Spain’s All Iron Ventures closes €66.5M first fund

Spain’s All Iron Ventures (AIV), an investor in b2c marketplaces and ecommerce plays, has closed its first fund with commitments totalling €66.5 million (~$79M) — which it touts as one of the largest first fund raises in the country. 

Capital committed to the fund by its parent Group’s founding partners and other investors brings its total investment capacity to around €110M. 

Backing for the fund has come from private investors, with no public support sought. AIV aligns itself with what it dubs a “new breed” of entrepreneur-backed VCs emerging in Europe — which includes having its own incubation program.

The Bilbao headquartered fund has been operating since late 2017, run by co-directors Hugo Fernández-Mardomingo and Diego Recondo. It’s part of the All Iron Group — which includes a listed real estate holding company and was founded by the Ticketbis founders who sold their ticket reselling marketplace to eBay in 2016 for more than 165M; a major exit success story for the Spanish ecosystem.

Among some 150 investors in AIV’s fund I are local entrepreneurs such as Iñaki Ecenarro (who is also a partner); Salvador García, co-founder and CEO of fintech startup ebury; and Jose Poza, founder of Ibercom which later merged with MasMóvil (which was itself recently acquired by private equity in a multi-billion euro deal).

The fund leads or co-invests mainly in Series A and pre-A funding rounds — though it notes it has flexibility to also invest at seed level. It typically cuts an initial check of up to €2M, with the capacity to support portfolio companies in follow-on rounds too.

Its investment thesis is focused on b2c companies, with a stated preference for marketplaces, subscription and e-commerce models. “Capital efficiency and clear path to profitability play a significant part in AIV’s investment decisions,” it adds in a press release.

In terms of geography, AIV positions itself as a partner for international VCs wanting to invest in Spain and elsewhere — with an international focus on Europe and the Americas.

Recent investments include Ukraine-based online tutoring marketplace Preply and Spanish on-demand laundry service Mr Jeff.

Other portfolio startups include Lookiero, Lingokids, Spotahome and Seedtag (from Spain) — as well as Barkyn (Portugal), Refurbed (Austria), Paul Camper (Germany). Kodit (Finland), Rebag (US) and Zenklub (Brazil).

OMERS Ventures announces a new $750M fund for investing in North America, Europe

OMERS Ventures, the venture capital arm of the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System (OMERS), has put together a new, $750 million fund to invest in both Europe and North America.

The capital vehicle is larger than the group’s preceding European and North American funds combined. In 2019 OMERS Ventures announced a €300 million fund Europe-focused fund (TechCrunch covered its launch here), and the venture group’s last North American fund was worth $300 million back in 2017. The new $750 million is a hybrid, acting as both the firm’s Europe-focused capital pool and the source of funds from which it can invest in North American startups.

According to Damien Steel, a managing partner at OMERS Ventures, the firm invested about CAD$100 million from the original Europe fund, with the rest now reserved for follow-on investments; Steel told TechCrunch that he doesn’t anticipate that the full amount will be used for that purpose.

But the remaining differential is somewhat immaterial as the venture collective has a new, three-quarters-of-a-billion-dollars capital pool to put to work. According to Steel, OMERS Ventures has “consolidated [its] efforts and made a new transatlantic fund.” The firm’s hope is that the shared capital will lead to a more cohesive investing group than having two funds for different teams engendered.

OMERS Ventures expects to deploy around $200 million a year across Europe and North America, a pace that Steel says will be similar to preceding efforts.

The COVID era

I wanted to chase down what Steel and company are doing that’s different in the new era. Something new is a slightly different mindset concerning runway. Instead of the usual 18-month expectation between rounds, Steel told TechCrunch that expectations and planning are lengthening to 24 months or longer between capital events — enough cash to get through whatever the current downturn winds up becoming.

Happily for Steel and his firm, some OMERS portfolio companies are well capitalized, with the venture capitalist telling TechCrunch during a call that “that the companies [his firm has] invested in a have really benefited from the exceptional amount of liquidity that’s been available in the market over the last two years,” with some of their startups winding up “sitting on quite a lot of cash because arguably they raised too much in 2019 and 2018.”

The capital was cheap, Steel notes, so lots of companies took what was on offer. The result? Many startups heading into 2020’s recession have well-stocked bank accounts. Not all, of course, raised right before things got worse. The firms that didn’t may struggle.

Given that the new OMERS Ventures fund intends to invest both in North America and Europe, I wanted to know what’s different between the two regions today as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to drive economic havoc. Notable to me was the fact that Europe is doing as well as it is, with Steel noting that “the funding environment has remained more active in Europe than it has in the US.”

He’s seeing “healthy” activity in Europe around the Series A and B stages. It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that Steel told TechCrunch that the startup valuation pressure it’s easy to find in the North America venture scene isn’t quite as tough in Europe. Steel noted that 20% and 30% drops in valuation multiples in American and Canada from prior levels are common, while in Europe “it’s definitely less than that.”

For founders that there’s new funds of scale coming together at all is likely welcome. OMERS Ventures expects to have closed eight deals from its new fund “within a month,” a quick pace given its age.

Disclosure: OMERS Ventures invested in Crunchbase, my former employer. 

Precursor Ventures’ Charles Hudson on ‘the conversation no one has during an upmarket’

For pre-seed startups, precarious times are baseline until they secure their first customer, first hire and first check. But no matter how built-in turbulence might be for a pre-seed founder, we’re entering a period where stresses are amplified and outlooks are unpredictable.

In light of the new market conditions, a harder fundraising market and slower expected growth, Charles Hudson (founder and general partner of Precursor Ventures) is urging his portfolio companies to reassess their futures with a refreshingly human question: “Are you excited and prepared to run this company for the next two years?

If not, you might want to do something else. Why? Because if a super early-stage company manages to survive the COVID-19 era, making it out the other end, it’s not clear that they’ll be venture-ready when markets recover. As Hudson put it, “there’s never been a better time to maybe fold.” That’s because, he explained, startups that merely survive won’t be judged merely against their peers that also survived; they will also compete with brand-new startups for capital and companies that didn’t need to hunker down during lean times.

It’s possible to make it through, but it won’t be an easy path.

TechCrunch spoke with Hudson earlier this week as part of our ongoing Extra Crunch Live series that brings leading founders and investors to our (virtual) stage. Between our editors and journalists and the best questions from the audience, we’re working with guests to understand the new world that we find ourselves in. That we’re hosting these events virtually instead of in-person is testament to our changed reality.

But the chat was far from all gloom; Hudson is bullish on a number of things. Niche publications with subscription economics? Yes. Social services targeting particular audiences? Yep! Precursor is still cutting checks into net-new deals, and while it’s wrapping up its second main fund and first opportunity fund, the firm is also raising a new, larger capital pool.

The conversation ran the full hour we had set aside for it, meaning we had to condense some later discussions about fintech and the new trade-off between growth and profit, but we did get to diversity in venture and startups in the future, and what impact a recession might have on both (it’s a bigger possible impact than you’re considering).

Hit the jump for the best Hudson takeaways and the full audio recording from the session. Head here if you need Extra Crunch access; there are some trials for just a few bucks, so everyone can access the chat. Let’s go!

Raising a fund in the COVID-19 era

Nigeria is becoming Africa’s unofficial tech capital

Africa has one of the world’s fastest growing tech markets and Nigeria is becoming its unofficial capital.

While the West African nation is commonly associated with negative cliches around corruption and terrorism — which persist as serious problems, and influenced the Trump administration’s recent restrictions on Nigerian immigration to the U.S.

Even so, there’s more to the country than Boko Haram or fictitious princes with inheritances.

Nigeria has become a magnet for VC, a hotbed for startup formation and a strategic entry point for Silicon Valley. As a frontier market, there is certainly a volatility to the country’s political and economic trajectory. The nation teeters back and forth between its stereotypical basket-case status and getting its act together to become Africa’s unrivaled superpower.

The upside of that pendulum is why — despite its problems — so much American, Chinese and African tech capital is gravitating to Nigeria.

Demographics

“Whatever you think of Africa, you can’t ignore the numbers,” Africa’s richest man Aliko Dangote told me in 2015, noting that demographics are creating an imperative for global businesses to enter the continent.

Last day for early-bird tickets to TC Sessions: Robotics + AI 2020

Today’s your last day to score early-bird pricing on tickets to TC Sessions: Robotics + AI 2020, which takes place on March 3. If you want to keep $150 in your wallet, beat the deadline and buy your ticket here before the clock strikes 11:59 p.m. (PT) tonight!

Our one-day conference dedicated to robotics and AI — the good, the bad and the challenging — features interviews, panel discussions, Q&As, workshops and demos. Join roughly 1,500 experts, visionaries, creators, founders, investors, researchers and engineers. Rub elbows, network and engage with current and aspiring leaders, as well as students poised to drive future innovation.

We have a stellar line up, and just because we’re biased doesn’t mean we’re wrong. I mean come on — assistive robots, ethics and AI, the state of VC investment and robot demos. And that’s just for starters. Here are a couple of specific examples (peruse the full agenda right here):

  • Cultivating Intelligence in Agricultural Robots: The benefits of robotics in agriculture are undeniable, yet at the same time only getting started. Lewis Anderson (Traptic) and Sebastien Boyer (FarmWise) will compare notes on the rigors of developing industrial-grade robots that both pick crops and weed fields, respectively. Pyka’s Michael Norcia will discuss taking flight over those fields with an autonomous crop-spraying drone.
  • Building the Robots that Build: Join Daniel Blank (Toggle), Tessa Lau (Dusty Robotics) and Noah Ready-Campbell (Built Robotics) as they discuss whether robots can help us build structures faster, smarter and cheaper. Built Robotics makes a self-driving excavator. Toggle is developing a new fabrication of rebar for reinforced concrete and Dusty Robotics builds robot-powered tools. We’ll talk with the founders to learn how and when robots will become a part of the construction crew.

And in case you haven’t heard, we’ve added Pitch Night, a mini pitch-off, into the mix this year. We’re accepting applications until tomorrow, February 1. This is no time for fence-sitting! Apply to compete in Pitch Night now. TechCrunch editors will review the applications and choose 10 startups to pitch at a private event the night before the conference. A panel of VC judges will select five teams as finalists. Those founders will pitch again the next day — live from the Main Stage. It’s awesome exposure that could take your startup to the next level.

If you love robots, you need to be at TC Sessions: Robotics + AI 2020 on March 3. And there’s no point paying more than necessary. Today’s the last day to buy an early-bird ticket. Buy yours before the deadline expires at 11:59 p.m. (PT) and save $150.

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at TC Sessions: Robotics + AI 2020? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

Plant-based milk substitute market gets frothy with $225 million for Califia Farms

The market for companies developing dairy substitutes is really getting frothy.

In December, the startup Perfect Day Foods announced it had raised $110 million in financing for its dairy replacement and now Califia Farms, the producer of a range of oat and almond milk products (along with a slew of coffees, juices, and non-dairy snacks) has raised $225 million in fresh financing.

Investors in the round include the Qatar Investment Authority, Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund, Temasek, Canada’ Claridge, and Hong Kong-based Green Monday Ventures (among others).

For Temasek, the deal comes on the heels of an incredibly successful investment in Beyond Meat, the plant-based meat substitute which has partnership agreements with food chains like Dunkin, McDonald’s, and Carl’s Jr. and whose meteoric rise in its public offering was one of the most successful of the IPOs of the last year.

Money from the new investor base, which joins previous investors Sun Pacific, Stripes and Ambrosia in backing the company, will be used to expand its oat-based suite of products and to launch other new product lines. The company said it will also use the money to increase its production capacity, research and development efforts, and geographical expansion.

Founded in 2010, Califia Farms is one of several startups that are making dairy replacements — either using plant-based ingredients or genetically modified organisms to produce the proteins and sugars that make dairy what it is.

Other companies like Perfect Day, Ripple Foods, Oatly have all raised capital to capture some aspect of the over $1 trillion dairy market.

“The more than $1 trillion global dairy and ready-to-drink coffee industry is ripe for continued disruption with individuals all over the world seeking to transform their health & wellness through the adoption of minimally processed and nutrient rich foods thatare better for both the planet and the animals,” said Greg Steltenpohl, Califia founder and chief executive, in a statement.

Barclays served as the financial advisor and placement agent for Califia on the capital raise.

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

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

Startups Weekly: Chinese investors double down on African startups

Hello and welcome back to Startups Weekly, a weekend newsletter that dives into the week’s noteworthy startups and venture capital news. Before I jump into today’s topic, let’s catch up a bit. Last week, I wrote about Airbnb’s issues. Before that, I noted Uber’s new “money” team.

Remember, you can send me tips, suggestions and feedback to [email protected] or on Twitter @KateClarkTweets. If you’re new, you can subscribe to Startups Weekly here.


China’s pivot to Africa

Three African fintech startups; OPay, PalmPay and East African trucking logistics company Lori Systems, closed large fundraises this year. On their own, the deals aren’t particularly notable, but together, they expose a new trend within the African startup ecosystem.

This year, those three companies brought in a total of $240 million in venture capital funding from 15 different Chinese investors, who’ve become increasingly active in Africa’s tech scene. TechCrunch reporter Jake Bright, who covers African tech, writes that 2019 marks “the year Chinese investors went all in on the continent’s startup scene” — particularly its fintech projects. Why?

“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,” Bright notes. “In previous years, the country’s interactions with African startups were relatively light compared to deal-making on infrastructure and commodities. Chinese actors investing heavily in African mobile consumer platforms lends to looking at new data-privacy and security issues for the continent.”

Active Chinese investors in Africa include Hillhouse Capital, Meituan-Dianping, GaoRong, Source Code Capital, SoftBank Ventures Asia, BAI, Redpoint, IDG Capital, Sequoia China, Crystal Stream Capital, GSR Ventures, Chinese mobile-phone maker Transsion and NetEase .

Here’s more of TechCrunch’s recent coverage of Africa startup activity:


VC Deals

It was a short week (Happy Thanksgiving, by the way). But here’s a quick look at the top deals of the last few days.


M&A (VR edition)

Last week, Facebook announced it was buying Beat Games, the game studio behind Beat Saber, a rhythm game that’s equal parts Fruit Ninja and Guitar Hero. Heard of the company? Maybe if you’re a gamer, but if you’re readying this newsletter because of your interest in VC, this company may not have come across your radar.

Why? It’s one of virtual reality’s biggest successes today, but it’s just an eight-person team with no funding.

“I’m really proud that we were able to build the company with this mindset of making decisions based on what is good for the game and not what is the most profitable thing,” Beat Games CEO told TechCrunch earlier this year. Read about Facebook’s acquisition here and an in-depth profile of the small team here.


Equity

If you like this newsletter, you will definitely enjoy Equity, which brings the content of this newsletter to life — in podcast form! Join myself and Equity co-host Alex Wilhelm every Friday for a quick breakdown of the week’s biggest news in venture capital and startups.

This week, we discussed Weekend Fund’s new vehicle, Cocoon’s new friend-tracking app and the unfortunate demise of a startup called Omni. You can listen here.

Equity drops every Friday at 6:00 am PT, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotify and all the casts.