The complete list of African unicorns today
Here's a look at who they are and what they do.
Afridigest is your intelligent guide to Africa’s tech ecosystem. We provide ideas, analysis, & insights for Africa-focused founders, executives, and investors.
This Saturday essay provides 1) a bit of precision around the subject of 'unicorns' and 2) an overview of the seven unicorns in the African tech ecosystem today.
A version of this article appeared on Afridigest.com earlier in the week, but we held this post until Saturday out of respect for your inbox.
The term “unicorn” was coined in a 2013 Techcrunch article by Aileen Lee, founder and managing partner of Palo Alto’s Cowboy Ventures. She used it to describe American software companies that were less than 10 years old and valued at $1 billion or more by private investors or public markets.
Today, it’s widely accepted by the global VC & tech community that a ‘unicorn’ is a privately-held (i.e., not public) tech startup worth $1 billion or more on paper, irrespective of its founding date, sector of operations, or regional focus.
And according to that definition, there are currently seven unicorns in the African tech ecosystem, with the newest — Egypt’s MNT-Halan — being minted just last week.
Here’s an overview of the seven ‘Africa Tech’ unicorns today.
Founded in 2002 as a nationwide transaction switching platform in Nigeria, Interswitch is Africa’s oldest unicorn.
The company today offers a variety of digital payment & commerce solutions including online payment gateways, interbank transaction switching and third-party card processing, card acquiring & issuance via domestic card scheme Verve, identity management and digital payment infrastructure for state governments, point-of-sale solutions, and more.
While Interswitch’s IPO plans were first made public in 2016 and new media reports bubbled up in 2019, those plans haven’t yet come to fruition and the company remains privately held.
Founded in 2016, Flutterwave is a Nigerian API-driven platform that aggregates payment gateways across the continent, allowing merchants to accept card & alternative payments (e.g., mobile money and bank transfers) easily.
The company initially focused on global enterprise customers (e.g., helping Uber accept payments across various African markets), but has since diversified to offer a full range of products to a wide variety of customer groups with solutions like the Flutterwave Store, Flutterwave Capital, creator economy platform Disha, and more.
“We see Flutterwave as a transaction-processing business at its core. [These] are channels to drive more traffic to our business… Channels that we’re creating to drive more value onto our platform. We’re like a tollgate. How do we get more cars to come to our tolling infrastructure? Do we need to build more roads? Do we need to help people get more comfortable to use our platform? That’s how we see it.” — Olugbenga 'GB' Agboola, Founder & CEO, Flutterwave
Founded in late 2017 by Opera, makers of the data-lite internet browser, and Balder Investment, an entity controlled by Chinese billionaire (and Opera Chairman & CEO) Yahui Zhou, OPay is a mobile payments platform that began operations in Nigeria in 2018.
The company’s strategy initially leaned on its motorcycle taxi ride-hailing service ORide, but it renewed its focus on payments after a legislative ban on commercial motorbike taxis.
Today, in addition to payment & money transfer services, OPay also offers airtime top-ups, loans, savings, and more to over 18 million registered app users via 500,000 agents across Nigeria, according to its website.
Piloted in 2016 and launched fully in 2017, Wave is a full-stack digital mobile money wallet initially focused on Francophone Africa.
See also: ‘Wave: Building a cashless Africa’
The company offers a range of free or low-cost financial services including money transfers, bill payments, airtime top-ups, and more.
In Senegal, its first market, it has already beaten out the telcos to become the country’s largest mobile money provider, and today the majority of Senegal’s adult population uses Wave every month.
When considering the competition between banks, telcos, and fintechs for the future of financial services across the African continent, Wave is perhaps the top fintech to watch in the mobile money space.
Founded in 2014, Andela is today a talent marketplace that connects leading companies across the world to technology talent in emerging markets.
The company initially began its journey as a remote-engineering-as-a-service platform; it trained and hired junior software developers across Africa, then placed them with global businesses as full-time distributed engineers.
In 2019, however, the company announced a ‘strategic shift’ away from junior talent to focus on placing experienced, senior engineers.
And in 2020, the company moved away from its in-house, full-time employee model to become a talent marketplace that places external tech talent without prior Andela training or a pre-existing Andela relationship.
Launched in 2018, Chipper Cash is a cross-border, peer-to-peer money transfer platform.
See also: ‘Cross-border payments’
In addition to cross-border money transfers, the company offers bill payments, airtime top-up services, virtual cards, stock marketing investing, crypto trading, and more.
According to the company’s website, it has over 5 million users, processes over $1.5 billion quarterly, and has issued over 300,000 virtual cards to date.
Strictly speaking, MNT-Halan was created in 2021 as a result of a share swap merger between two entities founded by Egyptian serial entrepreneur Mounir Nakhla: ride-hailing & delivery platform Halan and microlending holding company MNT.
The merger happened after MNT’s 100% consolidation of Raseedy, the first interoperable digital wallet licensed by the Central Bank of Egypt. (And Raseedy lives on as Halan Cash.)
Today, MNT-Halan derives most of its revenue from lending — over $300M in 2022, it says — and has since shut down its ride-hailing operations.
In addition to disbursing over $2 billion in loans of various types since inception (BNPL, vehicle financing, payroll lending, & more), the company also offers a variety of digital payments and e-commerce services (both B2C and FMCG B2B).
The last word
There you have it — the African tech ecosystem’s seven unicorns today.
It’s worth calling out explicitly here that while Jumia, Fawry, and Egypt-born Swvl are among the unicorns produced by the ecosystem in the past, being public companies (and being currently valued at less than $1 billion) today, they aren’t currently unicorns. (And while some in South Africa & elsewhere have claimed Go1 for the continent, the startup, while a unicorn, is best classified as Australian.)
It’s worth noting also that the list of unicorns above is largely based on historical paper valuations. And given current market conditions globally, those valuations might well be depressed today.
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