This week, we explore a hypothesis – that the lessons and models from Chinese tech companies have merit in African markets, given certain similarities between China’s development and the current conditions on the continent.
2:06 – DFS Lab’s Stephen Deng on the experience of Chinese entrepreneurs and investors, and the lessons from leapfrogs in China that may have merit in Africa.
5:37 – We hear from Laura Li, VP of Investments of Future Hub, an early-stage investor and accelerator backed by Transsion, the number one cell phone manufacturer on the continenet, and parent company to Tecno, Itel and Infinix.
7:43 – A discussion with Vincent Li, the CEO of Future Hub, and Laura on the opportunities they see on the continent, in ecommerce, logistics, social media, and more.
14:50 – Another Transsion-backed company, PalmPay, is also leveraging Transsion’s distribution and insights from China to grow in Nigeria and beyond. We hear from Sofia Zab, PalmPay’s Global Head of Commercial & Marketing.
20:27 – As always, a reflective conversation between Justin Norman and Sayo Folawiyo, on social commerce and superapps.
24:37 – Part two with Justin and Sayo, on mobile money-enabled business models.
Stephen: The Chinese investors, just in a more general sense I think, have a better idea of what it means to go from a frontier market to one that is much more mature from a digital and economic perspective than the average US venture capitalist, because they generally have seen it themselves.
Justin: That’s Stephen Deng, a Founding Partner of DFS Lab, an early-stage fintech investor and accelerator focused on Africa, who splits his time between Silicon Valley and Shanghai.
Stephen: I think a lot of the Chinese investors have seen their own, not just the country as a whole, but some of them who’ve come from more rural or lower-tier cities, they’ve seen those cities go through that transformation. So that dramatic change, I think, brings a sense of optimism and a sense of the ability to overcome a lot of what I think are mental blocks for investors, maybe in the West, such as, poor infrastructure, poor governance, the slow but steady rise of communications.
Justin: A few episodes ago – Episode Three of Season Two – we talked about emerging markets and the Global South, and specifically the opportunity for African startups to expand, to learn from, and connect with markets outside of the continent that are more similar to their own. In this episode, we speak to Chinese investors about their experiences in a market that went through such a rapid development, and some of the uniquely Chinese business models that may have merits in Africa.
VO: You’re listening to The Flip, the podcast exploring contextually relevant stories from entrepreneurs around Africa.
Justin: Welcome back to The Flip, I’m your host Justin Norman.
As you may have heard us talk about in the past, our name, The Flip, comes from our endeavor to flip the script – to question the applicability of Silicon Valley-style entrepreneurship and thought leadership in Africa. Though that’s not unilateral. While there are certainly case studies worth exploring from the West, so too are there case studies worth exploring from China, in particular, given the comparable set of market conditions, as Stephen just alluded to in the opener. The thing about certain Chinese tech companies, as we’ll explore in this episode, is that they found success by acknowledging that China is different from elsewhere in the world and that consumers in rural China are different than consumers in top tier cities like Shanghai or Beijing. And they built accordingly.
And as Chinese businesses and investors have increasingly taken an interest in African markets, let’s explore the impact on and opportunity for the entrepreneurship ecosystem, in particular. Here’s Stephen again.
Stephen: I think China has seen a leapfrog that the West will probably not see, which is the leapfrog of distribution.
Justin: As we’ve talked about before – and Season One, Episode Four was dedicated to this topic entirely – distribution is a critical consideration on the continent. And here, in particular, is where China’s development, given a lack of infrastructure at the onset of the internet and smartphone era, has led to a different set of outcomes than what we see in the US and Europe.
Stephen: In the West, we’ve had a development of distribution, both digital and physical that, you know, has happened over the last, I would say 25 years, and essentially has matured. And the innovation within that space is really kind of pushing against a hard edge of wages and what is possible physically. The Chinese ecosystem kind of went through this more recent leapfrog of what it means when you dramatically apply technology to physical distribution, and then what it means when everyone from a digital distribution point is going through just smartphones.
Justin: This, in particular, has manifested itself in smartphone ubiquity, and ecommerce ubiquity, even in lower tier cities and rural areas across the country.
Stephen: And so the models that came out of that – which skipped PC, which skipped kind of using the truck-based, third party only, two-day delivery in favor of less than 24-hour delivery that’s pure mobile-first – I think investors have a different mentality of how they apply things that don’t require some of the old pieces of infrastructure like landlines and PCs.
Justin: This has implications for how a leading startup like Pinduoduo, a social commerce company targeting mass-market consumers in rural and peri-urban areas, thinks about distribution.
Stephen: When I talk to someone like Pinduoduo, the question that I was asking is, you know, why don’t you use agents? Why aren’t you using essentially the Copia model in rural areas? And their answer was if someone has a smartphone, they have leapfrogged that model. They think of the agent-based model, that actually Alibaba is still using, as part of the old age. And they think of direct-to-consumer as the only way forward when people have access to smartphones.
Justin: These are the kinds of lessons from China, in particular, that may be applicable given the comparable dynamics on the continent.
Stephen: What does it mean when you start not in urban and you start in rural? What does it mean when you start with a community that has never really been using landline Internet or PCs, and they’ve only been introduced to simple smartphones, so kind of low-end smartphones? And how do you build products, especially from a UX perspective, that are intuitive and also very pleasing for that population? There are tons of lessons there that I think can be gathered and probably transported to other economies and ecosystems, including those in Africa.
Justin: We see Chinese investors interested in African markets, not only because of the opportunities on the continent but perhaps, in particular, because of the value Chinese investors can bring as strategic investors, given the experiences at home. Here’s Laura Li, the VP of Investments at Future Hub.
Laura: Future Hub is an early-stage investor, which is backed by Transsion Holdings. Transsion Holdings is a Chinese company, which has done business on the African continent for about a decade, and our main businesses around manufacturing and selling phones.
Justin: It’s worth discussing right off the bat the role of Transsion on the continent. Transsion, of course, is the parent company to Tecno, Itel, and Infinix, and collectively Transsion is the largest smartphone manufacturer by sales in Africa.
Laura: We completed a spinoff from our parent company. Since last September, we are operating independently.
Justin: Now, despite the independence, a relationship with Transsion can be incredibly impactful on the continent, especially from a distribution perspective. For example, the most popular music streaming app on the continent by number of downloads is Boomplay Music, which is owned by Transsnet Group, the joint venture between Transsion and another Chinese technology company Netease. What made Boomplay the number one music streaming app is that the app comes pre-downloaded on all Transsion devices.
Laura: Their logic is, you know, they do have devices that build up the infrastructure, and I think on top of the infrastructure, they want to bring more and more players to play in this ecosystem.
Justin: This then introduces one part of the role of Future Hub wishes to play in the African ecosystem.
Laura: You know, one cannot build out everything by itself. That’s why as Future Hub, we want to do things together with Transsion Holdings. We want to incubate and find great startups and then we can use all kinds of resources, together with Transsion, so maybe resources from other Chinese investors or Asian investors, or maybe Chinese partners to grow with the startups.
Justin: Then beyond the strategic resources from Transsion and other partners, the opportunity is in introducing other models and strategies that could work on the continent. Because again, in Future Hub’s view, some of the unique lessons from China, may be applicable for those operating in African markets. Here’s Vincent Li, the CEO of Future Hub.
Vincent: We did some sharing in Nigeria and Kenya, we introduced Chinese experts in technology from Tencent to the local ecosystem, and they are very curious about how Chinese engineers do the development work. You know, in Africa, most of the countries, they don’t have that kind of a very stable network and also a limited bandwidth. That also happened in China once. So, you know, Chinese engineers have a lot of experience in how to improve on, how to squeeze the capacity of the server of the database with a very low cost. I think that is also very important knowledge and experience for the early-stage startups in Africa, really help them to save money and improve efficiency.
Justin: As I talked to both Vincent and Laura about the Chinese market – a theme started to emerge. That China – as Stephen argued earlier – has gotten seemingly so advanced because of the nature of the infrastructure that they had to build during their development, and in particular, to build for an environment that is unique in its own right. And it’s a function not just of development but of the nature of the consumers, many of whom are rural and who, not too long ago, were disconnected or underserved like many Africans are today.
Vincent: I would say China is still a developing country and some kind of knowledge and experience might be useful to refer for African business, especially the second-tier cities and the third-tier cities in China. They used to have the same pain points as that of African markets. In China, 90% of the population has never been on the airplane. So from that point, you can see how diverse the market is.
Justin: To Vincent’s last point, Chinese tech companies have succeeded in building solutions for the diversity of consumers in the country.
Laura: Everyone thinks Chinese market is really awesome because, you know, we share a similar culture and context, but I think there are differences in China’s market. Like user behavior and the buying powering tier-one cities are totally different to tier two, or maybe tier three, tier four, tier five cities. So I think maybe, in the African continent, we could share the experiences, from tier three to tier five cities in Chinese market.
Justin: We can see in the sector like ecommerce how recognizing that the Chinese market is not entirely homogeneous allows for new opportunities to be captured. Here we’ll talk about Pinduoduo again, the social commerce company targeting rural and smaller cities, which has seen astounding growth since their founding just five years ago. The Chinese ecommerce space was pretty saturated, with Alibaba’s Taobao and Jingdong, also known as JD.com, leading the pack. But these companies employed the traditional, Amazon-style of ecommerce, and for Pinduoduo, in building a product targeting the mass market that doesn’t necessarily trust traditional ecommerce, they’ve now risen to stand on equal footing with their predecessors.
Laura: Everyone thinks Jingdong or maybe Taobao, they have had big success and no other player could gain such success or make such great progress in the ecommerce market, but Pinduoduo has done that.
Justin: And perhaps a model like Pinduoduo, which employees group purchasing and referrals to build trust and keep prices low, has merits for African markets.
Laura: I think they do have some kind of similarity compared to African continent because, you know, in tier three or maybe tier five cities in China, we are more trusting of the communities or maybe people around us, so we don’t have the behavior to search for something online, or we don’t trust that they listing, the advertisement. But we trust the neighborhood.
Vincent: For one thing, a group buy can lower the cost, and for another thing, social referral and social commerce can just cut the middleman. You know, in most of the countries in Africa, the distribution of goods from the big cities like Lagos to the second tier city or even the villages is through middlemen. But, you know, there’s a new way of selling and distributing goods through the social network. You know, housewives and very small micro shop owners, they can just bear the responsibility to distribute the goods, which is also reducing the cost.
Justin: And Future Hub believes that on the manufacturing and supply side, this is where African relationships with Chinese businesses can be beneficial too.
Vincent: One of the advantages from China is that we have a very sophisticated supply chain, we have very mature manufacturing lines and so we can really deliver good quality products with very low cost. And that is another advantage if you can connect Chinese suppliers to the entrepreneurs in Africa who are doing social commerce and other different forms of commerce so that even if they set the price very low, they can still make some margin.
Justin: Another area for exploration is social media. While there are questions about data costs and utilization and smartphone penetration, particularly in rural and peri-urban areas in Africa, Vincent and Future Hub see that as an opportunity to fund or incubate startups that may better serve these consumers than traditional and currently available social media.
Vincent: We’re really focusing on different opportunities in social networking or social media. In Nigeria, for example, the Facebook user is like 10% of the population, if I remember well, so there’s still a lot of spaces in that field.
Justin: With that being said, beyond the digital realm, Chinese investors understand the role that offline plays in these kinds of markets as well.
Vincent: I remember that in the time of 2014, 2015 there were a lot of different kinds of marketing activities on the ground. The agent and the promoters, they just go on the ground, and go to the villages, and go to the cities to acquire users, which is very similar to the situation in some African markets. You know, online advertising might not be the first choice.
Justin: And in having that knowledge and understanding from China’s development, Transsion over the years has built a robust offline network of stores and service centers, which may create additional offline and physical retail opportunities.
Vincent: We have mentioned online resources, especially online traffic, but another thing to mention is that Transsion also has very strong and profound offline resources. In the whole continent, Transsion has more than 2,000 customer service centers and also thousands of retail stores and shops. So we try to incubate retail or maybe the new forms of retail business in order to leverage those kinds of offline resources.
Justin: So what’s made China successful, in my view, has been their ability to build products that are fit for purpose and in recognizing the different models required to service a big city customer versus a rural customer. So too do Chinese investors like Future Hub recognize that success in Africa will require solutions – even if inspired by China – that are uniquely African.
Vincent: In the end, there’s lots of pivoting and different kinds of improvements in the process. So finally it is kind of a mixture of Chinese knowledge and also knowledge from the ground.
Justin: Let’s explore a case study of one company doing exactly that.
Sofia: My name is Sofia Zab and I’m the Global Head of Commercial and Marketing at PalmPay.
Justin: PalmPay is a fintech company operating in Nigeria and Ghana, whose investor and strategic partner is the aforementioned Transsion Holdings, the parent company to smartphone brands Tecno, Itel, and Infinix.
Sofia: We are a smartphone-first digital financial services company, and at its most basic level PalmPay is a payments app. You can use your PalmPay wallet to hold money, to send money to other PalmPay users or financial institutions, and make payments such as buying airtime and paying for bills and other services. And in addition to the app, we’re also building out a payments ecosystem of partners and enabling different use cases, including creating an agent network and online and offline merchant networks.
Justin: For the purposes of our conversation about China, we can’t talk about PalmPay without talking about its strategic relationship to Transsion.
Sofia: So Transsion is the lead investor into PalmPay. and in addition to the financial resources, they are strategic investors. So we benefit from having a close partnership with them and that’s on several levels, pre-installs being one of them.
Justin: PalmPay has a major advantage in distribution with the app coming pre-installed on Transsion devices.
Sofia: Distribution, in my opinion, is an incredibly important piece of the puzzle. On the most basic level, for every phone that comes pre-installed with PalmPay, we’re saving the cost of paying for that install. It’s far cheaper for us to run ads that get to people that already have the app to ask them to open it. And if we’re running awareness campaigns we’re really shortening the funnel because people can go straight from seeing that billboard to seeing the app on the phone. And don’t forget that Transsion devices represent over 50% of the smartphones being used in Africa. So us being pre-installed at that scale is quite significant.
Justin: But the strategic relationship goes beyond pre-installs.
Sofia: In the payments space, convenience is really king, and we’re actually working with Transsion to bake PalmPay into the core user experience of every Tecno, Infinix and Itel handset. So you could say that we’re working towards powering an Apple Pay-like experience for them. And beyond that, we’re also working on ideas like integrating into the keyboard so that people can text each other money using PalmPay from any app. And then also building the PalmPay QR reader into the camera.
Justin: The Transsion relationship is beneficial from an offline perspective, too.
Sofia: We’re very fortunate that this is another area that the Transsion partnership can help us with. Transsion has a really large distribution and network of retail points across Africa, over 200,000, and so of course we can leverage those as we build out our own agent and merchant networks. They’re making 5,000 retail points available to us in Nigeria to start with.
Justin: And beyond a product perspective, the strategic relationship is proving valuable from a Chinese insights and advisory perspective, as well.
Sofia: Obviously our investors are Chinese, we also have team members that are Chinese, and I think that there are similarities between the history of the Chinese experience and where we are now in Africa. Apparently 15 years ago, the GDP per capita in China was what it is in Nigeria today. And obviously, since then, they’ve seen an enormous growth in smartphone adoption and also in the fintech industry.
Justin: And perhaps the biggest advantage, as Stephen mentioned earlier, is the experience moving from underdeveloped and underserved to one of the most advanced fintech markets globally.
Sofia: So I think the biggest thing that my colleagues from China bring to the table is the confidence that it can be done. They’ve seen China go from zero to being the fintech capital of the world today. And I think in China, unlike in the West, they’ve had to face similar challenges to make that growth happen. For example, many people were new to technology, some of them needed a lot of education and having to build that business in an environment where the majority didn’t have a lot of purchasing power. So being able to draw on the experience and on the ideas of my Chinese colleagues that have watched this happen is great.
Justin: There are even some examples of lessons and strategies from Chinese fintech companies that have been adopted by PalmPay and adapted to the African markets in which they are operating.
Sofia: There’s a growth hack that Alipay used to use to get hundreds of millions of users within a matter of weeks, and it’s based on a tradition of gifting money to people close to you that’s inside a red envelope on Chinese New Year and other festive occasions. And Alipay released a digital version of that, and it really spread like wildfire. So we used that as an inspiration to create similar ideas and localize them for the context of Nigeria. we’ve got two features in Nigeria called Lucky Money, and the other one is called Awoof Moni and they gamify that P2P transfer experience and reward users for using P2P transfers.
Justin: But as we’ve said earlier, it’s about inspiration from markets like China and contextualize to African markets. And those lessons go in both directions.
Sofia: We do learn a lot from that Chinese experience, but I think it’s also vice versa. The African and UK team members share ideas that are new to our Chinese colleagues, as well, and we adopt those also.
Justin: As always, my b-mic Sayo Folawiyo and I sat down to reflect on this topic, and in particular, to discuss what we believe are specific opportunities in African markets around ecommerce, social media, and payments. Take a listen.
Sayo: I don’t think the point of this conversation is necessarily about the applicability of social commerce versus the applicability of, or a mindset or approach, to building technology products that are fit for purpose. I think that’s kind of the thread of the conversation, social commerce is just a good example. I think it’s a good example, right? I think it’s a good example because firstly, it’s already happening in droves and droves and droves on the content. It’s just informal and people don’t see it, but the amount of, you know, in inverted commas, social commerce that happens essentially through private networks, it’s phenomenal. And it’s specific to, I think, these kinds of emerging markets where there’s less of an institutional backbone, from a trust perspective, from infrastructure perspective, and people just kind of make things work in their own communities and their networks.
Justin: And I think that therein lies the question or the opportunity, the requisite set of conditions and the foundation that needs to be built in order to formalize it even better. I think it would be disingenuous to say that anyone can build what’s being built in China, just given the sort of ubiquity of WeChat. And there’s, you know, like ideological and political considerations that go into this conversation.
Sayo: I think an interesting question is, what’s your feeling, what’s your bet on what the, I guess, near future of messaging platforms like WhatsApp and some of the things that the MNOs are putting together? Because I mean, everyone wants it, right? When are we going to have an equivalent of WeChat and the kind of superapp messaging platform where all your payments, transactions, bills, et cetera, et cetera, are being paid through the same platform? I just want to hear your thoughts on when that happens, cause it might not be as far away as we’re saying, just because we don’t have WeChat. Like, we have, all the building blocks, right?
Justin: On one hand, I think it’s going to be led by Facebook and WhatsApp, just given existing consumer behavior. But then on the other hand, and this is I think a big takeaway or a lesson for me from China, as well, is like you can build messaging and social media, and so Pinduoduo has a very big social element to it. And I know that there’s WeChat integrations, but you know, if you build a niche messaging, community thing, that is more commercially minded than WhatsApp is at the moment, you know, I think you can still build a valuable business and you bake all of these pieces in together.
Sayo: Maybe, maybe. I suspect that those kinds of WeChat integrations are a big initial scale builder, and so I kind of feel like you need those. And then maybe, if you carve out that niche after having built it up, it becomes easier to do it. I wonder how hard it is to do bottom up in that way.
Justin: I think though you can still leverage WhatsApp in a great way as like a top of funnel, you know, distribution mechanism. It’s just not going to be as fully integrated yet. But how much of that is a problem? Like these markets, there’s a lot of frictionful experiences anyway. So it’s not necessarily about having a fully integrated payments and chat and distribution all in one, yet. It’s just about the evolution of getting there, right? It’s about moving in that direction.
Then I think that there’s a separate question that we ought to talk about in the context of China and the conversations that I had this episode also just on the role of Transsion. Transsion has all the hardware. I think any conversation in particular about the relationship between countries is incomplete without talking about perhaps how well positioned they are to do whatever they want to be honest.
Sayo: Yeah, of course, that’s a hell of a position to be in. We’re seeing what’s happening, with Apple and Epic Games. And like when you own the thing that’s in everyone’s hands, it’s a shit ton of leverage.
Sayo: I thought the social media thing was interesting just from a, not even from a commerce perspective. There is an overlap somewhere between how people are using social media now and the general culture of a lot of countries on the continent. Leveraging that I think is interesting. And certainly in terms of usage, in terms of engagement, in terms of all this kind of stuff, I think that under penetration on the continent is interesting. I think it would ordinarily be predicated on the ability for brands to find a way to make money, but just from a pure usage perspective, there’s a lot of space to grow. I don’t know what that means anyone should build, I just think it’s worth discussing.
Justin: I actually think in that respect, it is contingent upon this perpetually the underlying theme about consumer spend and market size and all of these things that we’ve talked about before.
Sayo: So your view is that the social without the commerce is not interesting?
Justin: No, it is interesting. It’s still the same conversation about, you know, the value of a consumer. Whether you’re selling directly to them or whether you’re selling ads, it’s the same thing in my opinion.
Sayo: And then your view is that because the commerce part is kind of already happening informally and it speaks to maybe a lower order need, that you’d be saying, focus on building the infrastructure for commerce or the kind of social penetration that you already have versus, hey, get to a hundred percent penetration.
Justin: I think if we have to sort of go through a checklist of what are the barriers to ecommerce, right, a big one is trust. And what attracts me to social commerce in this context, especially like a group buying model, is that the community element to it has, part of it is that there’s a trust element built into it. So the trust element is a growth mechanism and a feedback loop from a community perspective, but then it also is overcoming a challenge that is unique to a certain segment of the Chinese population. And that challenge is also the same challenge that we have from an ecommerce perspective with a large percent of the African population in the markets that we’re discussing. It invariably, otherwise, would allow me as a brand to leverage the trust building mechanisms that are baked in to overcome one of the most important barriers to ecommerce penetration at the moment.
Sayo: Yeah, that makes sense to me. And they’re definitely not mutually exclusive anyway.
Justin: And one reinforces the other, right? Like as trust increases and as people utilize ecommerce more, then it invariably increases the opportunity for an ad-driven model.
Sayo: Yeah, I just wish there was a way to monetize fun, a better way to monetize fun. On the social side I think that there’s the like functional stuff and then there’s just like fun. And look, I think, you know, I don’t even think that in America and all those places they’ve worked out how to monetize so…
Justin: You know, there’s an interesting point in podcasting, for example, it’s very difficult to monetize a podcast directly, to monetize your audience in the US. But in China, they have podcast platforms that allow for tipping and micropayments and all of these different commercial elements, and you can actually monetize more readily. And one of the reasons why is because of mobile money. And so it makes micropayments more feasible. Does that mean given the penetration of mobile money on the continent, that Africa is also more well positioned to do things like micropayments? There’s a separate conversation about sort of the consumer behavior of paying for things, or paying for content or paying for entertainment, but yeah, perhaps just the nature of the way in which people pay each other is an opportunity here.
Sayo: That’s a whole interesting piece. We should definitely talk about that. So I think the cool thing that we’ve kind of got to, or explained or explored here a little bit is like mobile phones penetration equals higher social engagements, but with this like added elements of being on a rail of the Internet, which then means you can add stuff on that makes it way more efficient to the things that they were doing already. But what it also equals is just high social engagement, which can be monetized in its own ways that’s not this like a straight ecommerce thing, right? There’s other ways of, well there’s other things that people are doing on social that aren’t functional about getting something. And how do you monetize those things? And I think that’s an interesting piece to explore.
Justin: Perhaps that’s also the thing about something like social commerce is that, you know, if you’re a content creator, you could sell products directly, you could more readily monetize through some of the, you know, micropayments or some of the ways that we just talked about, you know, subscriptions and so on. And so there’s really, an abundance of opportunity that I suspect is, to a large extent, a function also just of payments, you know?
Sayo: For sure. All the stuff you’re saying I think is super interesting as part of this conversation. But I also think that’s like a, yeah, I think there’s a whole other piece around, maybe we call it social commercialization, that is super interesting from the fun side. Just like sharing, engaging interaction between people.
Justin: And that’s where hopefully mobile money will play an outsize role in the future. I certainly think so. So maybe that’s the crux is like, if anyone wants to be like China, the fact that African markets have mobile money, perhaps, enables them to be more like China than anyone else.
Sayo: I think that’s fair.
VO: That’s it for this week’s episode of The Flip. Next week, we deep dive into mobile money and the role of players like mobile network operators. Be sure to hit subscribe on your favorite podcast app to get that and all future episodes straight to your phone. You can also join our newsletter on our website, theflip.africa, for updates straight to your inbox, and follow us on social media @theflipafrica for additional insights from our contributors and experts from around the continent.
Thanks as always for listening. And we’ll see you next week.
Stephen Deng – Co-founder & Partner, DFS Lab
Laura Li – VP of Investments, Future Hub
Vincent Li – CEO, Future Hub
Sofia Zab – Global Head of Commercial & Marketing, PalmPay
Sayo Folawiyo – Co-founder & CEO, Kandua
Justin Norman – Founder & Host, The Flip
Audio Production by ZVUK Studio
Episode Artwork by Chileshe Tembo – The Zig