500 Startups’ frontier and emerging markets travel series ― Geeks on a Plane ― kicks off its first Africa tour this week. The 12-day trip will make stops in Nigeria (Lagos), Ghana (Accra) and South Africa (Johannesburg and Cape Town).
“We’ve done about 10 investments in sub-Saharan Africa,” said 500 Startups’ founding partner Dave McClure ― such as Nigerian HR platform TalentBase and South Africa’s SweepSouth ― originated as applicants through 500’s seed program. “We’re not announcing a new fund at the current time, but are planning on doing more investment in Africa. Whether that’s 5, 10, or 20 startups a year, we’ll have to see.”
McClure, who kicked off the Geeks trip Monday in Lagos, did not rule out a dedicated Africa micro-fund, noting a decision could be made within the next 12-24 months.
“Part of the exercise is trying to figure out what geographies we’d be investing in… the legal structures, other investors, and understanding, not just the companies, but what the overall ecosystem looks like and how we’d fit in to that,” he said.
The current Geeks Africa tour agenda appears tailored to those aims. The trip’s partners and participants number many, such as regional host USAID, Microsoft and the MEST incubator. The Lagos portion kicked off with a panel briefing on Nigeria’s startup ecosystem at IBM Labs led by TechCabal’s Bankole Oluwafemi. 500 Startups joined Seedstars Lagos for a startup pitch battle with local ventures judged by McClure, Seedstars country manager Tunde Akinnuwa and Omidyar Networks investment head, Scott Wu.
This first Geeks Africa trek follows an uptick in global investment and Silicon Valley attention toward the continent over the last year-plus. Pan-African e-commerce startup Jumia became the continent’s first unicorn in 2016 when it surpassed $1 billion in market value in a $326 million Goldman-backed funding round.
Notable tech names Netflix, eBay, Uber and IBM expanded on the continent last year. Y Combinator visited Lagos in 2016 and accepted several African startups into its program. And Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg put a spotlight on the continent’s tech scene with his tour of hubs and startups in Nigeria and Kenya last September.
500 Startups’ McClure said the seed fund will “look to target straightforward business models” in its future Africa investments, “with a heavy emphasis on consumer-focused commerce…B2B productivity tools, SaaS, fintech, education, healthcare, real-estate, and jobs and recruiting.”
During and after the Geeks Africa trip, McClure also noted 500 Startups’ focus on ventures that can scale on and off the continent. “We’re definitely interested in local market opportunities in places measured at 50-100 million people or more ― Nigeria, South Africa, East Africa overall. But we’ve also seen people going after global markets from Africa. That’s something we are on the lookout for. Smart people are everywhere,” he said.