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Aella, A Nigerian fintech startup raises a $10m debt financing round from HQ Financial Group

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Aella co-founders, Akanbi Wale and Akinola Jones (Source: Aella)

Aella has made a visible impact on the lives of more than 300k borrowers across its Employer Backed and Direct to Consumer Verticals, who now have access to simple financial products

LAGOS, Nigeria, February 10, 2020 – Focused on improving financial inclusion for West Africa’s low-income segment, a Nigerian fintech start-up, Aella has raised a $10m debt financing round, from HQ Financial Group (HQF), Singapore-based private company specializing in new material science, semiconductor and blockchain financial investments. This debt financing round is Aella’s second raise and will bolster the company’s commitment to serve the underbanked population in West Africa and other emerging markets.

Aella was founded in late 2015 by Akin Jones, CEO (right) and Akanbi Wale, CTO (left) in Lagos, Nigeria and has remained committed to building trustworthy credit for emerging markets with an initial focus on Nigeria and the Philippines, where the company is licensed to operate. Aella has made a visible impact on the lives of more than 300k borrowers across its Employer Backed and Direct to Consumer Verticals, who now have access to simple financial products.

For millions of poor and low-income households, entrepreneurs, and nascent businesses in West Africa without access to financial institutions, micro-lending fintechs like Aella provide a broader array of financial products — savings, insurance, payments and specialized loans, focused on lifting many out of poverty. Aella plans to use this funding to scale its lending operations and expand its product base into payments.

“Lack of access to credit and financial services has been the main impediment to MSME growth and poverty reduction in several emerging economies. Aella’s commitment to providing trustworthy credit to millions of people in the world’s emerging markets is improving financial inclusion, enabling MSME expansion and accelerating economic growth and this raise will allow us scale our expansion across Africa quickly”, said Aella CEO, Akin Jones.

A screenshot of the app (Source: Aella) 

Aella will also invest in new products including a blockchain-based lending market called Creditcoin, to build borrower creditworthiness and aid in the acquisition of one million additional users by the end of 2020, making it the largest blockchain backed financial services project that is currently operational.

“We are building a one-stop app for all transactions partnered with regulated industry leaders to help distribute products faster, better and cheaper to end-users in Nigeria and across the markets we plan to launch. This app will allow users access multiple financial services at low costs compared to what is currently available in market”, Jones added.

Sun Han Gyu, Chief Executive Officer of HQ Financial Group said “We are excited to announce our partnership with Aella Credit which will significantly aid in the proliferation of micro-loan services to the underserved African populations who are unable to access banking services. HQF is impressed with their outstanding growth with very low default rate in the micro-loan business in Nigeria and look forward, through this initial investment of $10m to new growth opportunities in Africa and South Asia”. HQF has deployed over $70m in investments since 2015.

Aella previously raised $2m seed funding at the US startup program, Y Combinator from seed investors including Micheal Seibel of Y Combinator, Brian Armstrong of Coinbase, Bill Paladino (former head of Naspers eCommerce), Tae Oh, Shawntae Spencer (former San Francisco 49ers Cornerback), VY Capital, 500 Startups, Gluwa and others, which enabled it invest in digitalization and technology.

Over the last two years, the company has achieved significant growth with a 2-year compound annual user growth rate of 674%, over 193% increase in revenue and maintained a single-digit default rate. Aella was also recognized by Amazon as one of the world’s leading financial organizations pioneering the use of facial recognition technology for customer authentication and credit scoring.

Also Read: How Tech Is Enhancing Recruitment: An Interview With Sandy Simagwali, Co-Founder Of Graft Africa

This raise marks the conclusion of the start-up’s evolution to a full-service lending and payments platform, poised to play a greater role in providing a wide bouquet of financial services across Africa. Aella is focused on expanding across Africa and South East Asia enabling users to access a wide range of fast, convenient, and secure financial services. The company’s application will allow users to have access to loans, invest safely and securely, affordable insurance plans, bill payments and peer-to-peer money transfers.

Aella.

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A ‘second renaissance’ for African payments post COVID

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African payments is fast becoming a ‘gold-standard’ for payments worldwide, and COVID is set to accelerate both the value and funding available to this segment across the continent. Since M-Pesa launched in Kenya, the proportion of Africans (particularly East Africa) paying by mobile has exceeded every other emerging region. In Africa, perhaps more than anywhere else, ‘mobile first’ has given way to ‘mobile only.’ 

Another attraction is, perversely, COVID. Digital businesses across the continent are normalizing the use of payment technology and money transfer in the informal economy (i.e. the part of the economy that is neither taxed nor monitored by any form of government) out of sheer necessity. To encourage the shift, leaders such as Kenya’s largest teleco, Safaricom, have implemented tactics such as a fee waiver for M-Pesa (East Africa’s leading mobile-money product), to reduce the physical exchange of currency and drive increased adoption.

Across the continent there is a renewed drive to reduce reliance on cash. Meanwhile payment data value is only now being leveraged, which sets the stage for creating another ‘value peak’ for emerging African payments vendors in the near future.

This is a perfectly ‘natural’ response for economies with large informal sectors, still-low average  transaction values, and a large proportion of transactions for essential goods and services. The IMF, in its April 2020 World Economic Outlook, recommends countries with large informal sectors further develop their digital payments systems. These systems “may provide an opportunity to improve the delivery of targeted transfers to the informally employed.”

In the coming ‘renaissance,’ what are African payment players doing to differentiate and position themselves for the next stage?

Insights from Leading African Payments Players

Hybrid and Pure-Play Payment Players

African payments companies take two broad forms.  The first is ‘pure play,’ generally based on Payment Service Provider (PSP) functionality. These vendors run a defined set of services and leverage partnerships to achieve scale. The second are hybrid vendors, who are more vertically integrated, usually offering a broader range of services off their core technology stacks:

  • Examples of pure-play: Direct Pay Online, Interswitch, Paystack, Flutterwave.
  • Examples of hybrid: Cellulant, Pesapal, Paga, Jambopay

The definition is important to distinguish as it impacts strategic direction of any company, which would also directly affect the set of longer term buyers or investors for each of the companies.

Winning SMEs & Agent Distribution/Network

Winning in African payments generally means winning the SME sector. There are very few true enterprise corporates, and a significant number of sole-proprietor businesses across all sectors.  The fragmentation of the potential customer base is so much greater than in other fast-growing regions that many payments companies need to adopt a broader ‘ground game’ to target, connect, engage, and maintain a broad SME customer base, often across quite different markets.

To effectively target SMEs, direct selling, agent distribution or agent networks are crucial for payment players, particularly in West Africa, due to the lack of infrastructure. Over the last 10 years, M-Pesa’s rise was closely associated with Safaricom’s dominance in Kenya (70% mobile market share), its broad and tied agent network across the country, and the focus applied to rolling out this service broadly. 

In West Africa, the continent’s largest prize, the market is deeply fragmented, ATMs are virtually non existent or not functional (Nigeria has < 20,000 working ATM’s), and for many of Africa’s 1 billion+ population agents of various forms are the main or only means of transacting effectively. Companies such as Paga and Kudi already demonstrate the requirement for, and value of, developing and maintaining a broad enough agent network on which to drive scale and reach.

Broader number of use cases

Creating and maintaining an agent distribution network is expensive.  The ‘quid pro quo’ are a broad range of use cases enabled as a result, and the first-mover margins available to payments companies which can scale this way.  Across the continent, agents are used for cash in/out, remittances, bill pay, payment for utilities and power, and the purchase of basic goods and services.  While many of these remain cash transactions that are then converted to digital, increasingly payments companies are linking services to make transactions end-to-end digital.

Another benefit for creating broad based agent/direct distribution is that payments companies often can achieve higher margins on transactions than almost anywhere else.  Its not atypical for take rates to be 2x+ what they would be in more competitive markets like India, and even at those levels they are still far below other alternatives. For example, the avg cost of transferring $200 via a bank transaction can exceed 10%, and in remittances many emerging digital players can charge 2x ‘normal’ take rates and still reduce the cost to consumers significantly vs traditional services such as Western Union.

Digital works for payments companies, and for consumers, and the higher take rates are simply a function of the challenges and costs of reaching such a distributed, informal customer base.

Data Value

In developed markets, data value is nearly always under-leveraged within payments providers.  Many have built legacy systems that cannot easily adapt to actioning data insights to deliver value to customers, and increase margins significantly. An African ecosystem only now being built has the incalculable benefit of ‘starting with a clean sheet of paper’ in terms of realizing the value of data earlier and more completely.

As a result, intelligent leverage of data and insights from an early stage could vault the strategic value of payment players to an entirely different level than current valutions. And since in the data monetisation game, ‘better data always beats better algorithms’, it is our view that many African payments companies are sitting on a large and growing ‘gold mine’ of proprietary insights on customer and SME behavior which can be leveraged in many ways to drive margins. 

In time, many payments vendors will have greater insight into consumer spending habits to deliver targeted offers via mobile in a way which is simply impossible to envision in developed markets, where that ecosystem is already dominated by much larger incumbents. For example, both Square and Stripe have introduced and expanded significantly in the financing area.

Square extended almost $700m SMEs loans per quarter in Q4 2019, highlighting the massive market potential. The point is that through the value of data and insights, many African payments companies can grow value well beyond pure payments value, because what they are ‘seeing’ are truly unique insights.

Capital Efficiency & Unit Economics

Because of structural inefficiency in Africa (‘reinventing the wheel’ is by definition required as there is no ‘wheel’ of infrastructure that functions successfully today) there is a degree of inherent capital inefficiency presumed to be required to get to minimum size to scale.  Second, targeting SMEs and consumers is inherently more expensive than enterprise sales, with higher churn, greater cost to acquire and service, and a still-limited ceiling on realistic customer lifetime value.

Also Read: Viero: A SaaS Platform Enabling Entrepreneurs Create Food Delivery App Without Code In 60 Seconds

We see that emerging African payments leaders go through different stages of capital inefficiency.  For most, there is a multi-year period of greater inefficiency, as basic vertical integration is built. However, once companies pass a ‘tipping point’ of scale, rising take rates, and the leverage available from layering on additional services and use cases quickly turns that inefficiency into a highly capital efficient set of assetsIt is particularly important to distill, frame, and articulate these metrics as investors / buyers value a ‘perpetual motion machine’ that targets, acquires, services and ‘up-sells’ customers.

Having a well-crafted set of unit economics also underscores the value of the existing and prospective customer base, and validates the ‘ground game’ execution strategy of local distribution across Africa. Buyers of equity can also rationalise paying more upfront because there is no significant $ required to subsequently drive customers to profitability.  This transition from inefficiency to hyper-efficiency is a key element of story telling for African payments companies to sell equity at rising prices.

Conclusion

Africa presents maybe the biggest payment opportunity in the world today. For companies with some degree of scale, they have already done much of the hard work to generate long term embedded value, and only now are many starting to see the benefits of high marginal unit economics.  With more capital, and compelling equity stories to tap the next generation of larger investors, we see several potential ‘unicorns’ emerging in the space in the next 5 years. M-Pesa and Interswitch are only the tip of the (value) iceberg.

Credit: Magister Adivors

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Viero: A SaaS Platform Enabling Entrepreneurs Create Food Delivery App Without Code In 60 Seconds

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Viero & Zistify Founders, Basheer Phiri and Hopewell Fakude

Launching a food delivery start-up requires an entrepreneur to manage 4 aspects; Restaurants, Delivery Agents, Customers, and the most costly of them all, an application. Building a food delivery application can cost up to $60 000. There are also additional costs that need to be paid on a monthly basis to maintain and improve the application. “This is a major barrier to entry into the food delivery industry in Africa” said Basheer Phiri, the founder and CEO of Viero.

“Because of these high costs, we see a lot of food delivery Startups all over Africa serving the urban market, because it is big, and has enough customers to cover the development and maintenance costs and make a profit.” Basheer believes that food delivery Startups do not target township and non-urban areas because these markets need to be built from the group up, which means additional marketing costs and slower growth and adoption rates.

Therefore, coupled with the need to cover maintenance costs and the demand for growth and traction from investors, food delivery Startups prefer competing in the already established urban markets. This has led to high concentration in urban markets while non-urban markets remain relatively untapped.

“We saw this and realised that there was value that could be created” said Basheer. “After speaking to a few interested entrepreneurs, we saw that they could manage every aspect of the food delivery business, but could not afford to pay for an App. That is how Viero was born”

Viero is a SaaS Platform that enables entrepreneurs to create a food delivery web application with no code in 60 seconds. (Here’s how it works – https://youtu.be/1T9oxNtRDpM).

The platform built a standard food delivery application template and enables it to be cloned, rebranded and hosted through white-labelling. Entrepreneurs can use the application under a monthly subscription and have access to many features depending on their chosen plan. Entrepreneurs can also make changes to the layout and design of their app, all without any code.

Launched in South Africa on 1 June 2020, the platform has achieved amazing uptake thus far. 22 Apps in total have been created with 2 Food delivery Startups that are live and operating in South Africa and 20 other Startups preparing for launch. 108 orders have been delivered, with R4700 processed in transactions, 200 customer users, 16 listed stores and 45 delivery agents. 

Viero was launched by UCT students Basheer Phiri and Hopewell Fakude. They met in their first year in 2018 as residents of Smuts Hall Residence at The University of Cape Town, when they were introduced by a mutual friend who noticed their passion for entrepreneurship. Since then, they have worked together on several Startups and projects.

Also Read: Radisson Hotel Group announces new appointments to drive its expansion for Africa

Basheer and Hopewell are not new to the food delivery industry. In 2019, they launched Zistify, a food delivery start-up for the university market. Zistify delivers food ordered from food vendors on campus through it’s app to university students and staff. 

Viero is in capable hands and is ready to disrupt the food delivery industry in Africa. Currently raising a $100 000 seed round to incorporate logistics into its business offering, to bring in more talent to the team, and to continue building and improving the platform.

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HUAWEI CLOUD, A Leading Tech Giant Partners AI Expo Africa 2020

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HUAWEI CLOUD has joined AI Expo Africa 2020 as a headline partner. The annual event is Africa’s largest artificial intelligence (AI), data science and Robotic Process Automation (RPA) trade-focused show and conference. The third edition of the expo, which will be held as a virtual event this year, will take place on 3 and 4 September.

Besides making the show more inclusive, the new format will make it easier for African startups and innovators to join the event along with European, US, Middle East and Asian companies seeking to enter the African market and unlock new customers and distribution partners.

HUAWEI CLOUD has more 30 years of technological know-how, innovation and expertise in ICT infrastructure. With over 200+ cloud services across 18 categories, the firm’s affordable and inclusive AI services enable enterprises to grow in a stable, secure and progressive environment.

The tech giant spans many availability zones within geographic regions around the world, with global data centres in Johannesburg, Bankgok, Singapore, Sao Paolo, Buenos Aires, Lima, Santiago, Mexico City, as well as in China. Its recent successes in the AI field include the implementation of a new automated traffic system to ease congestion in Nairobi, Kenya.

HUAWEI CLOUD has also developed more than 60 general purpose solutions such as SAP, HPC, IoT, security, DevOps and OPv6, and over 80 industry-specific solutions for various sectors like manufacturing, e-commerce, gaming finance, Internet of Things (IoT) as well as Internet of Vehicles (IoV). In addition, HUAWEI CLOUD provides a powerful computing platform and easy-to-use development platform to support Huawei’s full-stack, all-scenario AI strategy.

HUAWEI CLOUD is the latest in a string of international firms and organisations that have signed up as as sponsors and will be exhibiting at AI Expo Africa 2020. These include UK-based RPA pioneer Blue Prism, and US-based cloud customer experience market leader Genesys.

The initial AI Expo Africa 2020 speaker line-up is led by Kay Firth-Butterfield, Head of AI and Machine Learning at the World Economic Forum; Neil Sahota, IBM Master Inventor, UN AI expert and lecturer at University of California, and Fred Werner, Head of Strategic Engagement at the International Telecommunication Union, and Bayo Adekanmbi, CTO MTN Nigeria and founder of Data Science Nigeria.

Other confirmed keynote speakers now include; South Africa’s Minister of Communications, Telecommunications and Postal Services Stella Tembisa Ndabeni-Abrahams; Prof Tshilidzi Marwala, and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Johannesburg and Deputy Head of the 4IR Commission of South Africa.

Also Read: Black Founders: Here are some fundraising and networking opportunities

The speaker line up also includes enterprise executives from SAP, Vodacom, UiPath, Microsoft, Standard Bank, Oracle and ABSA. Entrepreneurs and thought leaders from Genesys, Ashanti AI, FinChatBot, Zindi, FIRtech, Future Fragment, and WizzPass will also be present in the virtual exhibition hall with its eBooth functionality – offering sponsors, vendors and service providers a means to interact with delegates and showcase or demo their offerings just as they would in a face-to-face trade show.

HUAWEI CLOUD joins a growing list of thought leaders and companies that have engaged with the AI Expo Africa community over the years. AWS, Microsoft, Google Cloud, IBM, PWC, Kenyan Government, ITU, Nvidia, Intel, SA Government, Dimension Data, UiPath, Blue Prism, Vodacom, Hikvision, SAP, SAS, Telkom, Deloitte, Accenture, EY, Persistent Systems, ABSA and Standard Bank have all been part of the community as the show grows into the next decade.

AI EXPO AFRICA

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