The fintech boom has been one of the most remarkable stories in modern commerce, heralding a new era for entrepreneurs across the globe in the way that consumers connect to their businesses. No longer constrained to traditional banking, fintech has empowered communities that were previously left out of the digital economy.
Tens of millions of unbanked and underbanked people have gained access to mobile accounts and banking, giving regions that historically have lacked access to financial services new opportunities for growth and innovation. A wave of fresh startups have risen out of this revolution in technology, offering products and services that have the ability to innovate entire industries.
In Central and Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa (CEMEA), the growth in fintech startups has been especially promising. The region has seen record-setting years for funding and a huge push towards making finance more accessible: Between 2020 and 2021 alone, the number of tech startups in Africa tripled to an estimated 5,200 companies; meanwhile, fintechs in the Middle East last year obtained $503 million in funding across 41 deals.
As part of an effort to foster this growth and financial inclusion, the Visa Everywhere Initiative has drawn thousands of startups together to give them a global stage for pitching their solutions and plugging them into the vast network of Visa’s partners. Entering its eighth year, the competition has given rise to numerous success stories across the CEMEA region with exciting opportunities for more to come.
“The sheer breadth, depth and diversity across this region is really exciting,” said Alex McCrea, Vice President, Head of CEMEA Fintech Partnerships at Visa. “There’s just a tremendous amount of opportunity to do good and to do more.”
Prizes, partners and a global platform
Originally launched in 2015, the Visa Everywhere Initiative has seen nearly 12,000 startups from over 100 countries apply to the program. Collectively, they have raised more than $16 billion in funding, helping to address one of the biggest hurdles faced by up-and-coming entrepreneurs looking for access to capital.
The competition gives early-stage fintech startups the chance to pitch their ideas to a panel of expert judges, giving them huge exposure to an influential tech audience. This year, global finalists are selected from different regions and will compete at TechCrunch Disrupt in San Francisco for monetary prizes that include $50,000 for the overall winner, $10,000 for the audience favorite and $10,000 for the Visa Direct winner. The CEMEA region also awards a range of local and regional prizes prior to the finals.
But even for those startups who don’t make it to the final rounds, the competition carries big benefits and opportunities. Entrants can find connections and exposure to a range of Visa’s traditional clients who are looking for the next big fintech startup.
“It’s not just the finalists that will get in a partnership with Visa,” McCrea said. “We partner with as many startups as we possibly can. They get connected to our network and get exposure to Visa’s financial institution clients, as well as merchants, acquirers and fintechs.”
Building financial inclusivity for Nigerian farmers
What do Visa Everywhere success stories look like in the CEMEA region? Take Nigeria-based startup ThriveAgric, a 2022 regional and global winner, which focuses on digitizing the entire value chain for small farmers. It has disbursed financing worth more than $100 million to over 514,000 farmers in the past five years alone.
Agriculture is a key force in Nigeria, with more than 70% of the population engaging in the sector. ThriveAgric helps with everything from mapping farmer’s lands and onboarding to recording valuable harvest data and managing inventory. It took an incredibly important contributor for Nigeria’s overall economy, and discovered ways that it could increase outputs and leverage technology to work towards ensuring financial inclusion and food security.
“ThriveAgric technology is the next generation,” McCrea said. “It’s truly transformational. It is just an incredible business model and incredible opportunity. We know that the agricultural sector in Nigeria is a massive contributor to the overall economy. Agriculture is a crucial means of employment, food security and poverty reduction in the country.”
Out of more than 4,000 applicants—including 1,130 from CEMEA—ThriveAgric took home the grand prize last year. Their entry stood out not only for the technology involved, McCrea said, but for aligning with Visa’s core ambition to expand the digital economy to be accessible for everyone. Since then, Visa has partnered with ThriveAgric to help with strategy, solutions, road mapping and sharpening their go-to-market plans to achieve their goals.
A lesson from a Visa Everywhere winner
ThriveAgric provides a clear example of how startups can make it to the finals at Visa Everywhere and launch successfully. Not only did it come with a great product and technology behind it, but also a clear vision for how it could help expand to underserved communities and provide incredible opportunity.
“As a central part of the Nigerian economy, agriculture is the livelihood and main source of income for many of our people,” co-founder Ayo Arikawe said last year after the win. “The hard work we’ve put into ThriveAgric will ensure that technology is leveraged to empower farmers across the country.”
Out of a strong field of startups, including many from the CEMEA region, ThriveAgric stood out not only for its business model and leadership team but also for the ways that it could utilize Visa’s existing capabilities.
“We see a lot of potential in what they’re doing and the problem that they’re solving for,” McCrea said. “We see a strong correlation with Visa products and services, including Visa Direct, which is a tool that they can use to disburse money and send payments.”
As Visa Everywhere competitors advance towards the CEMEA finals on July 27, there is a broad field of rapidly innovating areas for startups to showcase what they have to offer. Artificial intelligence advancements, open baking and digital identity solutions all have the ability to move fintech forward in CEMEA and beyond.
Tune into the CEMEA finale which will be live streamed here on TechCrunch on July 27th at 2:00 PM GST, 10:00 AM GMT and 6:00am ET.