Meet the Investor: Emilian Popa

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When Disrupt Africa reported last week on the US$735,000 seed funding round raised by Kenyan e-health startup Ilara Health, the name of the company’s chief executive officer (CEO) may have been a little familiar to many.

Best known in recent years for his investment activities, Emilian Popa is also an entrepreneur in his own right, with more than 10 years of experience launching, growing and exiting more than 20 technology ventures in Africa, Asia, Middle East, and Russia. 

Investing has been his focus most recently, however, having spent the past four years building and growing Africa-focused tech growth VC firm DiGAME Investment, and also making a number of angel investments. Prior to that he led Groupon South Africa, Rocket Internet ventures including Jumia Nigeria and Zando South Africa, and Africa Internet Accelerator (AIA), which he exited to Naspers.

“Over four years I’ve seen more than 500 companies, in multiple sectors and markets, and I’ve developed a good understanding of what makes a business model and a team succeed in the African context. Aside from running the full DiGAME investment process, I’ve done a number of angel investments, in insurtech, lending, merchant payments, mobility, transportation, and mobile commerce in Egypt, Kenya, and South Africa,” he said.

As part of DiGAME, the investments which stand out South African ed-tech company GetSmarter, which was successfully exited, and that in Swvl, the Egyptian bus mobility platform that Popa has also invested in personally. He is also proud of his investments in two other Egyptian companies: logistics platform Trella and m-commerce distribution network maxAB.

“My latest venture, Ilara Health, in which I’ve also taken the CEO role, aside from a significant personal investment, makes common diagnostics accessible and affordable to the 500 million people in Africa who today struggle to access even basic blood tests. We do this by partnering with companies using robotics and AI to lower the cost of diagnostics, integrate their devices into our tech platform, and sell this bundle to doctors with financing,” said Popa.

“I invest in people and in models which I understand operationally either from my past ventures, or from the investments I’ve made and where I can bring value to the founders at various levels: process, strategy, governance, recruitment, fundraising.”

Popa’s main markets are those he understands well, such as South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, Egypt and Morocco, but he plans to look further afield in future. 

“I would like to spend more time in the West Francophone Africa, where I’ve screened a number of opportunities in the past years,” he said.

“I see so many amazing opportunities and entrepreneurs; I want to support them in building businesses, in taking them to the next stage of growth.”

For now, however, investments may have to take a bit of a back seat, with his focus being on Ilara Health, where he sees a massive opportunity.

“It encompasses everything I’ve learned to date, and brings together payments, asset lending, data, and rural distribution, to healthcare,” he said.

Some startups, however, may be of interest in the short-term.

“I would also like to keep making angel investments in teams and models which can bring value to Ilara Health’s core business – in payments, lending, and distribution,” said Popa.

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Passionate about the vibrant tech startups scene in Africa, Tom can usually be found sniffing out the continent's most exciting new companies and entrepreneurs, funding rounds and any other developments within the growing ecosystem.

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