Investors around the world have been turning their heads to the continent of Africa, and African companies welcome the attention — especially when it’s coming from the U.S.
“Growth in the region is tremendous and companies there are very interested in forming partnerships with U.S. businesses,” said Manny Mencia, senior vice president of International Trade and Development for Enterprise Florida, Inc (EFI), in a July 2018 press release.
Foreign direct investment in Africa is expected to reach $50 billion for 2018, up from $42 billion in 2017, according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development.
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Despite the existence of markets for imports and exports, African countries battle to build a robust infrastructure. They’re often plagued with transportation, communications and financial issues. “Businesses often mention fragmentation, in its many forms, as a problem in Africa,” according to a Boston Consulting Group report.
Connecting with the appropriate resources on the ground can go a long way in doing business in Africa.
Long-time friends, Marvin Cole and Viola Llewellyn founded Ovamba, a U.S.-based investment and logistics management firm, in 2013 to help drive Africa’s financial growth. By combining their experience in finance and technology, they built a platform offering fast access to business growth support and investments via mobile phone.
Ovamba provides short-term capital to micro, small and medium-sized (SME) businesses in Africa and emerging markets for trade, inventory purchases and growth. The capital is provided by international investors from the US, U.K. and Japan. Ovamba’s founders and senior executives boast backgrounds from McKinsey & Co, Deloitte, Rothschild, Barclays, Bearing Point, IBM, and Unisys, among others, according to the company website.
Ovamba’s growth and recognition have made people take notice in the industry. The firm won the Best Fintech In Africa prize in the Lending and Finance category at the 2017 African Fintech Awards, according to Moguldom. Additionally, the World Economic Forum named Ovamba one of the Most Innovative Startups of 2018.
“In digitizing our future, we will preserve the beauty of our culture and unlock the code of our best wealth traits. Becoming global citizens gives us a seat at the table as equals,” Ovamba co-founder Viola Llewellyn said during a recent Ted Talk.
Moguldom spoke with Ovamba co-founder and CEO Marvin Cole about Africa’s future, how the company is helping to create wealth and how it’s setting up small African businesses for success.
My rule is always trying to find people smarter than me and better than me in whatever area I need help who also share the same values. We are a mission-driven organization. We are very focused on the type of people who believe in what we do and our mission. (If) they have the right skill set, the right passion, it becomes very easy to work in partnership with those people. It’s a mutual effort.” — Marvin Cole, co-founder and CEO of U.S.-based investment and logistics management firm Ovamba.
Moguldom: Why did you start Ovamba?
Marvin Cole: I started Ovamba with my partner, Viola Llewellyn, to focus on what we saw as a massive unmet need in Africa and emerging Asia. We wanted to help small businesses grow to become leaders and solve the issues traditional financiers aren’t able to solve. Most businesses in underserved communities fail, in part because of capital, but also because of lack of expertise, lack of access to scale and to the marketplace. Ovamba brings together capital support. It brings together supply chain expertise. It brings together technology to prevent fraud so that a small business becomes a well-run business. A well-run business over time almost inevitably becomes a mid-size or large business. That’s what we do.
Moguldom: Ovamba not only works with small businesses but also with investors. Can you explain your work with investors and businesses?
Marvin Cole: Absolutely. We raise money from global investors, primarily European, Japanese institutional investors, as well as American high-net-worth individuals who understand the emerging markets based in Africa, Asia, etc. They invest their money which helps with providing the goods and raw materials or inventory a company may need to grow. We don’t provide cash to anyone. We are not a lender. We combine the technologies at our disposal that are needed to lower the businesses’ upgrading costs. We create a marketplace where they can better sell their products. We help take the most painful parts of running a business out of their hands and become a part of their team. They grow where they need to grow, they get better pricing by using our support and they get better management expertise and management insights to grow and manage their business and together, everyone makes money.
Moguldom: You are operating in different countries. What has been a challenge for you when you started the business and even just scaling it?
Marvin Cole: Yes. We operate now in Asia and Africa, in multiple countries. The biggest challenge is that what we do is very different, because no one thinks about wanting investments, in terms of wanting money alone and investors, want to enter new markets, but are unfamiliar with them, like Cameroon, or the Ivory Coast. Trying to help businesses understand that to succeed in scale, it’s a different challenge than to survive as a small business. Managing 10 locations versus one location is always going to be different and a different skill set that they need to grow and that’s what we help them do — to help manage risk, as well for our investors because we’re involved operationally. For the investors, we had to demonstrate we understood these very lesser-known markets and our ability to control goods and be operationally involved and be able to come back to them with profits. It was a two-fold game, both sides comfortable with a very new way of investing and running a small business.
In the next 80 years, there’ll be 4 billion Africans. I think what you’ll see is Africa being the next China plus India combined. If you’re early and understand the market, the opportunities are significant.” — Marvin Cole, co-founder and CEO of U.S.-based investment and logistics management firm Ovamba.
Moguldom: What’s the minimum amount you require for investors?
Marvin Cole: We have two types of investors — institutional and individual. For institutional investors, they normally come in at a minimum of $250,000 or higher. For individual investors today, we only take what are called sophisticated investors, or high-worth investors and they normally start at $50,000. It’s not open to everybody. It’s for people who have resources.
Moguldom: What do you feel are some of your notable wins?
Marvin Cole: I think the most notable win has been the fact that even in countries that went through civil war, had significant terror attacks, Ovamba managed to keep our loss rates on our regular operations below 8 percent and protecting precious capital, while growing businesses on average of 250 percent per year. We’re quite proud of that accomplishment. In the toughest circumstances possible, the businesses are still growing. They are still providing food, medicine, and manufacturing supplies needed for the overall economy, even when there is conflict. We’re aware of the social impact of helping women-owned businesses grow and compete in markets. These woman-owned companies have created many jobs. Another win is the significant Japanese and European investments into countries that were never on investment radar. We hope to turn markets like Cameroon, or the Central African Republic, or Ivory Coast, or many countries into places that are as common and easy to invest in as France, or the U.K., or Japan via our systems, which minimize losses, protect investment and create money for everybody involved.
Moguldom: Besides you and your co-founder, how many people are employed by Ovamba?
Marvin Cole: Toady, across our offices, including contractors, we have around 45 people total. That’s U.S., Cameroon, South Africa, India, and Mauritius and also hopefully, Dubai soon.
Moguldom: What are your thoughts on building a good team?
Marvin Cole: My rule is always trying to find people smarter than me and better than me in whatever area I need help. Then, who also share the same values. We are a mission-driven organization. We are very focused on the type of people who believe in what we do and our mission. (If) they have the right skill set, the right passion, it becomes very easy to work in partnership with those people. It’s a mutual effort.
We hope to turn markets like Cameroon, or the Central African Republic, or Ivory Coast, or many countries into places that are as common and easy to invest in as France, or the U.K., or Japan via our systems, which minimize losses, protect investment and create money for everybody involved.” — Marvin Cole, co-founder and CEO of U.S.-based investment and logistics management firm Ovamba.
Moguldom: It seems many people are talking about — or doing — tech business in Africa. Do you feel like it could potentially be the home of the next Silicon Valley?
Marvin Cole: I wouldn’t say it’s the next Silicon Valley. It’s going to be African innovation that will have African characteristics. It’s 1 billion-plus people today, and in the next 80 years, there’ll be 4 billion Africans. I think what you’ll see is Africa being the next China plus India combined. If you’re early and understand the market, the opportunities are significant to create massive local and regional wealth.
Moguldom: You not only raise capital for your customers, but for Ovamba. How much have you raised for your company, how much have you helped to raise for your clients?
Marvin Cole: Sure. We raised in venture and angel investments, $2 million. That was in 2014. We’ve raised for our network of SMEs and helped invest in them a bit more than 21 million euros at this time.
Moguldom: What do the next five years look like for Ovamba?
Marvin Cole: The core of what we do will not change. The innovations we have designed are now proven in a few markets. We will continue to expand anywhere in the world, where business is fundamentally underserved, in underserved communities. We’ve also proven to investors they can earn mid-teen returns, 13-percent-to-18-percent per annum, investing in these communities that no one thought were investible, and the businesses can pay back and still grow, despite paying those returns.