This idea of digital transformation is by no means new, and we see it as a process with countries at various stages along that journey. Out in front you have China, which has progressed from a copycat economy to a global leader and innovator. Next you can find India, followed by Indonesia and several LATAM countries. At the beginning of the process are the countries on which we focus, such as Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, as well as Pakistan, Egypt, and Bangladesh. The commonality between these countries is that they have reached an inflection point of smartphone and internet penetration which creates the foundation on which digital businesses can be built. To continue the analogy, venture capital is the cement necessary to build the market leading technology companies of the next 10-20 years, and this is where we come in.
Also common to all these markets is structurally high unemployment, especially among the youth, and low financial inclusion, which are our two impact areas of focus. In our target countries, it is typical for youth unemployment to average 2-3 times the general unemployment level. This is exacerbated by the median age being in the range of 20-25. Creating jobs for this many young people is one of the great challenges and opportunities for these countries, and we are proud that across our portfolio companies, 50% of employees are under the age of 30. In addition, women are underrepresented in the technology industry globally, and this is even more the case in markets such as Uzbekistan, where female workforce participation is less than 50%. We are proud that 31% of our portfolio company employees are women. This is a number we intend to increase over the lives of our investments by engaging with portfolio companies.
The second theme to our impact mission is an area we have invested heavily in during 2021. Financial penetration in each of these markets is very low, whether measured by the number of bank accounts or the percentage of the population that has borrowed from a financial institution. The reasons for this are manifold, including the size of the shadow economy, the lack of data on individuals and businesses, and the weak or non-existent digital payment infrastructure. We believe these are all solvable at scale by embedding finance in technology solutions.
A substantial number of our portfolio companies, such as Billz and Finmap, are providing B2B SaaS solutions to the SMEs that form the backbone of these frontier markets, in so doing helping to formalise the way they run their businesses and gathering real-time, in-depth data which can be used to provide financial services. Our largest portfolio company, Zoodpay, provides access to credit for the unbanked mass market across Central Asia and the Middle East. Two of our recent investments, Payze and Datacultr, are building the payments rails and collections operating system to enable the digital economy and access to credit. Together our portfolio companies handled over $210m of turnover for more than 22,000 businesses in 2021.
Away from our fund work, we welcomed our second intake of scholars in Uzbekistan. As part of our commitment to the 2X Challenge and empowering women in our target markets, we publicised this year’s scholarship for women only. Having received only one female application out of more than 20 last year, this time, we received more than 20 from women alone. It was clear that unless we emphasised that the scholarship was for women, in Uzbekistan they would assume it was only for men and not apply. Going forward, we will double down on our efforts to encourage more women into the IT and finance workforce as we expand our scholarship program into other countries.
Presentation of scholarship at Westminster International University Tashkent
Presentation of scholarship at INHA University Tashkent
Looking forward to 2022, as our portfolio companies grow and mature, we will continue to put impact at the heart of our engagement with management as well as our investment process. Employment and financial inclusion are key pillars for the sustainable development of the countries we invest in, and we believe our funds and portfolio companies can be a driving force for their development.
Our impact mission
The central premise of Sturgeon’s impact framework is that investing in innovative, technology-enabled companies that create private-sector jobs can generate long-term, sustainable social impact and superior financial returns for investors. This framework delivers meaningful social impact by providing capital to empower private entrepreneurs to grow their businesses, in turn creating employment opportunities which we believe are the most effective driver of social change in these markets.
‘Providing capital’ in this sense means two things. One aspect is the provision of true private capital in markets where there is limited capital available for early-stage technology companies. It also encapsulates the ability of technology companies to bridge the gap between archaic financial institutions and the businesses and individuals with limited or no access to financial services. Through innovative distribution, alternative data, and embedded relationships, these start-ups can be the drivers of financial inclusion across the markets that we invest.
The impact objective for our first fund is to support 500,000 jobs, encourage technological innovation and drive financial inclusion through the portfolio companies that are solving the key problems affecting businesses and consumers in their day-to-day lives. We have relied on the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals to shape our impact target; specifically, Goal 8 to “promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all”.
We foster technology adoption and innovation across our portfolio, bringing in international expertise to train local employees and insisting upon the highest corporate governance standards. The efficient and profitable companies our approach nurtures are more resilient during periods of economic volatility, something that is crucial to the long-term success of frontier market businesses.
Fund II – Headline impact data 2021
Arzon Apteka provides software for the pharmaceutical value chain, connecting distributors, pharmacies, and consumers through one platform. The solution enables each player to operate more efficiently, reducing costs and wastage. The B2C application gives consumers visibility and access to the medicines they need at the best price, while driving demand for the pharmacies.
In 2021, Arzon Apteka consolidated its position as the leading software provider for the pharmaceutical sector in Uzbekistan. Both its B2B and B2C applications have increased pricing transparency in the market. With more than 50% market share of pharmacies and more than 1m active B2C customers, Arzon Apteka will continue to drive efficiency and access in Uzbekistan. The company is also expanding to UAE and other markets where similar solutions do not exist.
Billz provides software to automate the offline and online stores of their client retailers. In Uzbekistan, where the majority of stores still rely on paper or excel to manage their processes, Billz is often the first piece of software that enables them to have full visibility of their business, operate more efficiently, and grow profitably.
In 2021, Billz grew its client base to 400 merchants with nearly 800 stores in Uzbekistan. Its software handled $111m worth of transactions, a rich data set for which there is the opportunity to build financial services in partnership with banks and FinTechs. In 2022, Billz is expanding into Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan with a new product that will allow it to support a larger number of merchants from multiple verticals.
Datacultr is building the operating system for collections management in frontier and emerging markets. By collateralising a borrower’s smartphone, Datacultr enables lenders to lend to higher risk borrowers, and then educates them throughout the loan duration to build financial literacy and reduce delinquency. In markets where it is easy to distribute capital but difficult to collect, Datacultr is a global solution to ensure sustainable growth in financial inclusion.
To date, the Datacultr platform has secured over 600,000 loans, amounting to over $76m, across 9 different countries. In 2022 the company will continue to scale its device financing product, while also launching its new product to support a wider range of loans including BNPL and consumer lending.
Finmap is a simple and convenient cash flow management service for SMEs, with accessible functionality and a user-friendly interface that gives business owners visibility over their financial position and cash balances. This visibility can not only enable these companies to run and manage their business more efficiently, but can also be used as the basis for providing financial services in the future.
Today, Finmap integrates with more than 2,000 banks, financial providers, and accounting solutions to automatically capture the financial data of its 1,500 clients. This year it will focus on scaling in the CIS region, as well as entering the Polish and Czech markets with the support of Presto Ventures, the lead investor in its latest round.
Finmedia is a digital partner for mobile operators in Uzbekistan and Central Asia, enabling them with new technologies and solutions to grow their customer base and increase revenues. The airtime advance solution is a unique source of credit data on under and unbanked individuals.
In 2021, Finmedia’s airtime advance service distributed 3m nano loans, amounting to over $12m in disbursed credit. The data from these nano loans can be used to build the credit profile of new to credit individuals, providing access to more complex financial products. In 2022, Finmedia is introducing new products, including SMS aggregation, as well as acting as Datacultr’s distributor in Central Asia and Russia.
Orient Swiss is a consumer super app operating in 7 markets in CIS and MENA, offering consumer lending, marketplace, and e-logistics. The company has solved the key challenges of payments and logistics in these markets to build out the leading marketplace, Zoodmall, on top of which it has developed consumer lending options through Zoodpay.
In 2021, Orient Swiss rapidly scaled its Buy Now, Pay Later (BNPL) and consumer lending product, Zoodpay. Operating in markets where there is limited or no data on consumers, Zoodpay has built proprietary scoring models to provide access to credit for the unbanked at the bottom of the pyramid. Zoodmall is the largest ecommerce marketplace in these countries, and enables more than 2,200 sellers to grow their business online, with inbuilt financing options through Zoodpay.
Payze is building digital payments infrastructure for the CIS region, enabling businesses to sell online both domestically and cross border. Implementing the Stripe model, Payze is the rails on which ecommerce can grow. These rails are vital for ecommerce and financial penetration in CIS countries and can have a significant impact on financial inclusion for both businesses and individuals.
Launched in Georgia, Payze already supports more than 400 merchants with a seamless payments experience, handling over $40m in GTV in 2021. As they go live this year in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Ukraine, they will cover the largest CIS markets and enable local and regional players to scale their online businesses.
Peopleforce is an HR management solution for SMEs in the CIS region. Its modular solution digitalises the entire HR process for companies, from recruitment to leave management and employee feedback. With local language support and integrations, Peopleforce provides an international quality solution in markets where most businesses still rely on paper or Excel to manage HR.
In 2021, Peopleforce enabled 350 clients to manage 38,000 employees as it rapidly scaled across the region. With capital in the bank, Peopleforce will continue to grow in its existing markets as well as expanding into Poland and the Philippines. As the customer and employee base grows, there will be opportunities to explore financial services such as earned wage access and payroll financing.
Smart Satu is a B2B marketplace connecting distributors with small retailers through one platform that enables them to place and manage their orders. Through partnerships with Visa and local financial institutions, Smart Satu is reducing the use of cash on delivery by providing a digital payment solution instead.
The platform connects nearly 13,000 merchants with distributors and manufacturers, enabling more than $25m worth of transactions in 2021. The company is expanding into new markets, providing its platform as a white label solution for distributors to digitalise their relationship with merchants and enable digital payments.
Zip24 provides both delivery management (Shipox) and warehouse management (Storfox) software to power both online and offline delivery companies. The solutions provide visibility over the last mile delivery process, driving greater efficiency for its clients and helping to reduce the environmental impact of logistics.
In 2021, Zip24 supported more than 80 customers to deliver more than 4m orders across the CIS and MENA regions. The company won the contract to digitalise the Uzbek national post company, a significant achievement and vindication of the quality and scalability of their product. With an experienced new CEO on board, in 2022, Zip24 will keep growing across the CIS and MENA markets.
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