In the context of the social and economic realities that we are all witnessing as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is our belief that technology-led cloud-based businesses, solving real world problems with the ability to scale and adapt quickly, are best placed to weather this storm, and even to thrive.
In this low touch and socially distant world that is our reality, three themes continue to emerge.
First, the important role of technology in the post COVID-19 world and how this crisis has acted as a catalyst for technology adoption. Second, the economic necessity to support SMEs in this time, as well as post this crisis; and third, the interconnectivity of societies and economies and the importance of supporting local while still thinking global.
However, it does feel that while these high level themes seem to be widely accepted, very few seem to have practical insights into the world of African tech and innovation and, in particular, how this is woven into the many SMEs that go largely unnoticed. Within a rapidly evolving and growing technology-enabled world, the difficulty is that you simply don’t know what you don’t know.
At HAVAÍC, we continue to work with, support and interact with many local, technology-driven SMEs and entrepreneurs who are serving local and international clients and operating in global markets, yet little is known about them locally. And if you don’t know about them, then through no fault of your own, you are unable to utilise their solutions, to support them and, importantly, to learn how they could provide important services to help you and your businesses, or serve the greater local economy.
We are fortunate that the nature of our activities affords us the opportunity to see this local innovation in action. We invest in and work with early stage technology businesses, i.e. tech enabled SMEs.
So far, many SMEs are fairing comparatively well in this crisis. In fact, many are even thriving, hiring staff, releasing new products and attracting new clients. Not only through our portfolio, but through our daily engagements, we see a myriad great examples of relevant African tech businesses commercialising their solutions the world over. Our thesis is to invest in businesses that solve real world problems and, in particular, our healthtech, safetech and digital business solutions, all of which run off the cloud and are supported by a virtual scaleable workforce, and which are proving to be very resilient in these challenging times.
Two great examples include a Johannesburg-based high growth company in the safetech space – AURA – and a Nairobi-based post-revenue start-up in the fintech space – Tanda.
AURA solves the problem that existing security services face because they only provide location-specific solutions; yet people are exposed to crime irrespective of location. Using their technology-driven control room and smart phone GPS-enabled solutions, AURA provides clients with access to the nearest available responder. Building on their success providing on-demand access to security, AURA has extended its solution to emergency services, such as ambulances and paramedics.
With access to 180 private security companies and 182 emergency response companies, and coupled with their proprietary technology, AURA is set to become the leader in on-demand emergency services.
While there are many examples of the ways that AURA has become more relevant post the COVID-19 outbreak, one unique example is the need for their clients, which include large blue-chip corporates, to provide affordable and reliable access to private security for their employees, while working from home. With clients such as multinational banks, whose employees can access the bank’s proprietary systems from home, demand for AURA’s solution has spiked as a result of the crisis. One may argue that this trend may pass; however, with many of these corporates realising that their employees can, in fact, work effectively from home, and with the significant cost savings that WFH has created by reducing property and travel costs, it is clear that this trend is here to stay.
Tanda has developed a mobile-based tech platform that can expand a microretailer or duka’s product offering from basic consumables to financial services such as airtime, electricity, bus tickets, insurance and ATM services, at the lower end of the consumer pyramid.
Tanda is the fastest growing retail distributor of such products in sub-Saharan Africa. In less than 12 months, it acquired 7,000 agents (duka owners) – 4,700 in Nairobi county and the rest in 30 counties across Kenya – at an acquisition cost substantially lower than traditional industry players.
As a result of the COVID-19 crisis, and with 80% of retail trade in Kenya already taking place at the ‘duka’ or informal level, the localisation of population buying patterns has increased even further, and beyond the basic purchase, as seen by a dramatic increase in services provided by Tanda. What the crisis has done is change the mindsets of consumers who may have, pre-crisis, travelled in crammed and expensive taxis into city centres to buy health insurance; now, they simply have to put on a face mask and walk a few hundred meters to their local “convenience” store to buy these types of policies.
From an investor’s perspective, global volatility and uncertainty has resulted in significant repricing across assets. To sophisticated investors, this offers significant investment optionality and opportunities, and for the venture capital sector, it means that the higher returns (albeit off a riskier base) that they once offered investors on a stand-alone basis, may simply no longer be good enough. However, when one starts thinking through the current cycle of volatility and considers that what was once a great business may no longer be so, due to changes in social behaviour and new economic norms, the historically “safe bet” may now, in fact, be the riskier bet.
And what was once perceived as riskier, but is a tech-enabled, cloud-based, scalable business with low overheads, a highly functional virtual office, global reach and experienced tech-savvy management team, may in fact be the new safer bet.
Furthermore, with an increased awareness around community connectivity when making investment decisions, now more so than ever, we need to carefully consider how this affects the rest of our economy, and society at large. It has become increasingly apparent that it is no longer enough to simply invest in companies like Netflix or Amazon under the premise that they are a COVID-19-proof safe bet; consideration must be taken as to the benefit to our local economy. Smart investment decisions now need to include an awareness of this connected community and an understanding of how investment decisions can impact not only investors personally, but also the economy that they participate in.
It is clear that unlocking technology and the SME sector is key to securing our continent’s economic future. Be it Tanda providing cashless payment solutions for the unbanked, or AURA creating access to a private security force of over 2,500 security personnel with the ability to respond to crime within 3,5 minutes, we have it all here in Africa; and venture capital, when applied smartly, when applied to technology and when applied locally, can have a positive impact on not only investors’ returns and their greater community, but also their economy.
At HAVAÍC, we provide just that – access to investments in technology-enabled local businesses that are well-placed to survive and thrive during and post the COVID-19 crisis, all while uplifting the local economy and delivering returns to investors.
Lessem is Managing Partner of HAVAÍC – an early-stage, high-growth technology VC investor