“I had the good luck to work under some of the smartest people in the last decade, and it taught me to recognise super bright people really quickly.”
This is one of the advantages Amber Fowler, partner and chief of staff at Lagos-based VC firm EchoVC Partners, feels her firm has when it comes to identifying African startups to invest in.
“That’s the difference with EchoVC, compared to more local-based investors. The value to the ecosystem is that we see a lot of venture, and when you’ve seen thousands of deals, entrepreneurs and companies, you have a better sense of what works and what doesn’t. You have a lot of reference and institutional memory to draw on,” she said.
It is this institutional memory that has backed up a couple of major investments this year, with EchoVC funding Nigerian tech startups Hotels.ng and Printivo. Fowler says this is the edge her firm has over local tech angels.
EchoVC certainly has strong Silicon Valley pedigree. Fowler was previously vice president of finance at Founders Fund, a venture capital firm with over US$1 billion under management. Prior to that she founded a consulting practice working primarily with technology startups, as well as the likes of the Dalai Lama Foundation, Terma Foundation, and the Thiel Foundation. General partner Eghosa Omoigui was with Intel for 10 years, latterly as director of strategic investments at Intel Capital.
Yet local investors have their own advantages, according to Fowler.
“It is a double-edged sword. The other side of the coin is being a foreigner and maybe not knowing all the nuances and how something plays out in the local market. But the local investors understand that. So we all need to participate and work together,” she said.
Fundraising for EchoVC took two years, with the fund closing in October last year at US$22 million, from both institutional and private investors. It has been almost four years since the idea was conceived, with the team spending a long time visiting and diligencing Africa. Fowler said she has certainly noticed changes in that time.
“It seems to me we’re really starting to see some real venture activity for the first time. Which is really exciting. A little bit of ecosystem building is happening. Silicon Valley is coming, and more prepared to take risks,” she said.
“There is more exploring happening on foot. Investors are a bit like lemmings in that they like to see other investors getting dirty in the space. There are more alumni entrepreneurs getting into making trips over here. That’s validating and giving it credibility.”
There is a need for more players, however.
“We need more people at different stages to fill in the funding gaps. When we first came here it was a ghost town. Now big firms are coming here. This year has had a lot of momentum,” Fowler said.
Though EchoVC has only invested in Nigeria so far, it does plan to make make investments in Kenya, Ghana and Ethiopia eventually.
“For the most part it will be the big players who are more established in the scene,” she said.
Nigeria will remain the company’s base, however, and Fowler is upbeat on the potential the country is showing when it comes to tech innovation and entrepreneurship.
“There’s more of a hustle here than I’ve seen elsewhere. We see Nigeria has more momentum, and faster growth. Some of the companies in Accra and Nairobi are just a little bit slower,” she said.
EchoVC is open to what types of startups it invests in, but Fowler said they do look for certain attributes in their entrepreneurs, something that the Silicon Valley background has made them adept at spotting.
“We’re very prototypical in that we look for CEOs that you meet and you know they are doing well. They are so sharp, so committed, so passionate. There’s a difference, there’s a nuance. The entrepreneurs we have funded so far all have a likeness,” she said.
EchoVC, which may yet launch a sidecar fund for bigger deals in the future, is likely to end up investing in between 35 and 50 companies in total, ranging in size. But Fowler said the company was aware that it would take longer to see returns than if it was investing in the United States (US) or Europe.
“The main thing is understanding it is going to be slower. It takes longer to close a fund, it is going to be a longer time horizon to see exits,” she said.
“Realistically speaking, if you look at some of the companies that have been around for a few years, and where they are right now, they have solid investor backing but they are still trying to find their way.”
Fowler believes five years is a safe, conservative estimate of when EchoVC is likely to see exits.
“Five years is probably a safe, very conservative starting point. We would hope for three years, but you do dial in your expectations to be a little more realistic. Things are slow here, everything takes a little longer when you’re battling with just keeping the lights on and having the internet work. That is the most crippling part for the entrepreneurs frankly. If they didn’t have to spend 75 per cent of their day dealing with those things it would be faster all round.”
Sourcing startups has not been a problem, however.
“We have been wonderfully lucky with our professional networks,” Fowler said.
“There is a lot of incoming mail, calls and introductions. We are kept quite busy just making sure we are talking to everyone. We have to filter through the noise. There is a tonne of noise. We’re able to filter it quite quick and not waste too much time with entrepreneurs that aren’t even ready to have a conversation with a VC.”