Africa Roundup: Nigerian fintech gets $360M, mints unicorn, draws Chinese VC

November 2019 could mark when Nigeria (arguably) became Africa’s unofficial capital for fintech investment and digital finance startups.

The month saw $360 million invested in Nigerian focused payment ventures. That is equivalent to roughly one-third of all the startup VC raised for the entire continent in 2018, according to Partech stats.

A notable trend-within-the-trend is that more than half — or $170 million — of the funding to Nigerian fintech ventures in November came from Chinese investors. This marks a pivot in China’s engagement with Africa to tech. We’ll get to that.

Before the big Chinese backed rounds, one of Nigeria’s earliest fintech companies, Interswitch, confirmed its $1 billion valuation after Visa took a minority stake in the company. Interswitch would not disclose the amount to TechCrunch, but Sky News reporting pegged it at $200 million for 20%.

Founded in 2002 by Mitchell Elegbe, Interswitch pioneered the infrastructure to digitize Nigeria’s then predominantly paper-ledger and cash-based economy.

The company now provides much of the tech-wiring for Nigeria’s online banking system that serves Africa’s largest economy and population. Interswitch offers a number of personal and business finance products, including its Verve payment cards and Quickteller payment app.

The financial services firm has expanded its physical presence to Uganda, Gambia and Kenya . The Nigerian company also sells its products in 23 African countries and launched a partnership in August for Verve cardholders to make payments on Discover’s global network.

Visa and Interswitch touted the equity investment as a strategic collaboration between the two companies, without a lot of detail on what that will mean.

One point TechCrunch did lock down is Interswitch’s (long-awaited) and imminent IPO. A source close to the matter said the company will list on a major exchange by mid-2020.

For the near to medium-term, Interswitch could stand as Africa’s sole tech-unicorn, as e-commerce venture Jumia’s volatile share-price and declining market-cap — since an April IPO — have dropped the company’s valuation below $1 billion.

Circling back to China, November was the month that signaled Chinese actors are all in on African tech.

In two separate rounds, Chinese investors put $220 million into OPay and PalmPay — two fledgling startups with plans to scale in Nigeria and the broader continent.

PalmPay, a consumer oriented payments product, went live last month with a $40 million seed-round (one of the largest in Africa in 2019) led by Africa’s biggest mobile-phone seller — China’s Transsion.

The startup was upfront about its ambitions, stating its goals to become “Africa’s largest financial services platform,” in a company release.

To that end, PalmPay conveniently entered a strategic partnership with its lead investor. The startup’s payment app will come pre-installed on Transsion’s mobile device brands, such as Tecno, in Africa — for an estimated reach of 20 million phones.

PalmPay also launched in Ghana in November and its UK and Africa based CEO, Greg Reeve, confirmed plans to expand to additional African countries in 2020.

OPay’s $120 million Series B was announced several days after the PalmPay news and came only months after the mobile-based fintech venture raised $50 million.

Founded by Chinese owned consumer internet company Opera — and backed by 9 Chinese investors — OPay is the payment utility for a suite of Opera developed internet based commercial products in Nigeria. These include ride-hail apps ORide and OCar and food delivery service OFood.

With its latest Series A, OPay announced it would expand in Kenya, South Africa, and Ghana.

Though it wasn’t fintech, Chinese investors also backed a (reported) $30 million Series B for East African trucking logistics company Lori Systems in November.

With OPay, PalmPay, and Lori Systems, startups in Africa have raised a combined $240 million from 15 Chinese investors in a span of months.

There are a number of things to note and watch out for here, as TechCrunch reporting has illuminated (and will continue to do in follow-on coverage).

These moves mark a next chapter in China’s engagement in Africa and could raise some new issues. Hereto, the country’s interaction with Africa’s tech ecosystem has been relatively light compared to China’s deal-making on infrastructure and commodities.

There continues to be plenty of debate (and critique) of China’s role in Africa. This new digital-phase will certainly add a fresh component to all that. One thing to track will be data-privacy and national-security concerns that may emerge around Chinese actors investing heavily in African mobile consumer platforms.

We’ve seen lines (allegedly) blur on these matters between Chinese state and private-sector actors with companies such as Huawei.

As OPera and PalmPay expand, they may need to do some reassuring of African regulators as countries (such as Kenya) establish more formal consumer protection protocols for digital platforms.

One more thing to follow on OPay’s funding and planned expansion is the extent to which it puts Opera (and its entire suite of consumer internet products) in competition with multiple actors in Africa’s startup ecosystem. Opera’s Africa ventures could go head to head with Uber, Jumia, and M-Pesa — the mobile money-product that put Kenya out front on digital finance in Africa before Nigeria.

Shifting back to American engagement in African tech, Twitter and Square CEO Jack Dorsey was on the continent in November. No sooner than he’d finished his first trip, Dorsey announced plans to move to Africa in 2020, for 3 to 6 months, saying on Twitter “Africa will define the future (especially the bitcoin one!).”

We still don’t know much about what this last trip — or his future foray — mean in terms of concrete partnerships, investment, or market moves in Africa from Dorsey and his companies.

He visited Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa and Ethiopia and met with leaders at Nigeria’s CcHub (Bosun Tijani), Ethiopia’s Ice Addis (Markos Lemming), and did some meetings with fintech founders in Lagos (Paga’s Tayo Oviosu).

I know most of the organizations and people Dorsey talked to pretty well and nothing has shaken out yet in terms of partnership or investment news from his recent trip.

On what could come out of Dorsey’s 2020 move to Africa, per his tweet and news highlighted in this roundup, a good bet would be it will have something to with fintech and Square.

More Africa-related stories @TechCrunch

African tech around the ‘net

Opera’s Africa fintech startup OPay gains $120M from Chinese investors

Africa focused fintech startup OPay has raised a $120 million Series B round backed by Chinese investors.

Located in Lagos and founded by consumer internet company Opera, OPay will use the funds to scale in Nigeria and expand its payments product to Kenya, Ghana and South Africa — Opera’s CFO Frode Jacobsen confirmed to TechCrunch.

Series B investors included Meituan-Dianping, GaoRong, Source Code Capital, Softbank Asia, BAI, Redpoint, IDG Capital, Sequoia China and GSR Ventures.

OPay’s $120 million round comes after the startup raised $50 million in June.

It also follows Visa’s $200 million investment in Nigerian fintech company Interswitch and a $40 million raise by Lagos based payments startup PalmPay — led by China’s Transsion.

There are a couple quick takeaways. Nigeria has become the epicenter for fintech VC and expansion in Africa. And Chinese investors have made an unmistakable pivot to African tech.

Opera’s activity on the continent represents both trends. The Norway based, Chinese (majority) owned company founded OPay in 2018 on the popularity of its internet search engine.

Opera’s web-browser has ranked No. 2 in usage in Africa, after Chrome, the last four years.

The company has built a hefty suite of internet-based commercial products in Nigeria around OPay’s financial utility. These include motorcycle ride-hail app ORide, OFood delivery service, and OLeads SME marketing and advertising vertical.

“Opay will facilitate the people in Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa, Kenya and other African countries with the best fintech ecosystem. We see ourselves as a key contributor to…helping local businesses…thrive from…digital business models,” Opera CEO and OPay Chairman Yahui Zhou, said in a statement.

Opera CFO Frode Jacobsen shed additional light on how OPay will deploy the $120 million across Opera’s Africa network. OPay looks to capture volume around bill payments and airtime purchases, but not necessarily as priority.  “That’s not something you do ever day. We want to focus our services on things that have high-frequency usage,” said Jacobsen.

Those include transportation services, food services, and other types of daily activities, he explained. Jacobsen also noted OPay will use the $120 million to enter more countries in Africa than those disclosed.

Since its Series A raise, OPay in Nigeria has scaled to 140,000 active agents and $10 million in daily transaction volume, according to company stats.

Beyond standing out as another huge funding round, OPay’s $120 million VC raise has significance for Africa’s tech ecosystem on multiple levels.

It marks 2019 as the year Chinese investors went all in on the continent’s startup scene. OPay, PalmPay, and East African trucking logistics company Lori Systems have raised a combined $240 million from 15 different Chinese actors in a span of months.

OPay’s funding and expansion plans are also harbinger for fierce, cross-border fintech competition in Africa’s digital finance space. Parallel events to watch for include Interswitch’s imminent IPO, e-commerce venture Jumia’s shift to digital finance, and WhatsApp’s likely entry in African payments.

The continent’s 1.2 billion people represent the largest share of the world’s unbanked and underbanked population — which makes fintech Africa’s most promising digital sector. But it’s becoming a notably crowded sector where startup attrition and failure will certainly come into play.

And not to be overlooked is how OPay’s capital raise moves Opera toward becoming a multi-service commercial internet platform in Africa.

This places OPay and its Opera-supported suite of products on a competitive footing with other ride-hail, food delivery and payments startups across the continent. That means inevitable competition between Opera and Africa’s largest multi-service internet company, Jumia.

 

 

 

 

 

Opera’s desktop browser gets built-in tracking protection

Browser maker Opera today announced the launch of version 68 of its flagship desktop browser. The marquee feature of the launch is the addition of a tracker blocker that will make it harder for advertisers and others to track you while you browse the web — and which has the additional benefit of speeding up your browsing session. Indeed, Opera argues that turning on both the tracking protection and the built-in ad blocker can speed up page loads by up to 23 percent.

The new tracking protection feature is off by default (as is the existing ad blocker). The tracking feature uses the EasyPrivacy Tracking Protection List, which has been around for quite a few years now.

“We consider the tracker blocker to be a browser feature which can be kept on at all times, “writes Opera PC product manager Joanna Czajka. “Our browser, however, also has plenty of extended privacy features which come in handy when someone feels the need to increase the privacy of their browsing even further.”

In addition to the new tracking protection, which is increasingly becoming standard among browser vendors (and which is surely putting some additional pressure on Google and its Chrome browser), Opera is also introducing a new screenshotting feature with this update. That’s not an unusual feature, but it’s a pretty full-featured implementation, with the ability to blur parts of a page and draw on the screenshots.

opera screenshot

 

China’s growing digital influence in Africa

There’s been a heap of China in Africa coverage over the last decade, but very little of it is focused on tech. In part, because the country’s engagement with African startups is light compared to its deal-making on infrastructure and commodities. Now, that all looks to be shifting.

TechCrunch has tracked moves by a number of Chinese actors in Africa’s tech sector over the past year. This could signal the next chapter in China’s influence in Africa — one more digital than bricks and mortar.

Primer on China in Africa

To the former, the government of China has designated Africa a strategic priority in its foreign relations and has pursued policies and programs accordingly.

Africa’s top mobile phone seller Transsion lists in Chinese IPO

Chinese mobile-phone and device maker Transsion has listed in an IPO on Shanghai’s STAR Market, a Transsion spokesperson confirmed to TechCrunch. 

Headquartered in Shenzhen, Transsion is a top-seller of smartphones in Africa under its Tecno brand. The company has also started to support venture funding of African startups.

Transsion issued 80 million A-shares at an opening price of 35.15 yuan (≈ $5.00) to raise 2.8 billion yuan (or ≈ $394 million).

A-shares are the common shares issued by mainland Chinese companies and are normally available for purchases only by mainland citizens. 

Transsion’s IPO prospectus is downloadable (in Chinese) and its STAR Market listing application available on the Shanghai Stock Exchange’s website.

STAR is the Shanghai Stock Exchange’s new Nasdaq-style board for tech stocks that went live in July with some 25 companies going public.

Transsion plans to spend 1.6 billion yuan (or $227 million) of its STAR Market raise on building more phone assembly hubs and around 430 million yuan ($62 million) on research and development, including a mobile phone R&D center in Shanghai, a company spokesperson said.

To support its African sales network, Transsion maintains a manufacturing facility in Ethiopia.  The company recently announced plans to build an industrial park and R&D facility in India for manufacture of phones to Africa.

The IPO comes after Transsion announced its intent to go public and filed its first docs with the Shanghai Stock Exchange in April.

Listing on STAR Market puts Transsion on China’s new exchange — seen as an extension of Beijing’s ambition to become a hub for tech startups to raise public capital. Chinese regulators lowered profitability requirements for the STAR Market, which means pre-profit ventures can list.

China Star Market Opening July 2019 1

Transsion’s IPO comes when the company is actually in the black. The firm generated 22.6 billion yuan ($3.29 billion) in revenue in 2018, up from 20 billion yuan a year earlier. Net profit for the year slid to 654 million yuan, down from 677 million yuan in 2017, according to the firm’s prospectus.

Transsion sold 124 million phones globally in 2018, per company data. In Africa, Transsion holds 54% of the feature phone market — through its brands Tecno, Infinix and Itel — and in smartphone sales is second to Samsung and before Huawei, according to International Data Corporation stats.

Transsion has R&D centers in Nigeria and Kenya and its sales network in Africa includes retail shops in Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Egypt. The company also attracted attention for being one of the first known device makers to optimize its camera phones for African complexions.

On a 2019 research trip to Addis Ababa, TechCrunch learned the top entry-level Tecno smartphone was the W3, which lists for 3,600 Ethiopian Birr, or roughly $125.

In Africa, Transsion’s ability to build market share and find a sweet spot with consumers on price and features gives it prominence in the continent’s booming tech scene.

Africa already has strong mobile-phone penetration, but continues to undergo a conversion from basic USSD phones, to feature phones, to smartphones.

Smartphone adoption on the continent is low, at 34%, but expected to grow to 67% by 2025, according to GSMA.

This, added to an improving internet profile, is key to Africa’s tech scene. In top markets for VC and startup origination — such as Nigeria, Kenya, and South Africa — thousands of ventures are building business models around mobile-based products and digital applications.

If Transsion’s IPO enables higher smartphone conversion on the continent, that could enable more startups and startup opportunities — from fintech to VOD apps.

Another interesting facet to Transsion’s IPO is its potential to create greater influence from China in African tech, in particular as the Shenzhen company moves more definitely toward venture investing.

In August, Transsion funded Future Hub teamed up with Kenya’s Wapi Capital to source and fund early-stage African fintech startups.

China’s engagement with African startups has been light compared to China’s deal-making on infrastructure and commodities — further boosted in recent years as Beijing pushes its Belt and Road plan.

Transsion’s IPO is the second event this year — after Chinese owned Opera’s venture spending in Nigeria — to reflect greater Chinese influence and investment in the continent’s digital scene.

So in coming years, China could be less known for building roads and bridges in Africa and more for selling smartphones and providing VC for African startups.

Africa’s top mobile phone seller Transsion to list in Chinese IPO

Chinese mobile-phone and device maker Transsion will list in an IPO on Shanghai’s STAR Market,  Transsion confirmed to TechCrunch. 

The company—which has a robust Africa sales network—could raise up to 3 billion yuan (or $426 million).

“The company’s listing-related work is running smoothly. The registration application and issuance process is still underway, with the specific timetable yet to be confirmed by the CSRC and Shanghai Stock Exchange,” a spokesperson for Transsion’s Office of the Secretary to the Chairman told TechCrunch via email.

Transsion’s IPO prospectus was downloadable (in Chinese) and its STAR Market listing application available on the Shanghai Stock Exchange’s website.

STAR is the Shanghai Stock Exchange’s new Nasdaq-style board for tech stocks that also went live in July with some 25 companies going public. 

Headquartered in Shenzhen—where African e-commerce unicorn Jumia also has a logistics supply-chain facility—Transsion is a top-seller of smartphones in Africa under its Tecno brand.

The company has a manufacturing facility in Ethiopia and recently expanded its presence in India.

Transsion plans to spend the bulk of its STAR Market raise (1.6 billion yuan or $227 million) on building more phone assembly hubs and around 430 million yuan ($62 million) on research and development,  including a mobile phone R&D center in Shanghai—a company spokesperson said. 

Transsion recently announced a larger commitment to capturing market share in India, including building an industrial park in the country for manufacture of phones to Africa.

The IPO comes after Transsion announced its intent to go public and filed its first docs with the Shanghai Stock Exchange in April. 

Listing on the STAR Market will put Transsion on the freshly minted exchange seen as an extension of Beijing’s ambition to become a hub for high-potential tech startups to raise public capital. Chinese regulators lowered profitability requirements, for the exchange, which means pre-profit ventures can list.

Transsion’s IPO process comes when the company is actually in the black. The firm generated 22.6 billion yuan ($3.29 billion) in revenue in 2018, up from 20 billion yuan from a year earlier. Net profit for the year slid to 654 million yuan, down from 677 million yuan in 2017, according to the firm’s prospectus.

Transsion sold 124 million phones globally in 2018, per company data. In Africa, Transsion holds 54% of the feature phone market—through its brands Tecno, Infinix, and Itel—and in smartphone sales is second to Samsung and before Huawei, according to International Data Corporation stats.

Transsion has R&D centers in Nigeria and Kenya and its sales network in Africa includes retail shops in Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Egypt. The company also attracted attention for being one of the first known device makers to optimize its camera phones for African complexions.

On a recent research trip to Addis Ababa, TechCrunch learned the top entry-level Tecno smartphone was the W3, which lists for 3600 Ethiopian Birr, or roughly $125.

In Africa, Transsion’s ability to build market share and find a sweet spot with consumers on price and features gives it prominence in the continent’s booming tech scene.

Africa already has strong mobile-phone penetration, but continues to undergo a conversion from basic USSD phones, to feature phones, to smartphones.

Smartphone adoption on the continent is low, at 34 percent, but expected to grow to 67 percent by 2025, according to GSMA.

This, added to an improving internet profile, is key to Africa’s tech scene. In top markets for VC and startup origination—such as Nigeria, Kenya, and South Africa—thousands of ventures are building business models around mobile-based products and digital applications.

If Transsion’s IPO enables higher smartphone conversion on the continent that could enable more startups and startup opportunities—from fintech to VOD apps.

Another interesting facet to Transsion’s IPO is its potential to create greater influence from China in African tech, in particular if the Shenzhen company moves strongly toward venture investing.

Comparatively, China’s engagement with African startups has been light compared to China’s deal-making on infrastructure and commodities—further boosted in recent years as Beijing pushes its Belt and Road plan.

Transsion’s IPO move is the second recent event—after Chinese owned Opera’s big venture spending in Nigeria—to reflect greater Chinese influence and investment in the continent’s digital scene.

So in coming years, China could be less known for building roads, bridges, and buildings in Africa and more for selling smartphones and providing VC for African startups.

Africa Roundup: Canal+ acquires ROK, Flutterwave and Alipay partner, OPay raises $50M

in July, French television company Canal+ acquired the ROK film studio from VOD company IROKOtv.

Canal+ would not disclose the acquisition price, but confirmed there was a cash component of the deal.

Founded by Jason Njoku  in 2010 — and backed by $45 million  in VC — IROKOtv boasts the world’s largest online catalog of Nollywood: a Nigerian movie genre that has become Africa’s de facto film industry and one of the largest globally (by production volume).

Based in Lagos, ROK film studios was incubated to create original content for IROKOtv, which can be accessed digitally anywhere in the world.

ROK studio founder and producer Mary Njoku  will stay on as director general under the Canal+ acquisition.

With the ROK deal, Canal+ looks to bring the Nollywood production ethos to other African countries and regions. The new organization plans to send Nigerian production teams to French speaking African countries starting this year.

The ability to reach a larger advertising network of African consumers on the continent and internationally was a big acquisition play for Canal+.

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.

Flutterwave is a Nigerian-founded B2B payments service (primarily) for companies in Africa to pay other companies on the continent and abroad.

Alipay is Alibaba’s digital wallet and payments platform. In 2013, Alipay surpassed PayPal in payments volume and currently claims a global network of more than 1 billion active users, per Alibaba’s latest earnings report.

A large portion of Alipay’s network is in China, which makes the Flutterwave integration significant to capturing payments activity around the estimated $200 billion in China-Africa trade.

Flutterwave will earn revenue from the partnership by charging its standard 3.8% on international transactions. The company currently has more than 60,000 merchants on its platform, according to CEO Olugbenga Agboola.

In a recent Extra Crunch feature, TechCrunch tracked Flutterwave as one of several Africa-focused fintech companies that have established headquarters in San Francisco and operations in Africa to tap the best of both worlds in VC, developers, clients and digital finance.

Flutterwave’s Alipay collaboration also tracks a trend of increased presence of Chinese companies in African tech. 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. The funds are predominately for OPay, an Opera owned, Africa-focused mobile payments startup.

Lead investors included Sequoia China, IDG Capital  and Source Code Capital. Opera  also joined the round in the payments venture it created.

OPay will use the capital (which wasn’t given a stage designation) primarily to grow its digital finance business in Nigeria — Africa’s most populous nation and largest economy.

OPay will also support Opera’s growing commercial network in Nigeria, which includes motorcycle ride-hail app ORide and OFood delivery service.

Opera founded OPay in 2018 on the popularity of its internet search engine. Opera’s web-browser has ranked No. 2 in usage in Africa, after Chrome, the last four years.

July also saw transit tech news in East Africa. Global ride-hail startup InDriver launched its app-based service in Kampala (Uganda), bringing its Africa operating countries to four: Kenya,  Uganda, South Africa and Tanzania. InDriver’s mobile app allows passengers to name their own fare for nearby drivers to accept, decline or counter.

Nairobi-based internet hardware and service startup BRCK and Egyptian ride-hail venture Swvl are partnering to bring Wi-Fi and online entertainment to on-demand bus service in Kenya.

Swvl BRCK Moja KenyaBRCK is installing its routers on Swvl vehicles in Kenya  to run its Moja service, which offers free public Wi-Fi — internet, music and entertainment — subsidized by commercial partners.

Founded in Cairo in 2017, Swvl is a mass transit service that has positioned itself as an Uber  for shared buses.

The company raised a $42 million Series B round in June, with intent to expand in Africa, Swvl CEO Mostafa Kandil said in an interview.

BRCK and Swvl wouldn’t confirm plans on expanding their mobile internet partnership to additional countries outside of Kenya .

Africa’s ride-hail markets are becoming a multi-wheeled and global affair making the continent home to a number of fresh mobility use cases, including the BRCK and Swvl Wi-Fi partnership.

More Africa-related stories @TechCrunch

African tech around the ‘net

Flutterwave and Alipay partner on payments between Africa and China

San Francisco and Lagos-based fintech startup Flutterwave has partnered with Chinese e-commerce company Alibaba to offer digital payments between Alipay and African merchants.

Flutterwave is a Nigerian-founded B2B payments service (primarily) for companies in Africa to pay other companies on the continent and abroad.

Alipay is Alibaba’s digital wallet and payments platform. In 2013, Alipay surpassed PayPal in payments volume and currently claims a global network of more than 1 billion active users, per Alibaba’s latest earnings report.

A large portion of Alipay’s network is in China, which makes the Flutterwave integration significant to capturing payments activity around the estimated $200 billion in China-Africa trade.

“This means that all our merchants can accept or install Alipay as a payment type to accept payments from its billion users,” Flutterwave CEO Olugbenga Agboola — aka GB — told TechCrunch.

GB Flutterwave disrupt“There’s a lot of trade between Africa and China and this integration makes it easier for African merchants to accept Chinese customer payments.”

A Flutterwave company release added, “We’ve managed to connect African countries…to each other so it was about time we connected Africa to the world. We started with the U.S. … but you can’t connect Africa to the world without China.”

An Alipay spokesperson confirmed with TechCrunch the Flutterwave collaboration. Flutterwave will earn revenue from the partnership by charging its standard 2.8% on international transactions. The company currently has more than 60,000 merchants on its platform, according to Agboola.

The Flutterwave-Alipay alliance developed out of Agboola’s acceptance in Alibaba’s Africa eFounders Fellowship.

“Because of that I was in China to do meetings with Jack Ma and the only ask I had from that trip is ‘I want to be the Africa payment infrastructure that plugs directly into Alipay,’ ” Agboola said.

The Alipay partnership follows one between Flutterwave and Visa earlier this year to launch a consumer payment product for Africa, called GetBarter.

Founded in 2016, Flutterwave allows clients to tap its APIs and work with Flutterwave developers to customize payments applications. Existing customers include Uber, Facebook, Booking.com and e-commerce unicorn Jumia.com. Flutterwave has processed 100 million transactions worth $2.6 billion since inception, according to company data.

In a recent Extra Crunch feature, TechCrunch tracked Flutterwave as one of several Africa-focused fintech companies that have established headquarters in San Francisco and operations in Africa to tap the best of both worlds in VC, developers, clients and digital finance.

Flutterwave’s Alipay collaboration also tracks a trend of increased presence of Chinese companies in African tech.

China’s engagement with African startups has been light compared to the country’s deal-making on infrastructure and commodities. That looks to be shifting.

Alibaba founder Jack Ma has made several trips to the continent and this March announced the $1 million Africa Netpreneur Prize for African startups and founders. Chinese company Transsion—a top-seller of smartphones in Africa under its Tecno brand—operates an assembly facility in Ethiopia and announced its IPO this year.

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

 

Opera’s VPN returns to its Android browser

Opera had a couple of tumultuous years behind it, but it looks like the Norwegian browser maker (now in the hands of a Chinese consortium) is finding its stride again and refocusing its efforts on its flagship mobile and desktop browsers. Before the sale, Opera offered a useful stand-alone and built-in VPN service. Somehow, the built-in VPN stopped working after the acquisition. My understanding is that this had something to do with the company being split into multiple parts, with the VPN service ending up on the wrong side of that divide. Today, it’s officially bringing this service back as part of its Android app.

The promise of the new Opera VPN in Opera for Android 51 is that it will give you more control over your privacy and improve your online security, especially on unsecured public WiFi networks. Opera says it uses 256-bit encryption and doesn’t keep a log or retain any activity data.

Since Opera now has Chinese owners, though, not everybody is going to feel comfortable using this service, though. When I asked the Opera team about this earlier this year at MWC in Barcelona, the company stressed that it is still based in Norway and operates under that country’s privacy laws. The message being that it may be owned by a Chinese consortium but that it’s still very much a Norwegian company.

If you do feel comfortable using the VPN, though, then getting started is pretty easy (I’ve been testing in the beta version of Opera for Android for a while). Simply head to the setting menu, flip the switch, and you are good to go.

“Young people are being very concerned about their online privacy as they increasingly live their lives online, said Wallman. “We want to make VPN adoption easy and user-friendly, especially for those who want to feel more secure on the Web but are not aware on how to do it. This is a free solution for them that works.”

What’s important to note here is that the point of the VPN is to protect your privacy, not to give you a way to route around geo-restrictions (though you can do that, too). That means you can’t choose a specific country as an endpoint, only ‘America,’ ‘Asia,’ and ‘Europe.’

Opera Touch brings website cookie blocking to iOS

Last fall, Opera introduced Opera Touch for iOS – a solid alternative to Safari on iPhone, optimized for one-handed use. Today, the company is rolling out a notable new feature to this app: cookie blocking. Yes, it can now block those annoying dialogs that ask you to accept the website’s cookies. These are particularly problematic on mobile, where they often entirely interrupt your ability to view the content, as opposed to on many desktop websites where you can (kind of) ignore the pop-up banner that appears at the bottom or the top of the page.

Cookie dialogs have become prevalent across the web as a result of Europe’s GDPR, but many people find them overly intrusive. Today, it takes an extra click to dismiss these prompts, which slows down web browsing – especially for those times you’re on the hunt for a particular piece of information and are visiting several websites in rapid succession.

The cookie blocking feature was first launched in November on Opera’s flagship app for Android, but hadn’t yet made its way to iOS – through any browser app, that is, not just one from Opera. The company says it uses a mix of CSS and JavaScript heuristics in order to block the prompts.

At the time of the launch, Opera noted it had tested the feature with some 15,000 sites.

It’s important to note that the default setting for the cookie blocker on Opera Touch will allow the websites to set cookies.

Here’s how it works. When you enable the feature, it will hide the dialog boxes from appearing, allowing you to read a website without having to first close the prompt. However, when you turn on the Cookie Blocker option, another setting is also switched on: one that says “automatically accept cookie dialogs.”

That means, in practice, when you’re enabling the Cookie Blocker, you’re also enabling cookie acceptance if you don’t take further action.

But Opera says you can disable this checkbox, if you don’t want your browser to give websites your acceptance.

In addition to the new cookie blocking, the browser has a number of other options that make it an interesting alternative to Safari on iOS or Google Chrome.

For example, if offers built-in ad blocking, cryptocurrency mining protection (which prevents malicious sites from using your device’s resources to mine for cryptocurrencies), a way to send web content to your PC through Opera’s “Flow” technology, and – most importantly – a design focused on using the app with just one hand.

Since the app’s launch in April, the company has rolled out 23 new features in total. This include a new dark theme, as well as the addition of a private mode, plus search engine choice which offers 11 options, including Qwant and DuckDuckGo, and other features.

The app is a free download on iOS.