Why SPACs aren't targeting African startups

·6-min read

One. That's the number of African tech companies that have gone public on the NYSE in the last 10 years. Two, if you're counting local exchanges. The former is African-focused e-commerce company Jumia and the latter is Egyptian fintech company Fawry.

As a tech company, Fawry's listing on the Egyptian Stock Exchange is a rarity. Typically, most exchanges in emerging markets like Africa, India, and Latin America are filled with traditional companies in age-old sectors like banking, telecoms, manufacturing, and energy.

Unlike Fawry, what you see these days are new-age tech companies from these markets going public abroad, especially in the U.S. Due to the friendly nature of U.S. exchanges such as Nasdaq and the NYSE, and their history building up the FAANG and other multibillion-dollar companies, they have become the top destination for IPO-ready companies in emerging markets.

Last year, the U.S. IPO market was caught in a frenzy with a different way of going public: via special purpose acquisition companies (SPACs). Although these acquisition vehicles have been around for quite some time, they've lacked the sensational attributes we've now become accustomed to. Public and influential entrepreneurs from Chamath Palihapitiya to Richard Branson have made sure that SPACs -- which many have called a fad -- are here to stay.

Despite issues with the SEC as a liquidity option, SPACs have continued to remain popular for many companies because they have less completion time and regulatory hurdles than a traditional IPO.

We've covered a lot on this subject within the past year, and this article does a good job explaining SPACs.

In the U.S. alone, there are more than 300 SPACs. Last year, more than 85% of deals completed were executed with companies in the country, per Bloomberg. With fewer targets to acquire, an increasing number of SPACs are eyeing startups in other markets like Asia and Latin America, with the same endgame: take them public in the U.S.

Although Africa cannot be compared to these other regions in terms of technology and investment activities, it has some success stories. Companies like Jumia, GetSmarter, Paystack and Flutterwave are bright examples from the continent. But except for Tidjane Thiam's $300 million blank-check company Freedom Acquisition I Corp (which has found no fintech target yet), there's practically no SPAC targeting African tech companies.

Not SPACworthy?

Iyinoluwa Aboyeji, founder and general partner at Future Africa, an early-stage VC firm, told TechCrunch that SPAC targets are most often billion-dollar companies. "The way the economics of a SPAC work, you want a billion-dollar company, and that's a very short list in Africa. You can't SPAC anything less than a billion dollars as you wouldn't make enough money for it to be worth your while," he said.

There are only a handful of African tech companies worth that much. Just recently, Flutterwave joined the illustrious club that includes Jumia, Fawry, and Interswitch. If what Aboyeji said is anything to go by, SPACs can only target Flutterwave and Interswitch. Yet, the chances of this happening are quite slim because the pair have expressed interest in going public via IPOs on local and international exchanges.

So, where exactly does it leave the continent if there are no billion-dollar companies to SPAC?

Aboyeji thinks SPACs could narrow down targets to companies that could become unicorns with their next rounds.

Eghosa Omoigui, managing partner at EchoVC Partners, an early-stage VC firm focused on sub-Saharan Africa, shares this view and adds that selecting these companies will boil down to the thrill they offer blank check companies should they choose to look Africa's way.

"When you think about it, there's only a small number of startups on the continent that have enough traction or excitement to be [packaged] in a SPAC," he said.

From a neutral lens, some companies fit into this box of attractive African-focused companies with unicorn potential. A few of them, including Andela, Branch, Gro Intelligence and TymeBank, are worth more than $500 million and can easily double that with any SPAC activity.

But Omoigui believes a large number of these startups aren't ready to go public yet.

"The real question I think is, even if you file for a SPAC and merge it with an African target, is that company ready to be public? The truth of the matter is that the valuations they get when private are much better than what they'll get in the public markets."

Private capital seems sufficient... for now

The continent's tech ecosystem is still very much nascent. In 2019, African startups raised a total of $2 billion, which is the peak of investments to have flowed in a year so far. That same year, Indian startups raised $14.5 billion. This disparity in investments is one reason there are few unicorns and acquisitions in the region. So it pretty much shows that there's still a lot of ground to cover for African startups before thinking of going public. Maybe this is why SPACs aren't targeting African startups now.

"The way I see it, African startups are not ready yet to go public," Aboyeji remarked. "They still need more time in the private markets. If you're pursued by private capital and you see what happened to the likes of Jumia that went public, your inclination is just to take the private capital."

In addition to that, private equity is catching up with what public financing can offer. Startups globally are staying private longer than ever. In the U.S., the number of publicly listed companies has dropped by 52% from the late 1990s to 2016. It's a trend that has been passed to other markets, so it's likely that African companies might stay private for the foreseeable future.

Nevertheless, Omoigui is optimistic that this situation might change in fewer than three years. In his opinion, SPACs will run out of interesting targets in other emerging markets and might start broadening their scope to include African companies.

The EchoVC managing partner added that the continent could do well with more SPACs from indigenous personalities like Thiam while waiting for those from foreign entities. This will build more excitement on the continent because in most cases, it isn't the target that people usually get enthusiastic about but the vehicle itself.

"Sometimes you realize that it's not really the startups that need to be hot and exciting; it is the SPAC sponsor. That's what people are hopping on the bandwagon for."

Before running Future Africa full-time, Aboyeji had stints with Andela as a co-founder and as CEO of Flutterwave. The startups are still private to date but are on anyone's cards to go public within this decade. For Aboyeji, however, make that three as the entrepreneur-cum-investor wants to take his investment firm public, maybe via a SPAC.

"I'm definitely going to exit on the public market with Future Africa. That's my goal. I would consider a SPAC as an entrepreneur, but it's likely that I'll decide to directly list as well," he said.

Andela CEO Jeremy Johnson told me SPACs are here to stay, and most African startups will go public that way. However, he didn't say if there was any chance his company would do the same.

"One of the benefits is that they allow you to talk about the future, and Africa's growth rate means its future is going to be brighter than the past," he said. "I think African startups will end up going public via this route."