US Asset Manager Backs Nigerian Online Travel Platform Founded By Former NBA Player With $40M Investment

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Written by Peter Pedroncelli

U.S. alternative asset manager Carlyle Group has made a $40 million investment in Nigerian online travel platform Wakanow, making it one of the major disclosed African tech deals of 2018.

The Lagos-based online travel company secured a $40-million equity investment from the U.S. asset manager’s sub-Saharan African fund, according to IOL.

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Wakanow is an online travel company that delivers travel services related to flights, accommodation, visa assistance, vacation packages, and airport transportation, with a focus on the West and East African markets.

The company also runs a network of traditional brick-and-mortar travel centers where bookings can be made directly with agents.

The Carlyle Group is a Washington D.C.-based global alternative asset manager with $212 billion of assets under management across 339 investment vehicles.

This new investment adds to Carlyle’s online travel portfolio, where it has invested in companies such as Chinese online travel agency C-trip, Latin American travel and tour operator CVC Brasil and Vasco Turismo, one of the largest travel operations groups in Peru, according to TechcityNG.

online travel
Former NBA basketball player Obinna Ekezie is the CEO of Wakanow. Image – AP Photo – Donna McWilliam

Wakanow was launched in 2008 by former NBA basketball player Obinna Ekezie, and he continues to lead the company as CEO.

Nigerian-born Ekezie played as a center for five NBA teams from 1999 to 2005, representing the Vancouver Grizzlies, Washington Wizards, Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Clippers and Atlanta Hawks, according to BasketballReferences.

He founded Wakanow after he became frustrated with the lack of online booking options available to book travel between his native Nigeria and other parts of the world, BusinessCollective reports.

Since then, the company has gone on to launch operations in Ghana, Kenya, the United Arab Emirates and the U.K..

The $40 million investment makes this one of the biggest funding deals of the year for African tech, and the largest for Nigeria, with only South African fintech platform Jumo‘s $64.5 million and Kenyan digital payments solution firm Cellulant‘s $47.5 million funding rounds topping Wakanow’s investment.

Online travel market in Nigeria

Wakanow’s success in raising funding speaks volumes about its progress, but also of the maturity of the Nigerian online travel market.

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Africa’s largest economy has a number of players in the online booking business, with TravelBeta, Hotel.ng, JumiaTravel and Travelstart all competing with Wakanow, according to Ventureburn.

The year 2018 saw successful funding rounds for some Nigerian tech firms, with a specific focus on the fintech sector.

In February Nigerian blockchain startup SureRemit raised $7 million in the biggest African initial coin offering to date, according to BitcoinAfrica.

The fintech firm, which uses blockchain to cut the cost of and increase access to digital payments in Africa, made a utility token available that was designed on the Stellar Network.

In May it was the turn of Lidya, a Nigerian fintech platform that offers small business loans, to raise $6.9 million in Series A funding, according to Ventureburn.

The startup aims to support the growth of small and medium-sized businesses with small loans through their platform, which relies on innovative credit scoring algorithms.

The funding round was led by Omidyar Network, the Silicon Valley impact investment firm established by Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay.

September then saw two more Nigerian fintech firms raise capital, with Paystack, a fintech startup providing payments tools to businesses across Africa, successfully raising $8 million in Series A funding, and Nigerian mobile payments company Paga, raising $10 million in Series B funding.

Paystack brought its total investment to date to $10 million following the $8 million investment led by U.S.-based online payments software company Stripe, according to Techcrunch.

Paga’s funding round was led by Global Innovation Fund, with participation from Goodwell InvestmentsUnreasonable CapitalOmidyar Network, and equity fund Adlevo Capital, according to Ventureburn.