Nigeria’s Piggybank.ng raises $1.1M, announces group investment product

Seeking to tap into Africa’s informal savings groups the Nigerian investment startup Piggybank.ng closed $1.1M in seed funding and announced a new product — Smart Target, which offers a more secure and higher return option for Esusu or Ajo group savings clubs common across West Africa.

The financing was led with a $1 million commitment from LeadPath Nigeria, with Village Capital and Ventures Platform contributing $50,000 each.

Founded in 2016, Piggybank.ng offers online savings plans — primarily to low and middle income Nigerians — for deposits of small amounts on a daily, weekly, monthly, or annual basis. There are no upfront fees.

Savers earn interest rates of between 6 to 10 percent, depending on the type and duration of investment, Piggybank.ng’s Somto Ifezue told TechCrunch in Lagos with co-founders Odunayo Eweniyi and Joshua Chibueze.

Users need an account with one of PiggyBank.ng’s bank partners to use the products. The startup generates returns for small-scale savers (primarily) through investment in Nigerian government securities, such as bonds and treasury bills.

PiggyBank.ng generates revenue through asset management and from the float its balances generate at partner banks.

The startup looks to grow clients across younger Nigerians and the country’s informal saving groups.

“The market that we are trying to serve is largely the millennial market, though we do not exclude anyone,” said Eweniyi, the company’s chief operating officer. The venture also looks to meet a demand in Nigeria for accessible investment options, citing a survey they conducted indicating that as a top priority for people with discretionary income.

“Piggybank offers savings, but our vision is not just savings, but to become a holistic platform — a financial warehouse — where other financial providers can plug in their services for PiggyBank users,” said Eweniyi. She cited banks, investment houses, insurance, and pension funds as possible partners.

The company currently has 53,000 registered users — 60 percent of whom are Nigerian Millennials — who have saved in excess of $5M since 2016, according to a release.

PiggyBank.ng will use its $1.1M in new seed funding for “license acquisition and product development.”

The startup has taken preliminary steps to launch in other African countries (Kenya in particular) but could not offer exact details.

Groups will be able to choose savings options and goals through PiggyBank.ng’s app and receive automated disbursement of returns across their individual bank accounts, according to COO Eweniyi .

As for how the company assures savers it won’t become another Ponzi scheme, Piggybank.ng and its lead investor point to the startup’s pending banking license with Nigeria’s Central Bank. The company is in the process of acquiring a micro-finance banking license, something LeadPath Nigeria founder Olumide Soyombo confirmed on a call with TechCrunch. He also pointed to Piggybank’s client balances being held with registered banks, which are protected under Nigeria’s own FDIC type banking insurance.

Soyombo will take a role on Piggybank.ng’s board and he’d like to see them open up new options for individuals to input money on the platform. “The agent network business is a huge play we plan to go into. They’ve basically become like human ATMs,” Soyombo said. He referenced Nigerian digital payment company Paga and Safaricom’s M-Pesa with large agent network stations where clients can fund digital accounts with cash.

While digital payments products have caught on in certain parts of Africa, E-Trade type citizen investment platforms have yet to emerge at any scale.

Soyombo doesn’t see Piggybank.ng moving from fixed income investments to equities just yet. “Maybe down the line stocks could be an interesting play, but not right now. People are currently looking for a more risk free place to e-tail,” he said.

Soyombo believes Piggybank.ng has the potential to become an acquisition target.

“They usually only happen in our market with two main players: banks and telcos,” he said. “The banks have been slow to try new things in this savings space. Piggybank is coming in…and filling a particular need, so they are in a very acquisitive space.”

Google launches a Q&A app for neighborhood communities in India

Google is increasing its focus on India after it released a new social app that’s aimed at building neighborhood communities within cities in the country.

The company’s ‘Next Billion’ team in charge of emerging markets has dedicated significant resources to India. Its initiatives include data-friendly versions of YouTube and other popular services, its Tez mobile payment app, a food delivery service and a national WiFi network initiative. Now it is adding one more to the list with the release of Neighbourly, a Q&A app for sharing local knowledge.

The basic goal is to give local communities an outlet to seek answers to practical questions about local life, routine and more. Google believes that an increase in urban migration, short-term leasing and busy lives has changed the dynamic of local communities and made it harder to share information quite so easily.

“Life happens close to home, in order the of a 1-2km radius, and local questions come up all the time. But as cities get bigger and bigger, we’re finding that these local questions are getting hard to use — word of mouth used to be key,” Josh Woodward, a product manager within the Next Billion initiative, explained to TechCrunch.

“We built neighborly as a way to connect you with your neighborhood, ask questions, share expertise and stay up to date in a safe way,” he added.

This idea is nothing new, of course. Already in India, WhatsApp — which counts 200 million users in the country — has a range of community groups, but the big issue is discovery since new users have to be added to the group directly.

The new Google app is much like Jelly, the question and answer service from Twitter co-founder Biz Stone that was ultimately bought by Pinterest, but with localized tweaks. A beta version of the app is initially available in Mumbai, but users located in other areas can join a waitlist pending expansion.

Questions and answers are handled via swipeable cards — who knew Tinder’s design would reach neighborhood community apps in India — while the app uses GPS to add a user into their neighborhood right from sign-up.

Woodward said Google is employing ranking and personalization technology which, over time, will match users with the kind of questions they can answer or have shown an interest in. For now, the service is app-based with a read-only mobile web version.

Google’s local tweaks to make the app easy to use include voice-based entry for questions, which covers a range of India’s non-English languages, and a series of prompts that pop up when a user decides to post a question to help them start.

The company has looked at safety issues, and made it easy to flag content which is unsuitable. Once flagged, Woodward confirmed the content is passed to a local content moderator who asses whether it is “neighborly.”

In terms of safety, users sign up using a first name only, there is no private messaging or phone number requirement, and individual profile photos cannot be copied via screenshot and don’t expand when clicked to prevent being stolen. That taps into concern women have about their photos being abused, an issue that Facebook has taken measures against in India, too.

In fact, at sign-up, Google asks users to agree to a ‘contract’ — “I will respect my neighbors” — before letting them into the app. But still, you’d imagine that the laws of the internet will mean that some people will misuse the service.

Profile pages do, however, display badges earned by answering questions — both an incentive and a display of trust, according to Woodward — while users can follow, and be followed, to keep with certain users and their content.

Google tested the app on thousands of users over a period of about a month to get the mechanics right. Woodward said that 30-50 percent of questions were answered within five minutes, which bodes well but discovery looks like being the key issue. That was ultimately the downfall of Jelly, albeit that both apps serve very different audiences and purposes.

Further down the line, Woodward said that Google could add business accounts and integrate other Google services into Neighbourly, but for now the sink-or-swim challenge is to make an impact.

The launch of Neighbourly comes the same day that Google launched Files Go in China. In doing so, the search giant gave a glimpse at its new strategy for China, which involves opportunistic product launches, relationships and strategic investments.

Australians will no longer be able to order from Amazon’s American site

Starting in July, Australians will be blocked from ordering items on Amazon’s United States site. The company said today that shoppers in Australia will be redirected to its local site, Amazon.com.au, and that its international sites, including Amazon.com, will no longer ship to Australian addresses. The change is in response to a new tax regulation that goes into effect on July 1 and requires businesses earning more than $75,000 AUD a year to charge Australia’s 10% Goods and Services Tax (GST) on low value items imported by consumers.

Called the “Amazon tax,” the new policy was introduced following concerns about the impact of Amazon and other large overseas e-commerce businesses on Australian retailers, who have to apply GST to all products they sell. A loophole in tax regulations, however, means that the GST is currently applied only to items purchased from overseas retailers if they are worth $1,000 AUD or more, which many local companies argued gave Amazon, eBay and other overseas competitors an unfair advantage.

Amazon launched its Australian site last December and says it currently has 60 million products, a fraction of the estimated 500 million products that are listed on Amazon’s U.S. site. As a placation, Australian customers will also have access to 4 million products that were previously available only on Amazon.com through its new Global Store.

In a statement emailed to TechCrunch, an Amazon spokesperson said:

“As a result of changes to Australian GST law on 1 July, international shopping options for Australian customers will change.

While we regret any inconvenience this may cause customers, we have had to assess the workability of the legislation as a global business with multiple international sites. Based on our assessment, we will redirect Australian customers from our international sites to amazon.com.au where they can shop for products sold by Amazon US on the new Global Store, available today. This will allow us to provide our customers with continued access to international selection and remain compliant with the law which requires us to collect and remit GST on products sold on Amazon sites that are shipped from overseas.”

Uber is looking at adding benefits and insurance for drivers

At the Code Conference tonight, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi spoke about the company’s relationship with drivers, autonomous driving, uberEATS having a $6 billion bookings run rate, taking over as CEO and flying taxis, obviously.

Just this week, San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera sent subpoenas to Uber and Lyft seeking information on driver pay, benefits and classification info. Uber wasn’t available for comment at the time, but now it seems that the company is looking at ways to offer benefits and insurance to drivers. Specifically, Uber is looking at an economically-sound way to offer drivers a benefits and insurance package so that “this can be a safer way of living,” Khosrowshahi said.

And despite what former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick said in the past about needing to get rid of the driver, Khosrowshahi said he disagrees.

“The face of Uber is the person sitting in the front seat,” Khosrowshahi said. He added that it usually is a man driving, but that he would “love to have more women sitting in the front seat” because it’s a “great form of employment.”

Still, Uber is moving ahead with autonomous driving. That’s in light of the fatal car accident in Tempe, Arizona involving one of Uber’s autonomous vehicles.

“We will get back on the road over the summer,” Khosrowshahi said.

Uber also envisions licensing its technology — once it’s safe enough — to third-parties and original equipment manufacturers (OEMs). Despite the high-profile lawsuit between Uber and Waymo over self-driving car technology, Khosrowshahi said he’d welcome Waymo to put its cars into its network. Regarding Uber’s relationship with Waymo, Khosrowshahi said it’s “getting better.”

In addition to Uber’s core driver business and autonomous driving, it has several other things going on for it. One of those is uberEATS, which Khosrowshahi said has a $6 billion run rate, is growing 200 percent and is the biggest food delivery company in the world, with the exception of those in China.

Uber also recently acquired JUMP Bikes for about $200 million, launched UberRENT, announced a public transportation partnership with Masabi and is working on flying cars via its Elevate program.

Just like residential and buildings have gone three-dimensional, Khosrowshahi said, “you’re going to have to build a third-dimension in terms of transportation.”

For Uber, Elevate is its “big bet” on that third-dimension of transportation, he said. The big plan with all of these modes of transportations — whether that’s bike-sharing, ride-sharing, flight-sharing or whatnot — is to become a multi-modal transportation service.

“We want to be the Amazon for transportation,” Khosrowshahi said.

Earlier in the conversation, Khosrowshahi shed some light into how he had no idea he’d get the chief executive officer job at Uber. In fact, he said that while his wife thought he would get the job, he wasn’t as optimistic.

He also spoke about his relationship with Kalanick and how, early on, Khosrowshahi asked for space and Kalanick respected that.

“I consult with him the way I consult with the board,” Khosrowshahi said.

Moving forward, Khosrowshahi still has his eyes set on the second half of 2019 to go public.

“We’re on track,” he said.

China’s SenseTime, the world’s highest-valued AI startup, closes $620M follow-on round

SenseTime, the world’s highest-valued AI company with a valuation of over $4.5 billion, is back in the money again.

The company raised $600 million in an Alibaba-led financing round announced last month, and now it has added a further $620 million to that with a “Series C+” round announced today.

Alibaba led the previous deal, and this time around the investors include more traditional names such as Fidelity International, Hopu Capital, Silver Lake and Tiger Global. Qualcomm, which previously backed the firm, was also in this round, SenseTime confirmed.

The new money takes SenseTime to $1.6 billion from investors to date. The valuation has remained “over” $4.5 billion across both of these recent rounds, according to the company. It was previously valued at $1.5 billion when it raised a $410 million Series B last year.

Alibaba said at the time of its investment last month that it had become the largest-single investor in SenseTime. Given this fresh injection, it isn’t clear whether that has changed. A SenseTime spokesperson told TechCrunch that “Alibaba and other lead investors have similar status.”

SenseTime said it has more than 700 customers across a range of verticals including fintech, automotive, fintech, smartphones, smart city development and more that include Honda, Nvidia, China’s UnionPay, Weibo, China Merchants Bank, Huawei, Oppo, Vivo and Xiaomi.

Perhaps its most visible partner is the Chinese government, which uses its systems for its national surveillance system. SenseTime process data captured by China’s 170 million CCTV cameras and newer systems which include smart glasses worn by police offers on the street.

China has placed vast emphasis on tech development, with AI one of its key flagposts.

A government program aims to make the country the world leader in AI technology by 2030, the New York Times reported, by which time it is estimated that the industry could be worth some $150 billion per year. SenseTime’s continued development fees directly into that ambition.

SenseTime has been busy extending its presence lately. It became the first company to join the MIT Intelligence Quest and, alongside Alibaba, it is launching an AI lab in Hong Kong. The firm said, too, it has formulated an AI textbook for secondary students in China which will make its way to 40 schools soon.