Paga founder and CEO Tayo Oviosu (left) and Cellulant co-founder and CEO Ken Njoroge (right) speak onstage during day three of TechCrunch Disrupt. Photo by: Steve Jennings / Getty Images / CC BY

SAN FRANCISCO — Tayo Oviosu, chief executive officer of Nigerian digital payments company Paga, took the stage in San Francisco last week at TechCrunch Disrupt, an annual conference focused on technology-enabled startups.

Oviosu said he couldn’t wait to give Tim Draper, a well-known Silicon Valley venture capitalist who invested in Paga, an exit, “so he can tell that story.” Based on the current valuation of Paga, Draper may well have seen his investment grow 20 times, said Oviosu, in a talk where he outlined reasons others might consider investing not just in his company, but in Nigeria and on the African continent more broadly.

Last week, Paga announced the close of a $10 million round, led by the Global Innovation Fund — a $200 million nonprofit innovation fund focused on projects that improve lives in developing countries. GIF takes a venture capital approach to investing, with a tiered financing model that offers funding in stages. That approach allows GIF to take bets on smaller, riskier, or unproven innovations and support organizations as they grow.

To get these companies to a level of scale that might draw institutional investors to the opportunity, GIF provides risk tolerant capital. It also actively makes connections between the startups in its portfolio and later-stage investors, pointing to a trend among funders focused on startups serving the base of the pyramid.

Rakesh Apte, an investment director at GIF, told Devex he traveled from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco, California, for TechCrunch Disrupt to keep tabs on the technologies that might impact the populations GIF focuses on but primarily to support Oviosu — in part by connecting him with other investors.

“There is very interesting dissonance between the opportunity and the risk that investors are willing to take,” Apte told Devex, in a San Francisco coffee shop where he sat at the counter with Oviosu, both of them wearing their conference badges.

“Tayo’s business has continued to grow. It has already impacted 9 million customers. And those numbers are meaningful anywhere,” he continued. “And yet he suffers because it’s Nigeria, and there are these issues investors are unwilling to see past.”

Before GIF invested in Paga, Apte talked with investors from large institutional funds to understand what they would be looking for in order to invest in the company. Part of the problem is most investors can only deploy large amounts of capital. They lack GIF’s flexibility — it can deploy private, government, and philanthropic capital in financial instruments ranging from venture debt, to convertible loans, to straight loans, and even some results-based financing.  

Oviosu previously worked with Cisco, a multinational tech company based in San Jose, California, and has some network advantages over other Africa-based CEOs. But he too has faced a number of challenges raising money given where he is based.

“There’s a venture firm here in the Valley, I won’t name names, but they’re investing in companies like Paga across emerging markets,” Oviosu told Devex.

He said he tried to meet with a fintech investor from the firm at TechCrunch.

“He said, ‘Out of respect for your time, I should note the firm is no longer investing in emerging markets,’” Oviosu said.

On Friday, the moderator of “How African Founders are Enabling Tomorrow's Startups,” featuring Paga, asked Fope Adelowo of Helios Investment Partners, a private equity firm that invests exclusively in Africa, to make the case for investment on the continent to geographic agnostic venture capitalists who are only looking for returns.

"I think simply growth. If you think about most of the sectors on the continent, most of them are still on the very early stage of adoption of technology. And what that does is it presents a significant opportunity,” said Adelowo.

She gave the example of electronic transfers in Nigeria, which have grown 70 percent over the last five years. This represents the kind of growth that appeals not only to investors who prioritize social impact but also to venture capitalists who want to maximize financial returns.

Adelowo acknowledged the infrastructure challenges that can stand in the way of investments across a number of sectors. But she said that from her perspective as an investor, technology-enabled distributed solutions, from solar to payments, are where the exciting opportunities are.

Moving back to Africa to start a social enterprise? Read this first 

More and more young Africans in diaspora are taking a leap to start their business and social enterprise on the continent. What has it been like for those who returned? What are the things to consider before making a move back to Africa? Three social entrepreneurs who have successfully launched a social impact business on the continent shared their experience and five tips with Devex.

The moderator asked Oviosu why he went back to Nigeria, and he said that even if he were not from there, he would have gone. He spoke about the opportunity in a country of 180 million people, on track to be the third largest country in the world by 2050.

Paga is an example of the kind of investment GIF seeks out not only because of the promise of impact but also because of the potential for learning, Apte said.

The GIF team thinks about innovation very broadly, rather than focusing on a particular sector or geography, Apte added. But Nigeria is a place where there is an overwhelming population size fitting within its target demographic. And part of the appeal of Paga is that it has plans to scale, and is currently considering countries including Mexico, the Philippines, and Ethiopia.

“Our thought process is: Let’s take smart bets in companies like Paga showing initial success and traction, and provide them growth capital to continue doing what they’re doing and scale their impact as they provide products and services, and learn from that and communicate the lessons learned to the broader development community,” he said.

This kind of scale should also appeal to investors beyond GIF — those seeking to support companies whose customers live on less than $5 a day, but also to investors focused on maximizing returns. These types of examples fill the agenda of events such as the Emerging Markets Venture Forum, an annual event hosted by the International Finance Corporation at the World Bank. Focused on developing the ecosystem for emerging market entrepreneurs by supporting local funds in developing countries, the forum also encourages Silicon Valley funders across the spectrum from philanthropy to private equity to consider these markets.

Omidyar Network joined the $10 million round for Paga led by GIF, together with Unreasonable Capital, an early-stage investment fund focused on emerging market entrepreneurs, Goodwell, an impact investment and advisory firm focused on financial inclusion for the underserved, and Adlevo Capital, the first private equity firm focused on investing in African technology-enabled companies.

Omidyar Network also supports GIF, together with the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development, the United States Agency for International Development, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, Australia’s Department for Foreign Affairs and Trade, and the Department of Science and Technology in South Africa.

Last Thursday, Omidyar Network hosted a Meet the Entrepreneur event featuring Paga, where Arjuna Costa, a partner at Omidyar Network who focuses on financial inclusion, joined Oviosu for a discussion about their model.

Financial inclusion at Omidyar Network represents about 20 percent of the $1 billion the firm has deployed. Costa led a conversation with Oviosu in a room of investors and others who were interested in learning more about the Paga model.  

“Too many people still look to Kenya’s mobile money success as the answer to everybody else in Africa — nothing could be further from the truth,” read the invitation to the event. “The impact and opportunities that have evolved thanks to the incredible work FinTech players like Paga and others are doing to advance financial inclusion in Nigeria cannot be understated.”

About the author

  • Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Catherine also works for the Solutions Journalism Network, a non profit that trains and connects reporters to cover responses to problems.