Investors are browsing for Chromium startups

A few months ago, we declared that “browsers are interesting again,” thanks to increased competition among the major players. Now, as more startups are getting onboard, things are getting downright exciting.

A small but growing number of projects are building web browsers with a more specific type of user in mind. Whether that perceived user is prioritizing improved speed, organization or toolsets aligned with their workflow, entrepreneurs are building these projects with the assumption that Google’s one-size-fits-all approach with Chrome leaves plenty of users with a suboptimal experience.

Building a modern web browser from scratch isn’t the most feasible challenge for a small startup. Luckily open-source projects have enabled developers to build their evolved web browsers on the bones of the apps they aim to compete with. For browsers that are not Safari, Firefox, Chrome or a handful of others, Google’s Chromium open-source project has proven to be an invaluable asset.

Since Google first released Chrome in late 2008, the company has also been updating Chromium. The source code powers the Microsoft Edge and Opera web browsers, but also allows smaller developer teams to harness the power of Chrome when building their own apps.

These upstart browsers have generally sought to compete with the dominant powers on the privacy front, but as Chrome and Safari have begun shipping more features to help users manage how they are tracked online, entrepreneurs are widening their product ambitions to tackle usability upgrades.

Aiding these heightened ambitions is increased attention on custom browsers from investors. Mozilla co-founder Brendan Eich’s Brave has continued to scale, announcing last month they had 5 million daily active users of their privacy-centric browser.

Today, Thrive Capital’s Josh Miller spoke with TechCrunch about his project The Browser Company which has raised $5 million from some notable Silicon Valley operators. Other hot upstart efforts include Mighty, a subscription-based, remote-streamed Chrome startup from Mixpanel founder Suhail Doshi, and Blue Link Labs, a recent entrant that’s building a decentralized peer-to-peer browser called Beaker browser.

Mighty

As front-end developers have gotten more ambitious and web applications have gotten more complex, Chrome has earned the reputation of being quite the RAM hog.

Opera’s OPay still plans Africa expansion on Nigerian super app

Opera’s Africa fintech startup OPay remains committed to building a multi-service super app in Nigeria as the foundation to expand on the continent.

OPay also continues to operate ORide for limited passenger service — though the company is shifting the motorcycle ride-hail operation toward logistics businesses.

These were some of the updates offered by Opera’s Derrick Nueman, a VP of Investor Relations and advisor to OPay.

He spoke to TechCrunch amid a flurry of recent reporting questioning OPay’s Nigeria strategy and speculating on its departure from certain verticals.

This is playing out in the context of fierce competition among fintech and mobility companies in the West African country. Nigeria is home to the continent’s largest economy, biggest population and is the top destination for VC to African startups, as of 2019.

Opera launched the OPay mobile money platform in Lagos in 2018 on the popularity of its internet search engine in Africa. A year later, the Norway-based, Chinese-owned company sent jitters through Nigeria’s startup world when it rallied investors to back OPay with $170 million in VC. The financing haul amounted to nearly one-fifth of all venture funding raised for African startups the previous year.

Image Credits: Opera

Opera tapped its capital to go work building a large suite of internet-based commercial products in Nigeria using OPay as the financial utility.

In a 2019 prospectus, Opera referred to this multi-product strategy as creating “Africa’s super app.” Pursuing that platform put OPay in competition with dozens of local startups — such as payment firm Paga and logistics venture Max.ng — without deep pocketed corporate parents.

Opera remains committed to the super app strategy, according to Derrick Nueman. He referred to OPay as “the glue that holds it all together and within there you can offer all sorts of products.”

Nueman compared the approach to other multi-service internet services models such as Grab or Gojek.

“It’s taking what has worked in Asia and and ascribing it to Africa and that to my knowledge is still the plan,” he said.

Opera has tested a number of services verticals in Nigeria. So many it’s been a bit difficult to keep track. A few — such as OBus — have already been jettisoned. Nueman confirmed a list of five current product offerings around Opay in Nigeria:

  • OMall, a B2C e-commerce app
  • OTrade, a B2B e-commerce platform
  • OExpress, a logistics delivery service
  • OFood, for restaurant delivery; and
  • ORide, a motorcycle ride-hail service

OPay — whose Nigerian country manager is Iniabasi Akpan — is also moving into device sales with Olla, a mobile phone line pre-loaded with its apps.

Image Credits: Opera

On ORide in particular, there’s been some speculation the motorcycle ride-hail service will continue, particularly after the Nigeria’s Lagos State severely restricted two wheeled, on-demand passenger services early this year. Nigerian outlet TechCabal reported this week ORide was selling off some of its fleet.

According to Opera’s Derrick Nueman, ORide still offers limited ride-hail taxi service. “On the passenger side, it continues to operate where it can.” Many of motorcycles are being transitioned to other functions within OPay. “What they’ve done is redirected a bunch of their drivers to do things like delivery and logistics,” said Nueman.

Several of ORide’s competitors — such as Max .ng and Gokada — have also shifted away from passenger transit and toward delivery logistics in response to regulatory restrictions on motorcycle taxis.

Opera still plans on taking its super app model on the road in Africa, according to Nueman. “OPay continues to look into other markets. The idea is to take what’s worked in Nigeria and export it,” he said.

In a 2019 release, Opera named Ghana, South Africa and Kenya as potential growth markets.

On timing for expansion, Nueman said it depends on obtaining proper licenses and then, gauging shifting variables related to COVID-19 in Africa.

The economic impact of the global pandemic has cast uncertainty over the continent’s largest economies and tech hubs — such as Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa — where lockdown measures have restricted startup revenues and operations.

By several accounts, Nigeria is either already in or headed for another recession due to the slowdown in economic activity and drop in global demand for oil.

On OPay’s plans to weather a stormy economic environment in its primary market, Opera’s Nueman points to the company’s VC coffers.

“At a high level, if you don’t need capital, or your well funded, you’re ahead of the game,” he said.

Nueman also highlighted the growth of OPay’s payment volume. “Between January and April…the offline and online transaction volume increased by 44%. So even in the lockdown, it’s doing really well.”

Where does this put Opera’s Africa venture in Nigeria’s competitive startup landscape? Traction with payment volume is obviously a good sign for the company. Still, recession and restricted movement could make business as difficult for OPay in Nigeria as its competitors.

Having more capital — and ability to endure a higher burn-rate — places OPay in a strong position vis-a-vis other startups. But it will take more time to determine if OPay can align its super app products to local consumer preferences as well (or better) than offerings by local tech companies.

As has been proven in other markets, all the VC in the world won’t necessarily buy product market fit.

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.

Nigeria’s Paga acquires Apposit, confirms Mexico and Ethiopia expansion

Nigerian digital payments startup Paga has acquired Apposit, a software development company based in Ethiopia, for an undisclosed amount.

That’s just part of Paga’s news. The Lagos based startup will also launch its payment products in Mexico this year and in Ethiopia imminently, CEO Tayo Oviosu told TechCrunch

The moves come a little over a year after Paga raised a $10 million Series B round and Oviosu announced the company’s intent to expand globally, while speaking at Disrupt San Francisco.

Paga will leverage Apposit — which is U.S. incorporated but operates in Addis Ababa — to support that expansion into East Africa and Latin America.

Repat founders

Behind the acquisition is a story threaded with serendipity, return, and collaboration.

Both Paga and Apposit were founded by repatriate entrepreneurs. Oviosu did his MBA at Stanford University and worked at Cisco Systems before returning to Nigeria.

Apposit CEO Adam Abate moved back to Ethiopia 17 years ago for an assignment in the country’s Ministry of Finance, after studying at Brown University and working in fintech in New York.

“I put together a team…to build…public financial management systems for the country. And during the process…brought in my best friend Eric Chijioke…to be a technical engineer,” said Abate.

The two teamed up with Simon Solomon in 2007 to co-found Apposit, with a focus on building large-scale enterprise software for Africa.

Apposit partners (L-R) Adam Abate, Simon Solomon, Eric Chijioke, Gideon Abate

A year later, Oviosu met Chijioke when he crashed at his house while visiting Ethiopia for a wedding. It just so happened Chijioke’s brother was his roommate at Stanford.

That meeting began an extended conversation between the two on digital-finance innovation in Africa and eventually led to a Paga partnership with Apposit in 2010.

Apposit dedicated an engineering team to build Paga’s payment platform, Eric Chijioke became Paga’s CTO (while maintaining his Apposit role) and Apposit backed Paga.

“We aligned ourselves as African entrepreneurs…which then developed into a close relationship where we became…investors in Paga and strategically aligned,” said Abate.

African roots, global ambitions

Fast forward a decade, and the two companies have come pretty far. Apposit has grown its business into a team of 63 engineers and technicians and has racked up a list of client partnerships. The company helped digitize the Ethiopian Commodities Exchange and has contracted on IT and software solutions with banks non-profits and brick and mortar companies.

For a decade, Apposit has also supported Paga’s payment product development.

Paga Interfaces

Over that period, Oviosu and team went to work building Paga’s platform and driving digital payment adoption in Nigeria, home to Africa’s largest economy and population of 200 million.

That’s been no small task considering Nigeria’s percentage of unbanked was pegged as high as at 70% in 2011 and still lingers around 60%, according to The Global Findex database.

Paga has created a multi-channel network to transfer money, pay-bills, and buy things digitally. The company has 14 million customers in Nigeria who can transfer funds from one of Paga’s 24,411 agents or through the startup’s mobile apps.

Paga products work on iOS, Android, and basic USSD phones using a star, hashtag option. The company has remittance partnerships with the likes of Western Union and allows for third-party integration of its app.

Since inception, the startup has processed 104 million transactions worth $6.6 billion, according to Oviosu.

With the acquisition, Paga absorbs Apposit’s tech capabilities and team of 63 engineers.  The company will direct its boosted capabilities and total workforce of 530 to support expansion.

Paga plans its Mexico launch in 2020, according to Oviosu.

Adam Abate is now CEO of Paga Ethiopia, where Paga plans to go live as soon as it gains a local banking license. The East African nation of 100 million, with the continent’s seventh largest economy, is bidding to become Africa’s next startup hub, though it still lags the continent’s tech standouts — like Nigeria and Kenya — in startup formation, ISP options and VC.

Ethiopia has also been slow to adopt digital finance, with less than 1% of the population using mobile-money, compared to 73% for Kenya, Africa’s mobile-payments leader.

Paga aims to shift the financial needle in the country. “The goal is straight-forward. We want Ethiopians to use the Paga wallet as their payment account. So it’s about digitizing cash transactions and driving financial services,” said Oviosu.

Paga CEO Tayo Oviosu

With the Apposit acquisition and country expansion, he also looks to grow Paga’s model in Africa and beyond, as an emerging markets fintech solution.

“There are several very large countries around the world in Africa, Latin America, Asia where these [financial inclusion] problems still exist. So our strategy is not an African strategy…We want to go where these problems exist in a large way and build a global payments business,” Oviosu said.

Fintech competition in Nigeria

As it grows abroad, Paga faces greater competition in Nigeria. For the last decade, South Africa and Kenya — with the success of Safaricom’s  M-Pesa product — have been Africa’s standouts in digital payments.

But over the last several years, Nigeria has become a magnet for VC and fintech startups. This trend reached a high-point in 2019 when Chinese investors put $220 million into Opera owned OPay and Transsion backed PalmPay — two fledgling startups with plans to scale in Nigeria and broader Africa.

That’s a hefty war chest compared to Paga’s total VC haul of $34 million, according to Crunchbase.

Oviosu names product market fit and benefits from the company’s expansion as factors that will keep it ahead of these well-funded new entrants.

“That’s where the world-class technology comes in,” he said.

“We also take a perspective that we cannot build every use-case,” he said — contrasting Paga’s model to Opera in Africa, which has launched multiple startup verticals around its OPay product, from ride-hailing to food-delivery.

Oviosu compares Paga’s approach to PayPal, which allows third-party developers to shape businesses around PayPal as the payment solution.

With its Apposit acquisition and plans for continued expansion, PayPal may become more than a model for Paga.

Founder Tayo Oviosu sees big fintech players, such as PayPal and Alipay, as future competitors with Paga’s planned expansion into more emerging markets.

Jumia, DHL, and Alibaba will face off in African ecommerce 2.0

The business of selling consumer goods and services online is a relatively young endeavor across Africa, but ecommerce is set to boom.

Over the last eight years, the sector has seen its first phase of big VC fundings, startup duels and attrition.

To date, scaling e-commerce in Africa has straddled the line of challenge and opportunity, perhaps more than any other market in the world. Across major African economies, many of the requisites for online retail — internet access, digital payment adoption, and 3PL delivery options — have been severely lacking.

Still, startups jumped into this market for the chance to digitize a share of Africa’s fast growing consumer spending, expected to top $2 billion by 2025.

African e-commerce 2.0 will include some old and new players, play out across more countries, place more priority on internet services, and see the entry of China.

But before highlighting several things to look out for in the future of digital-retail on the continent, a look back is beneficial.

Jumia vs. Konga

The early years for development of African online shopping largely played out in Nigeria (and to some extent South Africa). Anyone who visited Nigeria from 2012 to 2016 likely saw evidence of one of the continent’s early e-commerce showdowns. Nigeria had its own Coke vs. Pepsi-like duel — a race between ventures Konga and Jumia to out-advertise and out-discount each other in a quest to scale online shopping in Africa’s largest economy and most populous nation.

Traveling in Lagos traffic, large billboards for each startup faced off across the skyline, as their delivery motorcycles buzzed between stopped cars.

Covering each company early on, it appeared a battle of VC attrition. The challenge: who could continue to raise enough capital to absorb the losses of simultaneously capturing and creating an e-commerce market in notoriously difficult conditions.

In addition to the aforementioned challenges, Nigeria also had (and continues to have) shoddy electricity.

Both Konga — founded by Nigerian Sim Shagaya — and Jumia — originally founded by two Nigerians and two Frenchman — were forced to burn capital building fulfillment operations most e-commerce startups source to third parties.

That included their own delivery and payment services (KongaPay and JumiaPay). In addition to sales of goods from mobile-phones to diapers, both startups also began experimenting with verticals for internet based services, such as food-delivery and classifieds.

While Jumia and Konga were competing in Nigeria, there was another VC driven race for e-commerce playing out in South Africa — the continent’s second largest and most advanced economy.

E-tailers Takealot and Kalahari had been jockeying for market share since 2011 after raising capital in the hundreds of millions of dollars from investors Naspers and U.S. fund Tiger Global Management.

So how did things turn out in West and Southern Africa? In 2014, the lead investor of a flailing Kalahari — Naspers — facilitated a merger with Takealot (that was more of an acquisition). They nixed the Kalahari brand in 2016 and bought out Takelot’s largest investor, Tiger Global, in 2018. Takealot is now South Africa’s leading e-commerce site by market share, but only operates in one country.

In Nigeria, by 2016 Jumia had outpaced its rival Konga in Alexa ratings (6 vs 14), while out-raising Konga (with backing of Goldman Sachs) to become Africa’s first VC backed, startup unicorn. By early 2018, Konga was purchased in a distressed acquisition and faded away as a competitor to Jumia.

Jumia went on to expand online goods and services verticals into 14 Africa countries (though it recently exited a few) and in April 2019 raised over $200 million in an NYSE IPO — the first on a major exchange for a VC-backed startup operating in Africa.

Jumia’s had bumpy road since going public — losing significant share-value after a short-sell attack earlier in 2019 — but the continent’s leading e-commerce company still has heap of capital and generates $100 million in revenues (even with losses).

Payment startup Chipper Cash raises $6M for Southern Africa expansion

African cross-border fintech startup Chipper Cash has raised a $6 million seed-round led by Deciens Capital.

The San Francisco-based company offers mobile-based, no fee, P2P payment services in six countries: Ghana, Uganda, Nigeria, Tanzania, Rwanda, and Kenya.

Chipper Cash will use the capital to grow its team and move into new geographic areas, according to CEO Ham Serunjogi.

“Southern Africa is an area we’re looking to expand to in 2020,” he told TechCrunch on a call. Chipper Cash won’t yet disclose which countries that could entail.

The digital finance startup’s had a busy 12 months in an eventful year overall for Africa’s fintech scene. After going live in 2018, Chipper Cash raised $2.4 million in May 2019 in a seed round that included support from 500 Startups and Liquid 2 Ventures — co-founded by American football icon Joe Montana.

In September, Chipper Cash expanded into what is now arguably Africa’s largest fintech market, Nigeria. With its latest round, the startup has raised over $8 million in seed capital. Participants in the $6 million financing include previous investors, and a few new backers, such as Boston based Raptor Group.

Deciens Capital Co-Founder Dan Kimerling confirmed the fund’s lead on the latest round and that he will continue his role on Chipper Cash’s board.

The fintech company, co-founded by Ghanaian Maijid Moujaled, now has more than 600,000 active users and has processed over 3 million transactions on its no-fee, P2P, cross-border mobile-money payments product, according to Serunjogi.

Maijid Moujaled and Ham Serunjogi

The startup also runs Chipper Checkout: a merchant-focused, fee-based C2B mobile payment product that generates the revenue to support Chipper Cash’s free mobile-money business.

The startup’s planned move to Southern Africa — home to the continent’s second-largest and most advanced economy of South Africa — will place Chipper Cash in all three corners of the Africa’s triangle of leading digital finance markets.

There are hundreds of payments startups across Africa looking to bring the continent’s large unbanked and underbanked populations onto mobile finance applications.

Some products, such as M-Pesa in Kenya, have succeeded in reaching tens of millions. However, one characteristic of successful African fintech products is their use has been geographically segregated, with few apps able to scale widely across borders.

Chipper Cash touts its ability to grow its P2P product in several countries in 2019, including Nigeria.

Serunjogi explained the imperative to move to the West African country earlier this year. “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.

Apparently a number of actors were on the same wavelength when he said that, as Nigerian fintech gained $360 million in VC in November — the equivalent of roughly one-third of all the startup capital raised in Africa in 2018, according to Partech stats.

Part of this venture influx was directed to potential Chipper Cash competitors.

In two separate rounds, Chinese investors put $220 million into OPay and PalmPay — two fledgling payment startups with plans to scale in Nigeria and the broader continent. That money dwarfs rounds raised by other P2P focused fintech companies, such as Chipper Cash.

On how the startup will compete with the these new players with big coffers, Serunjogi points to Chipper Cash’s gratis-payment structure, among other factors.

Money doesn’t buy product market fit. It doesn’t buy ultimate success in this space,” he said.

“By offering our product for free, we’re not in a pricing war or competing on a dollar-to-dollar basis. We’re in a pure utility war on who can provide the most value to our users. We’re quite comfortable with our position, and our long-term value proposition will speak for itself over time,” Serunjogi added.

At the end of 2020 we can review where Chipper Cash and competitive platforms stand on country reach and volumes in the startup race to scale digital payments across Africa’s 1.2 billion people.

 

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.