SA HR startup SmartWage raises $2m seed round

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South Africa’s SmartWage, an HR and communications technology startup, has raised US$2 million in an oversubscribed seed funding round to support its vision of transforming Africa’s workforce through digital inclusion, particularly for frontline employees.

Founded in 2019, SmartWage started off by allowing companies to provide their employees with instant access to a percentage of their salaries and wages for work they have already done. 

It has since expanded beyond that, giving enterprises a simple yet effective way to digitise their most time-consuming HR processes, helping them save time and money in order to focus on people. The product gives employees without email the ability to receive company-wide communication, access their payslips, request leave and get access to financial wellness products, all via WhatsApp.

It last raised funding back in 2020, and its seed funding came from investors including LoftyInc Capital Management, Creator Collective Capital, and Penrose Capital, along with angels from Naspers, Dimension Data, Investec, and Standard Bank. SmartWage plans to deploy the capital to expand its product and technology team and double down on solving employers’ biggest problems.

Co-founder Simon Ellis said there was a communication gap between employers and employees, with frontline employees not feeling part of a company’s brand and its promise. 

“Payslips and leave are still done manually with paper printouts, while employee communication is done using notice boards or apps, which have huge usage drop-offs. Onboarding and disciplinary procedures are still paper-based, costing businesses precious time, money and resources,” he said.

SmartWage tackles these challenges, driving efficiencies for employers, while the startup has also developed a host of financial wellness products that include access to free financial education and on-demand pay. 

“We have learnt through our process that employees need access to cash more than ever before. Eighty per cent of South Africans struggle to make it to the end of the month without relying on some form of short term debt, and the payday loan industry is booming,” said Ellis.

“If we can save employers time and money through digitisation, we can bridge the gap between South African enterprises and their frontline employees, helping enterprises connect clearly and dynamically with their employees, whilst offering financial wellness tools at the same time. By offering tools that benefit both employers and employees, we have a powerful value proposition.”

Idris Bello, founding partner of LoftyInc Capital Management, said he was excited by the scalability of the SmartWage product set and the impact it could have, in both Africa and beyond the continent. 

“The team at SmartWage are innovators – they’re building more than just an earned wage access product, and have recognised that in order to make a tangible impact on employers, they need to build a powerful way for employers to engage with their workforce. We are excited to partner with Simon, Caroline and the powerful team they’ve assembled to support SmartWage’s mission to drive digital inclusion across Africa,” he said.

SmartWage clients include companies that employ frontline employees, typically in retail, quick service restaurants (QSR), manufacturing, construction, and hospitality. It has grown its monthly active user base 14x in the past 12 months, and now work with brands such as Edgars, KFC, Debonairs, Seattle Coffee, Truda and Twizza.

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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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