The first Zambian startup to get into YC is developing Africa’s first card-issuing API

More than 40 African startups from a handful of countries have gone through YC over the past decade. Zambia joins that list today, and its entrant, Union54, is a worthy first entry.

Union54 (54 is a nod to the number of African countries) is a fintech company founded by Perseus Mlambo and Alessandra Martini. The startup claims to be Africa’s first card-issuing API and only just launched this year. But to paint the picture, Union54 didn’t come out of thin air; it is a project from the couple’s earlier startup Zazu.

Zazu was launched in 2015 as a challenger bank in Zambia. As with any fintech on the continent, Zazu had to create its own debit cards that users could connect to a wallet. Most times, Zazu would have to wait months for partner banks in the country to issue these cards. Mlambo tells me that at one point they had to wait for 18 months.

All this while the founders began to work with banks around the region to start issuing cards themselves. But the banks were lethargic in their approaches. “We just realized that either the processor or the bank was not necessarily well equipped to be able to answer our questions or to be able to give us the product that we’re looking for,” Mlambo said to TechCrunch in an interview.

The startup decided to go for the bullseye and meet with Mastercard. I mean, why wait for banks when you can bag those who issue these cards in the first place, right? Ultimately, the company got a Mastercard Principle membership, the first fintech from Africa, it claims.

As a principal member, Zazu became authorized to act as an “issuing bank.” In other words, they can provide debit cards and as “acquirers,” which means they can provide transaction processing services.

Along the way, the founders realized that to really advance African fintech, it was imperative to make it easier for any African country’s fintech to issue virtual or physical debit cards. So the team spun out Union54 from Zazu. The platform now has several APIs that make it simple for any fintech to issue programmable debit cards.

“We’ve now used our membership to be able to help other companies, any African fintech who wants to issue their own cards. They can just come to us, plug into our APIs, and move quickly, without needing to spend a long time negotiating,” Mlambo said about providing the service for other African fintechs.

The CEO adds that the company targets fintechs that don’t want to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in setup fees to get virtual or physical cards. Union54 claims to issue cards in weeks via an API that does BIN sponsorship, program management and settlement, among other features.

Being able to do this gives Union54 bragging rights as Africa’s first card-issuing API. Fintechs have rarely looked at this opportunity; most are focused on other segments from payment gateways to wallets. It’s an interesting point to note because somehow, all the big players in these segments end up trying to create virtual and physical cards for their customers and face complications doing so. That’s the void Union54 wants to fill, and although it’s currently in beta, the company boasts of an impressive unnamed clientele signed up on its wait list and currently using the platform.

“The fascinating thing about these companies is that they are not B or C players. They are in the top 5% of African fintech. And for me, I always tell people, we’re now in the golden generation of African fintech. So it’s really the perfect time for a card-issuing product to be able to work with all of these guys considered leaders in their space. It means we really do have something that people want to use every day,” the CEO added.

On the company’s site, there are eight use cases for its API: ledger-based, acquirers/gateways, buy now, pay later, credit union, delivery companies, digital banking, credit card management and corporate cards.

Fintechs using Union54 are also allowed to design the cards and set the currency in which they want the cards to be charged, and set an extensive catalog of who will use them, what they will be used for, when they will be used and how they will be used.

Union54 charges fintechs on a pay-as-you-go basis for every API call. If a fintech company wants to create a physical card, they are charged a flat fee between $7-9 and an undisclosed flat fee when a transaction is made.

Mlambo says getting into the summer batch of YC 2021 has allowed the company to sign up its first set of customers, as most of them have come from YC’s network. He calls YC a program that has been “worth it from day one.”

“I am really excited and proud that Union54 has become the first Zambian fintech to get accepted into Y Combinator. And the second in Southern Africa. As you will know, when global investors look at Africa, they often do so from a West African perspective and our getting into Y Combinator validates a small part of our broader hypothesis: it is possible to service Africa from friendly jurisdictions such as Zambia.”