XPRIZE names two grand prize winners in $15 million Global Learning Challenge

XPRIZE, the non-profit organization developing and managing competitions to find solutions to social challenges, has named two grand prize winners in the Elon Musk-backed Global Learning XPRIZE .

The companies, KitKit School out of South Korea and the U.S., and onebillion, operating in Kenya and the U.K., were announced at an awards ceremony hosted at the Google Spruce Goose Hangar in Playa Vista, Calif.

XPRIZE set each of the competing teams the task of developing scalable services that could enable children to teach themselves basic reading, writing, and arithmetic skills within 15 months.

Musk himself was on hand to award $5 million checks to each of the winning teams.

Five finalists including: New York-based CCI, which developed lesson plans and a development language so non-coders could create lessons; Chimple, a Bangalore-based, learning platform enabling children to learn reading, writing and math on a tablet; RobotTutor, a Pittsburgh-based company which used Carnegie Mellon research to develop an app for Android tablets that would teach lessons in reading and writing with speech recognition, machine learning, and human computer interactions, and the two grand prize winners all received $1 million to continue developing their projects.

The tests required each product to be field tested in Swahili, reaching nearly 3,000 children in 170 villages across Tanzania.

All of the final solutions from each of the five teams that made it to the final round of competition have been open-sourced so anyone can improve on and develop local solutions using the toolkits developed by each team in competition.

Kitkit School, with a team from Berkeley, Calif. and Seoul, developed a program with a game-based core and flexible learning architecture to help kids learn independently, while onebillion, merged numeracy content with literacy material to provide directed learning and activities alongside monitoring to personalize responses to children’s needs.

Both teams are going home with $5 million to continue their work.

The problem of access to basic education affects more than 250 million children around the world, who can’t read or write and one-in-five children around the world aren’t in school, according to data from UNESCO.

The problem of access is compounded by a shortage of teachers at the primary ad secondary school level. Some research, cited by XPRIZE, indicates that the world needs to recruit another 68.8 million teachers to provide every child with a primary and secondary education by 2040.

Before the Global Learning XPRIZE field test, 74% of the children who participated were reported as never having attended school; 80% were never read to at home; and 90% couldn’t read a single word of Swahili.

After the 15 month program working on donated Google Pixel C tablets and pre-loaded with software, the number was cut in half.

“Education is a fundamental human right, and we are so proud of all the teams and their dedication and hard work to ensure every single child has the opportunity to take learning into their own hands,” said Anousheh Ansari, CEO of XPRIZE, in a statement. “Learning how to read, write and demonstrate basic math are essential building blocks for those who want to live free from poverty and its limitations, and we believe that this competition clearly demonstrated the accelerated learning made possible through the educational applications developed by our teams, and ultimately hope that this movement spurs a revolution in education, worldwide.”

After the grand prize announcement, XPRIZE said it will work to secure and load the software onto tablets; localize the software; and deliver preloaded hardware and charging stations to remote locations so all finalist teams can scale their learning software across the world.

Drone delivery startup Zipline launches UAV medical program in Ghana

Zipline, the San Francisco-based UAV manufacturer and logistics services provider, has launched a program in Ghana today for drone delivery of medical supplies.

Working with the Ghanaian government, Zipline will operate 30 drones out of four distribution centers to distribute vaccines, blood, and life-saving medications to 2000 health facilities across the West African nation daily.

“We’ll do 600 flights day…and serve 12 million people. This is going to be the largest drone delivery network on the planet,” Zipline CEO Keller Rinaudo told TechCrunch on a call from Accra.

“No one in Ghana should die because they can’t access the medicine they need in an emergency,” Ghana’s President Nana Akufo-Addo said in a statement. “That’s why Ghana is launching the world’s largest drone delivery service…a major step towards giving everyone in this country universal access to lifesaving medicine.”

The Ghana program adds a second country to Zipline’s live operations. Zipline got off the ground in Rwanda and has leveraged its experience in East Africa to begin testing medical delivery services in the United States.

Zipline has been making moves in Africa since at least 2016 — after it raised capital and solidified its mission to carve out a global revenue-generating business around UAV delivery of critical medical supplies.

To date, the startup has raised $41 million from investors including Sequoia Capital, Google Ventures, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang, and Subtraction Capital.

Founded in 2014, Zipline designs and manufactures its own UAVs, launch and landing systems, and logistics software. After a testing period in coordination with the government of Rwanda, Zipline went live in the East African country in 2016, claiming the first national drone-delivery program at scale in the world.

Through its non-profit foundation, the logistics giant UPS came in to partner with Zipline on the Rwanda program, and that support continues.

“They’re providing funding to build a lot of the infrastructure required, they are an adviser to us, and they provide some logistical support in moving equipment,” Rinaudo said of Zipline’s collaboration with the UPS Foundation. Zipline has also received grants and support from from The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and Pfizer .

Zipline then carried its experience in Africa to the U.S. In May 2018 the startup 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.—and started testing beyond visual line of sight medical delivery services in North Carolina.

“Healthcare logistics is a $70 billion global industry, and it’s still only serving a golden billion on the planet,” says Rinaudo. “The economics of our business is pretty simple. We’re using small, electric, fully autonomous vehicles…these kinds of systems are much more efficient than the analog way of delivering things.”

Zipline is eyeing additional countries for delivery operations beyond Ghana, Rwanda, and its pilot operations in the U.S. “We’ll be launching in several additional countries, not all of which are in Africa,” said Rinaudo, though he declined to disclose specifics.

Zipline is well aware that its drone logistics systems have applications beyond medical supply chain services and Rinaudo confirmed moving cargo other than medical supplies is something Zipline has considered.

If the company moves toward other commercial applications, it could leverage its programs and relationships in Africa. The continent has become testbed for commercial drone delivery and regulatory structures.

Over the last two years South Africa passed commercial drone legislation to train and license pilots and Malawi opened a Drone Test Corridor to African and global partners. Over the same period, Kenya, Ghana, and Tanzania have issued or updated drone regulatory guidelines and announced future UAV initiatives. The government of Tanzania launched a medical drone delivery program in 2019, with DHL as one of the main partners.

In addition to its launch today in Ghana, Zipline plans to move from pilot-phase to live-delivery of medical supplies in the U.S. sometime this summer, a company spokesperson confirmed.

Partnering with Visa, emerging market lender Branch International raises $170 million

The San Francisco-based startup Branch International, which makes small personal loans in emerging markets, has raised $170 million and announced a partnership with Visa to offer virtual, pre-paid debit cards to Branch client networks in Africa, South-Asia and Latin America. 

Branch — which has 150 employees in San Francisco, Lagos, Nairobi, Mexico City and Mumbai — makes loans starting at $2 to individuals in emerging and frontier markets. The company also uses an algorithmic model to determine credit worthiness, build credit profiles and offer liquidity via mobile phones.

“We’ll use [the money] to deepen existing business in Africa. Later this year we’ll announce high-yield savings accounts…in Africa,” says Branch co-founder and chief executive Matt Flannery.

The $170 million round from Foundation Capital and its new debit card partner, Visa, will support Branch’s international expansion, which could include Brazil and Indonesia, according to Flannery. Branch launched in Mexico and India within the last year. In Africa, it offers its services in Kenya, Nigeria and Tanzania.

A potential Branch customer

The Branch-Visa partnership will allow individuals to obtain virtual Visa accounts with which to create accounts on Branch’s app. This gives Branch larger reach in countries such as Nigeria — Africa’s most populous country with 190 million people — where cards have factored more prominently than mobile money in connecting unbanked and underbanked populations to finance.

Founded in 2015, Branch started operating in Kenya, where mobile money payment products such as Safaricom’s M-Pesa (which does not require a card or bank account to use) have scaled significantly. M-Pesa now has 25 million users, according to sector stats released by the Communications Authority of Kenya. Branch has more than 3 million customers and has processed 13 million loans and disbursed more than $350 million, according to company stats.

Branch has one of the most downloaded fintech apps in Africa, per Google Play app numbers combined for Nigeria and Kenya, according to Flannery.

Already profitable, Branch International expects to reach $100 million in revenues this year, with roughly 70 percent of that generated in Africa, according to Flannery.

In addition to Visa and Foundation Capital, the $170 Series C round included participation from Branch’s existing investors Andreessen Horowitz, Trinity Ventures, Formation 8, the IFC, CreditEase and Victory Park, while adding new investors Greenspring, Foxhaven and B Capital.

Branch last raised $70 million in 2018. The company’s overall VC haul and $100 million revenue peg register as pretty big numbers for a startup focused primarily on Africa. Pan-African e-commerce startup Jumia, which also announced its NYSE IPO last month, generated $140 million in revenue (without profitability) in 2018.

Startups building financial technologies for Africa’s 1.2 billion population have gained the attention of investors. As a sector, fintech (or financial inclusion) attracted 50 percent of the estimated $1.1 billion funding to African startups in 2018, according to Partech.

Branch’s recent round and plans to add countries internationally also tracks a trend of fintech-related products growing in Africa, then expanding outward. This includes M-Pesa, which generated big numbers in Kenya before operating in 10 countries around the world. Nigerian payments startup Paga announced its pending expansion in Asia and Mexico late last year. And payment services such as Kenya’s SimbaPay have also connected to global networks like China’s WeChat.

Netflix rival Iflix offloads its Africa business to focus on Asia

Iflix, the emerging market Netflix competitor that’s backed by Sky, is leaving Africa to double down on its business in Asia.

The Malaysia-based company announced today it has sold the remaining shares in its Africa business — Kwesé Iflix — to Econet Group, the telecom firm that is already an investor in the business. The deal size is not disclosed. Kwesé Iflix covers the Iflix service in eight countries — Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe — with plans to expand to four more soon.

The completion of the deal means that Iflix’s total market coverage is trimmed to 23 countries, including India, markets in Southeast Asia, the Middle East and more.

“It has been an incredible journey and learning experience, launching our service in Africa. The acquisition by the Econet Group, our regional partner and Africa’s leading broadcast network, is a significant milestone for the African business, and further reinforces Iiflix’s commitment to our core markets in Asia, particularly Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines which continue to grow from strength to strength,” Iflix co-founder and CEO Mark Britt said in a statement.

Iflix CEO Mark Britt said the company will double down on Asian markets after exiting its Africa business (Photo by studioEAST/Getty Images)

Iflix has raised nearly $300 million to date from investors that include British broadcaster Sky, U.S. Hearst Communications, broadband and TV provider Liberty Global and Malaysia-based Catcha Group . Its most recent funding round was $133 million in August 2017.

Econet-owned pay TV firm Kwesé bought into the company’s Africa business in February 2018, therein creating the rebranded ‘Kwesé Iflix’ joint venture. Since then, Iflix has divested its stake until finally exiting the business as announced today.

Iflix offers a freemium service with a paid tier that costs around $3 per month. It claims an audience of “millions” of users. Its biggest rival is Netflix, which has begun testing more aggressive pricing in Malaysia — Iflix’s home market — through a mobile-only package that lowers its subscription cost to RM17, or around $4, each month.

Moves like that put Iflix and other regional players such as Hooq — which doesn’t operate in Malaysia — under pressure if Netflix decides to press ahead and expand its cheaper subscription to more markets in Asia.

Both Iflix and HOOQ pivoted to freemium earlier this year, and Iflix, in particular, has doubled down on supply. The Malaysian firm this month initiated a $5 million program to back around 30 independent content makers across Asia as it bids to widen its local programming library to compete with rivals which, in Asia, include traditional TV.

Africa’s agtech wave gets $10 million richer as Twiga Foods raises more capital

Kenya’s Twiga Foods has raised $10 million from investors led by the International Finance Corporation to add processed food and fast moving consumer goods to its product line-up.

The startup has built a B2B platform to improve the supply chain from farmers to markets. Twiga Foods now aims to scale additional merchandise on its digital network that coordinates pricing, payment, quality control, and logistics across sellers and vendors.

CEO and co-founder Grant Brooke sees “a growth horizon…to build a B2B Amazon,” with produce as the base.

“If we can build a business around fresh fruit and vegetables, everything else after that is much simpler to add on,” he told TechCrunch.

“Fresh food and vegetables gives you clients that are ordering every two days, and now that’s paying for access to vendors and a proper way to be on every street,” said Brooke.

“It’s now much easier to lay things over that that would have been very expensive to get to end retailers.” In addition to the processed food FMCG it will add now, CEO Grant Brooke named household goods, such as light-bulbs that stock and sell in lower volumes than produce, as something the startup could include in the future.     

The $10 million IFC led investment—co-led by TLcom Capital—comes in the form of convertible notes, available later as equity, according to Wale Ayeni, regional head of IFC’s Africa VC practice. As part of the deal, Ayeni will join Twiga Foods’ board.

Of the decision to fund the startup, Ayeni indicated IFC likes what the company’s already done in “figuring out a way to service a mass market with a digital platform focused on food in a sector that’s not really been touched,” he said. Another factor was Twiga’s prospects to create additional revenue by improving B2B supply chain for FMCG and other consumer products.

Co-founded in Nairobi in 2014 by Brooke and Kenyan Peter Njonjo, Twiga Foods serves around 2000 outlets a day with produce through a network of 13,000 farmers and 6000 vendors. Parties can coordinate goods exchanges via mobile app using M-Pesa mobile money for payment.

The company has reduced typical post-harvest losses in Kenya from 30 percent to 4 percent for produce brought to market on the Twiga network, according to Brooke.

“That’s savings we can offer the outlets and better pricing we can offer the farmers,” he said.

Twiga Foods generates revenues from margins on the products it buys and sells. As an example, the company could buy bananas at around 19 Schillings ($.19) a kilo and sell at 34 ($.34) Schillings a kilo.

“Our margin is how efficient we are at moving products between those two elements” and the company purchases from farmers at roughly 10 percent higher than Kenya’s traditional produce middle-men, according to Brooke.

Agtech has become a prominent startup sector in Africa. A number of companies, such as Ghana’s Agrocenta and Nigeria’s Farmcrowdy, have raised VC for apps that coordinate payments, logistics, and working capital across the continent’s farmers and food markets.

In 2017 Twiga Foods raised a $10.3 million Series A round lead by Wamda Capital. Earlier this year the startup partnered with IBM Africa to introduce a blockchain enabled finance working capital platform to its network of vendors.

With the new investment and product expansion, Twiga Foods will explore offering additional financial services to its client network. The startup doesn’t divulge revenue information but “profitability is on the horizon for us,” said Brooke.

Twiga Foods will maintain its focus primarily on Kenya, but “we’re starting to research and dabble in Tanzania,” according to Brooke.

The startup doesn’t plan to move beyond B2B to direct online retail. “I don’t think B2C e-commerce is viable on the continent once you factor in job size and cost of acquisition versus lifetime value,” said Brooke. He also named the high cost of marketing: “In B2C e-commerce space you really have to be in the advertising space. Our clients are ordering every two days with no marketing budget,” said Brooke.

So for the time being, Twiga Foods aims to stick with improving the supply chain for products between Kenya’s buyers and sellers.

Africa’s Jumo raises $52M led by Goldman to bring its fintech services to Asia

Asia’s fintech scene is poised to get a little larger after Jumo, a company that offers loans to the unbanked in Africa, revealed plans to expand into the continent. To get the ball rolling, Jumo has opened an office in Singapore to lead the way and landed a massive $52 million investment led by banking giant Goldman Sachs to fuel the growth.

The new round takes Jumo to $90 million raised from investors. While Goldman is the lead — and standout name — the round also saw participation from existing backers that include Proparco — which is attached to the French Development Agency — Finnfund, Vostok Emerging Finance, Gemcorp Capital, and LeapFrog Investments.

Jumo launched in 2014 and it specializes in social impact financial products. That means loans and saving options for those who sit outside of the existing banking system, and particularly small businesses. To date, it claims to have helped nine million consumers across its six markets in Africa and originated over $700 million in loans. The company, which has some 350 staff across 10 offices in Africa, Europe and Asia, was part of Google’s Launchpad accelerator last year and it is led by CEO Andrew Watkins-Ball, who has close to two decades in finance and investing.

Watkins-Ball told TechCrunch that he believes Jumo’s experience working in Africa sets it up perfectly to offer similar services in markets across Asia.

“We grew up in a very tough play yard,” he said in an interview. “We built our initial success in Tanzania which is probably one of the hardest [financial] markets in the world. A lot of these environments [in Asia] look more attractive.”

Unlike the West, where challengers are trying to unseat banks, fintech startups in emerging markets work with the existing system. That isn’t some cop-out, it actually makes perfect sense. Banks simply aren’t equipped to deal with customers seeking small loans in the hundreds of U.S. dollar bracket.

Jumo CEO Andrew Watkins-Ball believes his company’s work in Africa is ideal preparation for its expansion into Asia

Financially, the returns aren’t there from these customers and it doesn’t make sense for banks to invest resources sounding out a prospective loan. Even if they wanted to, they couldn’t vet these would-be customers, though. Many emerging markets simply don’t have the formalized credit checking systems that exist in the West, while many of the unbanked (or ‘less banked’) consumers wouldn’t even show up if they did due to a range of factors.

That’s where a new approach is needed. Fintech startups essentially act like a funnel. They manage the customer acquisition and retention, develop systems to assess credit based on alternative signals and, over time, build up a customer profile that reduces credit risk. That suits banks because they don’t need to handle the nitty-gritty and, when it works well, the startups bring them larger enough volumes of small loans that are a worthwhile opportunity for financial institutions.

Just looking at recent funding deals, the model is evident in markets like India — where ZestMoney pulled in funds last month — and Southeast Asia, where Experian backed fintech startup C88.

Watkins-Ball said Jumo is aiming to do the same having already proven its model in Africa. He acknowledged that a number of startups are also tackling the problem and welcomed the increase competition and growth potential across the fintech and micro-financing space.

“We’ve offered services to millions of new customers who weren’t part of the banking ecosystems,” he explained. “Essentially we grow the addressable market for banks.”

Already, Jumo has begun offering services in Pakistan and it has plans to open up in more markets in Asia, although Watkins-Ball isn’t saying which ones or when right now. But, in addition to proving its model, he believes that Jumo has already shown it can adapt to new markets.

“The differences between countries like Ghana, Tanzania and Zambia are as great as those between India, China and Indonesia,” he told TechCrunch. “So we’ve had to learn to use our platform, which we built to be flexible, and localize in order to fit the customer.”

That’s backed up by Goldman Sachs executive director Jules Frebault, who said in a statement: “There’s an immense opportunity across Africa and beyond for Jumo to build on their successful track record developing digital marketplace infrastructure to offer mobile subscribers access to relevant financial products.”

In addition to Asian expansions, Jumo’s new capital will also go towards expanding its current selection of productions in Africa. In particular, Watkins-Ball says the company is working to partner with more banks and it plans to introduce “new generations” of saving products.

While it isn’t taking its foot off the pedal in Africa, he said Jumo will likely devote the majority of its resources to the Asia expansion plan. That’ll make Jumo a very notable addition to a fintech scene that is already showing significant potential across the Asian region.

African experiments with drone technologies could leapfrog decades of infrastructure neglect

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.

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

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

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