AHL Venture Partners, the impact investment arm of Sweden’s Lundin Foundation, has invested in some of the foremost African tech startups, including M-KOPA Solar, Zoona, Tulaa, and Twiga Foods.
Heading up the fund’s Nairobi office is Ben Peterson, a senior partner at AHL who previously founded the NGO Journalists for Human Rights as well as digital news business Newsana, which he sold to a Canadian digital content shop.
Now, he handles East and Southern African impact investments at AHL, which is affiliated with the Lundin Foundation. Created in 2007 by the Lundin family, a wealthy Swedish family that wanted to give back, the fund rebranded as AHL Venture Partners last year to better reflect its status as an investor rather than a foundation and to position it to launch additional investment funds.
Its impact has already been impressive. To date it has deployed more than US$60 million in 35 investments across Africa, both direct and fund deals, mostly in agriculture, financial inclusion and energy access.
“We enjoy quite a bit of flexibility in terms of stage and instruments, but most of deals are in early-stage – Series A or thereabouts – businesses that have achieved product-market fit but need additional capital to provide both strong returns to investors and to create impact at scale,” said Peterson.
AHL currently manages two funds – an evergreen fund supported by the Lundin Family, and a close-end fund with outside LPs. Peterson said the company owes a tremendous debt to the Lundin Family, who he says had the vision to support impact investing before it was a ‘thing’.
“They put real money and their family name on the line. We’re also very fortunate that they have given us the support needed to expand from a one-investor fund to a multi-LP fund manager – our new fund is anchored by the Lundins and rounded out by a number of high net worth individuals, family offices and foundations,” he said.
Though AHL is not especially sector-specific, Peterson said he is most excited by businesses formalising informal markets.
“By professionalising industries that already operate informally, businesses can unlock huge efficiencies, leading to higher quality products delivered to the end customer less expensively. Some informal employment is displaced, but the resulting jobs are better paid with benefits attached,” he said.
“I’m a believer that, in the long run, efforts to formalise Africa’s economy are needed to get wages up. Twiga Foods, a company in our portfolio, is a great example of this model.”
AHL invests across Africa, but Peterson said the continent is a “bit of a mixed bag”.
“We always invest in tech-enabled businesses, but haven’t yet invested in a pure-tech play. I’d love to see an African-founded pure-tech business take on the world, and invest in it of course, but it’s still early in the evolution of the tech scene here. If anyone has some idea who the first African Google will be – please share!” he said.
“That being said, I’m excited by all the tech we see that is enabling growth and efficiency in more traditional business models here. I have no doubt the tech scene here will continue to grow, thrive and eventually compete globally.”
Though he doesn’t think African startups lack anything that international startups have, and the business climate and regulatory environment on the continent is improving, he said African founders sometimes lack the brash take-over-the-world ambition found most frequently from Silicon Valley types.
“But this can be a double-edged sword. Look, if I wasn’t bullish I wouldn’t be investing in African startups – I believe this sector is going to really take off based on the talent, ideas and market opportunities that we currently see. It’s an exciting time to be investing here,” said Peterson.
It is not surprise, then, to see the number of active investors in Africa multiplying.
“On a global scale, Africa is still considered a fairly fringe market. However, because of a combination of repressed returns in Western markets and the increasing success shown by African investors, we’re starting to see traditional investors dip their toes in,” Peterson said.
“I think if we can give risk-averse international investors a good first experience here we’ll start to see the current trickle turn into a flood.”