Growing up between her two cultures in Africa and in America, Nnena Nkongho saw first-hand the impact of different levels of infrastructure and technology in the two regions. “I was certain that I’d play a role in equalising these environments in Africa,” she said.
After studying at Princeton University and Columbia Business School, and pursuing a career in finance at Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley, Nkongho has become deeply involved in the African tech ecosystem.
She began investing in African technology through a role as an analyst at African hedge fund Nubuke Investments, and then made strategic investments on behalf of Nigerian mobile network operator Etisalat, now 9mobile.
“I worked as an early employee at a Nigerian tech startup before returning to my “roots” as an investor in the entrepreneurial, African technology-enabled space at DiGAME,” Nkongho said.
DiGAME is the African investment arm of Zouk Capital, a London-based private equity group that follows both European infrastructure and technology growth investment strategies. In 2014, Zouk invested in the Tanzanian solar startup Off-Grid Electric, now Zola Electric, which led the team to conceive of an Africa-focused, investment vehicle.
Funded both from family offices and a Middle Eastern sovereign wealth fund, DiGAME has been actively investing since 2016. Typically, it invests between US$2 million and US$10 million in high-growth, tech-enabled businesses that could develop into regional category leaders, backing entrepreneurs it believes can deliver material global growth. So far it has made four investments in Africa – GetSmarter (which it successfully exited), Rhino Safaris Africa, 10X Investments, and Swvl.
“Our mandate permits allows us to have a broad focus on technology-enabled businesses that gives us a significant amount of flexibility across sectors to deploy capital in appropriate, high-growth businesses. However, we have specific interests within the financial services, education, logistics, mobility, healthcare and agriculture segments,” said Nkongho.
DiGAME is mandated to make investments across the entire African continent – from Cape Town to Cairo – but Nkongho said it actively focuses its investment pipeline development on companies in key markets, including Egypt, Kenya, Morocco, Nigeria and South Africa.
Like most venture capital investors, it looks to add value to its portfolio companies beyond the capital it deploys.
“We support our founders in ways that evolve with the growth of their businesses – whether it be with potential customer introductions from our global, professional networks, assisting with the recruitment of senior-level executives, providing insight into changes in the regulatory landscape, or even acting a strategic sounding board when a company is contemplating potential new business activity,” said Nkongho.
One example of how DiGAME worked with the leadership of a portfolio company is the case of GetSmarter.
“Prior to investing in the company, we worked closely with the founders, providing a key, strategic customer introduction that drove the geographic expansion of their business from that of South Africa and the SADC countries to a global one, with students hailing from over 80 countries and the corresponding expansion of their revenue base, doubling them within the course of a single year,” Nkongho said.
The successful acquisition of GetSmarter is proof that the tech sector has huge potential.
“Technology in Africa has been more than incredibly exciting, it has revolutionised life on the continent. Like many, I have firsthand experience in seeing how the application of technology has transformed Africa’s commercial space and, more broadly, life on the continent,” said Nkongho.
“Technology has created new sectors and business models, improved process transparency and reduced the distribution costs in nearly every commercial sector. It has created new economic and educational opportunities for Africa’s young population and is helping to improve the quality of governance in many countries.”
As a result, the entire entrepreneurial ecosystem on the continent has been growing at speed.
“There has been an increase in the number of investors currently investing or actively fundraising to deploy capital in African early stage businesses. This is supported by the material increase in investment volumes that Disrupt Africa and its peers have tracked into Africa which is a result of a positive trend – more Africans are pursuing the type of scalable, high-impact entrepreneurial activities that accelerate economic opportunities within their respective local communities and across the continent,” she said.
Her firm, meanwhile, plans to remain at the heart of it all.
“DiGAME plans on engaging with great African businesses, making more investments in high-growth, African, tech-enabled companies, backing founders who are building businesses that are scaling rapidly across the continent and working with other stakeholders to further develop entrepreneurial ecosystems across Africa,” Nkongho said.