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Africa Roundup: Visa connects to M-Pesa, Flutterwave enters e-commerce

It seems the demand for Safaricom’s M-Pesa payment product never eases. Since its 2007 launch in Kenya, the fintech app has commanded over 70% of the mobile money market in that country. When COVID-19 hit the East African nation of 53 million in March, the Kenyan Central Bank turned to M-Pesa as a public health tool to reduce use of cash.

And last month, one of the world’s financial services giants — Visa — connected M-Pesa to its global network.

Visa and Safaricom — which is Kenya’s largest telecom and operator of M-Pesa — announced a partnership on payments and tech.

The arrangement opens up M-Pesa’s own extensive financial services network in East Africa to Visa’s global merchant and card network across 200 countries.

The companies will also collaborate “on development of products that will support digital payments for M-Pesa customers.” The partnership is still subject to regulatory approval.

The details remain vague, but the payment providers also said they will use the collaboration to facilitate e-commerce.

Images Credits: Getty Images

On a continent that is still home to the largest share of the world’s unbanked population, Kenya has one of the highest mobile-money penetration rates in the world. This is largely due to the dominance of M-Pesa in the country, which has 24.5 million customers and a network of 176,000 agents.

As we detailed in ExtraCrunch, Visa has been on a VC and partnership spree with African fintech companies. The global financial services giant has named working with the continent’s payments startups as core to its Africa expansion strategy.

One of those fintech ventures Visa has teamed up with, Flutterwave, launched an e-commerce product in April. The San Francisco and Lagos-based B2B payments company announced Flutterwave Store, a portal for African merchants to create digital shops to sell online.

The product is less Amazon  and more eBay — with no inventory or warehouse requirements. Flutterwave insists the move doesn’t represent any shift away from its core payments business.

The company accelerated the development of Flutterwave Store in response to COVID-19, which has brought restrictive measures to SMEs and traders operating in Africa’s largest economies.

After creating a profile, users can showcase inventory and link up to a payment option. For pickup and delivery, Flutterwave Store operates through existing third party logistics providers, such as Sendy in Kenya and Sendbox in Nigeria.

The service will start in 15 African countries and the only fees Flutterwave will charge (for now) are on payments. Otherwise, it’s free for SMEs to create an online storefront and for buyers and sellers to transact goods.

While the initiative is born out of the spread of coronavirus cases in Africa, it will continue beyond the pandemic. And Flutterwave’s CEO Olugbenga Agboola — aka GB — is adamant Flutterwave Store is not a pivot for the Y-Cominator backed fintech company.

“It’s not a direction change. We’re still a B2B payment infrastructure company. We are not moving into becoming an online retailer, and no we’re not looking to become Jumia,” he told TechCrunch .

In early stage startup activity, a relatively new company — Okra — has created a unique platform that allows it to generate revenue on both sides of the fintech aisle.

Founded in June 2019 by Nigerians Fara Ashiru Jituboh and David Peterside, the company refers to itself as a “super-connector API” with a platform that links bank accounts to third party applications.

Okra’s clients include fintech startups and large financial institutions in Nigeria. The company got the attention of TLcom Capital — a $71 million Africa focused VC firm —that backed Okra with $1 million in pre-seed funding. The Nigerian startup is using the funds to hire and expand to new markets in Africa, most likely Kenya .

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Mammoth Biosciences aims to be Illumina for the gene editing generation

In 1998, the startup company Illumina launched a revolution in the life sciences industry by developing technology to slash the costs of identifying and mapping genetic material.

Now, a little over 20 years later, Mammoth Biosciences is hoping to do the same thing for gene editing tools.

The company, co-founded by Jennifer Doudna, who did some of the pioneering work to discover the gene editing enzyme known as CRISPR, has just raised $45 million as it looks to bring to market products that can be used not only for disease detection, but are more precise editing tools for genetic material.

Rather than get bogged down in the patent dispute that raged over the provenance and ownership of applications for the original CRISPR enzyme — the Cas9 discovered by Doudna and developed for clinical applications at the Broad Institute — Mammoth has joined a number of startups in identifying new enzymes with a broader array of properties.

“From the very beginning of the company we’ve only worked with novel new enzymes to create these diagnostic products and the new novel diagnostic and editing,” says Trevor Martin, Mammoth Biosciences co-founder and chief executive.

Chiefly, the company is touting its Cas14 enzyme, which the company says opens up new possibilities for programmable biology thanks to its small size, diverse targeting ability and high fidelity — meaning that there are no unforeseen side effects to edits made using the enzyme (something that has arisen with Cas9 applications).

“There’s not one protein that’s going to be the best at everything,” says Martin. “For any particular product that you’re building, at Mammoth, we have the broadest toolbox.”

The Cas14 enzyme can be used to make gene edits in-vivo, meaning in live organisms, instead of ex-vivo, or outside of an organism. The in-vivo use-case could accelerate the time it takes to conduct experiments or develop treatments.

“Twenty years from now, when the umpteenth drug gets approved using Crispr and some nuclease named Cas132013, people are going to look back on this patent battle and think, ‘what a godawful waste of money,’ ” Jacob Sherkow a patent law scholar at New York Law School told Wired back in 2018.

Already, Horizon Discovery, a Cambridge, U.K.-based gene editing technology developer, is using the new tools developed by Mammoth Bioscience to create new CRISPR tools for Chinese Hamster Ovary cell line editing.

That partnership is an example of how Mammoth is thinking about the commercialization of the new Cas14 enzyme line and its role in biological engineering.

“You will need a full toolbox of CRISPR proteins,” says Martin. “That will allow you to interact with biology in the same way that we interact with software and computers. “From first principles, companies will programmatically modify biology to cure a disease or decrease risk for a disease. That’s going to be really kind of a turning point.”

To achieve its vision, Mammoth has managed to nab top talent from the life sciences industry, including Peter Nell, a co-founder of Casebia (a joint venture between Bayer and CRISPR Therapeutics), who came on board as chief business officer, and Ted Tisch, a former executive at Synthego and Bio-Rad, who joined the company as chief operating officer.

The company also nabbed $45 million of funding, including investment firms Mayfield, NFX, Verily (the Alphabet subsidiary) and Brook Byers, which was led by Decheng Capital — bringing the company to more than $70 million in funding.

“There are a dozen or so products that are in clinical development with CRISPR,” says Ursheet Parikh, a partner with Mayfield. “Maybe that number would go up by five or 10 without Mammoth, but it will go up by one or two orders of magnitude with Mammoth.”

To Parikh, Mammoth is the best positioned of the CRISPR development tools, because the company is building a whole platform that customers can license and use to develop products using gene editing.

The thinking, according to Parikh, is as follows, “if this technology can power lots of applications, let’s basically ensure that lots of these applications can come to market and as that happens I get my app store cut.”

“It’s an Illumina-like business,” Parikh says. “Just as anybody who is innovating with genomics needs an Illumina sequencer because they want to be able to do the sequencing… if someone wants to do editing… This gives them the access to do the right sequencing.”

Source: TechCrunch