Visa’s Africa strategy banks on startup partnerships

Visa has prioritized growth in Africa, and partnering with startups is central to its strategy.

This became obvious in 2019 after the global financial services giant entered a series of collaborations on the continent, but Visa confirmed it in their 2020 Investor Day presentation.

On the company’s annual call, participants mentioned Africa 28 times and featured regional startups prominently in the accompanying deck. Visa’s regional president for Central and Eastern Europe, Middle East and Africa (CEMEA), Andrew Torre, detailed the region’s payments potential and his company’s plans to tap it. “We’re partnering with non-conventional players to realize this potential — fintechs, neobanks and digital wallets — to reach the one billion consumer opportunity,” he said.

Africa strategy and team

TechCrunch has covered a number of Visa’s Africa collaborations and spoke to two execs driving the company’s engagement with startups from Nigeria to South Africa.

Visa’s head of Strategic Partnerships, Fintech and Ventures for Africa, Otto Williams, has been out front, traveling the continent and engaging fintech founders.

Located in Cape Town, Visa’s group general manager for Sub-Saharan Africa, Aida Diarra, oversees the company’s operations in 48 countries. Visa has a long track record working with the region’s large banking entities, but that’s shifted to smaller ventures.

visa africa

Image Credits: Visa

Modsy confirms layoffs, 10 months after announcing its $37M Series C

Modsy, an e-commerce company that creates 3D renderings of customized rooms, has confirmed to TechCrunch that it laid off a number of staff. In addition, several of its executives, including CEO Shanna Tellerman, will take a 25% pay cut. TechCrunch first heard about the layoffs from a source. The company’s confirmation of cuts comes amid a wave of layoffs in the technology and startup communities

In a statement from the CEO Shanna Tellerman to TechCrunch, Modsy said that “[i]n an effort to maintain a sustainable business during these unprecedented circumstances, we made a round of necessary layoffs and ended a number of designer contracts this week.” The company reaffirmed belief in its “long-term growth plans” in the same statement.

Modsy did not immediately respond when asked about how many individuals were impacted by this layoff. Update: The company declined to share the number of employees impacted.

The startup is backed by investors including TCV, Comcast Ventures, Norwest Venture Partners, GV, BBG Ventures, according to Crunchbase data. It has raised $70.8 million in known capital to date. 

Modsy bets on individuals looking to glam up their homes by better visualizing the new furniture they want to buy. Users can enter the measurements of their living room and add budget and style preferences, and Modsy will help them with custom designs and finding furniture that fits — literally.

The layoffs show that customer appetite might be changing. Last week, home improvement platform Houzz confirmed that it has scratched plans to create in-house furniture for sale. It also laid off 10 people across three locations: the U.K., Germany and China. Houzz is comparatively larger than Modsy, with a roughly $4 billion valuation. But scratching its in-house plan that would have likely brought in more capital is yet another data point in how e-commerce companies are struggling right now to get consumers to spend on items other than beans, booze and bread starters.

In retrospect there were rumblings that the company was cutting staff. A number of recent reviews from its Glassdoor page note layoffs, with one review from March 25, 2020 calling them “mass” in nature; our original source on the company’s recent cuts also noted their breadth.

You can find other social media posts concerning the company’s layoffs, some noting more than one wave. TechCrunch has not confirmed if the recent layoffs are the first of two, or merely the first set of cuts. 

A little over 10 months ago the company was in a very different mood. Back in May of 2019, flush with new capital, Modsy’s CEO said that the “home design space, the inspiration category is thriving.” 

Pinterest just IPO’d, and it seems as if every TV channel is entering the home design category,” she said. “Meanwhile, e-commerce sites have barely changed since the introduction of the Internet.”

Africa Roundup: Africa’s tech ecosystem responds to COVID-19

In March, the virus gripping the world — COVID-19 — started to spread in Africa. In short order, actors across the continent’s tech ecosystem began to step up to stem the spread.

Early in March Africa’s coronavirus cases by country were in the single digits, but by mid-month those numbers had spiked leading the World Health Organization to sound an alarm.

“About 10 days ago we had 5 countries affected, now we’ve got 30,” WHO Regional Director Dr Matshidiso Moeti said at a press conference on March 19. “It’s has been an extremely rapid…evolution.” 

By the World Health Organization’s stats Tuesday there were 3671 COVID-19 cases in Sub-Saharan Africa and 87 confirmed deaths related to the virus — up from 463 cases and 8 deaths on March 18.

As the COVID-19 began to grow in major economies, governments and startups in Africa started measures to shift a greater volume of transactions toward digital payments and away from cash — which the World Health Organization flagged as a conduit for the spread of the coronavirus.

Africa’s leader in digital payment adoption — Kenya — turned to mobile-money as a public-health tool.

At the urging of the Central Bank and President Uhuru Kenyatta, the country’s largest telecom, Safaricom, implemented a fee-waiver on East Africa’s leading mobile-money product, M-Pesa, to reduce the physical exchange of currency.

The company announced that all person-to-person (P2P) transactions under 1,000 Kenyan Schillings (≈ $10) would be free for three months.

Kenya has one of the highest rates of digital finance adoption in the world — largely due to the dominance of M-Pesa  in the country — with 32 million of its 53 million population subscribed to mobile-money accounts, according to Kenya’s Communications Authority.

On March 20, Ghana’s central bank directed mobile money providers to waive fees on transactions of GH₵100 (≈ $18), with restrictions on transactions to withdraw cash from mobile-wallets.

Ghana’s monetary body also eased KYC requirements on mobile-money, allowing citizens to use existing mobile phone registrations to open accounts with the major digital payment providers, according to a March 18 Bank of Ghana release.

Growth in COVID-19 cases in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation of 200 million, prompted one of the country’s largest digital payments startups to act.

Lagos based venture Paga made fee adjustments, allowing merchants to accept payments from Paga customers for free — a measure “aimed to help slow the spread of the coronavirus by reducing cash handling in Nigeria,” according to a company release.

In March, Africa’s largest innovation incubator, CcHub, announced funding and engineering support to tech projects aimed at curbing COVID-19 and its social and economic impact.

The Lagos and Nairobi based organization posted an open application on its website to provide $5,000 to $100,000 funding blocks to companies with COVID-19 related projects.

CcHub’s CEO Bosun Tijani expressed concern for Africa’s ability to combat a coronavirus outbreak. “Quite a number of African countries, if they get to the level of Italy or the UK, I don’t think the system… is resilient enough to provide support to something like that,” Tijani said.

Cape Town based crowdsolving startup Zindi — that uses AI and machine learning to tackle complex problems — opened a challenge to the 12,000 registered engineers on its platform.

The competition, sponsored by AI4D, tasks scientists to create models that can use data to predict the global spread of COVID-19 over the next three months. The challenge is open until April 19, solutions will be evaluated against future numbers and the winner will receive $5,000.

Zindi will also sponsor a hackathon in April to find solutions to coronavirus related problems.

Image Credits: Sam Masikini via Zindi

On the digital retail front, Pan-African e-commerce company Jumia announced measures it would take on its network to curb the spread of COVID-19.

The Nigeria headquartered operation — with online goods and services verticals in 11 African countries — said it would donate certified face masks to health ministries in Kenya, Ivory Coast, Morocco, Nigeria and Uganda, drawing on its supply networks outside Africa.

The company has also offered African governments use of of its last-mile delivery network for distribution of supplies to healthcare facilities and workers.

Jumia is reviewing additional assets it can offer the public sector. “If governments find it helpful we’re willing to do it,” CEO Sacha Poignonnec told TechCrunch.

More Africa-related stories @TechCrunch

African tech around the ‘net

Rebecca Minkoff has some advice for e-commerce companies right now

When Rebecca Minkoff first moved to New York City, the then-18-year-old was making $4.75 an hour.

“I just kept working for this designer and someone was telling me what to do every day. I just didn’t like that. And I thought if I’m going to work as hard, it’s going to be for myself and I want to call my own shots,” she said. “I didn’t want to be told what to do, frankly.”

Self-employment for Minkoff turned out just fine; in 2001, she redesigned the iconic “I Love New York” shirt and it appeared on The Tonight Show. After a shout-out from Jay Leno, Minkoff spent the next eight months making T-shirts on the floor of her apartment and quit her job to start designing full time.

We caught up with Minkoff to learn more about how she grew her brand into a global fashion company with the help of her brother, her problem with the unicorn mentality and why she thinks the “invisible barrier” is the future of retail tech.

This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.

TechCrunch: What gave you the energy and drive to become an entrepreneur?

Rebecca Minkoff: Long story. My mom would sell these cast covers, like decorative covers for people with broken arms at the flea market. And I was like, I am going to have a booth here. So I made all these tie-dye shirts and no one bought anything but it was just this idea of like, I can make something I can sell. My mom always taught that. When I wanted a dress, she taught me how to sew a dress instead of buying the dress. And so, I just got this bug for creating things out of nothing.

The constant thread was, “I’m not going to pay for this. You’re going to learn how to do it.”

Target pauses plans for grocery pickup amid COVID-19 outbreak

Target is pausing its plans to offer curbside pick-up of groceries and alcoholic beverages, citing the COVID-19 outbreak as the key factor in its decision to delay the launch. Although groceries via Order Pickup and Drive Up would be valuable services at a time when people are being asked to distance themselves from others to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, Target says it won’t have time to train employees on these new processes right now.

Like many retailers and grocers, Target is impacted by the COVID-19 outbreak, which is significantly changing the way people shop. People are more likely to buy in bulk to minimize trips to the store. And many are panic-buying critical supplies, like toilet paper. Target says it’s seen a sustained surge in both traffic and sales, particularly in food and beverage and other household essentials, like cleaning supplies and baby products. Other categories, including apparel and accessories, have slowed.

The launch of any new system or process takes time to adjust to, even when there’s ample time to train. But Target staff today is working at increased levels — its March sales are 20% higher than March of last year, as a  point of comparison.

Like everywhere, Target also faces staffing concerns as people scramble to figure out childcare when schools are closed. It will have to reassess employee schedules on the fly, as staff leaves unexpectedly when they or a family member gets sick. There have also been a small number of cases where Target employees themselves have tested positive for the virus. And as the outbreak spreads, more will likely be exposed, given their continual contact with the public.

To address these concerns, Target is cleaning its stores regularly, promoting social distancing, wiping down carts, adding signage to guide guests, cleaning checklanes after each transaction, and more. It’s also stopping in-store returns for three weeks, but will honor later returns when the ban is lifted, as a result. And it’s pausing its small-format store openings and remodels planned for this year — shifting those to 2021, given the chaos around its business today.

To assist employees, Target announced that it’s investing more than $300 million in added wages, a new paid leave program, bonus payouts and relief fund contributions.

Though Target won’t roll out curbside fresh grocery pickup now, it continues to operate the grocery delivery business Shipt. This and other grocery delivery services are booming due to the outbreak. Instacart this week said it was hiring 300,000 more full-service shoppers due to coronavirus. Walmart, CVS, Amazon, and other U.S. employers are hiring more than 800,000 new workers due to the COVID-19 impacts.

Zindi taps 12,000 African data scientists for solutions to COVID-19

Since its inception, Cape Town based crowdsolving startup Zindi has been building a database of data scientists across Africa.

It now has 12,000 registered on its its platform that uses AI and machine learning to tackle complex problems and will offer them cash-prizes to find solutions to curb COVID-19.

Zindi has an open challenge focused on stemming the spread and havoc of coronavirus and will introduce a hackathon in April. The current competition, sponsored by AI4D, tasks scientists to create models that can use data to predict the global spread of COVID-19 over the next three months.

The challenge is open until April 19, solutions will be evaluated against future numbers and the winner will receive $5000.

The competition fits with Zindi’s business model of building a platform that can aggregate pressing private or public-sector challenges and match the solution seekers to problem solvers.

Founded in 2018, the early-stage venture allows companies, NGOs or government institutions to host online competitions around data oriented issues.

Zindi’s model has gained the attention of some notable corporate names in and outside of Africa. Those who have hosted competitions include Microsoft, IBM and Liquid Telecom. Public sector actors — such as the government of South Africa and UNICEF — have also tapped Zindi for challenges as varied as traffic safety and disruptions in agriculture.

Zindi Team in Cape Town 1

Image Credits: Zindi

The startup’s CEO didn’t imagine a COVID-19 situation precisely, but sees it as one of the reasons she co-founded Zindi with South African Megan Yates and Ghanaian Ekow Duker.

The ability to apply Africa’s data science expertise, to solve problems around a complex health crisis such as COVID-19 is what Zindi was meant for, Lee explained to TechCrunch on a call from Cape Town.

“As an online platform, Zindi is well-positioned to mobilize data scientists at scale, across Africa and around the world, from the safety of their homes,” she said.

Lee explained that perception leads many to believe Africa is the victim or source of epidemics and disease. “We wanted to show Africa can actually also contribute to the solution for the globe.”

With COVID-19, Zindi is being employed to alleviate a problem that is also impacting its founder, staff and the world.

Lee spoke to TechCrunch while sheltering in place in Cape Town, as South Africa went into lockdown Friday due to coronavirus. Zindi’s founder explained she also has in-laws in New York and family in San Francisco living under similar circumstances due to the global spread of COVID-19.

Lee believes the startup’s competitions can produce solutions that nations in Africa could tap as the coronavirus spreads. “The government of Kenya just started a task force where they’re including companies from the ICT sector. So I think there could be interest,” she said.

Starting April, Zindi will launch six weekend hackathons focused on COVID-19.

That could be timely given the trend of COVID-19 in Africa. The continent’s cases by country were in the single digits in early March, but those numbers spiked last week — prompting the World Health Organization’s Regional Director Dr Matshidiso Moeti to sound an alarm on the rapid evolution of the virus on the continent.

By the WHO’s stats Wednesday there were 1691 COVID-19 cases in Sub-Saharan Africa and 29 confirmed deaths related to the virus — up from 463 cases and 10 deaths last Wednesday.

The trajectory of the coronavirus in Africa has prompted countries and startups, such as Zindi, to include the continent’s tech sector as part of a broader response. Central banks and fintech companies in Ghana, Nigeria, and Kenya have employed measures to encourage more mobile-money usage, vs. cash — which the World Health Organization flagged as a conduit for the spread of the virus.

The continent’s largest incubator, CcHub, launched a fund and open call for tech projects aimed at curbing COVID-19 and its social and economic impact.

Pan-African e-commerce company Jumia has offered African governments use of its last-mile delivery network for distribution of supplies to healthcare facilities and workers.

Zindi’s CEO Celina Lee anticipates the startup’s COVID-19 related competitions can provide additional means for policy-makers to combat the spread of the virus.

“The one that’s open right now should hopefully go into informing governments to be able to anticipate the spread of the disease and to more accurately predict the high risk areas in a country,” she said.

Online marketplace OfferUp raises $120M, acquires top competitor letgo

OfferUp, a top online and mobile marketplace app, announced this morning it’s raising $120 million in a new round of funding led by competiting marketplace letgo’s majority investor, OLX Group, and others. As a part of the deal, OfferUp will also be acquiring letgo’s classified business, with OLX Group gaining a 40% stake in the newly combined entity.

Other investors in the new round include existing OfferUp backers Andreessen Horowitz and Warburg Pincus. The funds will be put towards continued growth, product innovation, and monetization efforts, OfferUp says.

The round will close with the closing of the acquisition, which is expected to take place sometime in May. To date, OfferUp has raised $380 million.

The acquisition will see two of the largest third-party buying and selling marketplaces — outside of Craigslist, eBay, and Facebook Marketplace, of course — become a more significant threat to the incumbents. Together, the new entity will have more than 20 million monthly active users across the U.S. For consumers, the deal means they’ll no longer have to list in as many apps when looking to unload some household items, electronics, furniture, or whatever else they want to sell.

“My vision for OfferUp has always been to build a company that helps people connect and prosper,” said Nick Huzar, OfferUp CEO, in a statement about the acquisition. “We’re combining the complementary strengths of OfferUp and letgo in order to deliver an even better buying and selling experience for our communities. OLX Group has unparalleled expertise and clear success with growing online marketplace businesses, so they’ll be a great partner as we continue to build the widest, simplest, and most trustworthy experience for our customers.”

OfferUp also acknowledged that mid-pandemic is an odd time to announce such a deal — especially at a time when the COVID-19 outbreak is affecting its own employees, its partners, and the buying and selling community itself. And this will continue for some time.

However, Huzar positions the deal as one that will allow the business to grow, despite the current state of affairs.

“This news helps us to continue to innovate and grow, in spite of these challenging times, and continue to deliver on that promise,” Huzar noted, in a company blog post.

For now, the OfferUp and letgo apps will remain separate experiences and no disruptions to any sales will be made. Consumers will also be able to download both apps to iOS and Android devices for the time being, too.

But soon, both sets of users will gain access to a larger network of buyers and sellers, along with nationwide shipping options, and trust and safety problems. We understand this will involve allowing users of both sets of apps to see more posts and to interact with more buyers and sellers — so some sort of merging of the two networks is at play here. There will be additional changes to improve the user experience for all users in the future, as well, but the company isn’t sharing details on that today.

Letgo is bringing to the table an app with over 100 million worldwide downloads, so there is a potential to reactivate some of the lapsed users who aren’t currently shopping or selling on its marketplace today. The two apps were often neck-and-neck in terms of their app store category rankings, though on iPhone OfferUp has maintained a slight lead. (See App Store and Google Play charts below.)

However, letgo’s business outside of North America will be separately owned and operated as part of the OLX Group, the companies said.

“Letgo and OfferUp have always shared the same core vision for how large America’s secondhand economy can become – harnessing tech innovation to bring about an extraordinarily positive impact on consumers’ wallets and also on the environment,” said letgo co-founder Alec Oxenford. “Bringing our apps together moves us much closer to that vision,” he added.

The deal is still subject to regulatory approval. If given, the combined businesses will be operated by OfferUp,  headquartered in Bellevue, Washington. Huzar will continue to be CEO of OfferUp and Chairman of the Board. Oxenford, meanwhile, will join the Board and serve as a senior advisor to OLX Group and Prosus.

Because the deal is still in the process of closing, the companies can’t speak to any team changes, including potential layoffs as a result of overlapping positions or other redundancies, we’re told.

 

 

 

 

With lower bandwidth, Disney+ opens streaming service in UK, Ireland, 5 other European countries, France to come online April 7

Disney+, the streaming service from the Walt Disney Company, has been rapidly ramping up in the last several weeks. But while some of that expansion has seen some hiccups, other regions are basically on track. Today, as expected, Disney announced that it is officially launching in the UK, Ireland, Germany, Italy, Spain, Austria, and Switzerland; it also reconfirmed the delayed debut in France will be coming online on April 7.

Seven is the operative number here, it seems: it’s the largest multi-country launch so far for the service.

“Launching in seven markets simultaneously marks a new milestone for Disney+,“ said Kevin Mayer, Chairman of Walt Disney Direct-to-Consumer & International, in a statement. “As the streaming home for Disney, Marvel, Pixar, Star Wars, and National Geographic, Disney+ delivers high-quality, optimistic storytelling that fans expect from our brands, now available broadly, conveniently, and permanently on Disney+. We humbly hope that this service can bring some much-needed moments of respite for families during these difficult times.”

Pricing is £5.99/€6.99 per month, or £59.99/€69.99 for an annual subscription. Belgium, the Nordics, and Portugal, will follow in summer 2020.

The service being rolled out will feature 26 Disney+ Originals plus an “extensive collection” of titles (some 500 films, 26 exclusive original movies and series and thousands of TV episodes to start with) from Disney, Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars, National Geographic, and other content producers owned by the entertainment giant, in what has been one of the boldest moves yet from a content company to go head-to-head with OTT streaming services like Netflix, Amazon and Apple.

The expansion of Disney+ has been caught a bit in the crossfire of world events. The new service is launching at what has become an unprecedented time for streaming: because of the coronavirus pandemic, a lot of of the world is being told to stay home.

That means huge demand for new services to entertain and distract people who are now sheltering in place. But it has also been putting a huge strain on broadband networks, and to be a responsible streamer (and to make sure quality is not too impacted), Disney confirmed (as it previously said it would) it would be launching the service with “lower overall bandwidth utilization by at least 25%.

Titles in the mix debuting today include “The Mandalorian” live-action Star Wars series; a live-action “Lady and the Tramp,” “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series,”; “The World According to Jeff Goldblum” docuseries from National Geographic; “Marvel’s Hero Project,” which celebrates extraordinary kids making a difference in their communities; “Encore!,” executive produced by the multi-talented Kristen Bell; “The Imagineering Story” a 6-part documentary from Emmy and Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Leslie Iwerks and animated short film collections “SparkShorts” and “Forky Asks A Question” from Pixar Animation Studios.

Some 600 episodes of “The Simpsons” is also included (with the latest season 31 coming later this year).

With entire households now being told to stay together and stay inside, we’re seeing a huge amount of pressure being put on to broadband networks and a true test of the multiscreen approach that streaming services have been building over the years. In this case, you can use all the usuals: mobile phones, streaming media players, smart TVs and gaming consoles to watch the Disney+ service (including Amazon devices, Apple devices, Google devices, LG Smart TVs with webOS, Microsoft’s Xbox Ones, Roku, Samsung Smart TVs and Sony / Sony Interactive Entertainment, with the ability to use four concurrent streams per subscription, or up to 10 devices with unlimited downloads. As you would expect, there is also the ability to set up parental controls and individual profiles.

Carriers with paid-TV services that are also on board so far include Deutsche Telekom, O2 in the UK, Telefonica in Spain, TIM in Italy and Canal+ in France when the country comes online. No BT in the UK, which is too bad for me (sniff). Sky and NOW TV are also on board.

Jumia adapts Pan-African e-commerce network in response to COVID-19

Pan-African e-commerce company Jumia is adapting its digital retail network to curb the spread of COVID-19.

The Nigeria headquartered operation — with online goods and services verticals in 11 African countries — announced a series of measures on Friday. Jumia will donate certified face masks to health ministries in Kenya, Ivory Coast, Morocco, Nigeria and Uganda, drawing on its supply networks outside Africa.

The company has offered African governments use of of its last mile delivery network for distribution of supplies to healthcare faculties and workers. Jumia will also reduce fees on its JumiaPay finance product to encourage digital payments over cash, which can be a conduit for the spread of coronavirus.

Governments in Jumia’s operating countries have started to engage the private sector on a possible COVID-19 outbreak on the continent, according to Jumia CEO Sacha Poignonnec .

“I don’t have a crystal ball and no one knows what’s gonna happen,” he told TechCrunch on a call. But in the event the virus spreads rapidly on the continent, Jumia is reviewing additional assets it can offer the public sector. “If governments find it helpful we’re willing to do it,” Poignonnec said.

Africa’s COVID-19 cases by country were in the single digits until recently, but those numbers spiked last week leading the World Health Organization to sound an alarm. “About 10 days ago we had 5 countries affected, now we’ve got 30,” WHO Regional Director Dr Matshidiso Moeti said at a press conference Thursday. “It’s has been an extremely rapid…evolution.” 

By the World Health Organization’s latest stats Monday there were 1321 COVID-19 cases in Africa and 34 confirmed deaths related to the virus — up from 463 cases and 10 deaths last Wednesday.

Dr. Moeti noted that many socioeconomic factors in Africa — from housing to access to running water — make common measures to curb COVID-19, such as social-distancing or frequent hand washing, challenging. She went on to explain that the World Health Organization is looking for solutions that are adoptable to the Africa’s circumstances, including working with partners and governments to get sanitizing materials to hospitals and families.

As coronavirus cases and related deaths grow, governments in Africa are responding. South Africa, which has the second-largest number of COVID-19 cases on the continent, declared a national disaster last week, banned public gatherings and announced travel restrictions on the U.S.

Kenya has imposed its own travel and crowd restrictions and the country’s President Uhuru Kenyatta urged citizens and businesses to opt for digital-payments as a safer means for transactions.

Across Africa’s tech ecosystem — which has seen significant growth in startups and now receives $2 billion in VC annually — a number of actors are stepping up.

Jumia Nigeria Fleet

Image Credit: Jumia

In addition to offering its logistics and supply network, Jumia is collaborating with health ministries in several countries to use its website and mobile platforms to share COVID-19 related public service messages.

Heeding President Kenyatta’s call, last week Kenya’s largest telecom Safaricom waived fess on its M-Pesa mobile-money product (with over 20 million users) to increase digital payments use and lower the risk of spreading the COVID-19 through handling of cash.

Africa’s largest innovation incubator CcHub announced funding and a call for tech projects aimed at reducing COVID-19 and its social and economic impact.

A looming question for Africa’s tech scene is how startups in major markets such as Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa will weather major drops in revenue that could occur from a wider coronavirus outbreak.

Jumia is well capitalized, after going public in a 2019 IPO on the New York stock exchange, but still has losses exceeding its 2019 revenue of €160 million.

On managing business through a possible COVID-19 Africa downturn, “We’re very long-term oriented so it’s about doing what’s right with the governments and thinking about how we can help,” said Jumia’s CEO Sacha Poignonnec.

“Revenue wise, it’s really to early to tell. We do believe that e-commerce in Africa is a trend that goes beyond this particular situation.”

Mya Systems gets $18.75M to keep scaling its recruitment chatbot

Hiring chatbot Mya Systems — which uses a conversational AI to grease the recruitment pipeline by automating sourcing for agencies and large enterprises needing to fill lots of vacancies in areas such as retail and warehouse jobs — has closed an $18.75 million Series C.

The funding round was led by Notion Capital with participation from earlier investors, Foundation Capital and Emergence Capital, along with Workday Ventures . The 2012-founded company, which was previously known as FirstJob, raised an $11.4M Series A back in 2017.

Touting growth over the past year, Mya said it saw 3x customer subscription growth in 2019.

In all it says it now has more than 460 brands using its tools — including six of the eight largest staffing agencies, and 29 of the Fortune 100 — name checking the likes of Hays, Adecco, L’Oreal, Deloitte, and Anheuser Busch.

Its chatbot approach to engaging and “deeply” screening applicants via a mobile app has led to more than 400,000 interviews being scheduled with “qualified and interested” candidates, it added. 

Pointing to the COVID-19 pandemic, founder and CEO Eyal Grayevsky suggested there could be increased demand for AI job screening as companies face highly dynamic recruitment needs. “Now more than ever, organizations in healthcare, e-commerce, light industrial, transportation, logistics, retail, and other industries impacted by COVID-19 need help scaling recruitment to serve large, unexpected spikes in demand. Mya is uniquely positioned to help organizations with high volume recruitment needs and the increasing reliance on temp and contract-based work,” he said in a statement.

“While some hiring is slowing down due to COVID-19, we are seeing spikes in demand from industries such as healthcare, light industrial, call center, logistics, grocery, and supply chain. We have received multiple requests from our healthcare, light industrial and e-commerce customers seeking additional support to rapidly scale engagement with nurses, in-home care professionals, warehouse workers, call center representatives, etc. to serve rapidly growing demand for those functions,” he also told us, saying the team is prioritizing helping those dealing with spikes in demand as a result of the coronavirus public health emergency.

In addition to conversational AI, Mya has focused on integrating its platform with other tools used for recruitment, including CRM, ATS and HRIS systems — plugging into the likes of Bullhorn, Workday, and SAP SuccessFactors. Asked what the new funding will be put towards, Grayevsky told us deeper integrations with such partners is on the cards, along with expanding use-cases for the product.

“Mya will be using the funds to invest in our platform, further expanding the use cases designed to support the end-to-end recruiting and post hire engagement process, and continuing to deepen our integrations with partner ATS solutions like Bullhorn, Workday, and SAP Successfactors. In addition to deepening our integrations, we are also investing heavily in turnkey, fully-featured solutions built alongside our ATS partners that allow for even greater ease and speed to implement Mya,” he said.

“Mya will also be investing in deepening our core platform and conversational AI technology, specifically to expand our conversational capabilities across new industries. We will further enhance our self-service conversation design and configuration capabilities to make it even easier for our customers to rapidly scale the Mya conversational experience across both high volume, hourly and professional roles. Lastly, we are strengthening our infrastructure and support for global customers who are rapidly scaling internationally (e.g. L’Oreal is now live in 18 countries globally).”

At this point Mya is selling its product into more than 35 countries — predominantly in North America, EMEA and APAC — with a focus on large and mid-sized employers that operate globally, including staffing businesses and corporations across high-volume recruitment industries such as healthcare, light industrial, call center, retail, transportation and logistics, hospitality, grocery and automotive.

“We have teams in both the US and Europe to support our expanding global customer base,” Grayevsky added. “With the new funding, we will continue to invest in the distribution, infrastructure and support needed to address demand across target markets globally.”

He name-checks the likes of Olivia, AllyO, Job Pal, Roborecruiter, XOR, and TextRecruit as main competitors. In terms of differentiation, he points to Mya having processed “tens of millions” of candidate interactions thus far — amassing an “ever-growing domain specific conversational dataset” — which he said enables it to continue to enhance the experience the platform can deliver for candidates.

“We have the most robust conversational technology and platform enabling rich, dynamic, and natural conversational experiences that deliver higher engagement, conversion, and actionable insights,” he claimed “We have the most in-depth solutions that support use cases across the entire recruiting funnel (e.g. sourcing, talent pool nurturing and re-engagement, screening, scheduling, contractor redeployment, etc.).

“We have the most experience successfully delivering deeply integrated solutions that scale for the largest staffing business and corporations (e.g. our largest customer is now deployed in 600+ locations globally, across hundreds of job roles, and thousands of recruiters on the platform, engaging with millions of both passive and active candidates on an annual basis), and… we are closely partnered with the leading ATS providers such as Workday and Bullhorn, where we have differentiated integrations and channel relationships that give us a competitive advantage.”

We also asked Grayevsky how the recruitment tool is complying with different national employment and equality laws, and also avoiding introducing any discrimination/bias into its AI-aided screening.

On this he said: “Mya does not apply any advanced AI or machine learning to decision making (i.e. determining fit for a job role), we are squarely focused on developing a robust conversational experience that allows Mya to engage instantly, capture information with high response and completion rates, automate outbound sourcing and scheduling process, and provide ongoing engagement and support with both active applicants and passive candidates in our customer’s talent community.”

He also said they have put steps in place to confirm the accuracy of candidate responses through the conversation (such as by adding a confirmation step for core requirements); and by “employing processes that check for bias, both before a solution goes into production and once its launched”.

Another step it’s taken to “ensure a positive experience for all candidates”, as he put it, is to provides the user an option to reroute a question that the bot does not understand to a recruiter.

“Those queries are immediately submitted into our AI training and annotation pipeline, tested and deployed into production to continually expand our FAQ support within the platform,” he told us.

“Mya’s mission is to create a far more efficient and equitable job market powered by conversational AI, and a core principle of that mission is to level the playing field,” Grayevsky added. “Our AI, engineering and product teams (which includes individuals from highly diverse backgrounds) make all product design decisions to consciously remove bias from the hiring process and ensure that information surfaced to hiring teams is accurate and objective.”

“We are also investing extensively to ensure Mya is in full compliance with local employment laws, data protection and privacy regulations, rules around opt-in and consent, everywhere we operate in the world. Ahead of GDPR, we worked with outside counsel on a Privacy Impact Assessment. That led to our appointment of a Data Protection Officer, and informed our ‘Privacy by Default’ and ‘Privacy by Design’ philosophies. We’re continuing to keep an eye on regulations around AI in the EU, and are already in compliance with the seven key requirements identified in the European Commission’s white paper on artificial intelligence.”

Asked about the disproportionate admin burden automated hiring tools can place on candidates, as they grease up efficiencies of scale for employers — i.e. by requiring jobseekers respond individually to screening system vs just being able to submit a single CV to multiple companies — Grayevsky argued that dynamic data-capturing recruitment systems, such as Mya, offer a better experience to job seekers via increased responsiveness and through expanding potential future job-matching opportunities.

“Traditional job applications often have many steps, and can take a long time to complete, creating a negative experience and drop-off for the employer. Those questionnaires are not dynamic and often lead to no response. That time and effort invested often cannot be leveraged into other opportunities,” he argued.

“With Mya, everyone gets a response instantaneously and around the clock (24/7). They can ask questions and get answers in real-time, providing more transparency and insight into the opportunity, process, and employer. Mya can follow up and if deemed fit by the hiring team, schedule a phone call or on-site interview with the recruiter or hiring manager to help accelerate the process.

“If they are ultimately not deemed fit by the hiring team due to a missing requirement, Mya is able to re-engage to help that candidate connect to a role that is more suitable based on their profile, interests, and availability. The idea is that a candidate can build one profile and be connected to multiple jobs, quickly and efficiently. We built our solution through the lens of the candidate, making it easy to provide information about qualifications, interests, and availability, and get connected to the right opportunities.”