cardi B’s 2019 performances in Nigeria and Ghana. Those are two of the countries in which the startup operates, in addition to South Africa, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, the U.K. and Rwanda.

Flutterwave Cardi B Nigeria“We want to scale in all those markets and be the payment processor of choice,” GB said.

The company will hire more business development staff and expand its developer team to create more sector expertise, according to GB.

“Our business goes beyond payments. People don’t want to just make payments, they want to do something,” he said. And Fluterwave aims to offer more capabilities toward what those clients want to do in Africa.

GB Flutterwave disrupt

Olugbenga Agboola, aka GB

“If you are a charity that wants to raise money for cancer research in Ghana, or you want to sell online, or you’re Cardi B…who wants to do concerts in Africa…we want to be able to set up payments, write the code and create the platform for those needs,” GB explained.

That also means Flutterwave, which built its early client base across global companies, aims to serve smaller African businesses, including startups. Current customers include African-founded tech companies, such as moto ride-hail venture Max.ng.

Worldpay partnership

The new round makes Flutterwave the payment provider for Worldpay in Africa.

“With this partnership, any Worldpay merchant in Europe or the U.S. can accept any African payment. If someone goes to pay Netflix with an African card, it just works,” GB said.

In 2019, Worldpay was acquired for a reported $35 billion by FIS, a U.S. financial services provider. At the time of the purchase, it was projected the two companies would generate revenues of $12 billion annually, yet neither has notable presence in Africa.

Therein lies the benefit of collaborating with Flutterwave.

FIS’s Head of Ventures Joon Cho confirmed the partnership with TechCrunch. FIS also backed Flutterwave’s $35 million Series B. US VC firms Greycroft and eVentures led the round, with participation of Visa, Green Visor and African fund CRE Venture Capital.

Flutterwave’s latest funding brings the company’s total investment to $55 million and follows a year in which the fintech company announced a series of weighty partnerships.

In July 2019, the startup joined forces with Chinese e-commerce company Alibaba’s Alipay to offer digital payments between Africa and China.

The Alipay collaboration followed one between Flutterwave and Visa to launch a consumer payment product for Africa, called GetBarter.

Flutterwave and African fintech

Flutterwave’s $35 million round and latest partnership are among the reasons the startup has become a standout in Africa’s digital-finance landscape.

As a sector, fintech gains the bulk of dealflow and the majority of startup capital flowing to African startups annually. VC to Africa totaled $1.35 billion in 2019, according to WeeTracker’s latest stats.

While a number of payment startups and products have scaled — see Paga in Nigeria and M-Pesa in Kenya — the majority of the continent’s fintech companies are P2P in focus and segregated to one or two markets.

Flutterwave’s platform has served the increased B2B business payment needs spurred by the decade of growth and reform that has occurred in Africa’s core economies.

The value the startup has created is underscored not just by transactional volume the company generates, but the partnerships it has attracted.

A growing list of the masters of the payment universe — Visa, Alipay, Worldpay — have shown they need Flutterwave to be relevant in Africa.

Soft Robotics raises $23 million from investors including industrial robot giant FANUC

Robotics startup company Soft Robotics has closed its Series B round of funding, raising $23 million led by Calibrate Ventures and Material Impact, and including participation from exiting investors including Honeywell, Yahama, Hyperplane and more. This round also brings in FANUC, the world’s largest maker of industrial robots and a recently announced strategic partner for Soft Robotics .

The company said in a press release announcing this latest round of funding that the round was oversubscribed, which suggests it isn’t looking to glut itself on capital investors, given that this $23 million follows a similarly sized $20 million round that closed in 2018 which it also referred to as “oversubscribed.” Prior to that, Soft Robotics had raised $5 million in a Series A round closed in 2015. It has plenty of large, global clients already, so it’s probably not hurting for revenue.

Soft Robotics is focused on developing robotic grippers that, as you might’ve guessed from the name, make use of soft material endpoints that can more easily grip a range of different objects without the kind of extremely specific and tolerance-allergic complex programming that’s required for most traditional industrial robotic claws.

With its 2018 funding raise, Soft Robotics said that it was expanding further into food and beverage, as well as doubling down on its presence in the retail and logistics industries. This round and its new partnership with FANUC (which involves a new integrated system that pairs its mGrip robotic gripper with a new Mini-P controller, all with simple integration to FANUC’s existing lineup of industrial robots) will give it strategic and functional access to what is the most influenentioal industrial robotics company in the world.

This round will specifically help Soft Robotics spend on growth, looking to increase its variability even further and work on expanding its food packaging and consumer goods applications, as well as diving into e-commerce and logistics – specifically to help automate and improve the returns process, a costly and ever-growing challenge as more retail moves online.

What we know (and don’t) about Goldman Sachs’ Africa VC investing

Goldman Sachs is investing in African tech companies. The venerable American investment bank and financial services firm has backed startups from Kenya to Nigeria and taken a significant stake in e-commerce venture Jumia, which listed on the NYSE in 2019.

Though Goldman declined to comment on its Africa VC activities for this article, the company has spoken to TechCrunch in the past about specific investments.

Goldman Sachs is one of the most enviable investment banking shops on Wall Street, generating $36 billion in net revenues in 2019, or roughly $1 million per employee. It’s the firm that always seems to come out on top, making money during the financial crisis while its competitors were hemorrhaging. For generations, MBAs from the world’s top business schools have clamored to work there, helping make it a professional incubator of sorts that has spun off alums into leadership positions in politics, VC and industry.

All that cache is why Goldman’s name popping up related to African tech got people’s attention, including mine, several years ago.

Felix Capital closes $300M fund to double down on DTC, break into fintech and make late-stage deals

To kick off 2020, one of Europe’s newer — and more successful — investment firms has closed a fresh, oversubscribed fund, one sign that VC in the region will continue to run strong in the year ahead after startups across Europe raised some $35 billion in 2019. Felix Capital, the London firm founded by Frederic Court that was one of the earlier firms to identify and invest in the trend of direct-to-consumer businesses, has raised $300 million, money that it plans to use to continue investing in creative and consumer startups and platform plays as well as begin to tap into a newer area, fintech — specifically startups that are focused on consumer finance. 

Felix up to now has focused mostly on earlier-stage investments — it now has $600 million under management and 32 companies in its portfolio in eight countries — based across both Europe and the US. Court said in an interview that a portion of this fund will now also go into later, growth rounds, both for companies that Felix has been backing for some time as well as newer faces.

As with the focus of the investments, the make-up of the fund itself has a strong European current: the majority of the LPs are European, Court noted. Although Asia is something it would like to tackle more in the future both as a market for its current portfolio and as an investment opportunity, he added, the firm has yet to invest into the region or substantially raise money from it.

Felix made its debut in 2015, founded by Court after a strong run at Advent Capital where he was involved in a number of big exits. While Court had been a strong player in enterprise software, Felix was a step-change for him into more of a primary focus on consumer startups focused on fashion, lifestyle and creative pursuits.

That has over the years included investing in companies like the breakout high-fashion marketplace Farfetch (which he started to back when still at Advent and is now public), Gwyneth Paltrow’s GOOP, the jewellery startup Mejuri, trend-watching HighSnobiety, and fitness startup Peloton (which has also IPO’d).

It’s not an altogether easygoing, vanilla list of cool stuff. Peloton and GOOP have had been mightily doused in snarky and sharky sentiments; and sometimes it even seems as if the brands themselves own and cultivate that image. As the saying goes, there’s no such thing as bad press, I guess.

Although it wasn’t something especially articulated in startup land at the time of Felix’s launch, what the firm was honing in on was a rising category of direct-to-consumer startups, essentially all in the area of e-commerce and building brands and businesses that were bypassing traditional retailers and retail channels to develop primary relationships with consumers through newer digital channels such as social media, messaging and email (alongside their own DTC websites). 

This is not all that the company has focused on, with investments into a range of platform businesses like corporate travel site TravelPerk, Amazon -backed food delivery juggernaut Deliveroo and Moonbug (a platform for children’s entertainment content), as well as increasingly later stage rounds (for example it was part of a $104 million round at TravelPerk; a $70 million round for marketplace-building service Mirakl; and $23 million for Mejuri.

Court’s track record prior to Felix, and the success of the current firm to date, are two likely reasons why this latest fund was oversubscribed, and why Court says it wants to further spread its wings into a wider range of areas and investment stages.

The interest in consumer finance is not such a large step away from these areas, when you consider that they are just the other side of the coin from e-commerce: saving money versus spending money.

“We see this as our prism of opportunity,” said Court. “Just as we had the intuition that there was a space for investors looking at [DTC]… we now think there is enough evidence that there is demand from consumers for new ways of dealing with money and personal finance.”

The firm has from the start operated with a board of advisors who also invest money through Felix while also holding down day jobs. They include the likes of executives from eBay, Facebook, and more. David Marcus –who Court backed when he built payments company Zong and eventually sold it to eBay before he went on to become a major mover and shaker at Facebook and is now has the possibly Sisyphean task of building Calibra — is on the list, but that has not translated into Felix dabbling in cryptocurrency.

“We are watching cryptocurrency, but if you take a Felix stance on the area, it’s only had one amazing brand so far, bitcoin,” said Court. “The rest, for a consumer, is very difficult to understand and access. It’s still really early, but I’ve got no doubt that there will be some things emerging, particularly around the idea of ‘invisible money.'”

China Roundup: WeChat’s new focus on monetization

Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch’s China Roundup, a digest of recent events shaping the Chinese tech landscape and what they mean to people in the rest of the world. At the beginning of each year, a large crowd of developers, content creators and digitally-savvy business owners gather in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou for the WeChat conference, the messaging giant’s premier annual gathering. The event is meant to give clues to WeChat’s future and the rare occasion where its secretive founder Allen Zhang emerges in public view. But this year, much to the audience’s disappointment, Zhang was absent.

WeChat’s new era of money-making

The boss’s absence was not outright unexpected, an industry analyst told me, as WeChat shifts to focus more on monetization. With 1.1 billion active users, the app has been incredibly conservative with selling ads and pursuing other money-making strategies, an admirable decision from the user’s perspective but arguably frustrating for Tencent’s stakeholders. Part of the restrain is due to Zhang’s user-first design philosophy and minimalistic product aesthetics. When reflecting on why WeChat doesn’t support splash ads — ads that are displayed full-page every time an app is launched — the boss had this to say (in Chinese) at last year’s WeChat conference:

“If WeChat is a person, it must have been your closest friend to deserve so much time you spent on it. So how could I have the heart to plaster an ad on your best friend’s face and ask you to watch the ad before speaking to him?”

The emphasis on user experience now seems overshadowed by Tencent’s need to carve out more revenue streams. The giant’s cash cow — its gaming business — has taken a hit in recent years following a wave of new government policies on the online entertainment industry. Tencent’s imminent rival ByteDance, the creator of TikTok, is getting a larger slice of the digital advertising pie in China.

One way to step up monetization within WeChat is to stimulate more business transactions. The app mapped out at the conference what it has done and what it plans to do on this front.

WeChat founder Allen Zhang addressing the audience of WeChat’s annual conference through a pre-recorded video in January 2020 

Mini programs

The lite apps that skip app store downloads and run inside WeChat have surpassed 300 million daily active users. Practically every internet service in China — with the exception of a few that are at odds with Tencent, such as Alibaba’s ecommerce platforms — have built a WeChat mini program version of their full-fledged app. Without ever leaving WeChat, users can complete tasks from playing casual games, booking movie tickets to getting food delivered.

Consumers and businesses are indeed increasingly embracing WeChat as a platform for transactions, of which the default payment method is WeChat Pay. Users spent more than 800 billion yuan ($115 billion) through mini apps in 2019, up 160% year-over-year driven by the likes of ecommerce and other retail activities.

To further drive that spending momentum, WeChat announced it will make it easier for businesses to monetize through mini programs. For one, these apps will be better integrated into WeChat’s search results, giving businesses more exposure. The messenger will also broaden the variety of ads embedded in mini programs and provide logistics management tools to retail-focused developers.

These efforts signify WeChat’s shift from focusing on mass consumers to businesses, a strategy that goes in tandem with Tencent’s enterprise-driven roadmap for the next few years. It remains to be seen whether these changes will square with Zhang’s user-first philosophy.

Credit scoring

WeChat’s one-year-old “Payments Score” has picked up some 100 million users by far. The program came about amid China’s push to encourage the development of credit scoring across society and industries to both regulate citizen behavior and drive financial inclusion, although Tencent’s private effort should not be conflated with Beijing’s national scheme. Like Alibaba’s Sesame Credit, WeChat Payments Score is better understood as a user loyalty program. Participation is optional and scores factors in the likes of user identities, payment behavior and default history.

Such a trust-building vehicle holds the potential to bring more transactions to WeChat, which previously lacked a full-fledged ecommerce infrastructure a la Alibaba’s Taobao. Users with a high score receive perks like deposit-free hotel booking, while application of the program is not limited to transactions but has also been adapted for rewarding “good” behavior. For instance, those with high points can redeem recyclable trash bags for free.

Tencent’s gaming empire

Tencent snatched up another gaming studio to add to its portfolio after earmarking an undisclosed investment in PlatinumGames, the Japanese developer of the well-received action title Bayonetta said in a blog post.

Over the decade the Chinese gaming behemoth has extended its footprint to a raft of influential gaming studios worldwide, taking stakes in the likes of League of Legends maker Riot Games (full control), Clash of Clans’ Supercell (84%), Fornite developer Epic Games (40%), PlayerUnkonwn’s Battlegrounds’ Bluehold (rumored 10%), and World of Warcraft’s Activation Blizzard. It’s also Nintendo Switch’s publishing partner in China.

PlatinumGames noted that it will continue to operate independently under its existing corporate structure, a setup that’s in line with Tencent’s non-interference investment principle and a major appeal for companies desiring both the giant’s resources and a degree of autonomy. The corpus of cash will help strengthen PlatinumGames’ current business, expand from game developing into self-publishing and add a “wider global perspective.”

Tencent’s hands-off approach has led industry experts to call it an “investment vehicle” relying on external intellectual property but in recent times the company’s in-house development teams have been striving for more visibility. Its Shenzhen-based TiMi studio, for example, is notable for producing the mobile blockbuster Honor of Kings; its Lightspeed and Quantum studio, similarly, rose to fame for developing the popular mobile version of PUBG.

China Roundup: TikTok receives most government requests from India and US

Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch’s China Roundup, a digest of recent events shaping the Chinese tech landscape and what they mean to people in the rest of the world. This week, TikTok, currently the world’s hottest social media app, welcomed the new decade by publishing its first transparency report as it encounters rising scrutiny from regulators around the world.

TikTok tries to demystify 

The report, which arrived weeks after it tapped a group of corporate lawyers to review its content moderation policy, is widely seen as the short video app’s effort to placate the U.S. government. The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, or CFIUS, is currently probing the app for possible national security risks.

TikTok is owned by Beijing-based tech upstart ByteDance and has been rapidly gaining popularity away from its home turf, especially in the U.S. and India. As of November, it had accumulated a total of 1.5 billion downloads on iOS and Android devices, according to data analytics firm Sensor Tower, although how many materialized into active users is unknown.

The transparency report reveals the number of requests TikTok received from local regulators during the first half of 2019. Such orders include government requests to access user information and remove content from the platform. India topped the list with 107 total requests filed, followed by the U.S. with 79 requests and Japan at 35.

The numbers immediately sparked debates over the noticeable absence of China among the list of countries that had submitted requests. This could be because TikTok operates as a separate app called Douyin in China, where it claimed to have more than 320 million daily active users (in Chinese) as of last July.

TikTok has taken multiple measures to ease suspicions of international markets where it operates, claiming that it stores data of U.S. users in the U.S. and that the app would not remove videos even at the behest of Beijing’s authority.

Whether skeptics are sold on these promises remains to be seen. Meanwhile, one should not overlook the pervasive practice of self-censorship among China’s big tech.

“Chinese internet companies know so well where the government’s red line is that their self-regulation might even be stricter than what the government actually imposes, so it’s not impossible that [the TikTok report] showed zero requests from China,” a person who works at a Chinese video streaming platform suggested to me.

It’s worth revisiting why TikTok has caused a big stir on various fronts. Besides its nationality as a Chinese-owned app and breathtaking rise, the app presents a whole new way of creating and consuming information that better suits smartphone natives. It’s been regarded as a threat to Facebook and compared to Youtube, which is also built upon user-generated content. However, TikTok’s consumers are much more likely to be creators as well, thanks to lower barriers to producing and sharing videos on the platform, venture capitalist David Rosenthal of Wave Capital observed. That’s a big engagement driver for the app.

Another strength of TikTok, seemingly trivial at first sight, is the way it displays content. Videos are shown vertically, doing away the need to flip a phone. In a company blog post (in Chinese) on Douyin’s development, ByteDance recounted that most short-video apps budding in 2016 were built for horizontal videos and required users to pick from a list of clips in the fashion of traditional video streaming sites. Douyin, instead, surfaces only one video at a time, full-screen, auto-played and recommended by its well-trained algorithms. What “baffled” many early employees and interviewees turned out to be a game-changing user experience in the mobile internet age.

Douyin’s ally and enemy 

A recent change in Douyin’s domestic rival Kuaishou has brought attention to the intricate links between China’s tech giants. In late December, video app Kuaishou removed the option for users to link e-commerce listings from Taobao, an Alibaba marketplace. Both Douyin and Kuaishou have been exploring e-commerce as a revenue stream, and each has picked its retail partners. While Kuaishou told media that the suspension is due to a “system upgrade,” its other e-commerce partners curiously remain up and running.

Left: Douyin lets creators add a “shop” button to posts. Right: The clickable button is linked to a Taobao product page.

Some speculate that the Beijing-based company could be distancing itself from Alibaba and moving closer to Tencent, Alibaba’s nemesis and a majority shareholder in Kuaishou. Yunfeng Capital, a venture firm backed by Alibaba founder Jack Ma, has also funded Kuaishou but holds a less significant equity stake. That Douyin has long been working with Alibaba on e-commerce might have also been a source of discordance between Kuaishou and Alibaba.

2019 Africa Roundup: Jumia IPOs, China goes digital, Nigeria becomes fintech capital

2019 brought more global attention to Africa’s tech scene than perhaps any previous year.

A high profile IPO, visits by both Jacks (Ma and Dorsey), and big Chinese startup investment energized that.

The last 12 months served as a grande finale to 10 years that saw triple digit increases in startup formation and VC on the continent.

Here’s an overview of the 2019 market events that captured attention and capped off a decade of rapid growth in African tech.

IPOs

The story of the year is the April IPO on the NYSE of Pan-African e-commerce company Jumia. This was the first listing of a VC backed tech company operating in Africa on a major global exchange —  which brought its own unpredictability.

Founded in 2012, Jumia pioneered much of its infrastructure to sell goods to consumers online in Africa.

With Nigeria as its base market, the Rocket Internet backed company created accompanying delivery and payments services and went on to expand online verticals into 14 Africa countries (though it recently exited a few). Jumia now sells everything from mobile-phones to diapers and offers online services such as food-delivery and classifieds.

Seven years after its operational launch, Jumia’s stock debut kicked off with fanfare in 2019, only to be followed by volatility.

The online retailer gained investor confidence out of the gate, more than doubling its $14.95 opening share price post IPO.

That lasted until May, when Jumia’s stock came under attack from short-seller Andrew Left,  whose firm Citron Research issued a report accusing the company of fraud. The American activist investor’s case was bolstered, in part, by a debate that played out across Africa’s tech ecosystem on Jumia’s legitimacy as an African startup, given its (primarily) European senior management.

The entire affair was further complicated during Jumia’s second quarter earnings call when the company disclosed a fraud perpetrated by some of its employees and sales agents. Jumia’s CEO Sacha Poignonnec emphasized the matter was closed, financially marginal and not the same as Andrew Left’s short-sell claims.

Whatever the balance, Jumia’s 2019 ups and downs cast a cloud over its stock with investors. Since the company’s third-quarter earnings-call, Jumia’s NYSE share-price has lingered at around $6 — less than half of its original $14.95 opening, and roughly 80% lower than its high.

Even with Jumia’s post-IPO rocky road, the continent’s leading e-commerce company still has heap of capital and is on pace to generate over $100 million in revenues in 2019 (albeit with big losses).

The company plans reduce costs by generating more revenue from higher-margin internet services, such as payments and classifieds.

There’s a fairly simple equation for Jumia to rebuild shareholder confidence in 2020: avoid scandals, increase revenues over losses. And now that the company’s publicly traded — with financial reporting requirements — there’ll be four earnings calls a year to evaluate Jumia’s progress. 

Jumia may not be the continent’s standout IPO for much longer. Events in 2019 point to Interswitch becoming the second African digital company to list on a global exchange in 2020.  The Nigerian fintech firm confirmed to TechCrunch in November it had reached a billion-dollar unicorn valuation, after a (reported) $200 million investment by Visa. 

Founded in 2002 by Mitchell Elegbe, Interswitch created much of the initial infrastructure to digitize Nigeria’s (then) predominantly cash-based economy. Interswitch has been teasing a public listing since 2016, but delayed it for various reasons. With the company’s billion-dollar valuation in 2019, that pause is likely to end.

“An [Interswitch] IPO is still very much in the cards; likely sometime in the first half of 2020,” a source with knowledge of the situation told TechCrunch. 

China-Africa goes digital

2019 was the year when Chinese actors pivoted to African tech. China is known for its strategic relationship with Africa based (largely) on trade and infrastructure. Over the last 10 years, the country has been less engaged in the continent’s digital-scene.

china africa techThat was until a torrent of investment and partnerships this past year.

July saw Chinese-owned Opera raise $50 million in venture spending to support its growing West African digital commercial network, which includes browser, payments and ride-hail services.

In August, San Francisco and Lagos-based fintech startup Flutterwave partnered with Chinese e-commerce company Alibaba’s Alipay to offer digital payments between Africa and China.

In September, China’s Transsion  — the largest smartphone seller in Africa — listed in an IPO on Shanghai’s new STAR Market. The company raised ≈ $394 million, some of which it is directing toward venture funding and operational expansion in Africa.

The last quarter of 2019 brought a November surprise from China in African tech. Over 15 Chinese investors placed over $240 million in three rounds. Transsion backed consumer payments startup PalmPay raised a $40 million seed, stating its goal to become “Africa’s largest financial services platform.”

Chinese investors also backed Opera-owned OPay’s $120 million raise and East-African trucking logistics company Lori Systems’ (reported) $30 million Series B.

In the new year, TechCrunch will continue to cover the business arc of this surge in Chinese tech investment in Africa. There’ll surely be a number of fresh macro news-points to develop, given the debate (and critique) of China’s role in Africa.

Nigeria and fintech

On debate, the case could be made that 2019 was the year when Nigeria become Africa’s unofficial capital for fintech investment and digital finance startups.

Kenya has held this title hereto, with the local success and global acclaim of its M-Pesa mobile-money product. But more founders and VCs are opting for Nigeria as the epicenter for digital finance growth on the continent.Nigeria naira

A rough tally of 2019 TechCrunch coverage — including previously mentioned rounds — pegs fintech related investment in the West African country at around $400 million over the last 12 months. That’s equivalent to roughly one-third of all startup VC raised for the entire continent in 2018, according to Partech stats.

From OPay to PalmPay to Visa — startups, big finance companies and investors are making Nigeria home-base for their digital finance operations and outward expansion in Africa.

The founder of early-stage payment startup ChipperCash, Ham Serunjogi, explained the imperative to operate in the West African country. “Nigeria is the largest economy and most populous country in Africa. Its fintech industry is one of the most advanced in Africa, up there with Kenya  and South Africa,” he told TechCrunch in May.

When all the 2019 VC numbers are counted, it will be worth matching up Nigeria to Kenya to see how the countries compared for fintech specific investment over the last year.

Acquisitions

Tech acquisitions continue to be somewhat rare in Africa, but there were several to note in 2019. Two of the continent’s powerhouse tech incubators joined forces in September, when Nigerian innovation center and seed-fund CcHub acquired Nairobi based iHub, for an undisclosed amount.

CChub ihub Acquisition

The acquisition brought together Africa’s most powerful tech hubs by membership networks, volume of programs, startups incubated and global visibility. It also elevated CcHub’s Bosun Tijani standing across Africa’s tech ecosystem, as the CEO of the new joint-entity, which also has a VC arm.

CcHub CEO Bosun Tijani1

CcHub/iHub CEO Bosun Tijani

In other acquisition activity, French television company Canal+ acquired the ROK film studio from Nigerian VOD company IROKOtv, for an undisclosed amount. The deal put ROK founder and producer Mary Njoku in charge of a new organization with larger scope and resources.

Many outside Africa aren’t aware that Nigeria’s Nollywood is the Hollywood of the continent and one of the largest film industries (by production volume) in the world. Canal+ told TechCrunch it looks to bring Mary and the Nollywood production ethos to produce content in French speaking African countries.

Other notable 2019 African tech takeovers included Kenyan internet company BRCK’s acquisition of internet provider Surf, Nigerian digital-lending startup OneFi’s Amplify buy and Merck KGaa’s purchase of Kenya-based online healthtech company ConnectMed.

Moto ride-hail mania

In 2019, Africa’s motorcycle ride-hail market — worth an estimated $4 billion — saw a flurry of investment and expansion by startups looking to scale on-demand taxi services. Uber and Bolt got into the motorcycle taxi business in Africa in 2018.

Ampersand Africa e motorcycle

Ampersand in Rwanda

A number of local and foreign startups have continued to grow in key countries, such as Nigeria, Uganda and Kenya.

A battle for funding and market-share emerged in Nigeria in 2019, between key moto ride-hail startups Max.ng, Gokada, and Opera owned ORide.

The on-demand motorcycle market in Africa has attracted foreign investment and moved toward EV development. In May, MAX.ng raised a $7 million Series A round with participation from Yamaha and is using a portion to pilot renewable energy powered e-motorcycles in Africa.

In August, the government of Rwanda announced a national policy to phase out gas-motorcycle taxis altogether in favor of e-motos, in partnership with early-stage EV startup Ampersand.

New funds

The year 2019 saw several new funding initiatives for Africa’s startups. Senegalese VC investor Marieme Diop helped spearhead Dakar Network Angels, a seed-fund for startups in French-speaking Africa — or 24 of the continent’s 54 countries.

Africinvest teamed up with Cathay Innovation to announce the Cathay Africinvest Innovation Fund, a $100+ million capital pool aimed at Series A to C-stage startup investments in fintech, logistics, AI, agtech and edutech.

Accion Venture Lab launched a $24 million fintech fund open to African startups.

And Naspers offered more details on who can pitch to its 1.4 billion rand (≈$100 million) Naspers Foundry fund and made its first investment in online cleaning services company SweepSouth.

Closed up shop

Like any tech ecosystem, not every startup in Africa killed it or even continued to tread water in 2019. Two e-commerce companies — DealDey in Nigeria and Afrimarket in Ivory Coast — closed up digital shop.

Southern Africa’s Econet Media shut down its Kwese TV digital entertainment business in August.

And South Africa based, Pan-African focused cryptocurrency payment startup Wala ceased operations in June. Founder Tricia Martinez named the continent’s poor infrastructure as one of the culprits to shutting down. A possible signal to the startup’s demise could have been its 2017 ICO, where Wala netted only 4% of its $30 million token-offering.

Africa’s startups go global

2019 saw more startups expand products and business models developed in Africa to new markets abroad. In March, Flexclub — a South African venture that matches investors and drivers to cars for ride-hailing services — announced its expansion to Mexico in a partnership with Uber.

In May, ExtraCrunch profiled three African founded fintech startups — Flutterwave, Migo and ChipperCash — developing their business models strategically in Africa toward plans to offer their products in other regions.

By December, Migo (formerly branded Mines) had announced its expansion to Brazil on a $20 million Series B raise.

2020 and beyond

As we look to what could come in the new year and decade for African tech, it’s telling to look back. Ten years ago, there were a lot of “if” questions on whether the continent’s ecosystem could produce certain events: billion dollar startup valuations, IPOs on major exchanges, global expansion, investment from the world’s top VCs.

All those questionable events of the past have become reality in African tech, even if some of them are still in low abundance.

There’s no crystal ball for any innovation ecosystem — not the least Africa’s — but there are several things I’ll be on the lookout for in 2020 and beyond.

Two In the near term, start with what Twitter/Square CEO Jack Dorsey may do around Bitcoin and cryptocurrency on his return to Africa (lookout for an upcoming TechCrunch feature on this).

I’ll also follow the next-phase of e-commerce in Africa, which could pit Jumia more competitively against DHL’s Africa eShop, Opera and China’s Alibaba (which hasn’t yet entered Africa in full).

On a longer-term basis, a development to follow is how the continent’s first wave of millionaire and billionaire tech-founders could disrupt dynamics around politics, power, and philanthropy in Africa —  hopefully for the better.

More notable 2019 Africa-related coverage @TechCrunch

Who will the winners be in the future of fintech?

So what happens when fintech ‘brings it all together’? In a world where people access their financial services through one universal hub, which companies are the best-positioned to win? When open data and protocols become the norm, what business models are set to capitalize on the resulting rush of innovation, and which will become the key back-end and front-end products underpinning finance in the 2020s?

It’s hard to make forward-looking predictions that weather a decade well when talking about the fortunes of individual companies. Still, even if these companies run into operating headwinds, the rationale for their success will be a theme we see play out over the next ten years.

Here are five companies positioned to win the 2020s in fintech:

1. Plaid

In 2014, I met Zach Perret and Carl Tremblay when they reached out to pitch Funding Circle on using Plaid to underwrite small and medium businesses with banking data. At the time, I couldn’t understand how a bank account API was a valuable business.

Plaid’s Series C round in 2018 came with a valuation of $2.65 billion, which caught a lot of people in fintech off-guard. The company, which had been modestly building financial services APIs since 2012, recently crossed the threshold of 10 billion transactions processed since inception.

For those unfamiliar with Plaid’s business model, it operates as the data exchange and API layer that ties financial products together. If you’ve ever paid someone on Venmo or opened a Coinbase account, chances are you linked your bank account through Plaid. It’s possible in 2020 to build a range of powerful financial products because fintechs can pull in robust data through aggregator services like Plaid, so a bet on the fintech industry is, in a sense, a derivative bet on Plaid.

Those 10 billion transactions, meanwhile, have helped Plaid understand the people on its’ clients fintech platforms. This gives it the data to build more value-added services on top of its transactions conduit, such as identity verification, underwriting, brokerage, digital wallets… the company has also grown at a breakneck pace, announcing recent expansions into the UK, France, Spain, and Ireland.

As banks, entrepreneurs, and everyone in-between build more tailored financial products on top of open data, those products will operate on top of secure, high-fidelity aggregators like Plaid.

The biggest unknown for aggregators like Plaid is whether any county debuts a universal, open-source financial services API that puts pricing pressure on a private version. However, this looks like a vanishingly remote possibility given high consumer standards for data security and Plaid’s value-added services.

2. Stripe

Predicting Stripe’s success is the equivalent of ‘buying high,’ but it is hard to argue against Stripe’s pole position over the next fintech decade. Stripe is a global payments processor that creates infrastructure for online financial transactions. What that means is: Stripe enables anyone to accept and make payments online. The payment protocol is so efficient that it’s won over the purchase processing business of companies like Target, Shopify, Salesforce, Lyft, and Oxfam.

Processing the world’s payments is a lucrative business, and one that benefits from the joint tailwinds of the growth of ecommerce and the growth of card networks like Visa and Mastercard. As long as more companies look to accept payment for services in some digital form, whether online or by phone, Stripe is well-positioned to be the intermediary.

The company’s success has allowed Stripe to branch into other services like Stripe Capital to lend directly to ecommerce companies based off their cashflow, or the Stripe Atlas turnkey tool for forming a new business entirely. Similar to Plaid, Stripe has a data network effects business, which means that as it collects more data by virtue of its transaction-processing business, it can leverage this core competency to launch more products associated with that data.

The biggest unknown for Stripe’s prospects is whether open-source payment processing technology gets developed in a way that puts price pressure on Stripe’s margins. Proponents of crypto as a medium of exchange predict that decentralized currencies could have such low costs that vendors are incentivized to switch to them to save on the fees of payment networks. However, in such an event Stripe could easily be a mercenary, and convert its processing business into a free product that underpins many other more lucrative services layered on-top (similar to the free trading transition brought about by Robinhood).

Walmart partners with self-driving startup Nuro to test autonomous grocery delivery in Houston

Walmart this morning announced a new pilot program that will test autonomous grocery delivery in the Houston market starting next year. The retailer is partnering with autonomous vehicle company Nuro, a robotics company that uses driverless technology to deliver goods to customers. Nuro’s vehicles in this case will delivery Walmart online grocery orders to a select group of customers who opt into the service in Houston.

The autonomous delivery service will involve R2, Nuro’s custom-built delivery vehicle that carries products only with no onboard drivers or passengers, as well as autonomous Toyota Priuses that deliver groceries.

The program’s goal is to learn more about how autonomous grocery delivery could work and how such a service can be improved to better serve Walmart’s shoppers.

Nuro’s focus to date has been developing a self-driving stack and combining it with a custom unmanned vehicle designed for last-mile delivery of local goods and services. The vehicle has two compartments that can fit up to six grocery bags each.

The company has raised more than $1 billion from partners, including SoftBank, Greylock Partners and Gaorong Capital. In March, the company announced it had raised $940 million in financing from Softbank Vision Fund.

Nuro is known for its pursuit of autonomous delivery. But it also licensed its self-driving vehicle technology to Ike, the autonomous trucking startup. Ike now has a copy of Nuro’s stack, which is worth billions, based on this latest round. Nuro also has a minority stake in Ike.

Nuro’s partnership with Walmart is hardly its first. The company partnered in 2018 with Kroger to pilot a delivery service in Arizona. The pilot, which initially used Toyota Prius vehicles, transitioned in December to the delivery bot. The autonomous vehicle called R1 is operating as a driverless service without a safety driver on board in the Phoenix suburb of Scottsdale.

The Nuro partnership isn’t Walmart’s first autonomous delivery pilot, either. The retailer earlier this year tapped the startup Udelv to test autonomous grocery deliveries in Arizona. This summer, it kicked off a test with Gatik A.I., an autonomous vehicle startup to test grocery delivery from Walmart’s main warehouse in Bentonville, Arkansas. Walmart also launched a pilot with self-driving company Waymo in 2018 to test rides to Walmart for grocery pickup, as well as a test with Ford and Postmates for autonomous grocery delivery.

“Our unparalleled size and scale has allowed us to steer grocery delivery to the front doors of millions of families – and design a roadmap for the future of the industry,” said Tom Ward, Walmart’s SVP of digital operations, in a statement. “Along the way, we’ve been test driving a number of different options for getting groceries from our stores to our customers’ front doors through self-driving technology. We believe this technology is a natural extension of our Grocery Pickup and Delivery service, and our goal of making every day a little easier for customers,” he aded.

Walmart’s Online Grocery business is booming, but today still relies on partnerships with third-party delivery services. Currently, Walmart partners with delivery providers across the U.S. to facilitate deliveries, including Point Pickup, Skipcart, AxleHire, Roadie, Postmates, and DoorDash. It has also tried, then ended, relationships with DelivUber and Lyft in the past. By the end of 2019, Walmart Grocery will offer nearly 3,100 pickup locations and 1,600 stores that support grocery delivery.

The retailer’s investments in its online grocery business helped boost sales and benefitted consumers by offering an affordable competitor to Amazon, Target’s Shipt, Instacart, and others. In Q3, Walmart’s grocery business helped online sales grow 41%, ahead of the 35% gain expected, leading Walmart to another earnings beat and 21 quarters of growth in the U.S.

In the quarter, Walmart earnings rose to $1.16 a share on revenue of $127.99 billion. However, Walmart’s e-commerce business is losing money as it continues to invest in new technologies and acquisitions, which has led to internal tensions.

Walmart says its pilot program will Nuro will kick off in 2020.