Kaiser Hwang is a longtime member of the games community and a vice president at Forte, an organization building an open economic platform for games.
“Animal Crossing: New Horizons” is a bonafide wonder. The game has been setting new records for Nintendo, is adored by players and critics alike and provides millions of players a peaceful escape during these unprecedented times.
But there’s been something even more extraordinary happening on the fringe: Players are finding ways to augment the game experience through community-organized activities and tools. These include free weed-pulling services (tips welcome!) from virtual Samaritans, and custom-designed items for sale — for real-world money, via WeChat Pay and AliPay.
Well-known personalities and companies are also contributing, with “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” scribe Gary Whitta hosting an A-list celebrity talk show using the game, and luxury fashion brand Marc Jacobs providing some of its popular clothing designs to players. 100 Thieves, the white-hot esports and apparel company, even created and gave away digital versions of its entire collection of impossible-to-find clothes.
This community-based phenomenon gives us a pithy glimpse into not only where games are inevitably going, but what their true potential is as a form of creative, technical and economic expression. It also exemplifies what we at Forte call “community economics,” a system that lies at the heart of our aim in bringing new creative and economic opportunities to billions of people around the world.
What is community economics?
Formally, community economics is the synthesis of economic activity that takes place inside, and emerges outside, virtual game worlds. It is rooted in a cooperative economic relationship between all participants in a game’s network, and characterized by an economic pluralism that is unified by open technology owned by no single party. And notably, it results in increased autonomy for players, better business models for game creators, and new economic and creative opportunities for both.
The fundamental shift that underlies community economics is the evolution of games from centralized entertainment experiences to open economic platforms. We believe this is where things are heading.
In India, it’s Google and Walmart-owned PhonePe that are racing neck-and-neck to be the top player in the mobile payments market, while Facebook remains mired in a regulatory maze for WhatsApp Pay’s rollout.
In May, more than 75 million users transacted on Google Pay app, ahead of PhonePe’s 60 million users, people familiar with the companies’ figures told TechCrunch. More than 10 million users transact on SoftBank -backed Paytm’s app everyday, according to internal data seen by TechCrunch.
Google still lags Paytm’s reach with merchants, but the Android -maker has maintained its overall lead in recent months despite every player losing momentum due to one of the most stringent lockdowns globally in place in India. The company is facing an antitrust probe in India over allegations that it is abusing its market position to unfairly promote its mobile payments app in the country, Reuters reported last month.
Paytm, once the dominant player in India, has been struggling to sustain its user base for nearly two years. The company had about 60 million transacting users in January last year, said people familiar with the matter.
Paytm had over 50 million monthly active users on its app in May, a spokesperson told TechCrunch.
Data sets consider transacting users to be those who have made at least one payment through the app in a month. It’s a coveted metric and is different from the much more popular monthly active users (MAU), or daily active users (DAU) that various firms use to share their performance. A portion of those labeled as monthly active users do not make any transaction on the app.
India’s homegrown payment firm, Paytm, has struggled to grow in recent years in part because of a mandate by India’s central bank to mobile wallet firms — the middlemen between users and banks — to perform know-your-client (KYC) verification of users, which created confusion among many, some of the people said. These woes come despite the firm’s fundraising success, which amounts to more than $3 billion.
In a statement, a Paytm spokesperson said, “When it comes to mobile wallets one has to remember the fact that Paytm was the company that set up the infrastructure to do KYC and has been able to complete over 100 million KYCs by physically meeting customers.”
Paytm has long benefited from integration with popular services such as Uber, and food delivery startup Swiggy, but fewer than 10 million of Paytm’s monthly transacting users have relied on this feature in recent months.
Two executives, who like everyone else spoke on the condition of anonymity because of fear of retribution, also said that Paytm resisted the idea of adopting Unified Payments Interface. That’s the nearly two-year-old payments infrastructure built and backed by a collation of banks in India that enables money to be sent directly between accounts at different banks and eliminates the need for a separate mobile wallet.
Paytm’s delays in adopting the standard left room for Google and PhonePe, another early adopter of UPI, to seize the opportunity.
Paytm, which adopted UPI a year after Google and PhonePe, refuted the characterization that it resisted joining UPI ecosystem.
“We are the company that cherishes innovation and technology that can transform the lives of millions. We understand the importance of financial technology and for this very reason, we have always been the champion and supporter of UPI. We, however, launched it on Paytm later than our peers because it took a little longer for us to get the approval to start UPI based services,“ a spokesperson said.
A sign for Paytm online payment method, operated by One97 Communications Ltd., is displayed at a street stall selling accessories in Bengaluru, India, on Saturday, Feb. 4, 2017. Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Missing from the fray is Facebook, which counts India as its biggest market by user count. The company began talks with banks to enter India’s mobile payments market, estimated to reach $1 trillion by 2023 (according to Credit Suisse), through WhatsApp as early as 2017. WhatsApp is the most popular smartphone app in India with over 400 million users in the country.
PhonePe, which was conceived only a year before WhatsApp set eyes to India’s mobile payments, has consistently grown as it added several third-party services. These include leading food and grocery delivery services Swiggy and Grofers, ride-hailing giant Ola, ticketing and staying players Ixigo and Oyo Hotels, in a so-called super app strategy. In November, about 63 million users were active on PhonePe, 45 million of whom transacted through the app.
Karthik Raghupathy, the head of business at PhonePe, confirmed the company’s transacting users to TechCrunch.
Three factors contributed to the growth of PhonePe, he said in an interview. “The rise of smartphones and mobile data adoption in recent years; early adoption to UPI at a time when most mobile payments firms in India were betting on virtual mobile-wallet model; and taking an open-ecosystem approach,” he said.
“We opened our consumer base to all our merchant partners very early on. Our philosophy was that we would not enter categories such as online ticketing for movies and travel, and instead work with market leaders on those fronts,” he explained.
“We also went to the market with a completely open, interoperable QR code that enabled merchants and businesses to use just one QR code to accept payments from any app — not just ours. Prior to this, you would see a neighborhood store maintain several QR codes to support a number of payment apps. Over the years, our approach has become the industry norm,” he said, adding that PhonePe has been similarly open to other wallets and payments options as well.
But despite the growth and its open approach, PhonePe has still struggled to win the confidence of investors in recent quarters. Stoking investors’ fears is the lack of a clear business model for mobile payments firms in India.
PhonePe executives held talks to raise capital last year that would have valued it at $8 billion, but the negotiations fell apart. Similar talks early this year, which would have valued PhonePe at $3 billion, which hasn’t been previously reported, also fell apart, three people familiar with the matter said. Raghupathy and a PhonePe spokesperson declined to comment on the company’s fundraising plans.
As UPI gained inroads in the market, banks have done away with any promotional incentives to mobile payments players, one of their only revenue sources.
At an event in Bangalore late last year, Sajith Sivanandan, managing director and business head of Google Pay and Next Billion User Initiatives, said current local rules have forced Google Pay to operate without a clear business model in India.
Coronavirus takes its toll on payments companies
The coronavirus pandemic that prompted New Delhi to order a nationwide lockdown in late March preceded a significant, but predictable, drop in mobile payments usage in the following weeks. But while Paytm continues to struggle in bouncing back, PhonePe and Google Pay have fully recovered as India eased some restrictions.
About 120 million UPI transactions occurred on Paytm in the month of May, down from 127 million in April and 186 million in March, according to data compiled by NPCI, the body that oversees UPI, and obtained by TechCrunch. (Paytm maintains a mobile wallet business, which contributes to its overall transacting users.)
Google Pay, which only supports UPI payments, facilitated 540 million transactions in May, up from 434 million in April and 515 million in March. PhonePe’s 454 million March figure slid to 368 million in April, but it turned the corner, with 460 million transactions last month. An NPCI spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.
PhonePe and Google Pay together accounted for about 83% of all UPI transactions in India last month. UPI itself has over 117 million users.
Industry executives working at rival firms said it would be a mistake to dismiss Paytm, the one-time leader of the mobile payments market in India.
Paytm has cut its marketing expenses and aggressively chased merchants in recent quarters. Earlier this year, it unveiled a range of gadgets, including a device that displays QR check-out codes that comes with a calculator and USB charger, a jukebox that provides voice confirmations of transactions and services to streamline inventory management for merchants.
Merchants who use these devices pay a recurring fee to Paytm, Vijay Shekhar Sharma, co-founder and chief executive of the firm told TechCrunch in an interview earlier this year. Paytm has also entered several businesses, such as movie and travel ticketing, lending, games and e-commerce, and set up a digital payments bank over the years.
“Everyone knows Paytm. Paytm is synonymous with digital payments in India. And outside, there’s a perceived notion that it’s truly the Alipay of India,” an executive at a rival firm said.
The business of selling consumer goods and services online is a relatively young endeavor across Africa, but ecommerce is set to boom.
Over the last eight years, the sector has seen its first phase of big VC fundings, startup duels and attrition.
To date, scaling e-commerce in Africa has straddled the line of challenge and opportunity, perhaps more than any other market in the world. Across major African economies, many of the requisites for online retail — internet access, digital payment adoption, and 3PL delivery options — have been severely lacking.
African e-commerce 2.0 will include some old and new players, play out across more countries, place more priority on internet services, and see the entry of China.
But before highlighting several things to look out for in the future of digital-retail on the continent, a look back is beneficial.
Jumia vs. Konga
The early years for development of African online shopping largely played out in Nigeria (and to some extent South Africa). Anyone who visited Nigeria from 2012 to 2016 likely saw evidence of one of the continent’s early e-commerce showdowns. Nigeria had its own Coke vs. Pepsi-like duel — a race between ventures Konga and Jumia to out-advertise and out-discount each other in a quest to scale online shopping in Africa’s largest economy and most populous nation.
Traveling in Lagos traffic, large billboards for each startup faced off across the skyline, as their delivery motorcycles buzzed between stopped cars.
Covering each company early on, it appeared a battle of VC attrition. The challenge: who could continue to raise enough capital to absorb the losses of simultaneously capturing and creating an e-commerce market in notoriously difficult conditions.
In addition to the aforementioned challenges, Nigeria also had (and continues to have) shoddy electricity.
That included their own delivery and payment services (KongaPay and JumiaPay). In addition to sales of goods from mobile-phones to diapers, both startups also began experimenting with verticals for internet based services, such as food-delivery and classifieds.
While Jumia and Konga were competing in Nigeria, there was another VC driven race for e-commerce playing out in South Africa — the continent’s second largest and most advanced economy.
E-tailers Takealot and Kalahari had been jockeying for market share since 2011 after raising capital in the hundreds of millions of dollars from investors Naspers and U.S. fund Tiger Global Management.
Jumia went on to expand online goods and services verticals into 14 Africa countries (though it recently exited a few) and in April 2019 raised over $200 million in an NYSE IPO — the first on a major exchange for a VC-backed startup operating in Africa.
Jumia’s had bumpy road since going public — losing significant share-value after a short-sell attack earlier in 2019 — but the continent’s leading e-commerce company still has heap of capital and generates $100 million in revenues (even with losses).
2019 brought more global attention to Africa’s tech scene than perhaps any previous year.
A high profile IPO, visits by both Jacks (Ma and Dorsey), and big Chinese startup investment energized that.
The last 12 months served as a grande finale to 10 years that saw triple digit increases in startup formation and VC on the continent.
Here’s an overview of the 2019 market events that captured attention and capped off a decade of rapid growth in African tech.
The story of the year is the April IPO on the NYSE of Pan-African e-commerce company Jumia. This was the first listing of a VC backed tech company operating in Africa on a major global exchange — which brought its own unpredictability.
Founded in 2012, Jumia pioneered much of its infrastructure to sell goods to consumers online in Africa.
With Nigeria as its base market, the Rocket Internet backed company created accompanying delivery and payments services and went on to expand online verticals into 14 Africa countries (though it recently exited a few). Jumia now sells everything from mobile-phones to diapers and offers online services such as food-delivery and classifieds.
The online retailer gained investor confidence out of the gate, more than doubling its $14.95 opening share price post IPO.
That lasted until May, when Jumia’s stock came under attack from short-seller Andrew Left, whose firm Citron Research issued a report accusing the company of fraud. The American activist investor’s case was bolstered, in part, by a debate that played out across Africa’s tech ecosystem on Jumia’s legitimacy as an African startup, given its (primarily) European senior management.
The entire affair was further complicated during Jumia’s second quarter earnings call when the company disclosed a fraud perpetrated by some of its employees and sales agents. Jumia’s CEO Sacha Poignonnec emphasized the matter was closed, financially marginal and not the same as Andrew Left’s short-sell claims.
Whatever the balance, Jumia’s 2019 ups and downs cast a cloud over its stock with investors. Since the company’s third-quarter earnings-call, Jumia’s NYSE share-price has lingered at around $6 — less than half of its original $14.95 opening, and roughly 80% lower than its high.
Even with Jumia’s post-IPO rocky road, the continent’s leading e-commerce company still has heap of capital and is on pace to generate over $100 million in revenues in 2019 (albeit with big losses).
The company plans reduce costs by generating more revenue from higher-margin internet services, such as payments and classifieds.
There’s a fairly simple equation for Jumia to rebuild shareholder confidence in 2020: avoid scandals, increase revenues over losses. And now that the company’s publicly traded — with financial reporting requirements — there’ll be four earnings calls a year to evaluate Jumia’s progress.
Jumia may not be the continent’s standout IPO for much longer. Events in 2019 point to Interswitch becoming the second African digital company to list on a global exchange in 2020. The Nigerian fintech firm confirmed to TechCrunch in November it had reached a billion-dollar unicorn valuation, after a (reported) $200 million investment by Visa.
Founded in 2002 by Mitchell Elegbe, Interswitch created much of the initial infrastructure to digitize Nigeria’s (then) predominantly cash-based economy. Interswitch has been teasing a public listing since 2016, but delayed it for various reasons. With the company’s billion-dollar valuation in 2019, that pause is likely to end.
“An [Interswitch] IPO is still very much in the cards; likely sometime in the first half of 2020,” a source with knowledge of the situation told TechCrunch.
China-Africa goes digital
2019 was the year when Chinese actors pivoted to African tech. China is known for its strategic relationship with Africa based (largely) on trade and infrastructure. Over the last 10 years, the country has been less engaged in the continent’s digital-scene.
That was until a torrent of investment and partnerships this past year.
July saw Chinese-owned Opera raise $50 million in venture spending to support its growing West African digital commercial network, which includes browser, payments and ride-hail services.
In August, San Francisco and Lagos-based fintech startup Flutterwave partnered with Chinese e-commerce company Alibaba’s Alipay to offer digital payments between Africa and China.
In September, China’s Transsion — the largest smartphone seller in Africa — listed in an IPO on Shanghai’s new STAR Market. The company raised ≈ $394 million, some of which it is directing toward venture funding and operational expansion in Africa.
The last quarter of 2019 brought a November surprise from China in African tech. Over 15 Chinese investors placed over $240 million in three rounds. Transsion backed consumer payments startup PalmPay raised a $40 million seed, stating its goal to become “Africa’s largest financial services platform.”
In the new year, TechCrunch will continue to cover the business arc of this surge in Chinese tech investment in Africa. There’ll surely be a number of fresh macro news-points to develop, given the debate (and critique) of China’s role in Africa.
Nigeria and fintech
On debate, the case could be made that 2019 was the year when Nigeria become Africa’s unofficial capital for fintech investment and digital finance startups.
Kenya has held this title hereto, with the local success and global acclaim of its M-Pesa mobile-money product. But more founders and VCs are opting for Nigeria as the epicenter for digital finance growth on the continent.
A rough tally of 2019 TechCrunch coverage — including previously mentioned rounds — pegs fintech related investment in the West African country at around $400 million over the last 12 months. That’s equivalent to roughly one-third of all startup VC raised for the entire continent in 2018, according to Partech stats.
From OPay to PalmPay to Visa — startups, big finance companies and investors are making Nigeria home-base for their digital finance operations and outward expansion in Africa.
The founder of early-stage payment startup ChipperCash, Ham Serunjogi, explained the imperative to operate in the West African country. “Nigeria is the largest economy and most populous country in Africa. Its fintech industry is one of the most advanced in Africa, up there with Kenya and South Africa,” he told TechCrunch in May.
When all the 2019 VC numbers are counted, it will be worth matching up Nigeria to Kenya to see how the countries compared for fintech specific investment over the last year.
Tech acquisitions continue to be somewhat rare in Africa, but there were several to note in 2019. Two of the continent’s powerhouse tech incubators joined forces in September, when Nigerian innovation center and seed-fund CcHub acquired Nairobi based iHub, for an undisclosed amount.
The acquisition brought together Africa’s most powerful tech hubs by membership networks, volume of programs, startups incubated and global visibility. It also elevated CcHub’s Bosun Tijani standing across Africa’s tech ecosystem, as the CEO of the new joint-entity, which also has a VC arm.
In other acquisition activity, French television company Canal+ acquired the ROK film studio from Nigerian VOD company IROKOtv, for an undisclosed amount. The deal put ROK founder and producer Mary Njoku in charge of a new organization with larger scope and resources.
Many outside Africa aren’t aware that Nigeria’s Nollywood is the Hollywood of the continent and one of the largest film industries (by production volume) in the world. Canal+ told TechCrunch it looks to bring Mary and the Nollywood production ethos to produce content in French speaking African countries.
The on-demand motorcycle market in Africa has attracted foreign investment and moved toward EV development. In May, MAX.ng raised a $7 million Series A round with participation from Yamaha and is using a portion to pilot renewable energy powered e-motorcycles in Africa.
In August, the government of Rwanda announced a national policy to phase out gas-motorcycle taxis altogether in favor of e-motos, in partnership with early-stage EV startup Ampersand.
Africinvest teamed up with Cathay Innovation to announce the Cathay Africinvest Innovation Fund, a $100+ million capital pool aimed at Series A to C-stage startup investments in fintech, logistics, AI, agtech and edutech.
Like any tech ecosystem, not every startup in Africa killed it or even continued to tread water in 2019. Two e-commerce companies — DealDey in Nigeria and Afrimarket in Ivory Coast — closed up digital shop.
And South Africa based, Pan-African focused cryptocurrency payment startup Wala ceased operations in June. Founder Tricia Martinez named the continent’s poor infrastructure as one of the culprits to shutting down. A possible signal to the startup’s demise could have been its 2017 ICO, where Wala netted only 4% of its $30 million token-offering.
Africa’s startups go global
2019 saw more startups expand products and business models developed in Africa to new markets abroad. In March, Flexclub — a South African venture that matches investors and drivers to cars for ride-hailing services — announced its expansion to Mexico in a partnership with Uber.
In May, ExtraCrunch profiled three African founded fintech startups — Flutterwave, Migo and ChipperCash — developing their business models strategically in Africa toward plans to offer their products in other regions.
As we look to what could come in the new year and decade for African tech, it’s telling to look back. Ten years ago, there were a lot of “if” questions on whether the continent’s ecosystem could produce certain events: billion dollar startup valuations, IPOs on major exchanges, global expansion, investment from the world’s top VCs.
All those questionable events of the past have become reality in African tech, even if some of them are still in low abundance.
There’s no crystal ball for any innovation ecosystem — not the least Africa’s — but there are several things I’ll be on the lookout for in 2020 and beyond.
Two In the near term, start with what Twitter/Square CEO Jack Dorsey may do around Bitcoin and cryptocurrency on his return to Africa (lookout for an upcoming TechCrunch feature on this).
I’ll also follow the next-phase of e-commerce in Africa, which could pit Jumia more competitively against DHL’s Africa eShop, Opera and China’s Alibaba (which hasn’t yet entered Africa in full).
On a longer-term basis, a development to follow is how the continent’s first wave of millionaire and billionaire tech-founders could disrupt dynamics around politics, power, and philanthropy in Africa — hopefully for the better.
More notable 2019 Africa-related coverage @TechCrunch