Tech in Africa: 5 Key Lessons from my Double Life

Jess Williamson is Global Program Director for Barclays Accelerator, Powered by Techstars, which now runs fintech programs across London, New York, Tel Aviv and Cape Town. She chaired a panel of African fintech entrepreneurs during London Fintech Week

For the past 12 months, I’ve lived a double life between the UK and Africa, embedded in the financial technology ecosystems on both hemispheres.

As an American who’s just spent ten years in Scotland and England, I was very aware of my newcomer status when it came to investing in fintech startups in emerging markets.

I was fully aware of some of my knowledge gaps; other biases and ignorance I would come to realize, and with a curious mind and an open heart I have felt incredibly welcomed and initiated into the fintech ecosystem.

Reflecting back on the past year, on relationships, observations and shared journeys with some amazing entrepreneurs and banking innovators, I’ve distilled five key takeaways from my personal adventures.

African Solutions for African Problems

I quickly realized there is little interest in importing systems from other parts of the world, as people seem to find it highly amusing to watch solutions from overseas startups or corporates fail when deployed in the real African environment.

Whether it’s the absence of physical addresses in many regions, low penetration of credit cards for ecommerce transactions, or trust issues around paying for an item before actually receiving it, the failures of imported approaches serve as great sources of comedy at conferences.

Whenever non-African companies are plagued by oversights on logistics, payments, cultural nuances, or other infrastructure, this only reinforces the spirit that solutions need to come from within.

Look Beyond the Diaspora Entrepreneurs

Great entrepreneurs can be found anywhere. Many VC funds get criticised for finding the African entrepreneurs who are easiest to spot and easiest to relate to – those who have studied at Stanford, Harvard, Oxford, Cambridge, or who have lived in the US or UK prior to founding companies overseas.

While these are certainly compelling entrepreneurs to invest in, having built out their networks and being able to ‘talk the talk’ in a familiar way, there are also many impressive entrepreneurs who are deeply rooted on the African continent.

Investors who build relationships with partners on the ground, who can recognize strong teams in a new context, and who are prepared to do due diligence beyond familiar alumni networks will be able to get in on a wider variety of opportunities.

“Marinate Yourself”

Early on in my quest, an entrepreneur spoke to me very directly on a Google Hangout between the UK and Kenya: “Don’t sit in your ivory towers in London and Cape Town thinking you can learn about Africa. Marinate yourself in Ghana. Marinate yourself in Kenya.”

This advice wasn’t necessarily surprising as I knew I needed to invest time on the ground, but he stated it more eloquently. The word “marinate” stewed in my head as my travels unfolded.

The first time I landed in Ghana, I agreed to a night out in Accra with someone I met at baggage claim, leading to an interesting debate between Ghanaians and Nigerians about IP protection and insights into childhood pop culture that had inspired their own entrepreneurial journeys (hint: Billionaire Boys Club).

On further stays, I wound up dancing front row in a gigantic church with a Ghanaian family, walked door-to-door shadowing a susu [financial intermediary] collecting people’s daily savings, and seeing the giant signs across multiple African countries advertising: “This Land is NOT for sale”.

Each of these experiences gave me a much deeper appreciation for the role that new financial technologies can have in facilitating church tithing and transparency, managing savings collections without disregarding those trusted relationships, and digitizing land registries to reduce fraudulent sales.

I could have learned these concepts from a pitch deck, but ‘marinating myself’ in them gave me more powerful convictions. I am forever grateful to those who brought me under their wings.

This is Africa

This phrase is so common on the African continent, it has its own acronym, TIA. Its meaning slightly depends on the context, but to me it came to mean ‘suspend expectations and assumptions about how things should work, how long something should take, what straight-forward answers you should be able to get from government departments’.

This is Africa. Those with the patience, talent and knack for navigating uncertainty and obstacles can use that to their advantage, while others will wind up forever frustrated and caught off-guard.

Behind this saying I sensed a mix of humour, challenge and pride.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Fintech

While many fintech entrepreneurs are solving problems faced in their former financial services careers, I couldn’t help but notice that the problems many African fintech entrepreneurs are solving are much more personal to their own daily life, or struggles of their parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents or friends.

Yes, many of them have had careers in investment banking or other finance roles, but the problems they are tackling are not ones they discovered at work. It’s the family friend who couldn’t afford medical treatment, the aunt who couldn’t access her savings quickly enough in an emergency, the autistic brother who struggled to understand the concept of money, or the grandmother that passed away in the waiting room because the hospital only took cash payments.

I kept thinking it might be time to adapt Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Fintech, with basic money storage and ability to make payments toward the bottom, and investment banking algorithms perhaps nearer the top.

The evolution of these technologies will certainly be different and non-linear, with African infrastructure indeed leap-frogging that of Europe in many areas. But the distributed weight and priorities of innovation feels to be in different places in this imaginary pyramid.

Back in London now with many of our entrepreneurs from the Africa program currently visiting the UK, my two lives have temporarily collided.

Many ask me which life is better, which companies are stronger – and when I see everyone together the differences quickly fade away.

The best entrepreneurs are highly adaptable, so drawing distinctions feels futile. They are all passionate, determined, crazy and wonderful problem-solvers, and no matter where I grew up, they all feel like extended family now.

As each company pushes boundaries in new markets, serving new customers across diverse regions, a familiar voice enters my head – yes we have all made time to marinate.

Applications Open for Barclays Accelerator, Powered by Techstars in London

After a little downtime, we cannot wait to go again. We are incredibly excited to announce that applications are now open for the third class of the Barclays Accelerator, Powered by Techstars in London!

We are looking for the next generation of game changing FinTech startups to take their businesses to the next level. Selected companies will have 3 months of world class mentorship from two exceptional networks, the chance to pursue and fast-track partnerships within Barclays, and up to $120k in funding from Techstars.

We are extremely proud of awesome alumni who have been hitting the headlines since leaving the accelerator (see below) – indeed 70% of the companies from the last class signed a deal within the 13 weeks of the programme to explore opportunities within Barclays.

If you are a startup working in machine learning, lending, digital banking solutions, trading, cyber security, data analytics, payments, cryptocurrency, insurance, wealth management and beyond – apply here before 11th October and join us for an incredible journey. If you would like to find out more, please visit our website, our blog, or get in touch.

Dopay Banks $2M to Launch A Cloud Payroll Service for The Unbanked | TechCrunch

Financial Wellbeing Startup Squirrel Wins Pitch@Palace | Wired

Magnificent: Barclays and Safello to co-create a Bitcoin Platform | Bitcoin News Service

Post-Quantum Encryption No Longer a Laughing Matter | TechCrunch

Challenging the Status Quo in FinTech: Announcing Cohort 2 of Barclays Accelerator powered by Techstars

The financial services industry continues to transform, with our second cohort addressing major markets around bonds, investment banking, insurance, Bitcoin, blockchain, and beyond. While some founders are tackling inefficiencies they’ve personally experienced in finance careers, others have spotted opportunities to bring their expertise in security, fraud, or IT change to the fintech world.

Following a very strong first cohort in 2014, we were intrigued and excited to read through hundreds of applications submitted from over 60 countries. Throughout the selection process it has been a sincere honour to get to know many amazing and passionate founders across the industry, and it is never easy selecting ten startups with so many impressive companies being built.

As Day 1 is now upon us, those joining us for this 13 week adventure have moved from parts of the world near and far ranging from Australia to Nepal to Sweden, San Francisco to New York City, and of course the UK with a strong gravitational force for FinTech in London already.

All are challenging the status quo. All are here to advance the finance world, whether building a startup for the first time or as a founder who has taken three of her companies public already. Without further ado, we are delighted to bring together and welcome our second cohort of Barclays Accelerator powered by Techstars, London 2015. Let’s begin!

The Ten Companies

Screen Shot 2015-03-22 at 3.09.18 PM Basestone provides cloud-based collaboration on major construction projects, creating data streams from the field that impact loan and insurance pricing.
Screen Shot 2015-03-22 at 3.43.17 PM Blocktrace provides immutable ledger for diamond ownership & related transaction history verification for insurance companies, claimants & law enforcement.
Screen Shot 2015-03-22 at 3.10.41 PM Godesic – a project management platform for IT infrastructure change-over in the financial services industry.
Screen Shot 2015-03-22 at 3.46.19 PM LiquidLandscapedata visualization for creating linked, immersive data exploration environments used by traders
Origin A new marketplace for large corporations and institutional investors, using technology to facilitate direct debt and bond issuance
Screen Shot 2015-03-22 at 3.34.30 PM PQ Solutions Provides cyber security that uses cutting edge encryption techniques designed to beat attacks by quantum computers.
Screen Shot 2015-03-22 at 3.36.24 PM 1 Ravelin Provides data science and machine learning with a merchant’s fraud profile to deliver pin-point accurate online fraud detection.
Screen Shot 2015-03-22 at 4.17.02 PM Safello – a Europe-focused Bitcoin exchange with plans to expand into payments.
Screen Shot 2015-03-22 at 4.18.36 PM Stockfuse – a gaming platform that quantifies talent through simulation, currently used by banks to identify and find future trading employees.
Startup #10 Has elected to remain in stealth mode until a later date, stay tuned.


No Rest for FinTech – Applications Now Open for Cohort #2!

There is never a dull moment in FinTech these days, and applications opened this week for our second cohort of Barclays Accelerator, powered by Techstars. We are extremely proud of our alumni and are eager to get going again.

Our first cohort saw startups come from Canada, Spain, Sweden, the Netherlands, and South Africa, along with a diverse range of British and international founders making up companies in the UK. They tackled issues all across financial services, ranging from credit scoring to crowdfunding mortgages to opportunities addressing the unbanked.

With application doors flying open again, we are looking at all aspects of financial technologies – payments, security & authentication, cryptocurrency, insurance, wealth management, and beyond.

We will be organising and attending a number of events over the next month, so please do come join us if you will be near one of the following:

November 11: Recruiting Tour in NYC

November 12-13: 1-on-1 Office Hours in NYC

November 20: FinTech Forum DACH in Frankfurt

November 21: CEE FinTechMatch in Budapest

December 1: Recruiting Tour in London

As we have not managed to clone ourselves yet, we will also schedule office hours on Google Hangout to reach the rest of the world. We’ll announce those on our FinTech blog. You can additionally see weekly videos produced throughout the program, offering a behind-the-scenes look at what founders were going through.

If you want to work with a world leading bank and be among the unparalleled network that is Techstars, we would love to hear from you.

Apply by January 9th, 2015. You can start working on your application now, and make sure you submit before the deadline. Applications now open here.

FinTech Demo Day: 11 Reasons to Celebrate

Today our 11 FinTech startups will take the stage in a London theater near Buckingham Palace, and we could not be more proud or excited by what they have achieved. The first cohort of Barclays Accelerator powered by Techstars has come at an incredible time, with the financial services industry experiencing the beginning of a tremendous transformation and here in London we get to be at the heart of it.

To all of our mentors – old and new – we are especially grateful for the tireless contribution and energy you bring, and the support from the wider FinTech ecosystem. To our comrades at Barclays, we could not ask for a better partner to join forces in disrupting this industry and helping bring new innovations to market. The insights, introductions, executive engagement and hours spent together have been exceptionally valuable.

One sound we will always remember fondly is the small but mighty deal bell on the wall, and the frequent celebrations we’ve had as founders rang it to announce new customers, partnerships, awards, or key hires. There have been so many causes for cheering over the last three months, and we will continue to hear chants of “ring the bell, ring the bell” when we see founders in the headlines or receive GroupMe selfies with good news. Long may it continue.

On the surface Demo Day may seem like the end of 15 monumental weeks together, but we promise you this is only the beginning (weekly videos here if you’ve missed them). Please join us in celebrating 11 Techstars companies that are changing the FinTech industry, as it is an honor to welcome our inaugural cohort to the stage:

Aire – Aire enables fair access to financial products.We provide an alternate credit score for people who are incorrectly classified because they have no credit history.
ClauseMatch – Providing a platform for negotiation and management of smarter contracts.
Crowdestates – A peer-to-peer platform that cuts the cost of borrowing and gives savers a better return than the alternatives.
DoPay – Banking for the unbanked. With 2 Billion people in the world that have jobs but no bank account, we have to rethink banking for much of the world’s middle class.
Glimr – Glimr collects offline retail data to retarget shoppers after they have left the store.
Gust – A mobile and wearable payments specialist, we create compelling customer experiences using RFID wristbands.
Market IQ – Turning prediction science into business results. Current clients include Barclays, Nasdaq, Dow Jones, Instinet, and 23 hedge funds.
NoviCap – Allowing businesses to turn outstanding invoices into cash.
Squirrel – A technology platform that enables people to regain control of their finances. A financial concierge for the people.
Tryum – Tryum help retailers build personal relationships with their customers by delivering brand experiences based on who their customers are and what they love.
Vieweet – An entirely new and exciting way of viewing properties from the comfort of your home.

Announcing the Barclays Accelerator, Powered by Techstars, Video Series

We are excited to release a new video series on the Barclays Accelerator, Powered by Techstars program! This series will be a week-by-week walk-through of the companies and their evolution during this three-month program. Take a first-hand look at the 11 teams who just got started and all of their amazing work that goes on behind the scenes.