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#USA Kenyan telco Safaricom’s Alpha incubator faces uncertain future

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Safaricom’s Nairobi-based Alpha innovation incubator may have an uncertain future, according to sources.

With two high-level departures, and the passing of Safaricom’s CEO Bob Collymore, there are questions on how or if Alpha will continue to operate.

The space was established in 2017 to spur new product development for Safaricom, which is Kenya’s largest mobile operator and the provider of M-Pesa — East Africa’s most used mobile-money product.

As TechCrunch reported, one of the first objectives of Alpha was to build upon the success of M-Pesa.

As a telco, Safaricom has 69 percent of the Kenya’s mobile subscribers and generates around a fourth ($531 million) of its ≈ $2.2 billion annual revenues (2018) from M-Pesa. The fintech product has 20.5 million customers across a network of 176,000 agents.

While these stats have put Safaricom in a coveted position, the company’s former CEO Bob Collymore expressed concerns over the risk of too many eggs in one basket. For years, Collymore pressed his company to diversify product and revenue streams.

Through in-house development and partnerships, Safaricom added consumer and small business-based products, such as ride-hail app Little and website services, to its mobile and fintech network.

In 2017, Safaricom’s Chief Innovation Officer and first head of Alpha, Kamal Bhattacharya echoed Collymore’s mission to diversify the company’s offerings.

“We’d actually like to move beyond M-Pesa by leveraging its power as a social network to connect people to other product solutions,” he told TechCrunch.

Bhattacharya — who’d come to Safaricom after senior positions at IBM Research Africa and a stint restructuring Kenyan innovation center iHub — recruited a team for Alpha, led by founder and computer scientist Shikoh Gitau.

From a market perspective, Alpha was something to watch since corporate incubators in Africa were (and continue to be) a relatively new component across the continent’s tech ecosystem.

Alpha staff in 2018

In a space purposely set up away from Safaricom’s HQ, Alpha’s team of innovators set to shaping new digital offerings.

In 2018, the incubator rolled out its first product, a social networking platform called Bonga, to augment M-Pesa.

Since M-Pesa was already established as a commercial network, the idea was to amplify that by creating more social media type transactions around it — channeling Facebook, YouTube, iTunes, PayPal, and eBay in one platform.

With Bonga, Alpha appeared to have some momentum into 2018, before the innovation incubator lost two of its biggest backers.

First, Kamal Bhattacharya, exited Safaricom and his position of lead of Alpha in October 2018. The reason given by the company was a bit of corporate say-nothing-speak: “leaving to pursue other interests.”

The real reasons for Bhattacharya’s sudden exit were unclear. There was, however, plenty of scuttlebutt about powers within Safaricom — resistant to the brand of bureaucracy rattling change Alpha could bring — conspiring to push him out.

After losing its head, Alpha lost another key ally in Bob Collymore when he passed away in July of this year after a fight with cancer.

Zwuup SafaricomAlpha said farewell to another senior figure in August when Huston Malande left. It also rebranded Bonga to Zwuup this year — though Safaricom’s last two annual reports don’t indicate how the product has fared under either name, with no mention of Bonga, Zwuup, or Alpha.

What’s next for Alpha?

Several sources close to Safaricom (speaking on background) expressed doubt that it would have the support within the company to continue with Collymore’s passing.

One source suggested Alpha would more likely be morphed into the larger Safaricom bureaucracy rather than shut down completely, to avoid negative news that an abrupt closure would bring.

TechCrunch asked Safaricom directly on the future of Alpha, and specifically if it would confirm or deny reports the innovation incubator could shutdown. A Safaricom spokesperson said it could not comment on anything related to Alpha’s products or performance before Safaricom’s next earnings reporting, scheduled for November 1.

So Kenya’s tech community will have to wait a couple more weeks to see if Safaricom sticks to its experiment to spur inside innovation by creating an outside incubator — or not.

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#Blockchain CME Bitcoin Futures Sees Institutional Interest and Demand from Asia

CME Bitcoin Futures Sees Institutional Interest and Demand from Asia

Global markets business CME Group said that institutional interest toward the firm’s Bitcoin futures is thriving and 2019’s third-quarter data showed a record number of open interest. Moreover, despite the lackluster start, the Intercontinental Exchange’s (ICE) Bakkt platform has seen an increase in interest with the company’s physically-settled bitcoin futures product.

Also read: Honestnode Founder Discusses the First Stablecoin Built on Bitcoin Cash

CME Group’s Bitcoin Futures Continue to Prosper

Since going live with its bitcoin futures in December 2017, CME Group’s BTC derivatives has allowed individuals and organizations the ability to hedge exposure to the digital currency. Throughout 2018 and 2019, CME has seen a significant rise in open interest in its bitcoin futures. This summer CME saw unprecedented numbers compared to the volumes recorded a few months prior.

“CME Bitcoin futures reached a record $1.7B in notional value traded on June 26, surpassing the previous record by more than 30% — The surge in volume also set a new open interest record of 6,069 contracts as institutional interest continues to build,” CME Group stated. The Chicago-based exchange detailed on October 11 that open contracts during the third quarter grew significantly in comparison to Q3 2018. The number of outstanding positions almost doubled and the company explained that the rise stems from institutions.

“Institutional interest in CME Bitcoin futures (BTC) continued to build in Q3 with a record number of large open interest holders (25+ BTC),” the trading platform imparted last week.

CME Bitcoin Futures Sees Institutional Interest and Demand from Asia

The news follows CME’s announcement that due to “growing interest in cryptocurrencies and customer demand for tools to manage bitcoin exposure” the exchange would begin offering options on Bitcoin futures (BTC) in early 2020. The day before it’s third-quarter update, CME Group’s global head of equity index and alternative investment products, Tim McCourt, explained there is a huge interest in bitcoin futures in Asia. For instance, cryptocurrency miners based in Asia appreciate derivatives products because they can hedge their costs. Even though the company is preparing for BTC options, McCourt disclosed that CME is not planning to provide physically-settled products like Bakkt. In an interview, McCourt stated:

While futures give you a one-for-one exposure, whereby the movement of the underlying bitcoin translates directly to a specific dollar value per contract, an option gives you varying strike-price levels and can give you either downside protection, or upside exposure at a fraction of the underlying [assets’] price.

Bakkt’s Bitcoin Futures Volume Spikes and Ethereum and Bitcoin Cash Derivative Products Are Coming Soon

When Bakkt launched its physically-settled bitcoin futures the first week was quite dismal and only started to pick up steam after it executed its first block trade between Galaxy Digital and XBTO. Despite the weak start, Bakkt’s BTC trading volumes rose sharply on October 10, from 25 contracts to 224 contracts seeing a 796% rise. The Bakkt Volume Bot shows that futures volumes touched 53 on October 15 and went up 49% with 79 contracts the day after.

CME Bitcoin Futures Sees Institutional Interest and Demand from Asia

Bakkt CEO Kelly Loeffler believes the future of these derivatives products is just getting started and recently wrote about the subject in a blog post called “The Dawn of an Asset Class.” “Seamless coordination between ICE Futures U.S., ICE Clear US, and the Bakkt Warehouse is an important feature of Bakkt’s Bitcoin Futures,” Loeffler wrote for FIA’s global futures magazine. “Much like cotton and coffee futures contracts that can go to physical delivery, many of the same processes apply to the Bakkt Bitcoin Futures,” Loeffler added:

The Bakkt Warehouse stands between the customer and the clearing member to securely manage bitcoin movements based on deep domain knowledge, along with significant investments in infrastructure and operations. This design allows clearing members to manage margin balances in USD or U.S. Treasuries, rather than bitcoin.

CME Bitcoin Futures Sees Institutional Interest and Demand from Asia
Intercontinental Exchange chairman and CEO, Jeff Sprecher (right), with his wife and Bakkt CEO Kelly Loeffler (left).

The market has shown demand for futures products tied to BTC, but there’s a strong desire for other cryptocurrency derivatives products as well. At Yahoo Finance’s All Markets Summit in New York City on October 10, Heath Tarbert told the press that he believes Ethereum-based futures will be coming. “It is my view as Chairman of the CFTC that Ether is a commodity, and therefore it will be regulated under the CEA. And my guess is that you will see in the near future Ether-related futures contracts and other derivatives potentially traded.” Further, David Shin, the head of the exchange business at Bitcoin.com recently revealed that the public could see a bitcoin cash (BCH) futures products in Q1 2020.

What do you think about the rising interest in Bitcoin and other cryptocurrency products? Let us know what you think about this subject in the comments section below.


Image credits: Shutterstock, Pixabay, CME Group, Bakkt Volume Bot, Twitter, and Bakkt.


Do you want to keep an eye on moving cryptocurrency prices? Visit our Bitcoin Markets tool to get real-time price updates, and head over to our Blockchain Explorer tool to view all previous BCH and BTC transactions.

The post CME Bitcoin Futures Sees Institutional Interest and Demand from Asia appeared first on Bitcoin News.

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#USA Greylock GP Sarah Guo is as bullish on SaaS as ever

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Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast where each week we discuss other people’s money and what sense their investment choices make (or don’t).

This week was honestly a treat. We had Kate Clark in the studio along with Alex Wilhelm and a special guest, Sarah Guo from Greylock Partners, a venture firm (obviously). Guo has the distinction of having the best-ever fun fact on the show.

We kicked off with Grammarly, a company that recently put $90 million into its accounts. We chatted about for whom it was built, and if we use it today. One thing that felt clear was that consumers are more willing than before to pay for their tooling. And that means that companies like Grammarly may prove strong investment candidates.

Next, we hit on two more rounds, namely Tiger Global’s investment into Lattice and Clari’s $60 million Series D. Starting with Lattice, a performance management company founded by none other than Sam Altman’s brother, Jack. The startup raised $25 million from Tiger Global, read more about that here.

Clari led us a to a discussion of vertical SaaS, and Guo’s views on the future of SaaS products (she’s bullish). Alex and Guo had a lot to say on this subject.

After talking over a few rounds the discussion turned to the Q3 venture market. A few things stood out from the data and projections. First, that early-stage fundraising was a little light in the quarter. It could be a single-quarter wobble, but the data was worth chewing on all the same. And, second, that Seed deal and dollar volume were hot once again.

And we wrapped with a discussion of Tempest, a new sobriety-focused startup that raised a $10 million round. Honestly, we aren’t sure how we feel about the business model. Please let us know if you have thoughts.

It was a good time. A big thanks to Guo for coming on the show, and a shoutout to the team that makes Equity happen: Chris Gates, and Henry Pickavet.

Equity drops every Friday at 6:00 am PT, so subscribe to us on iTunesOvercast, Pocketcast, Downcast and all the casts.

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#Africa Edu-tainment startup named winner of Seedstars event in Mauritius

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Edu-tainment startup Eco Warriors has been named winner of the Mauritian leg of the global Seedstars World competition, booking its spot at the global final and the chance to pitch for up to US$500,000 in equity investment.

Seed-stage startup competition for emerging markets Seedstars World is selecting national winners from all over the world, including around 30 African countries, and will bring them together at the Seedstars Summit in Switzerland next year to compete for funding and a host of other prizes.

It has already chosen winners in Kenya, Ghana, Tanzania, Egypt, Morocco, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Angola, The Gambia, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Cape Verde, Tunisia, Malawi and Cameroon, and held its Mauritian event last week at Turbine.

Eight startups pitched at the event, with judges declaring Eco Warriors the winner. The startup has developed an ecology-focused educational mobile game and comic book under the patronage of UNESCO, and will now have the chance to pitch at the global final in Switzerland next year.

Eco Warriors also books a ticket to the Seedstars Africa regional summit in Johannesburg in December, and receives three months of access to an investment readiness programme.

SME financing solution FundKiss was second, while AVR Plato Technology, a startup focused on expanding the use of augmented and virtual reality in classrooms across Africa, came third.

The post Edu-tainment startup named winner of Seedstars event in Mauritius appeared first on Disrupt Africa.

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#Blockchain Global Crisis Looms as IMF Report Cites Its Own Policy as Dangerous

Global Crisis Looms as IMF Report Cites Its Own Policy as Dangerous

In a new report by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) entitled “Global Financial Stability Report: Lower for Longer,” the group gives an overview of the current debt-ridden and precarious state of affairs in global economics. Not lost on some economists, however, is the irony that these modern realities are the direct result of policies historically supported by the IMF itself.

Also Read: IMF Has Another Trick Up Its Sleeve When Fiat Fails – Its Own Coin SDR

Flip-Flopping

The six-chapter, 109-page report breaks down the ominous state of global finance and “identifies the current key vulnerabilities in the global financial system as the rise in corporate debt burdens, increasing holdings of riskier and more illiquid assets by institutional investors, and growing reliance on external borrowing by emerging and frontier market economies.” The assessments are not inaccurate, but fail to turn the lens back on the source, and the very causal factors contributing to these realities.

Global Crisis Looms as IMF Report Cites Its Own Policy as Dangerous
Source: IMF

Citing continued easing and precipitously falling bond yields, the IMF calls for more conservative approaches to the management of economic problems, stating:

To reduce the risk that additional easing may have the unintended consequence of leading to a further buildup of financial system vulnerabilities, macroprudential policies should be tightened, as warranted.

The IMF is suddenly very interested in prudence, and the management of systemic risk, encouraging the use of prescribed tools for mitigating dismal effects of prolonged negative interest, QE and easy credit, and the resultant movement of investors into riskier, more illiquid assets. The report maintains that “Low interest rates have reduced debt service costs and may have contributed to an increase in sovereign debt. This has made some governments more susceptible to a sudden and sharp tightening in financial conditions.”

Global Crisis Looms as IMF Report Cites Its Own Policy as Dangerous
Source: IMF

Just three years ago, however, in a 2016 blog post, the group was praising these very same practices, noting that “Although the experience with negative nominal interest rates is limited, we tentatively conclude that overall, they help deliver additional monetary stimulus. Wholesale interest rates have fallen as have some bank lending rates, which should help support demand and price stability.” The post further warns of the very same risks the new report cites, such as institutional entry into risky assets, but still concludes that such policies are helpful overall.

Global Crisis Looms as IMF Report Cites Its Own Policy as Dangerous

 

Greater Risk Now Condemned

IMF, 2016: “Banks benefit overall from [negative interest] policies that support price stability and growth…” even though “There may also be excessive risk-taking. As banks’ margins are squeezed, they may start lending to riskier borrowers to maintain their profit levels.”

IMF, 2019: “The monetary policy cycle may have reached a turning point in major advanced economies … Persistently low and declining yields on fixed-income instruments have continued to drive institutional investors … to boost returns by using leverage and investing in riskier and less liquid assets.” The report concludes that “Policymakers can help mitigate the buildup of vulnerabilities through appropriate incentives, minimum solvency or liquidity standards, and enhanced disclosures.”

In other words, they warned everyone of their risky, economically unsound plan, encouraged its implementation and adoption, and now are encouraging everyone to pull back quickly.

Global Economic Outlook Unstable

The executive summary of the report states:

Accommodative monetary policy is supporting the economy in the near term, but easy financial conditions are encouraging financial risk-taking and are fueling a further buildup of vulnerabilities in some sectors and countries.

The “some” here may be the understatement of the year. As news.Bitcoin.com has reported extensively, the current global situation is deteriorating rapidly with reckless capital injections, rampant negative interest rate policy implementation, negative yielding debt and once mega-powerful economies beginning to fail. In this sense, the IMF’s report is a mere statement of the obvious for many who are paying attention to the situation. Combined with the continued crackdown on free trade of proposed sound money alternatives like bitcoin, and it’s hard not to wax at least a little bit paranoid. Who knows, perhaps tomorrow the International Monetary fund will be pushing further for the creation of central bank digital currencies (CBDC) as the palliative for all the economic pain they’ve promoted and effected over the years.

What are your thoughts on the IMF’s new report? Let us know in the comments section below.


Image credits: Shutterstock, fair use.


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#Africa Fintech-focused Catalyst Fund secures $12.9m from UK Aid

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The fintech-focused Catalyst Fund has secured GBP10 million (US$12.9 million) in UK aid support to invest in 30 more inclusive fintech startups across Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Mexico and India, and further accelerate the fintech ecosystem in these markets.

The funding for the Catalyst Fund was announced by the Lord Mayor of the City of London Peter Estlin during a visit to Nairobi this week ahead of the first UK-Africa Investment Summit next year.

The Catalyst Fund supports business development and investor opportunities for early-stage fintech companies in emerging markets. With support from the UK Department for International Development (DfID), the Catalyst Fund will help connect a further 30 local fintech companies with international investors and mentors.

“Today’s announcement highlights the mutual benefits of closer financial co-operation to both the UK and Kenya. By forging partnerships across Africa, the UK’s financial services sector can turbocharge national economies and empower individuals financially, creating thousands of jobs and enriching lives across the continent,” Estlin said.

Amolo Ng’weno, chief executive officer (CEO) of BFA Global, which manages the Catalyst Fund, said the firm had seen a significant opportunity for inclusive fintech startups to play a key role in spreading access to financial services. 

“However, in order to succeed, they require early stage capital, partnerships which can enable pathways for scale, and access to a high potential talent pool. Our mission at the Catalyst Fund is to accelerate these startups and strengthen the inclusive fintech ecosystem, and we look forward to working toward this goal with the support of UK Aid,” Ng’weno said.

The Lord Mayor also announced through the City of London Corporation that five startups under the Catalyst Fund will be selected to attend the Innovate Finance Global Summit, taking place during UK Fintech week in 2020, helping to strengthen the links between UK and African fintech sectors.

The post Fintech-focused Catalyst Fund secures $12.9m from UK Aid appeared first on Disrupt Africa.

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#USA Last few hours to apply: TC Top Picks @ Disrupt Berlin 2019

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This is it, startup founders. Today, October 18, is the last day and your final opportunity to be chosen as a TC Top Pick, to score a free Startup Alley Exhibitor Package and to shine a bright spotlight on your company at Disrupt Berlin 2019 on 11-12 December.

You have only a few hours left to beat today’s 12 p.m. (PT) deadline. It’s quick, it’s painless and it’s free. What are you waiting for? Apply to be a TC Top Pick while you still can.

Every early-stage startup needs exposure to survive and thrive. Exposure to potential customers, to accredited media and to investors with the backing to make dreams come true. Our TC Top Picks provides exposure to possibility.

If your startup falls into one of the categories listed below, we want you. TechCrunch editors will vet the applications and choose up to five startups that represent the best of each category: AI/Machine Learning, Biotech/Healthtech, Blockchain, Fintech, Mobility, Privacy/Security, Retail/E-commerce, Robotics/IoT/Hardware, CRM/Enterprise and Education.

If you earn a TC Top Pick designation, you receive a free Startup Alley Exhibitor Package and a VIP experience. Your package includes one full day exhibiting in Startup Alley (the Disrupt expo floor), three Founder passes, press lists and invitations to networking parties, to name just a few perks.

Our Top Picks cohort generates a lot of curiosity, and Disrupt attendees flock to Startup Alley to meet and greet. It’s networking nirvana, where you can connect with potential customers, investors, mentors, collaborators — think infinite opportunity.

And yet another great opportunity awaits. TechCrunch editors interview each Top Pick startup live on the Showcase Stage. While we promote the interview video across our social media platforms, you can use it to drive traffic to your website and as a long-term marketing tool for pitching investors and customers.

And then there’s the Wild Card. TechCrunch editors will pick one early-stage startup exhibiting in the Alley to be the Wild Card, and that startup will compete in Startup Battlefield, our epic pitch competition. It’s a chance to win even more investor and media love along with the $50,000 prize. Last year, Legacy earned the Wild Card slot, and then went on to win the Startup Battlefield competition.

Disrupt Berlin 2019 takes place on 11-12 December. So much opportunity, so little time left to take advantage of it. The TC Top Picks opportunity is free, and the benefits are priceless. Don’t miss your chance — apply to be a TC Top Pick before 12 p.m. (PT) today, 18 October.

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at Disrupt Berlin 2019? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

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#USA Mobile game startup Madbox raises $16.5 million after 100 million downloads

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French startup Madbox is raising a $16.5 million (€15 million) Series A funding round from Alven. The company is developing mobile games and handles everything from start to finish, from game design to publishing and user acquisition.

Madbox is a young player in the mobile game space. The company is the result of the merger of two tiny Paris-based game studios in July 2018. After a couple of months, the startup released its first game, Dash Valley. And the game quickly ended up trending in the top 50 of top free game downloads in the App Store in the U.S.

The company has released a handful of games since then. At some point, Madbox had three games in the top 10 charts in the U.S. (once again, free game downloads) — StickMan Hook, Sausage Flip and Idle Ball Race. Overall, Madbox has generated 100 million game downloads.

“The core method at Madbox is that we internalize everything,” co-founder and CEO Jean-Nicolas Vernin told me. “We try to automate as many thing as possible.”

In addition to reusing assets from one game to another, Madbox also tries to apply the same method when it comes to user acquisition and marketing. “People often tell us that we have a data-driven culture that is disproportionately developed in our company,” Vernin said.

Madbox has a careful approach when it comes to growth. The company hires slowly and doesn’t release dozens of games in a year.

With 30 to 40 employees and a business model mostly based on ads, the company is currently profitable. Madbox now wants to tackle a wider range of mobile games, from hyper casual to idle games and less casual games. The startup is also opening a second office in Barcelona.

“We are a generation of friends who have worked for well-known casual game studios. And we all think that big game productions will have to become simpler so that people can play them like casual games — and vice versa,” Vernin said. And Madbox wants to be there when these two worlds collide.

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#Africa New vehicle launched to fund African off-grid solar enterprises

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A new initiative, VentureBuilder, has launched with a focus on funding and scaling African-owned and managed off-grid solar enterprises.

Launched at the Unlocking Solar Capital Africa conference with support from the DOEN Foundation, Facebook, Shell Foundation and USAID, VentureBuilder provides flexible, long-term early-stage financing as well as enterprise development services to local solar businesses.

With a mandate of expanding energy access to underserved populations in Africa, VentureBuilder is attempting to pioneer a new investment model that provides “patient” capital to solar companies, combined with a specialised suite of technical expertise that will accelerate a company’s growth. each partner’s path to scale. 

“As Africa’s off-grid solar revolution has evolved, many industry insiders have recognized the need to empower a new generation of local enterprises,” said Dan Murphy, managing director of VentureBuilder. “We’re excited to partner with these local businesses and provide them with the human and financial resources they need to sustainably and profitably scale their impact.”

VentureBuilder has been co-developed by Catalyst Off-Grid Advisors and Open Capital Advisors since 2017, leveraging both companies’ experience in building, advising, and financing off-grid solar companies. The development phase was made possible with support from Facebook, which also committed additional financing alongside the DOEN Foundation, Shell Foundation and USAID for the implementation phase. 

“The DOEN Foundation has supported dozens of energy access initiatives over the years. We believe VentureBuilder can be a gamechanger in supporting and scaling indigenous enterprises across Africa, in areas most in need,” said Saskia Werther, programme manager at the DOEN Foundation.

The post New vehicle launched to fund African off-grid solar enterprises appeared first on Disrupt Africa.

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#Africa Global accounting accelerator seeks innovative fintech startups

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The Association of International Certified Professional Accountants and CPA.com have opened applications for their joint startup accelerator programme, which focuses on innovation in accounting, finance and regulatory technology.

Launched in 2017, the accelerator has attracted interest from early-stage companies in 14 countries, with successful applicants able to tap into the expertise of the senior leadership of both the association and CPA.com, as well as an accomplished advisory group with diverse backgrounds in entrepreneurship, accounting and finance. 

They will also gain access to certified public accountants (CPA) firm leaders, chartered global management accountants (CGMAs) in major companies, and other influencers within the profession. In addition, they can qualify for up to US$25,000 in funding.

“We offer deep insight into the rapidly changing dynamics of the accounting profession for participants in the accelerator,” said Lawson Carmichael, chief operating officer of the association. “In turn, we understand that innovation in the profession can come from all sources and we want to embrace and support change and better quality.”

The startup accelerator programme is open to startups worldwide, though applicants need to be at seed or pre-Series A stage, with a working product or service focused on accounting technology or regulatory technology solutions.

Applications for the latest accelerator class close on November 30, with selections to be made by early 2020.

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