Tiger Global is earning its stripes in Africa

The New York hedge fund has invested in nine startups across ten deals since marking its return in 2021

You can count on one hand the number of funds bigger than Tiger Global. But in terms of influence, speed and number of investments made since 2021, Tiger has led the pack alongside Sequoia.

Last year, the New York-based firm, known for its famous bets on Stripe, JD.com, Meituan and Roblox, raised $6.7 billion for its Private Investment Partners 14 fund. From that fund, Tiger Global made more private investments than any other firm last year — about 340 as of late December — roughly one investment per day, according to CB Insights.

Of this lot, five were African startups: payments unicorn Flutterwave, credit-led neobank FairMoney, open finance startup Mono, card-issuing API Union54 and SMB credit provider Float; Float’s round was announced in January but closed in late 2021.

Its lead investment in Flutterwave, which valued the fintech at $1 billion in March 2021, was a return from a long hiatus in investing in Africa.

In the aughts, Tiger Global participated in just 30 deals, according to The Generalist, a newsletter on topics around tech and crypto.

But in the next decade, Tiger Global increased its pace and deployed checks across 450 deals globally. However, Tiger Global limited its activity in Africa from 2009 to 2014. Its portfolio startups from this period include Nigerian companies — Jobberman, a job listing site; Wakanow, a travel booking platform; car marketplace Cheki; IROKOtv, a video-on-demand platform for Nollywood content — and South African e-commerce platform Takealot.

Tiger Global’s earliest portfolio investments on the continent were in consumer internet companies. “Back then, a lot of people were not on the internet, so it was really about consumer services to get people on the internet,” said Opeyemi Awoyemi, whose company, Jobberman, received $1 million from Tiger Global.

This crop of consumer internet startups targeted industries across media and services such as jobs, commerce and travel. And the bets from Tiger Global — and other investors such as Goldman Sachs, which backed Jumia in 2014, and Kinnevik AB, a Swedish firm that invested in IROKO and Konga — was that they would become big winners in the next 10 years.

But if the African tech scene has taught onlookers and participants anything, running consumer internet businesses in Africa is a bit of a nightmare — and a constant juggling act.

The likes of Jobberman and Takealot would’ve thought of themselves as winners following acquisitions by Ringier One Africa Media (ROAM) and Naspers, respectively. But it might not have felt the same to Tiger Global. The firm would’ve probably wanted its portfolio companies to dominate their respective markets over the next decade before becoming billion-dollar investments, like their contemporaries in China and India.

Wakanow underwent financial struggles and was in a midlife crisis before new leadership came to turn the tides. Cheki sold its businesses in Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya and Uganda to Autochek after slowing sales.

IROKO has had its fair share of success; however, halting its African business in 2020 to focus on its diasporan market showed worrying signs. The media company has also been on an ongoing quest to list on the London Stock Exchange at a $100 million valuation since 2019, after raising almost $40 million from investors.

While everyone might point fingers at Africa’s harsh market, Tiger Global was partly to blame because the firm didn’t make extensive follow-on checks in any of its portfolio companies after leading Takealot’s $100 million Series C in 2014, despite doing so in other markets.

It’s unclear why Tiger Global, which also led an $8 million Series D in IROKO the previous year, refrained from investing in new and existing African companies since then. Maybe it thought doing so would be unprofitable in the long run, judging by its five-year stint on the continent? Or it didn’t believe these companies could make Flipkart- and JD.com-esque returns based on their performances and attractiveness to investors.

Fintech brings the Tiger back

Naspers’ acquisition of Takealot for a little over $200 million across two transactions in 2017 guaranteed almost a 2x return for Tiger Global. But the deal, coupled with an increase in VC investments across Africa in subsequent years, wasn’t enough for the hedge fund to revisit the region. Until Flutterwave.

There was some build-up to this moment. A restructuring occurred in 2019 after Lee Fixel, a partner who led Tiger Global’s bull run in India, left the firm. According to The Generalist, “Fixel’s departure in 2019 seems to have coincided with a shift in approach. Rather than striking covertly and selectively, Tiger began papering a vast swath of the market.”

Tiger Global also had a solid 2020. Many of its portfolio companies, such as Stripe and Roblox, received sky-high valuations. Some went public, like Snowflake and Root Insurance, and others, such as Postmates and Credit Karma, got acquired.

These events gave the New York-headquartered firm a boost to raise its second-largest fund, at $6.7 billion, going into 2021, and it started the year with a bang, leading many mega-rounds, especially in fintechs.

Investor interest in fintech reached its peak in 2021. Of the over 430 fintech unicorns globally, 40% were created last year. Flutterwave, being at the forefront of fintech innovation in Africa, was the perfect opportunity Tiger Global — a major fintech investor in emerging markets which has backed Nubank, Cred and Groww — needed to announce its return and, in the process, mint its first unicorn on the continent.

Since then, every lead investment has been in fintechs: FairMoney, Mono, Union54, Float and Robinhood-esque platforms Bamboo and Thndr.

“Fintech in Africa and globally has experienced a phenomenal wave of growth in the last couple of years, so [it] makes sense [for Tiger] to focus more on it,” said Awoyemi on why Tiger Global’s new checks have gone solely into fintechs so far.

It’s not illogical for Tiger Global to choose this route. Unlike its earlier stint in Africa, where consumer startups, especially e-commerce players, were heavy favorites in receiving VC money, fintechs now command the lion’s share of investments. The firm also seems to be playing it safe, relying on local investors to de-risk investments before going in, as most of its fintech investments are from Series A and up.

“They learned their lessons and now have a different strategy. IROKO and others were a tiny play. Now, Tiger is not in it to grow Africa or anything; they are in it to be a better fund than other funds. They see a signal and follow it,” said Victor Asemota, a well-known tech figure and investor in Africa.

“VCs were already over-invested in fintech and had de-risked most things there. One good African fintech IPO will return their investment. That is why they saw an opportunity in the likes of Flutterwave, and they came in at the best time.”

However, leading seed deals in Float and Union54 and participating in Jambo’s, a Congo-based crypto startup, shows Tiger Global is willing to go lower and pick winners early.

The firm recently raised $11 billion for its latest venture capital fund, Private Investment Partners 15. Suppose Tiger Global’s newfound interest in Africa is sustained and it continues investing at a fast pace like 2021, we should expect the fund to make more early- and growth-stage investments across fintech and other sectors following a market selloff affecting later-stage and public companies globally.

“If VCs de-risk other areas, Tiger will double down, too. They are the nightmare of VCs,” said Asemota.

Awoyemi shares a similar sentiment. In addition, he sees Tiger Global backing startups with fintech plays in adjacent industries.

Its latest investment in Wasoko (formerly Sokowatch) is one such example as B2B retail e-commerce players embed financial services such as credit in the offerings they provide to merchants. The sector is also subject to major investor interest, second only to fintech right now.

“Looking at Tiger’s Africa fintech portfolio, it’s clear they are focusing on resilient and infrastructural models as much as possible,” said Awoyemi, who is now the co-founder of Moneymie, a digital bank for immigrants.

“I predict Tiger will be backing other models soon as Africa approaches its India moment where an increase in smartphone adoption meets lowering costs in accessing the internet. This will cause an explosion of consumer models with or without fintech flavors and it will start to make sense for Tiger to get into that game.”

Some sources have told TechCrunch that the firm is in advanced stages to back new startups within and outside the fintech sector. Tiger Global is also doubling down on a few of its fintech investments — leading some and participating in others just as it did in Flutterwave’s recent $3 billion round.

Meanwhile, Tiger Global’s fast decision-making has largely remained intact despite changing strategy for its second stint on the continent. Awoyemi noted how the firm, in 2009, committed to investing in Jobberman on the spot, with cash coming in a month later. Jesse Ghansah, CEO of Float, also said the firm had a clear conviction when both parties met, with the deal closing within a week.

“Tiger chooses winners; they already do their due diligence before they talk to you,” said Awoyemi. “The chat with you is just to check what they already know about you.”