INSIDE YOCO:

The story of the most creative fintech start-up in Africa

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Before the founding of African fintech company Yoco seven years ago, it was almost impossible for most small businesses in South Africa to obtain a payment device. This meant that most traders could only accept payments in cash, which exposed them to crime. Many of the financial institutions providing such payment devices took too long to do so, or imposed high requirements – such as expecting a trader to earn more than R25 000 a month, as well as pay high fees.

A trip to the United States by Katlego Maphai changed all of that. During a visit to San Francisco, he witnessed how Square, the US pioneer in mobile point-of-sale space, was empowering small business owners. Maphai’s light-bulb moment occurred when he visited a run-down eatery that sold great BBQ. He watched the owner, a black American woman, take payment for a $40 sale – and process it with ease on a low-end Android phone. He suddenly realised mobile technology was empowering this small-business owner; at the same time, the eatery no longer felt like a hole in the wall, it felt like a business. The applicability of such a payment platform and its potential impact on small traders in Africa slowly started to dawn on him, and stayed with him even as he got going at Rocket Internet (his previous employer).

The realisation triggered a meeting of minds with three other friends – Lungisa Matshoba, Carl Wazen and Bradley Wattrus – who were working in different companies at the time, to come together in a venture to empower South African small business owners through a financial technology platform.

From the start it was not easy, particularly the process of applying for a payments licence. According to Wazen, one of the co-founders, it took Yoco almost a year to get a licence. During this time, there were also doubters who just did not take the Yoco team seriously. Once Yoco received their payments licence in 2014, the founders closed a seed round to start building tools and services to help small businesses get paid, run better and grow.

PRODUCT

The building process has been one of the most impressive elements of this important African tech start-up. Since the day Matshoba proved the system worked, enabling payments, the company has built a suite of products custom-designed for the small business sector. Yoco did not just build an app or website; the company falls under a category of companies about which the late Apple CEO Steve Jobs once said: “People who are really serious about software should make their own hardware.”

Apple had a track record of making their own hardware and software work together really, really well. Yoco also does this very well. This fintech company has created its own hardware as well as its own software. When small businesses get their first device it gives them a reason to show it to the world via a tweet.

One of Yoco’s iconic products is the Yoco Go, which is South Africa’s most affordable card machine. It is a pocket-sized device that tethers via Bluetooth to a smartphone, enabling tap, swipe, or chip & pin transactions. The Yoco Go integrates with the Yoco App to provide a comprehensive payments solution for mobile traders and vendors, early-stage start-ups and small businesses of all kinds.

Then there’s Yoco Neo, a device that has greater abilities while remaining small. A 3G standalone card machine, it is capable of processing payments without needing to connect via Bluetooth to a secondary smart device. It comes with an all-day battery, built-in SIM card and unlimited data, which enables successful transactions without being dependent on power or WiFi. It integrates seamlessly with the Yoco App to provide a simple, but powerful payments solution. The Yoco Neo has a colour touchscreen, 48-hour on-device sales history and the ability to send receipts via SMS or email.

For established businesses Yoco has built the Yoco Pro, which is a countertop premium card machine designed for established businesses such as busy retail stores, restaurants and bars. The Yoco Pro is the perfect solution for businesses that require integration with smart accounting and POS software. It accepts tap, swipe, and chip & pin card payments via Bluetooth tether, and fits all Yoco charging stands for an on-counter setup. Like all Yoco solutions, it integrates with the Yoco App. Additionally, the Yoco Pro has a tipping facility for staff.

While most people know about Yoco’s devices, the company has also built online systems that enable seamless payments. One that was tested and introduced during the COVID-19 pandemic is Yoco Payment Gateway, a simple, seamless payment gateway that integrates with a WordPress/WooCommerce or Wix e-commerce store. It is the first plugin launched by Yoco and provides merchants with a means to streamline their transactions from multiple payment sources. Then there’s Yoco Business Portal, which comes free alongside any Yoco card machine. All sales made through Yoco Point of Sale (card, cash, AFT, mobile payments and more) are tracked in the Portal. It enables business owners to keep track of performance week by week and manage every element of their business from products in their inventory to the price of products, staff access and more. Yoco’s Online Payment Suite is accessible via Business Portal.

Every device is also accompanied by the Yoco App, which places a powerful Point-Of-Sale system in a business owner’s back pocket for tracking sales, managing stock and getting real-time business insights. Its sophisticated integration with Yoco’s card machines enables card payments of all types to be processed securely and effortlessly. It is free for business owners with a Yoco card machine.

Every Yoco product has been built and designed with an entrepreneur in mind. Yoco Capital is one proof that this fintech company is not just pushing tech for tech’s sake, but it is designed to support the entrepreneur. Yoco Capital is a fast and flexible funding mechanism for eligible Yoco merchants. Small businesses are pre-approved for the applicable amount based on their card sales through the Yoco card machine. Once disbursed, owners are able to use the funds to grow their business. Repayments are made automatically as a percentage of daily Yoco card sales.

All of these products have been embraced by the small business community.

BRAND & CULTURE.

Similar to the way Apple amassed a cult following, Yoco has attracted a huge number of followers within the small business community in South Africa. The company organised (before the onset of COVID-19) meet-ups for the small business community, known as YocoMeets, that made attendees feel they were attending a business concert. During the pandemic, Yoco became the first company to host Twitter Spaces (virtual events) to motivate the same community during one of the toughest periods for SA businesses in recent times. It is this approach which makes Yoco unique, and attracts so much investment into a country that is struggling to attract foreign investment. Yoco is not just building a business; it’s building a movement of small business owners on the African continent.

It is an approach that has positioned Yoco as one of the most important tech start-ups in South Africa. It is no surprise then that the company has secured significant funding during a pandemic.

In the middle of a gloomy business period for South Africa, Yoco has attracted R1.2 billion from global investors. This is the largest single investment raised by a small business-focused payments platform in the Middle East and Africa, and the largest ever raised by a payments company in South Africa. Among Yoco’s new investors are Dragoneer Investment Group, which is making its Africa investment debut, after having previously backed fintech giants such as Chime, Nubank, Mercado Libre, Square and Klarna. Also joining the round were Breyer Capital, HOF Capital, The Raba Partnership, 4DX Ventures, TO Ventures and several current and former executives from global tech leaders such as Coinbase, Revolut, Spotify, and Gojek. The funding round also included existing Yoco investors Partech, Velocity Capital Fintech Ventures, Orange Ventures, Quona Capital and FMO.

What is it about Yoco that attracts global investors to invest in a youth-led company during a pandemic, as wells as in one of the most challenging environments in which to do business?

The answer is that Yoco is no ordinary tech company. It is in a class of its own compared to other tech start-ups operating in South Africa. There have been a few other companies which have raised a greater amount of venture and growth capital than Yoco, but those that did so either do not operate in South Africa, or, in one case, was the result of an acquisition/merger with a local tech giant.

Yoco is a survivor, operating in a very hostile African tech environment – where you either get crushed, or get acquired. Yoco has achieved its position sans corporate backing and without being swallowed-up by a banking group.

The total funds raised to date by Yoco stands at US$107 million, which will enable South Africa’s fintech darling to accelerate the development of its financial ecosystem for small businesses – which already includes online and in-store payments, business software and capital – as well as to expand its market presence beyond the country’s borders.

Yoco has big plans to seize this opportunity through deepening its market presence in South Africa over the next two years, while at the same time expanding into Africa and the Middle East. The goal, according to Wazen, Yoco’s chief business officer, is to reach at least a million merchants within the next four years. Currently, Yoco is piloting its technologies in Mauritius, with plans to add another country by the beginning of next year.

Maphai views this investment as something that will enable not just growth for Yoco, but for other small businesses. Commenting on the significance of this funding, he said: “Yoco is at the forefront of solving what is critical for small businesses and enabling them to thrive. This new capital injection translates into an acceleration of access for small businesses in our region and beyond, bringing forward our vision of open commerce.”

If there was ever a doubt about the value of the South African tech start-up ecosystem, Yoco has proven that these companies matter in the economy.

This moment serves as an inspiration to many other start-up companies to pursue their mission, despite the current economic climate. Yoco has shown that there’s an interest in funding businesses which deliver value and have a propensity to scale.

All of these factors make Yoco an entity that is worth working for, especially for innovators. Fast Company has chosen Yoco as one of the Best Workplaces for Innovators among similar companies around the world. Reasons for this recognition include the fact that Yoco developed the Small Business Recovery Monitor in response to the current pandemic. The monitor shows the ratio between pre-lockdown 2020 revenue and current revenue for small businesses. This dashboard became a key source of information for those seeking a better understanding of the pandemic’s effect on small businesses in South Africa. It also provided real-time insights into how local businesses were faring during the lockdown.

Conscious of an interest from innovators to work at Yoco, the fintech company aims to increase its talented employee pool by 200 people within the coming year.

It has already attracted top talent to its executive ranks from companies such as Monzo, Paypal, and Uber, as well as a new chairman of its board in Juan Fuentes, the former managing director of Pagseguro, a business that he grew into a $19 billion payments giant in Brazil. Yoco also seeks to expand this to talented individuals, across Europe, the Middle East and Africa, who share the company’s  passion and commitment to accelerating the development of its products.

Yoco will become a key player in the development of Africa’s financial technology infrastructure. Part of this may mean acquisitions, which will lead to a major tech player growing out of the African continent.

ABOUT THE CO-FOUNDERS

Katlego Maphai is one of Yoco’s co-founders and its chief executive officer.

He is responsible for driving the execution of the Yoco vision and strategy; growing enterprise value; and, ensuring the team stays aligned.

He was born to academic parents in Johannesburg in 1983. Their work took the young Maphai from Soweto to Cape Town, Cambridge, Princeton, Palo Alto, Pretoria, and eventually back to Cape Town. Growing up in such diverse, multicultural environments from a young age shaped his outlook significantly.

He studied business science at the University of Cape Town, majoring in information systems. After graduating, he went on to work for Accenture, in the communications and hi-tech industry sector. Later, he moved to TMT advisory and investment firm in Delta Partners, working across Africa and the Middle East. After returning to Cape Town in 2012, Maphai joined Rocket Internet. He formed part of the core team that set up Jumia.com.ng in Nigeria.

Katlego believes in using market-creating innovation to remove barriers, tackle inequality and foster prosperity.

Lungisa Matshoba is a co-founder and the CTO of Yoco.

He was born to medical doctor parents in Umtata, and grew up between the Eastern and Western Cape.

Matshoba had a passion for business, and started his first venture at the age of 13, designing and printing business cards from a computer his mother had purchased as an educational tool for the family. He later studied business science, and majored in computer science at the University of Cape Town. He then decided to follow his passion, and co-founded Yeigo Communications, a mobile VoIP start-up that built and commercialised one of the world’s first 3G-based calling solutions.

Matshoba was taking a break from start-up life in 2012, when Katlego Maphai approached him to become the fourth member of the Yoco founding team.  At Yoco, he has predominantly focused on technology, product development and innovation.

Bradley Wattrus is a co-founder and the CFO of Yoco.

He looks after strategic finance, legal, and regulatory business at Yoco. Wattrus was raised in Johannesburg by parents who both worked in the technology sector. He studied actuarial science at the University of the Witwatersrand.  After graduating, Bradley joined Monitor Group, before seizing the opportunity to join Rocket Internet, where he met and worked with Maphai while setting up Jumia.com.ng in Nigeria. After returning to Cape Town, Wattrus reconnected with Maphai, and met Wazen and Matshoba, jointly starting Yoco in 2014.

He is passionate about creating positive change in the world, and loves building things from the ground up by focusing on doing the right things in the right way.

Carl Wazen is a co-founder and the chief business officer at Yoco.

He has predominantly focused on growth, business strategy, partnerships and investor relations.

Wazen started his career at Citigroup investment bank in Dubai. He then went on to work as a management consultant and private equity investor at Delta Partners, where he met fellow co-founder Maphai. They later left the company to start Yoco.

Wazen is a British-Lebanese citizen, born to a family of entrepreneurs. He grew up between London and Beirut, and now lives in Dubai.

 

Wesley Diphoko

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