It is rarely boring interacting with Sangu Delle. He may have a Harvard CV and an extensive track record as an investor, but he wears his success lightly, with a puckish sense of fun.
I knew that my four attempts to secure an interview with him from Accra were unlikely to be dull.
First cancellation: travel problems. Second: Delle sends a picture of himself lying in a hospital bed with a drip in his arm. Food poisoning. A week later he still wasn’t feeling good. Another week on – fourth time lucky.
A rogue Caprese salad, in Nairobi, was the culprit, he reckons, while he was in town to check on one of his new investments. That firm – Wasoko, meaning “people of the market” in Swahili – is among the continent’s faster growing startups and Delle was in from the start.
“Wasoko is super interesting because what they do is they basically aggregate demand from small mom-and-pop stores. And they aggregate that demand to order those things directly from manufacturers or large distributors. So, it’s an interesting win-win,” he says.
With its technology-driven supply chain, Wasoko moves goods to half a dozen countries including Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania, with new operations launched in Zambia and Democratic Republic of Congo this year.
Investors poured in $125m in a Series B round last year – the largest raise for a non-fintech startup in Africa. Delle says his Golden Palm Investments Corporation, which he founded and chairs, aims to get the best out of emerging companies like Wasoko.
“We’ve continued to invest and have made bets in Egypt, Ghana and Nigeria, East Africa and in southern Africa. Recently, we’ve done a big investment in North Africa. We continue to invest in the best entrepreneurs on the continent solving the biggest problems or challenges and we focus on tech and tech enabled businesses. We’ve had some notable wins in the portfolio, such as Flutterwave.”
Nigerian fintech outfit Flutterwave is, along with Andela, a global job-placement network for software developers, among Delle’s major hits. They represent moments of canny ground floor investment born of sheer gut instinct.
Not your usual investor
The story began when Iyin Aboyeji approached Delle for investment. Many young African investors would have been worried, concerned, scared even, when sending capital to an unknown quantity and beginner. But Delle was won over by the Aboyeji’s vision and confidence.
“He called me and said I am starting this new fintech company. He hadn’t even incorporated, I kid you not. I am such a big believer in him and wired $300,000 to his account. He called me and said: ‘Hey bro’ and I said ‘If you call me again, I will wire more’!” says Delle with a laugh.
“Yes, Sangu is and has always been one special investor,” says Aboyeji, co-founder of Andela, and former managing director of Flutterwave, when I ask him about the story.
“One time at Flutterwave, where I worked with him more closely on the fundraising side, he wired me $100k in between rounds and refused to take the money back even though we were oversubscribed.”
Delle’s entry valuation at the fintech unicorn Flutterwave was $2.5m. In 2022, that stake was estimated to be worth $120m.
‘There’s going to be a graveyard’
These days, says Delle, he maintains a much smaller stake in Flutterwave, of about $5m.
Yet for all this bullishness, fintech is not what it was in West Africa. Some of the big names have closed in difficult economic conditions. Delle is concerned but calm, and as usual, looking at things another way – through the prism of the 1972 gangster epic The Godfather.
He evokes the scene where, before setting off to assassinate a rival gangster and a corrupt police captain, Michael Corleone asks a member of his crime family how bad the ensuing gang war is likely to be. “Pretty goddamn bad,” the capo replies. “These things gotta happen every five years or so… helps to get rid of the bad blood.”
“It’s similar here, where death is necessary,” says Delle of the fintech scene. “We’re gonna have a graveyard. We’ve already seen a number of operations shut down.
“And these are guys not able to adapt, or who don’t have the right business model and, quite frankly, cannot raise any more cash and are not self-sustaining from a cash flow perspective.”
No pain, no gain
Should we therefore be depressed about the sector’s future?
“I see huge opportunities, because every time there’s pain, there’s going to be opportunities. It’s going to bring down the cost of acquisitions, it’s going to create opportunities to create some stickiness with the customers. There’s a bunch of interesting things we’ll be able to take advantage of and leverage that into increased stability,” he says.
“We don’t invest when the market is up. In fact, some of the great opportunities are when the market is down. That’s what we’re paid to do. And good market, bad market, it doesn’t matter. We need to go in there and figure out how to create value for customers.”
Delle believes AI is likely to feature heavily in his investment strategy in Africa.
Another of his ventures is CarePoint, a tech healthcare system operating across the continent.
“We’ve partnered with Microsoft AI for health. And we’re working on developing AI tools to help manage chronic conditions like hypertension and diabetes,” he says.
“We don’t have enough radiologists. And you could basically have an AI system that talks. Secondly, you can have an algorithm that’s able to do that and it does that with higher accuracy than humans.”
From cows to clinics
It has been quite a journey for the entrepreneur turned investor whose first money-maker had four legs and horns.
“When I was in Burkina Faso I loved kebabs and they were significantly cheaper than kebabs in Ghana and I thought: how can this be possible?” he recalls.
Delle went to investigate the cattle fields of Burkina Faso.
“I chased it all the way to the cows and realised cows were literally half price. So, I rented a truck, bought a bunch of cows in Burkina Faso and brought them to Ghana and called it Cowbitrage,” he says.
“We actually did very well, we harvested and returned capital and investors were super happy and made great returns and invested more. I had all these ideas. We started a real estate business. The thesis was the urbanisation rate would increase, and demand in both residential and commercial [property]. We moved into aquaculture as well, and agroforestry.
“We started in the healthcare business, acquired one clinic and the idea was to take technology to transform it.”
It wasn’t all shining success. An investment in Zambia turned out to be not so bright. The company was Zamsolar, a promising looking solar tech business based in Lusaka that foundered on a volatile currency and the philanthropy of NGOs.
“It was 10 years ago, or so. These guys were doing well and growing quickly – but then they had competition from the NGOs that gave out solar panels for free. Growth margins just tanked – you can’t compete with free!”
Delle is proud to be part of the 20% of investors in Africa who were born and bred there, but remains cautious: “I am not one to just say ‘Yeah Africa, kumbaya.’ I think there are some real challenges here.”
Unlocking Africa’s potential
He is pessimistic about the economy of the land of his birth, Ghana.
“Interest rates are about 30% and inflation is 40% plus, so that’s why we’re seeing that sort of wild fluctuation in the market. About 18 months ago, that currency was about five against the dollar. And it’s swung all the way up, over a few months, to 15. I’m not confident in the existing regime’s prescriptions.”
These tales of economic woe, from the Cape to the Mediterranean sea, are a blow to Africa’s appeal to investors.
“I’ll say that it’s fallen out of favour, which is understandable. When interest rates rise, there’s massive capital flight: but I think the fundamentals of the economy are still quite strong. And I think this is significant, but still very much a temporary setback in the longer arc of the trajectory of Africa’s socioeconomic development. And I think that’s going to be powered by a lot of things. But undoubtedly, tech is going to play a prominent role.
“Making sure you have good government, with regulations that make sense and that are not stopping the growth of the business. Creating a conducive environment so businesses will flourish. A second thing is power. I always say the Nigerians are so entrepreneurial, if the only thing the government can do is to fix its power that country is going to take off.”
Empowering women will also be key to unlocking Africa’s potential, he argues.
“The women on the continent give us the playbook of inspiration. They are the very symbol of resilience – with everything they built over the last several centuries of structural oppression, social and cultural mores that quite expressly unnecessarily discriminate against women, and the lack of equal access to opportunity and funding. In spite of all of that, women have continued to be tireless and important economic actors and great contributors to the economy,” he says.
Like mother, like son
That spirit was passed to him at a very young age from his grandmother and mother and continues to drive him today.
“I think I was six and they were constructing the road in front of our house. There was nowhere to get food or water – you had to walk miles to get anything. So, I would put water in the fridge and sell it to the construction workers. The Ghanaian version of the lemonade stand.
“I was making some coins and my mother found out and she was appalled that I would dare charge the construction workers: ‘Why don’t you just give them the water?’ What I took away from that was when you make money, hide it from mom, don’t let her find it in your shorts!”
After all his years of investment success, Delle would need a big pair of shorts these days.
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