The paradox of 2020 VC is that the largest funds are doing the smallest rounds

I talked yesterday about how VCs are just tired these days. Too many deals, too little time per deal, and constant hyper-competition with other VCs for the same equity.

One founder friend of mine noted to me last night that he has already received inbound requests from more than 90 investors over the past year about his next round — and he’s not even (presumably) fundraising. “I may have missed a few,” he deadpans — and really, how could one not?

All that frenetic activity, though, leads us to the paradox at the heart of 2020 venture capital: It’s the largest funds that are writing the earliest, smallest checks.

That’s a paradox because big funds need big rounds to invest in. A billion-dollar fund can’t write 800 $1 million seed checks with dollars left over for management fees (well, they could, but that would be obnoxious and impossible to track). Instead, the usual pattern is that as a firm’s fund size grows, its managing partners increasingly move to later-stage rounds to be able to efficiently deploy that capital. So the $200 million fund that used to write $8 million Series As transforms into a $1 billion fund writing $40 million Series Bs and Cs.

That’s logical. Yet, the real logic is a bit more complicated. Namely, that everyone is raising huge funds.

As this week’s big VC report from the National Venture Capital Association made clear, 2019 was in many ways the year of the big fund (and SoftBank didn’t even raise!). Twenty-one “mega-funds” launched last year (defined as raising more than $500 million), and that was actually below the numbers in 2018.

All that late-stage capital is scouring for late-stage deals, but there just aren’t that many deals to do. Sure, there are great companies and potentially great returns lying around, but there are also dozens of funds plotting to get access to that cap table, and valuation is one of the only levers these investors have to stand out from the fray.

This is the story of Plaid in many ways. The fintech data API layer, which Visa announced it is intending to acquire for $5.3 billion, raised a $250 million Series C in late 2018 from Index and Kleiner, all according to Crunchbase. Multiple VC sources have told me that “everyone” looked at the deal (everyone being the tired VCs if you will).

But as one VC who said “no” on the C round defended to me this week, the valuation last year was incredibly rich. The company had revenues in 2018 in the upper tens of millions, or so I have been told, which coupled with its publicly reported $2.65 billion Series C valuation implies a revenue multiple somewhere in the 30-50x range — extremely pricey given the company’s ongoing fight with banks to ensure it can maintain data access to its users’ accounts.

Jeff Kauflin at Forbes reported that the company’s revenues in 2019 are now in the lower three digits of millions, which means that Visa likely paid a similarly expensive multiple to acquire the company. Kleiner and Index doubled their money in a year or so, and no one should complain about that kind of IRR (particularly in growth investing), but if it weren’t for Visa and the beneficial alchemy of exit timing, all might have turned out very differently.

Worse than just expensive valuations, these later-stage rounds can become very proprietary and exclusive. From the sounds of it, Plaid ran a fairly open process for its Series C round, which allowed a lot of firms to look at the deal, helping to drive the valuation up while limiting dilution for earlier investors and the founder. But that’s not the only way to handle it.

Increasingly, firms that invested early are also trying to invest later. That Series A investor who put in $5 million also wants to put in the $50 million Series B and the $250 million Series C. After all, they have the capital, already know the company, have a relationship with the CEO and can avoid a time-consuming fundraise in the process.

So for many deals today, those later-stage cap tables are essentially locking out new investors, because there is already so much capital sitting around the cap table just salivating to double down.

That gets us straight to the paradox. In order to have access to later-stage rounds, you have to already be on the cap table, which means that you have to do the smaller, earlier-stage rounds. Suddenly, growth investors are coming back to early-stage rounds (including seed) just to have optionality on access to these startups and their fundraises.

As one VC explained to me last week (paraphrasing), “What’s weird today is that you have firms like Sequoia who show up for seed rounds, but they don’t really care about … anything. Valuation, terms, etc. It’s all a play for those later-stage rounds.” I think that’s a bit of an exaggeration, to be clear, but ultimately, those one million-dollar checks are essentially a rounding error for the largest funds. The real return is in the mega rounds down the road.

Does that mean seed funds will cease to exist? Certainly not, but it’s hard to make money and build a balanced, risk-adjusted portfolio when your competitors literally don’t care and consider the investment a marketing and access expense. As for founders — the times are still really, really good if you can check the right VC boxes.

Visa’s Plaid acquisition shows a shifting financial services landscape

When Visa bought Plaid this week for $5.3 billion, a figure that was twice its private valuation, it was a clear signal that traditional financial services companies are looking for ways to modernize their approach to business.

With Plaid, Visa picks up a modern set of developer APIs that work behind the scenes to facilitate the movement of money. Those APIs should help Visa create more streamlined experiences (both at home and inside other companies’ offerings), build on its existing strengths and allow it to do more than it could have before, alone.

But don’t take our word for it. To get under the hood of the Visa-Plaid deal and understand it from a number of perspectives, TechCrunch got in touch with analysts focused on the space and investors who had put money into the erstwhile startup.

Daily Crunch: Visa makes a $5.3 billion acquisition

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 9am Pacific, you can subscribe here.

1. Visa is acquiring Plaid for $5.3 billion, 2x its final private valuation

You can compare what Plaid does to Stripe — but instead of facilitating payments, Plaid helps developers share banking and other financial information more easily.

Plaid raised $250 million at the end of 2018, with both Mastercard and Visa quietly participating in the round. So Visa must be pretty happy with how the startup has developed since then.

2. Google wants to phase out support for third-party cookies in Chrome within two years

The fact that Google will drop support for these cookies — which are typically used to track users across the web — doesn’t necessarily come as a surprise, given the company’s announcements around privacy in Chrome. But this aggressive timeline is new.

3. Disney+ was the most downloaded app in the US in Q4 2019

Following the app’s mid-November launch in the U.S., Disney+ was downloaded more than 30 million times in Q4 2019 — according to a new report from SensorTower, that’s more than double the downloads for the runner-up, TikTok.

4. Spotify and Warner Chappell end dispute in India, sign global licensing deal

The announcement marks the end of the companies’ litigation before the Bombay High Court, where Warner Music was seeking an injunction to prevent Spotify from using its music in India. Spotify ended up launching in India anyway, but without a number of Warner Music titles.

5. The robot homecoming is upon us

Home robots have already had a few false starts, including some high-profile flare-outs like Anki and previous CES darling Kuri. But Darrell Etherington argues that between slow-burn categories and the sheer volume of newer products, it now seems certain we’re on a path that will lead to robots becoming common household items. (Extra Crunch membership required.)

6. Atrium lays off lawyers, explains pivot to legal tech

Moving forward, the Justin Kan-founded startup will focus on its software for startups navigating fundraising, hiring and collaborating with lawyers. Atrium also plans to ramp up its startup advising services, and it’s doubling down on its year-old network of professional service providers that help clients navigate day-to-day legal work.

7. Disrupting Space: A new event from TechCrunch

The show will be held at Gateway Sheraton Hotel in Los Angeles on June 25, right in the neighborhood of America’s most powerful players in space, including Boeing, Northrop, Lockheed, Raytheon, Teledyne, The Aerospace Corporation, the U.S. Air Force and, of course, SpaceX.

A look inside Visa’s shareholder presentation for the $5.3B Plaid deal

Fresh off the news yesterday that Visa is buying fintech unicorn Plaid for $5.3 billion, the payments giant is making its case to its shareholders. Given the scale of the deal, and the implied bet that Visa is making on the future of its market, the company prepared a presentation, which means we get to peer into its thinking regarding Plaid itself and the fintech market as a whole.

In a short deck, Visa argues that buying Plaid will: 1) provide it with deep access to an exploding market (fintech), 2) help it boost growth (at a small hit to profits) and 3) provide a means to expand Visa’s total addressable market by building on Plaid’s small customer base, allowing for future growth.

Access to new markets, faster revenue expansion and larger total addressable market (TAM) are pretty good things for any business. Let’s see how Visa makes its case.

Plaid

In Visa’s view, the fintech world’s growth is “very high.” The credit card and payments company reports in its presentation to shareholders that fintech adoption (the percent of “internet enabled customers using at least 1 fintech app”) is growing at a 43% compound rate. Visa also highlights the amount of capital going into the space, namely $120 billion in the last five years.

Visa is acquiring Plaid for $5.3 billion, 2x its final private valuation

Visa announced today that it is buying financial services API startup Plaid for $5.3 billion. 

Plaid develops financial services APIs. It is akin to what Stripe does for payments, but instead of facilitating payments, it helps developers share banking and other financial information more easily. It’s the kind of service that makes sense for a company like Visa.

The startup bought Quovo two years ago to move beyond just banking, and into broader financial services and investments. The idea was to provide a more holistic platform for financial services providers. As the founders wrote in a blog post at the time of the acquisition, “Financial applications have historically used Plaid primarily to interact with checking and savings accounts. In acquiring Quovo, we are extending our capabilities to a wider class of assets.”

The Price

Plaid’s exit price is a triumph for its investors, who put a combined $353.3 million into the company, according to Crunchbase data. Most important among those rounds was a $250 million infusion that came in late 2018. Index and Kleiner led that round, valuing Plaid at $2.65 billion, or 50% of its final sale price (we doubt that that ratio is a coincidence).

At the same time, it was later revealed, Mastercard and Visa also took part in the round, with TechCrunch reporting in 2019 that the two payments giants “quietly participated in the round.” 

Whether those investments were large enough to grand Visa information rights isn’t clear, but certainly the two credit card giants had more insight into what Plaid was doing than they did before their investment. We can presume, then, that Plaid was doing well as a private company; no one pays twice a multi-billion dollar valuation for a firm unless they want to keep it away from their core business, or a key competitor. 

Or perhaps both in the case of Plaid.

The Twilio comparison

Plaid is often compared to Twilio, another API-first company that sits in the background, helping other players do business. Noyo, on the early-stage front, is doing something similar with its healthcare information and insurance APIs. Stripe, as mentioned above, is similar but in the payment space. The model has proved lucrative for Twilio, which has soared as a public company; Plaid’s huge exit will add extra shine to the startup varietal.

However, unlike Twilio, Plaid was bought while still private, depriving us of a good look into its figures. We anticipate that they would show growth in high-margin revenues. That’s something that all companies, public and private, covet.

For Visa, however, there’s likely something more to the deal. Namely it now has a view into scads of high-growth, private companies that are reinventing the world that Visa operates in. Buying Plaid is insurance against disruption for Visa, and also a way to know who to buy. 

But for today, it’s a win for Plaid shareholders (including employees).

Smasung launches the rugged, enterprise-ready Galaxy XCover Pro

We got a bit of a surprise at the end of CES: some hands-on time with Samsung’s latest rugged phone for the enterprise, the Galaxy XCover Pro. The XCover Pro, which is officially launching today, is a mid-range $499 phone for first-line workers like flight attendants, construction workers or nurses.

It is meant to be very rugged but without the usual bulk that comes with that. With its IP68 rating, Military Standard 810 certification and the promise that it will survive a drop from 1.5 meters (4.9 feet) without a case, it should definitely be able to withstand quite a bit of abuse.

While Samsung is aiming this phone at the enterprise market, the company tells us that it will also sell it to individual customers.

As Samsung stressed during our briefing, the phone is meant for all-day use in the field, with a 4,050 mAh replaceable battery (yes, you read that right, you can replace the battery just like on phones from a few years ago). It’ll feature 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage space, but you can extend that up to 512GB thanks to the built-in microSD slot. The 6.3-inch FHD+ screen won’t wow you, but it seemed perfectly adequate for most of the use cases. That screen, the company says, should work even in rain or snow and features a glove mode, too.

And while this is obviously not a flagship phone, Samsung still decided to give it a dual rear camera setup, with a standard 25MP sensor and a wide-angle 8MP sensor for those times where you might want to get the full view of a construction site, for example. On the front, there is a small cutout for a 13MP camera, too.

All of this is powered by a 2GHz octa-core Exynos 9611 processor, as one would expect from a Samsung mid-range phone, as well as Android 10.

Traditionally, rugged phones came with large rubber edges (or users decided to put even larger cases around them). The XCover Pro, on the other hand, feels slimmer than most regular phones with a rugged case on them.

By default, the phone features NFC support for contactless payments (the phone has been approved to be part of Visa’s Tap to Phone pilot program) and two programmable buttons so that companies can customize their phones for their specific use cases. One of the first partners here is Microsoft, which lets you map a button to its recently announced walkie talkie feature in Microsoft Teams.

“Microsoft and Samsung have a deep history of bringing together the best hardware and software to help solve our customers’ challenges,” said Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella in today’s announcement. “The powerful combination of Microsoft Teams and the new Galaxy XCover Pro builds on this partnership and will provide frontline workers everywhere with the technology they need to be more collaborative, productive and secure.”

With its Pogo pin charging support and compatibility with third-party tools from a variety of partners for adding scanners, credit card readers and other peripherals from partners like Infinite Peripherals, KOAMTAC, Scandit and Visa.

No enterprise device is complete without security features and the XCover Pro obviously supports all of Samsungs various Knox enterprise security tools and access to the phone itself is controlled by both a facial recognition system and a fingerprint reader that’s built into the power button.

With the Tab Active Pro, Samsung has long offered a rugged tablet for first-line workers. Not everybody needs a full-sized tablet, though, so the XCover Pro fills what Samsung clearly believes is a gap in the market that offers always-on connectivity in a smaller package and in the form of a phone that doesn’t look unlike a consumer device.

I could actually imagine that there are quite a few consumers who may opt for this device. For a while, the company made phones like the Galaxy S8 Active that traded weight and size for larger batteries and ruggedness. the XCover Pro isn’t officially a replacement of this program, but it may just find its fans among former Galaxy Active users.

2019 saw a stampede of fintech unicorns

Two years ago, we created the Matrix FinTech Index to highlight what we saw as the beginnings of a 10+ year mega innovation wave in financial services.

The trillion-dollar financial services industry was going to be turned on its head over the next decade, and we were just getting started. At the time, the top 10 publicly traded U.S. fintech companies had just surpassed the $100 billion mark in terms of total market capitalization, 12 unicorns had emerged in the category, and the U.S. VC industry had just poured in $6.7B — a record at the time.

As we predicted last year, the innovation cycle continues, and we are transitioning into its mid-phase. So what happened in U.S. fintech in 2019? In short, monster growth.

On the public side, fintechs delivered resoundingly. PayPal alone gained $26B in market capitalization. On a return basis, the public Matrix FinTech Index continued to crush every major equity index as well as the financial services incumbents. Nicely matching our forecasts, our Index delivered 213% returns over the last three years. The Index outperformed the financial services incumbents by 151 percentage points and the S&P 500 by 170 percentage points.

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

No Libra style digital currencies without rules, say EU finance ministers

European Union finance ministers have agreed a defacto ban on the launch in the region of so-called global ‘stablecoins’ such as Facebook’s planned Libra digital currency until the bloc has a common approach to regulation that can mitigate the risks posed by the technology.

In a joint statement the European Council and Commission write that “no global ‘stablecoin’ arrangement should begin operation in the European Union until the legal, regulatory and oversight challenges and risks have been adequately identified and addressed”.

The statement includes recognition of potential benefits of the crypto technology, such as cheaper and faster payments across borders, but says they pose “multifaceted challenges and risks related for example to consumer protection, privacy, taxation, cyber security and operational resilience, money laundering, terrorism financing, market integrity, governance and legal certainty”.

“When a ‘stablecoin’ initiative has the potential to reach a global scale, these concerns are likely to be amplified and new potential risks to monetary sovereignty, monetary policy, the safety and efficiency of payment systems, financial stability, and fair competition can arise,” they add.

All options are being left open to ensure effective regulation, per the statement, with ministers and commissioners stating this should include “any measures to prevent the creation of unmanageable risks by certain global “stablecoins”.”

The new European Commission is already working on a regulation for global stablecoins, per Reuters.

In a speech at a press conference, Commission VP Valdis Dombrovskis, said: “Today the Ecofin endorsed a joint statement with the Commission on stablecoins. These are part of a much broader universe of crypto assets. If we properly address the risks, innovation around crypto assets has the potential to play a positive role for investors, consumers and the efficiency of our financial system.

“A number of Member States like France, Germany or Malta introduced national crypto asset laws, but most people agree with the advice of the European Supervisory Authorities that these markets go beyond borders and so we need a common European framework.

“We will now move to implement this advice. We will launch a public consultation very shortly, before the end of the year.”

The joint statement also hits out at the lack of legal clarity around some major global projects in this area — which looks like a tacit reference to Facebook’s Libra project (though the text does not include any named entities).

“Some recent projects of global dimension have provided insufficient information on how precisely they intend to manage risks and operate their business. This lack of adequate information makes it very difficult to reach definitive conclusions on whether and how the existing EU regulatory framework applies. Entities that intend to issue ‘stablecoins’, or carry out other activities involving ‘stablecoins’ in the EU should provide full and adequate information urgently to allow for a proper assessment against the applicable existing rules,” they warn.

Facebook’s Libra project was only announced this summer — with a slated launch of the first half of 2020 — but was quickly dealt major blows by the speedy departure of key founder members from the vehicle set up to steer the initiative, as giants including Visa, Stripe and eBay apparently took fright at the regulatory backlash. Though you’d never know it from reading the Libra Association PR.

One perhaps unintended effective of Facebook’s grand design on disrupting global financial systems is to amp up pressure on traditional payment providers to innovate and improve their offerings for consumers.

EU ministers write that the emergence of stablecoin initiatives “highlight the importance of continuous improvements to payment arrangements in order to meet market and consumer expectations for convenient, fast, efficient and inexpensive payments – especially cross-border”.

“While European payment systems have already made significant progress, European payment actors, including payment services providers, also have a key role to play in this respect,” they continue. “We note that the ECB and other central banks and national competent authorities will explore further the ongoing digital transformation of the payment system and, in particular, the consequences of initiatives such as ‘stablecoins’. We welcome that central banks in cooperation with other relevant authorities continue to assess the costs and benefits of central bank digital currencies as well as engage with European payment actors regarding the role of the private sector in meeting expectations for efficient, fast and inexpensive cross-border payments.”

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