When Stripe-subsidiary Paystack raised its seed round of $1.3 million in 2016, it was one of the largest disclosed rounds at that stage in Nigeria.
At the time, seven-figure seed investments in African startups were a rarity. But over the years, those same seed-stage rounds have become more common, with some very early-stage startups even raising eight-figure sums. Nigerian fintech startup, Kuda, which bagged $10 million last year, comes to mind, for example.
Also notable amidst the growth in seven and eight-figure African seed deals have been gains in pre-seed fundraising. Typically, pre-seed rounds are raised when the startup is still in the product development phase, yet to make revenue or discover product-market fit. These investments are usually made by third-party investors (friends and family), and range between $25,000-$150,000.
But the narrative as to how much an early-stage African startup can raise as pre-seed has changed.
Last year, African VCs who usually fund seed and Series A rounds began partaking in pre-seed rounds, and they don’t seem to be slowing down. Just a month into 2021, Egyptian fintech startup Cassbana raised a $1 million pre-seed investment led by VC firm Disruptech in a bid to drive expansion within the country.
So why the sudden change in appetite from investors?
Andreata Muforo is a partner at TLcom Capital, a pan-African early-stage VC firm. She told TechCrunch that last year’s run of 23 pre-seed rounds (10 of which were $150,000+ deals) per Briter Bridges data, was due to the confidence investors had in the market, especially fintech.
Startups building financial infrastructure got noticed
While most African pre-seed investments in 2020 went to fintech, there were exceptions, including Egyptian edtech startup Zedny, which raised $1.2 million; Nigerian automotive tech startup Autochek Africa, which raised $3.4 million; and Nigerian talent startup TalentQL, which raised $300,000.
Just as Paystack and Flutterwave built payment infrastructure for thousands of African businesses, these fintech startups are trying to make their mark in the sweet spots of credit and banking.
“Fintech is compelling. But while most fintech startups play around the commodities side of fintech, it’s the companies building infrastructure around the market that got most of the pre-seed validation last year,” Muforo said. Her firm, TLcom, led the $1 million pre-seed investment in Okra.
Okra is an API fintech startup. So are Mono, OnePipe and Pngme. They are building Africa’s API infrastructure that connects bank accounts with financial institutions and third-party companies for different purposes. Within the past 18 months, Mono and Pngme raised $500,000, while OnePipe raised $950,000 in pre-seed.
It is noteworthy that while these startups are clamoring to solve Africa’s open API banking issues, three of the four deals came after Visa’s $5.3 billion acquisition of Plaid last year in January.
Although the Visa-Plaid acquisition has now been called off, it is safe to say some African investors developed FOMO, handing out sizable checks to fund “Africa’s Plaid” in the process.
Digital lenders remain one of their most important customers for fintech API startups. They can access customers’ financial accounts to understand their spending patterns and know who to loan to.
Egypt’s Shahry and Nigeria’s Evolve Credit are fintech startups building credit infrastructure for their markets. Evolve Credit connects digital lenders to those who need loan services in Nigeria via its online loan marketplace. Shahry, on the other hand, employs an AI-based credit scoring engine so users in Egypt can apply for credit. The pair also secured impressive pre-seed funding — Evolve Credit, $325,000, and Shahry, $650,000.
A recurring theme: Serial founders
Muforo points out that aside from startups building fintech infrastructure, the caliber of founders was another reason pre-seed funding peaked last year.
Adewale Yusuf, co-founder and CEO of TalentQL, a startup that hires, manages and outsources talent for Nigerian and global companies, seemed to agree. He told TechCrunch that trust between the VCs and founders involved played a major role in most pre-seed rounds last year.
“It wasn’t surprising that a lot of investors put money in pre-seed rounds. I say this because we also saw existing founders and serial entrepreneurs coming back to the market. To me, these founders’ credibility was a major part of why those rounds were large,” he said.
A second-time founder himself, Yusuf is the co-founder of Nigerian tech media publication Techpoint Africa. His partner at TalentQL, Opeyemi Awoyemi, is also a serial entrepreneur. He co-founded Ringier One Africa Media-owned Jobberman, one of Africa’s most popular recruitment platforms.
According to Adedayo Amzat, founder of Zedcrest Capital, which is the lead investor in TalentQL’s round, the founders’ experience proved vital in closing the deal.
He says investors are more comfortable backing experienced founders in pre-seed rounds because they have a more mature understanding of the problems they’re trying to solve. So, in essence, they tend to raise more capital.
“If you look at pre-seed sizes, experienced founders can demand a significant premium over first-time founders,” Amzat said. “Pre-seed valuation cap for first-time founders will typically be between 400K to $1 million while we frequently see up to $5 million for experienced founders.”
It was a recurring theme last year. Yele Bademosi, who runs Microtraction, a West African early-stage VC firm, is the CEO of Bundle Africa, a Nigerian-based crypto-exchange startup that raised $450,000 in April 2020.
Shahry co-founders Sherif ElRakabawy and Mohamed Ewis also run Egypt’s largest shopping engine and price comparison website, Yaoota.
Mono co-founder and CEO Abdulhamid Hassan was the co-founder of Nigerian fintech startup OyaPay and data science startup Voyance. Also, Etop Ikpe, the co-founder and CEO of Autochek Africa, was CEO of DealDey and Cars45.
That said, Fara Ashiru Jituboh of Okra and Akan Nelson of Evolve Credit as first-time founders got investments that most of their counterparts would only dream of. For Jituboh, her solid tech background spoke for her — boasting a senior software engineering job at Pexels and engineering consultant role at Canva before founding Okra.
“We backed Fara because she’s a strong tech founder. When you look at the core of what Okra does as a tech-heavy company, you see how important it was to make the decision,” Muforo said about backing Okra’s CEO and CTO.
Nelson also told TechCrunch that his finance background helped Evolve Credit raise its six-figure sum. The team’s bullishness on finding product-market fit and the potential of Africa’s loan marketplace was also enough to bring foreign and local VCs like Samurai Incubate, Future Africa, Ingressive Capital and Microtraction on board.
While early-stage investments in African startups haven’t reached full speed, the explosion in the number of angel investors has lowered entry barriers into early-stage investing.
Now investors are beginning to show readiness toward African startups that have promise as they continue to search for the next Paystack.
“More people are willing to take risks now in the market, especially angel investors. They can easily let go of $10K-$50K because of success stories like Paystack,” Yusuf said about the $200 million acquisition by U.S. payments startup Stripe.
For all of its significance to the African tech ecosystem, what particularly stands out about Paystack’s exit is the return on investment made for early investors.
By the time it exited in October 2020, some angel investors had an ROI of more than 1,400% according to Jason Njoku in his blog post. Njoku, who took part in the round as an angel investor, is the CEO of IROKO, a Nigerian VOD internet company.
For Muforo, witnessing more early-stage investments is a big deal, one the African tech ecosystem should savor regardless of the round in question.
“Pre-seed or seed are just names investors and founders give. They can basically mean the same thing, in my opinion,” she said. “What I think is most important is the fact that we’re getting more early-stage capital into Africa, and startups are getting more attention from investors, which is fantastic.”