What a year. As an organization, we feel very fortunate to be coming into the new year stronger than where we started 2020. Our north star is making sure we are delivering for our founders, and we believe this will be the driver of our long-term success (flywheel illustration below). It works particularly well when we’re sharing both the good and the bad, the successes and the challenges when things do not work according to plan. Trust is the glue that holds it all together. For many of our founders, we are their first call — to confer on challenges and report on achievements. It’s a responsibility that we take seriously. In 2020, we remained close to our founders and deepened those relationships as we managed through a year of unknowns.
It was not obvious in the early part of this year during the various lockdowns, but certain technology sectors experienced incredible growth with the shift from analog to digital. That trend benefited many of our portfolio companies. In April, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella shared that “we’ve seen two years’ worth of digital transformation in two months.” April seems like a long time ago now, and the digital transformation has only accelerated since. While the prospects for technology are exciting, the toll the pandemic has inflicted on people's health and lives is real and we mustn't forget that.
What did we learn this year?
We are thinking deeply about the quality and durability of recent growth patterns — the ones that are long-term and structural vs. transient and one-off. There are various shades of growth quality, and during seismic shifts like what we experienced this year, you have to carefully examine the particular drivers of growth.
Traditionally, we study customer acquisition models and use cases to decipher the quality of growth. This year required a finer lens. We’ve seen hyper growth in digital payments, and specifically in contactless payments. In April’s Raba review, we noted a 10x increase in contactless payments in South Africa, a trend that is accelerating globally as card networks lift spending limits and Visa reports that 50% of consumers “would not shop” at stores that don’t have touchless checkout.
We are also sharpening our thinking around hybrid technology business models, where software co-exists with business models that have large COGS and similar cost structures to the businesses that they are disrupting. The market seems to be valuing these hybrid software businesses on growth alone. That being said, we firmly believe digital alternatives to traditional goods and services are here to stay, and will grow and become even more important in our lives.
Another structural trend we are attuned to is increased mobility. People will want to work from any location on the planet. The implications for cities like Cape Town, with great weather and natural beauty, as well as access to world class engineering talent and modest cost of living, are quite favorable.
In 2020, we’ve added four new companies to the partnership and will be closing the year with our largest investment to date, leading a funding round for a fintech infrastructure company alongside a solid group of partners (we will share more in an upcoming update). In the fourth quarter, we increased our investment in Thndr (Egyptian fintech) and 54Gene (Pan-African genomics), and are continuing to build our knowledge and relationship base in the genomics field. The coming decade will see incredible innovation in the genomics field, and the team at 54Gene is well positioned to execute against their vision.
And last but not least, Nina Chen shares her thoughts on what inspired her to move from New York to work with startups in Zambia and Kenya, and now with founders at Raba.
“Why are you here?”
It was March 2018, and I had just landed in Lusaka International Airport after a 30-hour journey from JFK. The customs border officer looked at me skeptically as I explained my intention to spend five months in Zambia, working on a consulting project.
In the nearly three years since, I’ve heard the same question dozens of times — from strangers in bars, friends over dinner, and family each holiday. Why are you, a Chinese-Canadian with no ties to Africa, here in Zambia/Kenya/South Africa?
What brought me here
I was born in Beijing. My family moved to Toronto when I was six. As I grew up, our occasional trips to Beijing gave me a front-row seat to China’s extraordinary growth trajectory. The rural farmland around my grandparents’ home transformed into skyscrapers and shopping malls during my middle school years, and by the time I graduated high school, the Beijing subway system had expanded from 2 lines to 19.
Seeing all of this unfold instilled in me a deep interest in the drivers of economic growth. I focused my undergraduate studies at Harvard on political economy, but I never expected this passion to take me to the continent of Africa.
When I first arrived in Zambia on secondment from Bain & Company, I had every intention of returning to my life in New York. But in the project’s final week, I flew to Nairobi for a weekend and stumbled upon the startup community there — a diverse collection of entrepreneurs who threw themselves at economic and social issues with fierce determination, innovating relentlessly amidst the constraints of frontier markets. I was captivated by their vision for building businesses that tackle truly meaningful problems.
Two weeks later, I packed up my apartment in New York and took a one-way flight back to Zambia.
What made me stay
Joining the world of startups and VCs in Sub-Saharan Africa was the best decision I’ve ever made — professionally or personally. And over the past couple of years, I have redoubled my commitment for three key reasons:
The first company I worked with was a tilapia farming startup in Zambia, whose mission was to provide affordable, sustainable protein across Sub-Saharan Africa. I would wake up at 5 am to make the 4-hour drive to Lake Kariba, where our production operations were located. After a day with the operations teams, I would spend an hour reviewing the latest numbers with our CFO, and then stay up until midnight building financial models. The lessons I learned during this time — whether it was managing cash flow, building teams, or managing relationships with seasoned executives and investors — served me well in my subsequent roles.
“Talent is equally distributed; opportunity is not.”
This week, I received a phone call from a good friend named Sam. She was calling to share some good news — she’d just been offered a role on Microsoft’s design team.
A few things made this news not just good but remarkable:
Sam is the first hire that the Microsoft design team has made in Kenya.
Less than two years ago, she had no formal design experience and was enrolled in ALX by African Leadership Group, a program for high-potential graduates.
At African Leadership Group, our mission was to transform Africa by building the continent’s pool of future leaders, by identifying and training people like Sam, and connecting them to opportunities to realize their potential.
Sam and I met during her internship with ALX. She had just graduated from our program, and was determined to break into UX design. I was inspired by her confidence and vision, and we became friends. I connected her with her first first-time role, leading UX design at one of the fastest growing agtech startups in Kenya. That was a year ago.
Stories like Sam’s are more rare than they should be, and that opportunity gap -- between talented youth and opportunities within reach -- has always been a powerful motivator for me. My family moved across the world so that I could have access to abundant opportunities; I want to bring those same opportunities closer.
One of the most enduring mental snapshots from my time in Kenya is that of 40 people crowded into my living room -- founders, journalists, engineers, and people I had never met before, from a half dozen nationalities. The conversation in the room was almost deafening, as everyone milled around a long table packed with samosas, dumplings, string beans, and -- of course -- turkey.
Thanksgiving abroad is something special. Despite its North American roots, the holiday takes on an incredibly international and welcoming character abroad. Every year, no matter which city I find myself in, friends gather at the table to express genuine gratitude. Without a doubt, the people I’ve met and the communities we have built together form the strongest anchors for my commitment to my life here.
Why VC, why Cape Town, why now?
Over the past month of working with George, I’ve had the privilege of connecting with brilliant founders from across Africa, and bringing together potential investors from across the globe. The work that we do every day is incredibly exciting because Africa as a continent has so many of the ingredients for exponential growth within our lifetimes.
By 2100, the continent will be home to 40% of the world’s workforce, and five of the world’s ten most populous countries will be in Africa. Smartphone adoption and digital penetration across urban and rural regions alike is growing rapidly, and we are already seeing the impact of leapfrogging innovations like mPesa, which enable instant payments across 70%+ of the population in Kenya.
These innovations are supported by a strong and rapidly growing tech ecosystem. Africa is home to one of the fastest growing developer communities globally. In Nigeria, the number of developers grew 60% from 2019 to 2020 (and 70% the year prior). Google has committed to training 100,000 developers across the continent, while Amazon has announced plans to make 3,000 new hires in South Africa alone. The continent’s talent is perhaps its most abundant resource, and this confluence of factors lays the foundation for unprecedented innovation.
At a global level, capital focused on ESG (environmental, social, and governance) is growing at extraordinary rates. In 2020, this figure reached $17 trillion in assets, with one in three dollars in the US now invested using ESG as a lens. Such trends will have a profound effect on building companies in countries with rapidly growing economies.
For me personally, when I reflect on my personal journey from Beijing to Toronto to Cambridge to New York to Lusaka, Nairobi and Cape Town, I am confident that I am exactly where I should be.
Other news and musings...
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