Business solutions firm Africa’s Talking closes $8.6M round led by IFC

Business APIs in Africa are getting a boost from global venture capital thanks to a new $8.6 million round for Africa’s Talking—a Kenyan based enterprise software company.

The new financing was led by IFC Venture Capital, with participation from Orange Digital Ventures and the investor that’s upending most Silicon Valley mores, Social Capital, led by former Facebook exec Chamath Palihapitiya.

Capital from the round will be used to hire and build capacity at the company’s Nairobi headquarters; expand its presence in other geographies around Africa; and invest in research and development in IoT, analytics, payments, and cloud offerings, according to chief executive Samuel Gikandi.

The company will open a tech studio for “engineers and developers to collocate with Africa’s Talking for 12-18 months…to build new products and companies,” Gikandi said.

Africa’s Talking operates in Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Malawi, Nigeria, Ethiopia, and Tanzania and maintains a private cloud space in London through Rackspace. The company works with developers to create solution focused APIs across SMS, voice, payment, and airtime services.

“We’re helping software developers in Africa connect to local infrastructure,” said Gikandi. “We find companies that have local infrastructure, whether its mobile operators, banks, or data-centers, then we partner with them and build a platform that simplifies access to that local infrastructure and open it up to software developers.”

Africa’s Talking has a network of 20,000 software developers and 1000 clients  including fintech lending startup Talasolar power financier and retailer M-Kopa; and financial services giant Ecobank, according to Gikandi.

The company gets paid through mobile wallets, earning fees on a portion of the transactional business its solutions generate.

Founded in 2010, the Series A round represents the company’s first significant venture capital investment. “We’ve primarily bootstrapped the business and became profitable in 2012,” said Gikandi.

The private company does not release financials or confirm net revenues, but Gikandi said that the company’s profitability was a stipulation for investment from its new backers (unlike the requirements for startups coming from Silicon Valley).

As the company looks to expand geographically in the African continent, observers can likely expect Africa’s Talking services to begin cropping up in francophone countries, otherwise, why else would Orange Digital Ventures’ invest in the round, since Orange has a presence in over 20 French speaking African nations.

IFC Ventures will be an active investor, with Africa Regional Head Wale Ayeni joining the board.

“The caliber of the tech team was a reason [to invest],” says Ayeni. “They’ve been able to build a cloud based digital platform and produce a product that people are willing to pay for. It’s rare to see that kind of high caliber tech talent create something that can scale that rapidly…and we’re looking forward to what they’ll build in the future.”

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Allegro.AI nabs $11M for a platform that helps businesses build computer vision-based services

Artificial intelligence and the application of it across nearly every aspect of our lives is shaping up to be one of the major step changes of our modern society. Today, a startup that wants to help other companies capitalise on AI’s advances is announcing funding and emerging from stealth mode.

Allegro.AI, which has built a deep learning platform that companies can use to build and train computer-vision-based technologies — from self-driving car systems through to security, medical and any other services that require a system to read and parse visual data — is today announcing that it has raised $11 million in funding, as it prepares for a full-scale launch of its commercial services later this year after running pilots and working with early users in a closed beta.

The round may not be huge by today’s startup standards, but the presence of strategic investors speaks to the interest that the startup has sparked and the gap in the market for what it is offering. It includes MizMaa Ventures — a Chinese fund that is focused on investing in Israeli startups, along with participation from Robert Bosch Venture Capital GmbH (RBVC), Samsung Catalyst Fund and Israeli fund Dynamic Loop Capital. Other investors (the $11 million actually covers more than one round) are not being disclosed.

Nir Bar-Lev, the CEO and cofounder (Moses Guttmann, another cofounder, is the company’s CTO), started Allegro.AI first as Seematics in 2016 after he left Google, where he had worked in various senior roles for over 10 years. It was partly that experience that led him to the idea that with the rise of AI, there would be an opportunity for companies that could build a platform to help other less AI-savvy companies build AI-based products.

“We’re addressing a gap in the industry,” he said in an interview. Although there are a number of services, for example Rekognition from Amazon’s AWS, which allow a developer to ping a database by way of an API to provide analytics and some identification of a video or image, these are relatively basic and couldn’t be used to build and “teach” full-scale navigation systems, for example.

“An ecosystem doesn’t exist for anything deep-learning based.” Every company that wants to build something would have to invest 80-90 percent of their total R&D resources on infrastructure, before getting to the many other apsects of building a product, he said, which might also include the hardware and applications themselves. “We’re providing this so that the companies don’t need to build it.”

Instead, the research scientists that will buy in the Allegro.AI platform — it’s not intended for non-technical users (not now at least) — can concentrate on overseeing projects and considering strategic applications and other aspects of the projects. He says that currently, its direct target customers are tech companies and others that rely heavily on tech, “but are not the Googles and Amazons of the world.”

Indeed, companies like Google, AWS, Microsoft, Apple and Facebook have all made major inroads into AI, and in one way or another each has a strong interest in enterprise services and may already be hosting a lot of data in their clouds. But Bar-Lev believes that companies ultimately will be wary to work with them on large-scale AI projects:

“A lot of the data that’s already on their cloud is data from before the AI revolution, before companies realized that the asset today is data,” he said. “If it’s there, it’s there and a lot of it is transactional and relational data.

“But what’s not there is all the signal-based data, all of the data coming from computer vision. That is not on these clouds. We haven’t spoken to a single automotive who is sharing that with these cloud providers. They are not even sharing it with their OEMs. I’ve worked at Google, and I know how companies are afraid of them. These companies are terrified of tech companies like Amazon and so on eating them up, so if they can now stop and control their assets they will do that.”

Customers have the option of working with Allegro either as a cloud or on-premise product, or a combination of the two, and this brings up the third reason that Allegro believes it has a strong opportunity. The quantity of data that is collected for image-based neural networks is massive, and in some regards it’s not practical to rely on cloud systems to process that. Allegro’s emphasis is on building computing at the edge to work with the data more efficiently, which is one of the reasons investors were also interested.

“AI and machine learning will transform the way we interact with all the devices in our lives, by enabling them to process what they’re seeing in real time,” said David Goldschmidt, VP and MD at Samsung Catalyst Fund, in a statement. “By advancing deep learning at the edge, Allegro.AI will help companies in a diverse range of fields—from robotics to mobility—develop devices that are more intelligent, robust, and responsive to their environment. We’re particularly excited about this investment because, like Samsung, Allegro.AI is committed not just to developing this foundational technology, but also to building the open, collaborative ecosystem that is necessary to bring it to consumers in a meaningful way.”

Allegro.AI is not the first company with hopes of providing AI and deep learning as a service to the enterprise world: Element.AI out of Canada is another startup that is being built on the premise that most companies know they will need to consider how to use AI in their businesses, but lack the in-house expertise or budget (or both) to do that. Until the wider field matures and AI know-how becomes something anyone can buy off-the-shelf, it’s going to present an interesting opportunity for the likes of Allegro and others to step in.