Deals. Deals. Deals. African tech start-ups dominated headlines for record-breaking fundraise announcements in 2018. Cellulant raised. Africa’s Talking raised. Tizeti raised. mSurvey raised. Farmcrowdy raised. Piggybank raised. Kobo360 raised. Jumo raised. Zola Electric raised. TradeDepot raised. And there’s more. Recent reports estimate that tech start-ups have secured $334.5M in 2018, according to the recently published Disrupt Africa report. This was up from $195M and set to continue as tech ventures and investors converge at Africa Tech Summit in Kigali, February 14th and 15th.
Without a doubt, 2019’s figures will be skewed by the recent big announcement from Andela, who have scooped a staggering $100m Series D, bringing their total raise to $180M. One of the continent’s success stories when it comes to securing institutional investment and recording significant growth, Andela is a major contributor to the international narrative that Africa’s tech scene is open for business and is very much worth investing in. That being said, it’s clear that investment is headed in the right trajectory. What is evident is that long-term investment, or patient capital, is key to any angel or VC Africa strategy. With very few exits recorded on the continent, African tech is by no means a get-rich-quick investment opportunity.
But who’s fuelling this investment spree? Where’s the money coming from? Are Africans investing in Africa? Or is tech being controlled, via VC, by the West?
A recent TechCrunch deep-dive of start-up investment for the continent revealed that more money is coming from investors located on the continent, based on data sourced from Crunchbase. The report found that out of 51 Africa-focussed funds, 43% were in Africa and managed by Africans. This news came in the wake of ongoing Africa Twitter commentary around the perception that African tech was being overly influenced and controlled by foreign investment, and certainly added fuel to the debate. So whilst international investment continues to flow into the sector, the evidence shows there is a hive of activity from VCs and angel investors on the ground, on the continent – working closely with entrepreneurs and innovators to build and scale tech. Indeed, let’s not forget that Andela’s previous round of $40M, back in 2017, was actually led by South Africa-based CRE Venture Capital.
Speaking to Emilian Popa, Principal at DiGame Investment, ahead of Africa Tech Summit Kigali, he is all-too aware of the divergent approaches to doing business in Africa versus the US. “Pure tech in Africa is difficult, unlike it is in the US, where tech can tap into widely existing infrastructure, or China, where tech giants have built infrastructure alongside tech. Africa needs businesses which have both tech and some kind of distributed infrastructure, which they would control (not own). This is important for how we plan to structure our deal flow in the coming years.”
Finding VCs who understand these unique models is critical to the success of the sector. Those who understand the nuances and peculiarities of scaling tech companies in Africa are primarily those who are from or who have operated on the continent for many years, and who have worked across a number of different countries. It’s this knowledge of different markets, the sectors that require disruption [or amplification] as well as spotting the gaps in the market – this is what makes for a shrewd African VC.
Ido Sum, Partner at TLcom Capital, says that in 2018, the VC firm had identified B2B opportunities in very large sectors that needed disruption, from advertising to logistics. He notes, “We saw some great companies identifying real market gaps and inefficiencies with a very deep understanding of the local context and roots of the problems, combined with real innovation on the business models and solutions built around these challenges and gaps.”
And for TLCom, gaps in the market that will be integral to their investment strategy for 2019 will be fintech, transportation, energy, education and agriculture. On agri in particular, Sum notes, “as this remains the largest sector in terms of GDP contribution for most African countries, and with its many inefficiencies and fragmentation, Agri is another large space waiting for disruption on various fronts from solutions to farmers, to logistics to financing etc. We keep following such solutions closely, with an interest to get more involved this year.”
The one sector that 2018 revealed numerous gaps in the market for? Kola Aina of Founding Partner Ventures Platform says, “Sounds cliché, but 2018 was truly the year of African fintech – as the sector attracted significant volumes of investment with a number of players maturing rapidly – and it is just getting started.”
For Popa at DiGame, the key sectors that he’ll be keeping a close eye on in 2019 are education, fintech, health tech, mobility, and distributed energy generation sectors, adding, “We believe that demand in these sectors will be anchored by significant, long-term African demographic changes that include exponential population growth (with a material proportion under 35), an emerging middle class and rapid urbanization.”
Like his VC contemporaries, Aina too is also laser focused on companies that can scale, looking towards fintech, healthtech and agri as areas of focus, although interestingly, he is also paying particular attention to artificial intelligence, adding “We expect to see the role of AI evolve and become more important for startups in the region this year”.
In terms of adding to their portfolios and their overarching 2019 investment strategies, the VCs we spoke to were concerned mostly with a strong founding team, innovation and problem solving – and many will no doubt be seduced by any founding team that promises mass adoption and scale of their product, harnessing Africa’s booming, digital-first population. For Aina, their investment preference for the foreseeable future is, “ambitious founders who are delivering goods and services enabled by some form of innovation (not limited to technology innovation)- to mass low-income markets or fast growing middle class.”
Popa at DiGame is also working to the same ethos, adding that he will be, “Favoring companies that can scale across Africa and the world. We look for businesses that could develop into giants–US$100 million to US$1billion companies, and we look for the entrepreneurs who can deliver that type of growth in Africa.” Sum at TLcom, whilst working on deals with average investment size from $500k to $5m, also reflects that, “We are looking for exceptional teams with very deep market understanding, who use technology to solve very large problems that can not only identify, but also come up with data and experience based solutions for.”
For more insight and advice from seasoned African tech VCs, join Ido Sum, Partner at TLcom Capital and Emilian Popa, Principal at DiGame Investment at Africa Tech Summit Kigali 2019 on February 13th-15th at the Kigali Convention Centre in Rwanda.