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African experiments with drone technologies could leapfrog decades of infrastructure neglect

10:30 | 16 September

Jake Bright Contributor
Jake Bright is a writer and author in New York City. He is co-author of The Next Africa.

A drone revolution is coming to sub-Saharan Africa.

Countries across the continent are experimenting with this 21st century technology as a way to leapfrog decades of neglect of 20th century infrastructure.

Over the last two years, San Francisco-based startup Zipline launched a national UAV delivery program in East Africa; South Africa passed commercial drone legislation to train and license pilots; and Malawi even opened a Drone Test Corridor to African and its global partners. 

In Rwanda, the country’s government became one of the first adopters of performance-based regulations for all drones earlier this year. The country’s progressive UAV programs drew special attention from the White House and two U.S. Secretaries of Transportation.

Some experts believe Africa’s drone space could contribute to UAV development in the U.S. and elsewhere around the globe.

“The fact that [global drone] companies can operate in Africa and showcase amazing use cases…is a big benefit,” said Lisa Ellsman, co-executive director of the Commercial Drone Alliance.

Test in Africa

It’s clear that the UAV programs in Malawi and Rwanda are getting attention from international drone companies.

Opened in 2017, Malawi’s Drone Test Corridor has been accepting global applications. The program is managed by the country’s Civil Aviation Authority in partnership with UNICEF.

The primary purpose is to test UAV’s for humanitarian purposes, but the program “was designed to provide a controlled platform for… governments…and other partners…to explore how UAV’s can help deliver services,” according to Michael Scheibenreif, UNICEF’s drone lead in Malawi.

That decision to include the private sector opened the launch pads for commercial drones. Swedish firm GLOBEHE has tested using the corridor and reps from Chinese e-commerce company JD have toured the site. Other companies to test in Malawi’s corridor include Belgian UAV air traffic systems company Unifly and U.S. delivery drone manufacturer Vayu, according to Scheibenreif.

Though the government of Rwanda is most visible for its Zipline partnership, it shaping a national testing program for multiple drone actors. 

“We don’t want to limit ourselves with just one operator,” said Claudette Irere, Director General of the Ministry of Information Technology and Communications (MiTEC).

“When we started with Zipline it was more of a pilot to see if this could work,” she said. “As we’ve gotten more interest and have grown the program…this gives us an opportunity to open up to other drone operators, and give space to our local UAV operators.”

Irere said Rwanda has been approached by 16 drone operators, “some of them big names”—but could not reveal them due to temporary NDAs. She also highlighted Charis UAS, a Rwandan drone company, that’s used the country’s test program, and is now operating commercially in and outside of Rwanda.

UAV Policy

Africa’s commercial drone history is largely compressed to a handful of projects and countries within the last 5-7 years. Several governments have jumped out ahead on UAV policy.

In 2016, South Africa passed drone legislation regulating the sector under the country’s Civil Aviation Authority. The guidelines set training requirements for commercial drone pilots to receive Remote Pilot Licenses (RPLs) for Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems. At the end of 2017 South Africa had registered 686 RPLs and 663 drone aircraft systems, according to a recent State of Drone Report.

Over the last year and a half Kenya, Ghana, and Tanzania have issued or updated drone regulatory guidelines and announced future UAV initiatives.  

In 2018, Rwanda extended its leadership role on drone policy when it adopted performance-based regulations for all drones—claiming to be the first country in the world to do so.

So what does this mean?

“In performance-based regulation the government states this is our safety threshold and you companies tell us the combination of technologies and operational mitigations you’re going to use to meet it,” said Timothy Reuter, Civil Drones Project Head at the World Economic Forum.

Lisa Ellsman, shared a similar interpretation.

“Rather than the government saying ‘you have to use this kind of technology to stop your drone,’ they would say, ‘your drone needs to be able to stop in so many seconds,’” she said.

This gives the drone operators flexibility to build drones around performance targets, vs. “prescriptively requiring a certain type of technology,” according to Ellsman.

Rwanda is still working out the implementation of its performance-based regulations, according to MiTEC’s Claudette Irere. They’ve entered a partnership with the World Economic Forum to further build out best practices. Rwanda will also soon release an online portal for global drone operators to apply to test there.

As for Rwanda being first to release performance-based regulations, that’s disputable. “Many States around the world have been developing and implementing performance-based regulations for unmanned aircraft,” said Leslie Cary, Program Manager for the International Civil Aviation Authority’s Remotely Piloted Aircraft System. “ICAO has not monitored all of these States to determine which was first,” she added.

Other governments have done bits and pieces of Rwanda’s drone policy, according to Timothy Reuter, the head of the civil drones project at the World Economic Forum. “But as currently written in Rwanda, it’s the broadest implementation of performance based regulations in the world.”

Commercial Use Cases

As the UAV programs across Africa mature, there are a handful of strong examples and several projects to watch.

With Zipline as the most robust and visible drone use case in Sub-Saharan Africa.

While the startup’s primary focus is delivery of critical medical supplies, execs repeatedly underscore that Zipline is a for-profit venture backed by $41 million in VC.

The San Francisco-based robotics company — that also manufactures its own UAVs — was one of the earliest drone partners of the government of Rwanda.

Zipline demonstration

The alliance also brought UPS and the UPS Foundation into the mix, who supports Zipline with financial and logistical support.

After several test rounds, Zipline went live with the program in October, becoming the world’s first national drone delivery program at scale.

“We’ve since completed over 6000 deliveries and logged 500,000 flight kilometers,” Zipline co-founder Keenan Wyrobek told TechCrunch. “We’re planning to go live in Tanzania soon and talking to some other African countries.”  

In May Zipline was accepted into the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Pilot Program (UAS IPP). Out of 149 applicants, the Africa focused startup was one of 10 selected to participate in a drone pilot in the U.S.– to operate beyond visual line of sight medical delivery services in North Carolina.    

In a non-delivery commercial use case, South Africa’s Rocketmine has built out a UAV survey business in 5 countries. The company looks to book $2 million in revenue in 2018 for its “aerial data solutions” services in mining, agriculture, forestry, and civil engineering.

“We have over 50 aircraft now, compared to 15 a couple years ago,” Rocketmine CEO Christopher Clark told TechCrunch. “We operate in South Africa, Namibia, Ghana, Ivory Coast, and moved into Mexico.”

Rocketmine doesn’t plan to enter delivery services, but is looking to expand into the surveillance and security market. “After the survey market that’s probably the biggest request we get from our customers,” said Clark.

More African use cases are likely to come from the Lake Victoria Challenge — a mission specific drone operator challenge set in Tanzania’s Mwanza testing corridor. WeRobotics has also opened FlyingLabs in Kenya, Tanzania, and Benin. And the government of Zambia is reportedly working with Sony’s Aerosense on a drone delivery pilot program.

Africa and Global UAV

With Europe, Asia, and the U.S. rapidly developing drone regulations and testing (or already operating) delivery programs (see JD.com in China), Africa may not take the sole position as the leader in global UAV development — but these pilot projects in the particularly challenging environments these geographies (and economies) represent will shape the development of the drone industry. 

The continent’s test programs — and Rwanda’s performance-based drone regulations in particular — could advance beyond visual line of sight UAV technology at a quicker pace. This could set the stage for faster development of automated drone fleets for remote internet access, commercial and medical delivery, and even give Africa a lead in testing flying autonomous taxis.

“With drones, Africa is willing to take more bold steps more quickly because the benefits are there and the countries have been willing to move in a more agile manner around regulation,” said the WEF’s Reuter.

“There’s an opportunity for Africa to maintain its leadership in this space,” he said. “But the countries need to be willing to take calculated risk to enable technology companies to deploy their solutions there.”

Reuter also underscored the potential for “drone companies that originate in Africa increasingly developing services.”

There’s a case to be made this is already happening with Zipline. Though founded in California, the startup honed its UAVs and delivery model in Rwanda.

“We’re absolutely leveraging our experience built in Africa as we now test through the UAS IPP program to deliver in the U.S.,” said Zipline co-founder Keenan Wyrobek.

 


0

With a $10 million round, Nigeria’s Paga plans global expansion

16:00 | 6 September

Nigerian digital payments startup Paga is gearing up for an international expansion with $10 million in funding let by the Global Innovation Fund. 

The company is planning to release its payments product in Ethiopia, Mexico, and the Philippines—CEO Tayo Oviosu told TechCrunch at Disrupt San Francisco.

Paga looks to go head to head with regional and global payment players, such as PayPal, Alipay, and Safaricom’s M-Pesa, according to Oviosu.

“We are not only in a position to compete with them, we’re going beyond them,” he  said of Kenya’s M-Pesa mobile money product. “Our goal is to build a global payment ecosystem across many emerging markets.”

Founded in 2012, Paga has created a multi-channel network and platform to transfer money, pay-bills, and buy things digitally that’s already serving 9 million customers in Nigeria—including 6000 businesses. All of whom can drop into one of Paga’s 17,167 agents or transfer funds from one of Paga’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 Moneytrans and allows for third-party integration of its app.

Paga has also built out considerable scale in home market Nigeria—which boasts the dual distinction as Africa’s most populous nation and largest economy.

Since inception, the startup has processed 57 million transactions worth $3.6 billion, according to Oviosu.

That’s no small feat given the country straddles the challenges and opportunities of growing digital payments. Only recently did Nigeria’s mobile and internet penetration break 50 percent and 40 percent of the country’s 196 million remain unbanked.

To bring more of Nigeria’s masses onto digital commerce, Paga recently launched a new money transfer-app that further simplifies the P2P payment process from mobile devices.

For nearly a decade, Kenya’s M-Pesa—which has 20 million active users and operates abroad—has dominated discussions of mobile money in Africa.

Paga and a growing field of operators are diversifying the continent’s payment playing field.

Fintech company Cellulant raised $47 million in 2019 on its business of processing $350 million in payment transactions across 33 African countries.

In Nigeria, payment infrastructure company Interswitch has expanded across borders and is pursuing an IPO. And Nigerian payment gateway startups Paystack and Flutterwave have digitized volumes of B2B transactions while gaining global investment.

So why does Paga—a Nigerian payments company—believe it can expand its digital payments business abroad?

“Why not us?,” said CEO Oviosu. “People sit in California and listen to Spotify that was developed in Sweden. And Uber started somewhere before going to different countries and figuring out local markets,” he added.

“The team behind this business has worked globally for some of the top tech names. This platform can stand shoulder to shoulder with any payments company built somewhere else,” he said.

On that platform, Oviosu underscores it has positioned itself as a partner, not a rival, to traditional banks. “Our ecosystem is not built to compete with you, it’s actually complimentary to you,” he said of the company’s positioning to big banks—enabling Paga to partner with seven banks in Nigeria.

Paga also sees potential to adapt its model to other regulatory and consumer environments. “We’ve built an infrastructure that rides across all mobile networks,” said Oviosu. “We’re not trying to be a bank. Paga wants to work with the banks and financial institutions to enable a billion people to access and use money,” he said.

As part of the $10 million round (which brings Paga’s total funding up to $35 million), Global Innovation Partners will take a board seat. Other round participants include Goodwell, Adlevo Capital, Omidyar Network, and Unreasonable Capital.

Paga will use the Series B2 to grow its core development team of 25 engineers across countries and continents. It will also continue its due diligence on global expansion—though no hard dates have been announced.

On revenues, Paga makes money on merchant payments, bank to bank transfers, and selling airtime and data. “As we roll out other services, we will build a model where we will make money on savings and lending,” said the company’s CEO.

As for profitability, Paga does not release financials, but reached profitability in 2018, according to Oviosu—something that was confirmed in the due diligence process with round investors.

On the possibility of beating Interswitch (or another venerable startup) to become Africa’s first big tech IPO, Oviosu plays that down. “For the next 3-5 years I see us staying private,” he said.

 


0

Netflix signs exclusive deal with ‘Black-ish’ creator Kenya Barris

23:32 | 16 August

Netflix just announced a multi-year deal with Kenya Barris, creator of Black-ish and its spinoff Grown-ish.

While Barris will remain an executive producer on those shows (and on the upcoming Besties), he will be exclusively developing new series for Netflix.

The deal only covers TV, as Barris (who was one of the writers of Girls Trip) has a first-look movie deal at Fox. That’s according to The Hollywood Reporter, which also cites sources who say the deal is for three years and is in the “high-eight-figure range.”

“When my agents reached out to me about this little garage start-up called Netflix, I wasn’t sure what to think,” Barris said in a statement. “But after I talked to [Netflix executives Ted Sarandos and Cindy Holland], I started to believe that maybe this mom-and-pop shop with only 130 million subscribers might just be something… so I decided to take a swing… a leap of faith if you will, and take a chance with the new kids on the block.”

In the past year, Netflix shook up the television industry by signing big deals with Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy — Rhimes’ deal was reportedly worth $100 million, while Murphy’s was for $300 million.

In each case, Netflix isn’t just betting on one big show. Rhimes and her production company Shondaland, for example, recently announced seven projects in development for the streaming service.

 


0

MallforAfrica goes global, Kobo360 and Sokowatch raise VC, France explains its $76M fund

07:30 | 3 August

Jake Bright Contributor
Jake Bright is a writer and author in New York City. He is co-author of The Next Africa.

B2B e-commerce company Sokowatch closed a $2 million seed investment led by 4DX Ventures. Others to join the round were Village Global, Lynett Capital, Golden Palm Investments, and Outlierz  Ventures.

The Kenya based company aims to shake up the supply chain market for Africa’s informal retailers.

Sokowatch’s platform connects Africa’s informal retail stores directly to local and multi-national suppliers—such as Unilever and Proctor and Gamble—by digitizing orders, delivery, and payments with the aim of reducing costs and increasing profit margins.

“With both manufacturers and the small shops, we’re becoming the connective layer between them, where previously you had multiple layers of middle-men from distributors, sub-distributors, to wholesalers,” Sokowatch founder and CEO Daniel Yu told TechCrunch.

“The cost of sourcing goods right now…we estimate we’re cutting that cost by about 20 percent [for] these shopkeepers,” he said

“There are millions of informal stores across Africa’s cities selling hundreds of billions worth of consumer goods every year,” said Yu.

These stores can use Sokowatch’s app on mobile phones to buy wares directly from large suppliers, arrange for transport, and make payments online. “Ordering on SMS or Android gets you free delivery of products to your store, on average, in about two hours,” said Yu.

Sokowatch generates revenues by earning “a margin on the goods that we’re selling to shopkeepers,” said Yu. On the supplier side, they also benefit from “aggregating demand…and getting bulk deals on the products that we distribute.”

The company recently launched a line of credit product to extend working capital loans to platform clients. With the $2 million round, Sokowatch—which currently operates in Kenya and Tanzania—plans to “expand to new markets in East Africa, as well as pilot additional value add services to the shops,” said Yu.

MallforAfrica and DHL launched MarketPlaceAfrica.com: a global e-commerce site for select African artisans to sell wares to buyers in any of DHL’s 220 delivery countries.

The site will prioritize fashion items — clothing, bags, jewelry, footwear and personal care — and crafts, such as pictures and carvings. MallforAfrica is vetting sellers for MarketPlace Africa online and through the Africa Made Product Standards association (AMPS), to verify made-in-Africa status and merchandise quality.

“We’re starting off in Nigeria and then we’ll open in Kenya, Rwanda and the rest of Africa, utilizing DHL’s massive network,” MallforAfrica CEO Chris Folayan told TechCrunch about where the goods will be sourced. “People all around the world can buy from African artisans online, that’s the goal,” Folayan told TechCrunch.

Current listed designer products include handbags from Chinwe Ezenwa and Tash women’s outfits by Tasha Goodwin.

In addition to DHL for shipping, MarketPlace Africa will utilize MallforAfrica’s e-commerce infrastructure. The startup was founded in 2011 to solve challenges global consumer goods companies face when entering Africa.

French President Emmanuel Macron  href="https://pctechmag.com/2018/05/french-president-emmanuel-macron-launches-a-usd76m-africa-startup-fund/">unveiled a $76 million African startup fund at VivaTech 2018 and TechCrunch paid a visit to the French Development Agency (AFD) — who will administer the new fund — to get details on how it will work.

The $76 million (or €65 million) will divvy up into three parts, AFD Digital Task Team Leader Christine Ha told TechCrunch.

“There are €10 million [$11.7 million] for technical assistance to support the African ecosystem… €5 million will be available as interest-free loans to high-potential, pre-seed startups…and…€50 million [$58 million] will be for equity-based investments in series A to C startups,” explained Ha during a meeting in Paris.

The technical assistance will distribute in the form of grants to accelerators, hubs, incubators and coding programs. The pre-seed startup loans will issue in amounts up to $100,000 “as early, early funding to allow entrepreneurs to prototype, launch and experiment,” said Ha.

The $58 million in VC startup funding will be administered through Proparco, a development finance institution — or DFI — partially owned by the AFD. “Proparco will take equity stakes, and will be a limited partner when investing in VC funds,” said Ha.

Startups from all African countries can apply for a piece of the $58 million by contacting any of Proparco’s Africa offices.

The $11.7 million technical assistance and $5.8 million loan portions of France’s new fund will be available starting in 2019. On implementation, AFD is still “reviewing several options…such as relying on local actors through [France’s] Digital Africa platform,” said Ha. President Macron followed up the Africa fund announcement with a trip to Nigeria last month.

Nigerian logistics startup Kobo360 was accepted into Y Combinator’s 2018 class and gained some working capital in the form of $1.2 million in pre-seed funding led by Western Technology Investment.

The startup — with an Uber like app that connects Nigerian truckers to companies with freight needs — will use the funds to pay drivers online immediately after successful hauls.

Kobo360 is also launching the Kobo Wealth Investment Network, or KoboWIN — a crowd-invest, vehicle financing program. Through it, Kobo drivers can finance new trucks through citizen investors and pay them back directly (with interest) over a 60-month period.

On Kobo360’s utility, “We give drivers the demand and technology to power their businesses,” CEO Obi Ozor told TechCrunch. “An average trucker will make $3,500 a month with our app. That’s middle class territory in Nigeria.”

Kobo360 has served 324 businesses, aggregated a fleet of 5480 drivers and moved 37.6 million kilograms of cargo since 2017, per company stats. Top clients include Honeywell, Olam, Unilever, and DHL.

Ozor thinks the startup’s asset-free, digital platform and business model can outpace traditional long-haul 3PL providers in Nigeria by handling more volume at cheaper prices.

“Logistics in Nigeria have been priced based on the assumption drivers are going to run empty on the way back…When we now match freight with return trips, prices crash.”

Kobo360 will expand in Togo, Ghana, Cote D’Ivoire and Senegal.

[PHOTO: BFX.LAGOS] And finally, applications are open for TechCrunch’s Startup Battlefield Africa, to be held in Lagos, Nigeria, December 11. Early-stage African startups have until September 3 to apply here.

More Africa Related Stories @TechCrunch

More Africa Related Stories @TechCrunch

·         CowryWise micro-savings service opens high-yield government bonds to everyday Nigerians


African Tech Around the Net

·         More Than Half of Sub-Saharan Africa to Be Connected to Mobile by 2025, Finds New GSMA Study
·         Ethiopia’s Gebeya acquires Coders4Africa to accelerate its growth
·         Rwanda, Andela partner to launch pan-African tech hub in Kigali
·         Google’s free public Wi-Fi initiative expanded to Africa
·         Accounteer wins 2018 MEST Entrepreneur challenge
·         SafeBoda completes expansion to Kenya, now live in Nairobi
·         Uganda government sued over social media tax

 


0

Sokowatch closes $2 million seed round to modernize Africa’s B2B retail

11:00 | 26 July

Jake Bright Contributor
Jake Bright is a writer and author in New York City. He is co-author of The Next Africa.

Kenya based Sokowatch aims to shake up the supply chain market for Africa’s informal retailers.

The B2B e-commerce company closed a $2 million seed investment led by 4DX Ventures. Others to join the round were Village Global, Lynett Capital, Golden Palm Investments, and Outlierz  Ventures.

Sokowatch’s platform connects Africa’s informal retail stores directly to local and multinational suppliers—such as Unilever and Proctor and Gamble—by digitizing orders, delivery, and payments with the aim of reducing costs and increasing profit margins.

The term disrupt is used less frequently in African tech since startups are often entering new business spaces where there’s little to actually disrupt.

That’s not the case with Sokowatch, which sees price and productivity benefits to revamping existing supply chain structures for Africa’s informal retailers.

“With both manufacturers and the small shops, we’re becoming the connective layer between them, where previously you had multiple layers of middle-men from distributors, sub-distributors, to wholesalers,” Sokowatch founder and CEO Daniel Yu told TechCrunch.

“The cost of sourcing goods right now…we estimate we’re cutting that cost by about 20 percent [for] these shopkeepers,” he said

Quantifying the size and potential of Africa’s informal markets has captured the attention of economists and startups. GDP revisions in several African countries have revealed outdated statistical methods were missing billions of dollars in economic activity. And one estimate by The International Labor Organization places up to two-thirds of Sub-Saharan Africa’s non-agricultural employment in the informal economy.

On the number of small shops on the continent, Yu noted a lack of reliable numbers but cited a 2016 KPMG study pegging fast moving consumer goods spending in Nigeria alone at $41 billion annually. A portion of those goods move through the continent’s vast network of roadside markets, shops, and stands.

“There are millions of informal stores across Africa’s cities selling hundreds of billions worth of consumer goods every year,” said Yu.

These stores can use Sokowatch’s app on mobile phones to buy wares directly from large suppliers, arrange for transport, and make payments online. “Ordering on SMS or Android gets you free delivery of products to your store, on average, in about two hours,” said Yu.

Sokowatch generates revenues by earning “a margin on the goods that we’re selling to shopkeepers,” said Yu. On the supplier side, they also benefit from “aggregating demand…and getting bulk deals on the products that we distribute.”

The startup has delivered 100,000 orders to customers for “a few thousands shops,” according to Yu and company data.

The company recently launched a line of credit product to extend working capital loans to platform clients. With the $2 million round, Sokowatch—which currently operates in Kenya and Tanzania—plans to “expand to new markets in East Africa, as well as pilot additional value add services to the shops,” said Yu.

Peter Orth, Co-Founder and Managing Partner at lead investor 4DX Ventures, will join Sokowatch’s board of directors.

Yu also noted the possible big data benefits to informal African retail from Sokowatch. “If you are …selling into this market you have no clue who ultimately ends up with your product, even two layers down. That’s a big challenge,” he said.

“With us, not only do we know who’s buying the product, we know when they are buying the product, what they’re buying it in conjunction with, and the pricing.”

 


0

MallforAfrica and DHL launch MarketPlace Africa global e-commerce site

17:54 | 13 July

Jake Bright Contributor
Jake Bright is a writer and author in New York City. He is co-author of The Next Africa.

MallforAfrica and DHL are giving African merchants a global stage. This week the online retailer and delivery giant launch MarketPlaceAfrica.com: an e-commerce site for select African artisans to sell wares to buyers in any of DHL’s 220 delivery countries.

The site will prioritize fashion items—clothing, bags, jewelry, footwear, and personal care—and crafts, such as pictures and carvings. MallforAfrica is vetting sellers for MarketPlace Africa online and through the Africa Made Product Standards association (AMPS), to verify made in Africa status and merchandise quality.

“We’re starting off in Nigeria and then we’ll open in Kenya, Rwanda and the rest of Africa, utilizing DHL’s massive network,” MallforAfrica CEO Chris Folayan told TechCrunch about where the goods will be sourced. “People all around the world can buy from African artisans online, that’s the goal,” said Folayan.

Current listed designer products include handbags from Chinwe Ezenwa and Tash women’s outfits by Tasha Goodwin.

In addition to DHL for shipping, MarketPlace Africa will utilize MallforAfrica’s e-commerce infrastructure. The startup was founded in 2011 to solve challenges global consumer goods companies face when entering Africa.

MallforAfrica’s payment and delivery system serves as a digital broker and logistics manager for U.S. retailers, who partner with MFA to sell their goods online to African consumers.

The venture has backing from UK private equity firm Helios Investment Partners and alliances with companies such as consumer electronics chain Best Buy and department store Macy’s.

In 2016 MallforAfrica partnered with eBay to launch the eBay Powered by MallforAfrica platform allowing U.S. vendors to sell in Africa. In 2017 eBay opened its U.S. platform to select sales from African vendors through MallforAfrica’s website.

Africa’s e-commerce space—expected to exceed $75 billion in revenue by 2025—has been one of the continent’s most active, with a number of well-funded startups focused on mastering mega-market Nigeria before expanding outward.

E-commerce minted the continent’s first unicorn in 2016, when Rocket Internet backed Jumia achieved a $1BN valuation after a $326M funding round that included Goldman Sachs.

Africa’s digital retail race produced one of the continent’s notable tech exits when Ringier acquired Nigerian startup DealDey in 2016.

E-commerce shops in Africa have also struggled to reach profitability—though after years of losses Jumia’s apparently getting closer. And digital retail on the continent has seen some big fails, namely the folding of South Africa’s Khalahari.com in 2015 and the distressed acquisition of Konga.com earlier this year.

MallforAfrica CEO Chris Folayan said his company does not release financial performance figures, but noted it now ships to 17 countries, averages a ton a day of goods shipped to Africa, and plans to grow by 3-4 times this year over 2017.

With MarketPlace Africa, Folayan sees an opportunity to open the sales channels both ways. “Our MallforAfrica platform is really about helping people in Africa buy products from places like the U.S., this is the return ticket for Africa’s products,” he said.

 


0

TechCrunch’s Startup Battlefield is coming soon to Beirut, São Paolo and Lagos

11:00 | 17 June

Everyone knows there are thriving startup communities outside of obvious hubs, like San Francisco, Berlin, Bangalore and Beijing, but they don’t always get the support they deserve. Last year, TechCrunch took a major page from its playbook, the Startup Battlefield competition, and staged the event in Nairobi, Kenya to find the best early stage startup in Sub-Saharan Africa, and also to Sydney, Australia, to find the same for Australia and New Zealand. Both were successes, thanks to talented founders and the hard traveling TechCrunch team. And now we’re pleased to announce that we’re stepping up our commitment to emerging ecosystems.

TechCrunch is once again teaming up with Facebook, our partner for last year’s Nairobi event, to bring the Startup Battlefield to three major cities representing regions with vital, emerging startup communities. In Beirut, TechCrunch’s editors will strive to find the best early stage startup in the Middle East and North Africa. In São Paolo, the hunt is for the best in Latin America. And in Lagos, Nigeria, TechCrunch will once again find the top startup in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Early stage startups are welcome to apply. We will choose 15 companies in each region to compete, and we will provide travel support for the finalists to reach the host city. The finalists will also receive intensive coaching from TechCrunch’s editors to hone their pitches to a razor’s edge before they take the stage in front of top venture capitalists from the region and around the world. Winners will receive $25,000 plus a trip for two to the next TechCrunch Disrupt event, where they can exhibit free of charge, and, if qualified, have a chance to be selected to participate in the Startup Battlefield competition associated with that Disrupt. In the world of founders, the Startup Battlefield finalists are an elite; the more than 750 Startup Battlefield alums have raised over $8 billion and produced 100+ exits to date.

What are the dates? They will be finalized shortly but Beirut is on track for early October, São Paolo for early November, and Lagos in early December.  In the meantime, founders eager start an application for one of these Startup Battlefields may do so 
by visiting apply.techcrunch.com . Look for more details next week.

Interested in sponsoring one of the events? Email us at Sponsors@TechCrunch.com

 


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Safaricom rolls out Bonga social networking platform to augment M-Pesa

18:43 | 30 April

Jake Bright Contributor
Jake Bright is a writer and author in New York City. He is co-author of The Next Africa.

When it comes to monetizing digital social interactions, Kenya’s Safaricom has its own order. American tech companies such as Facebook and Twitter offered social networks first, then moved to commercialize them.

Through its M-Pesa mobile money product, Safaricom built one of Africa’s most robust commercial webs and now aims to leverage it as a social network.

The vehicle is the company’s new Bonga platform, something Kenya’s largest telco rolls out in pilot phase this week. An outgrowth of the Safaricom’s Alpha innovation incubator, “Bonga is a conversational and transactional social network,” Shikoh Gitau, Alpha’s Head of Products told TechCrunch.

“It’s focused on pay, play, and purpose…as the three main things our research found people do on our payment and mobile network,” she said. Gitau offered examples: pay could be using M-Pesa and SMS to coordinate anything from tuition payments to e-commerce, play spans online sports betting to gaming, and purpose includes SMS or WhatsApp chat groups that raise money for weddings, holidays, or Kenya’s informal investment groups.

“In our [Bonga] research we’ve said ‘what can we do to build upon those three network behaviors in our network that is Safaricom?,’” she said.

I recently sat in on an Alpha product development session in Nairobi and talked to Safaricom CIO Kamal Battacharya on his vision for the product late last year, as reported at TechCrunch.

“Safaricom’s unique in that we have telco services and a financial services platform that connect nearly every household in Kenya largely on the basis of trade,” he said.

“We’d actually like to move beyond M-Pesa by leveraging its power as a social network to connect people to other product solutions.”

As a telco, Safaricom­—still  has 69 percent of the Kenya’s mobile subscribers. Its M-Pesa fintech app―which generated $525 million of the company’s $2 billion annual revenues―boasts 27 million customers across a network of 136,000 agents.

Through in-house development and partnerships, the company continues to add consumer and small business-based products to its mobile and fintech network. These include digital TV, the M-Kopa solar-powered lighting kit, and Lipa-Na bill pay service.

This week Safaricom will offer Bonga to a test group of 600 users, before updating the product, allowing the initial group to refer it to friends, and then extending the platform in three phases.

Bonga Sasa will facilitate messaging and money transfer between individuals, “enabling users to send or receive money while conversing with each other,” according to a Safaricom release. For example, through Bonga Sasa a parent can send money to the child without having to leave the platform to access another money transfer tool.

Bonga Baraza, expected in mid-2018, will allow users to collect money for purpose driven events, including Kenya’s harambee collective fundraising drives.

Bonga Biashara will build on this use of social networks for commerce. Digitizing Kenya’s extensive informal trading commerce is at play here. Alpha’s research found roughly “2.5 million people doing side-hustles with a smartphone in Kenya” and 12.5 million total running small businesses on smart and USSD devices, according to Gitau.

Bonga will channel Facebook, YouTube, iTunes, PayPal, and eBay in one platform. Users will be able to create business profiles parallel to their personal social media profiles and M-Pesa accounts and sell online. Bonga will also include space for Kenya’s creative class to upload, shape, and distribute artistic products and content.

As for Safaricom’s Bonga monetization plan, it’s not an immediate priority, according to the Alpha team members I spoke to. “We’ll offer it for free for now, and it’s connected to M-Pesa, which is already monetized,” said Gitau. “The more these services grow and grow small businesses the more they grow M-Pesa..which is already profitable.”

Safaricom is exploring how to take Bonga beyond Kenya’s borders, which could include markets where both M-Pesa and Vodafone are present: currently 10 in Europe, Africa, and South Asia.

Photo courtesy of Flickr/WorldRemit

 


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African VC TLcom Capital invests $5M in Nigerian data analytics firm Terragon Group

20:30 | 29 March

The African venture firm TLcom Capital is betting on Africa’s data analytics markets with a $5M investment in Nigerian based Terragon Group, the developer of a software analytics service for customer acquisition.

TLcom’s commitment is the second from its $40 million TIDE Africa Fund for early and growth-stage digital companies.

“We liked…that the business has matured into a new platform with very strong technology behind it,” said TLcom Capital Partner, Ido Sum “It allows the largest advertisers and brands…to reach consumers in a way they couldn’t do before.”

Located in Lagos, Terragon’s software services give its clients — primarily telecommunications and financial services companies — data on Africa’s growing consumer markets.

Products allow users to drill down on multiple combinations of behavioral and demographic information and reach consumers through video and SMS campaigns while connecting to online sales and payments systems, according to the company.

“We can track across several layers — web, mobile, mobile money — and track data to do things channel agnostically,” said Terragon CEO Elo Umeh, on how Terragon captures consumer info from multiple sources.

These tracking services are enabled by a lack of regulation around data privacy in the country. “There is currently no comprehensive data privacy or personal information protection law in Nigeria,” said CTO Ayodeji Balogun of Terragon’s largest market. “A bill is being considered and we are actively engaging with regulators and legislators to create a clear path.”

Beyond government mandates Balogun highlighted Terragon’s internal controls, “Adrenaline was built using a comprehensive data governance framework to ensure data security and consumer privacy,” he said. The company is also working with Deloitte to implement ISO/IEC 27001 information security standards “across all our platforms, systems, and processes,” said Balogun.

The company has a team of 100 employees across Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana, and South Africa. Top customer sectors across countries span fast moving consumer goods, financial services, gaming and betting, and NGOs, according to Umeh.

“We are helping everyone we work for to intelligently reach the mobile user in Africa,” he said. “We are providing them data…driving accuracy, and making sure they are communicating with the right person at the right time, and at the right place.”

Terragon generates revenue primarily on transaction facilitation for its clients.  TLcom Capital is their first formal investor, according to Umeh. Though the company does not release financial statements, he said Terragon had bootstrapped itself into the black. “We are profitable. We’ve been in business for 8 years and have grown to revenues of between $4 and $5 million dollars a year.”

Consumer research in Africa is emerging as a professional industry as the continent’s large informal business space—representing some 55 percent of the continent’s economic activity—modernizes.  The growth of consumer spending, e-commerce, mobile penetration, and Africa’s improving broadband landscape are facilitating this, while creating opportunities for data services.  

Big global firms such as Nielsen and Euromonitor have upped their African consumer research offerings. An American company, GeoPoll, has also built out a digital survey service and database in multiple African countries. mSurvey, a Kenyan based startup specializing in mobile data collection, developed a Consumer Wallet product with partner Safaricom in 2017 and recently expanded in to Nigeria.

Meanwhile, Umeh sees global possibilities for the company’s platform. Terragon already has a consumer data research and development team in India and is contemplating expansion in Asia and the Americas. “Today the strategy is to be dominant on the continent of Africa,” said Umeh. “At some stage we’ll look at licensing our technology into Southeast Asia and Latin America. We think our technology is relevant South of the equator. We also think we can generate interest out of large advertisers looking at Africa from New York,” he said.

 


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EdTech is having a renaissance, powered by the emerging world

18:12 | 18 March

So-called ‘EdTech’ has seen many false dawns over the years. After being lauded as the teaching platforms of the future, most MOOCs (Massive Open Online Course platforms) have not quite lived up to the superlatives made for them, and the sector has had trouble coming up with more innovative ideas for a while.

But that appears to be changing if a new wave of startups is any indication. In Dubai this weekend I was invited to judge a number of education startups which are really trying to move the need on EdTech, and in particular on a sector with almost unlimited potential. That is, education platforms aimed at the emerging world, where the hunger for scalable education is almost incalculable.

Consider this: Ethopia, now a far more stable country that it once was, contains more people under 25 than almost anywhere else, and it has a population of over 100 million people. And consider the potential for EdTech to transform countries like India, for instance. This is going to be a very interesting market in the future, as well as being an urgent issue. According to UNESCO, 264 million children do not have access to schooling, while at least 600 million more are “in school but not learning”. These are children who are not achieving even basic skills in maths and reading, which the World Bank calls a “learning crisis”.

A taste of what is to be found in this sector was showcased today at the “Next Billion Edtech Prize,” launched at the Global Education & Skills Forum (think: Davos/WEF for Education) by the Varkey Foundation to recognize the most innovative technology startups destined to have a radical impact on education in low income and emerging world countries.

The overall winner in the competition was Chatterbox, an online language school powered by refugees

This web platform harnesses the wasted talent of unemployed professionals who are refugees, offering them work as online and in-person language tutors. Based in the UK, where there is a language skills shortage estimated to cost the economy £48bn every year, Chatterbox has now signed up several UK universities and major non-profits and corporations to use its services. Having raised a seed round from impact-fund Bethnal Green Ventures, it’s now looking for further funding to expand.

Co-founder and CEO Mursal Hedayat was three years old when she arrived in the UK as a refugee from Afghanistan with her mother, a civil engineer who spoke English and three other languages fluently. “I watched her become unemployed in the UK for more than a decade. Refugees with degrees and valuable skills still face shockingly high levels of underemployment. An idea like Chatterbox has never been more urgently needed,” she says. (Indeed, the conference later heard from Al Gore who quoted research that showed millions of people will become refugees due to climate change in the next few decades).

Chatterbox’s fellow finalists for the $25,000 prize on offer were equally interesting.

Dot Learn was almost literally the same as ‘Silicon Valley’s PiedPiper. It makes online video e-learning far more accessible on slow connections for users in low-income countries, especially because it compresses educational video so making it cheaper to access. Its technology reduces the file-size of learning videos, requiring 1/100th of the bandwidth to watch. At current data prices in Kenya and Nigeria, this means a student or learner can access 5 hrs of online learning for about the cost of sending a single text message ($0.014). The startup was a notable finalist during TechCrunch’s Battlefield Africa.

TeachMeNow is a gig-economy platform for teachers. This marketplace connects teachers, experts, and mentors to students. The technology combines scheduling, payments and live virtual sessions that can connect on any device allows tens of thousands of teachers to create their own online businesses, with some earning over $100,000 last year. In addition, schools and companies including Microsoft use TeachMeNow software to create their own-branded online learning communities.

Sunny Varkey, Founder of the Varkey Foundation and the Next Billion Prize says he launched the prize because “over a billion young people – a number growing every day – are being denied what should be the birthright of every single child. The prize will highlight technology’s potential to tackle the problems that have proven too difficult for successive generations of politicians to solve.”

Other notable finalists included Learning Machine. This using the blockchain as a secure anchor of trust makes verifying the authenticity of a document instantaneously, specifically education documents like university degrees. They are now working to put all the educational records of Malta online.

Localized is a new platform for college students and aspiring professionals in emerging economies to find career guidance, role models and expertise from global professionals who share language and roots (think Slack meets Quora for college students in emerging markets, drawing on diaspora expertise).

The Biz Nation is an EdTech startup focused on empowering youth with technology skills, soft skills, entrepreneurship and financial intelligence through a methodology that improves user’s learning about creating a business.

 


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