In June 2023, my company Asaak did something unusual for an African tech startup: we acquired another company on another continent.
More specifically, we acquired the operations of FlexClub Mexico, a company that offers car financing for ride-hailing drivers.
The acquisition, which came off the back of our turn to profitability, was massive for us. Just a few years earlier, we’d been weeks away from having to shut down before bridge financing and a pivot to a more focused business model set us back on the path to success.
The acquisition, which was set up by a mutual investor, has proven beneficial to both companies. It has allowed us to enter into a new asset class — four-wheeled vehicles — and FlexClub to focus on its South African operations. But it has also solidified for me why we need more mergers and acquisitions between emerging markets companies, especially in an era of reduced funding.
M&A activity on the rise at a time of low funding
With interest rates rising steadily since early 2022, startup investments around the globe have fallen dramatically. In fact, venture capital (VC) investments in African startups in the first half of 2023 were down 43% compared to the first half of 2022.
In part, that’s because the investors who back VCs have shifted a greater proportion of their funds to less risky vehicles, such as bonds. But it’s also because some investors relied on cheap debt to make their investments. With borrowing more expensive, it’s become more difficult to access the money they need to make investments.
That’s had significant consequences for startups around the world, but particularly in emerging markets where funding has always been low anyway. In their growth phase especially, many startups rely on funding and investment to fuel growth until they reach the point where they’re profitable.
For those startups, an acquisition may offer a lifeline to employees who would otherwise be out of work. It also means that, with the right acquisition partner, the ideas and vision behind the business stand a chance of living on. Small wonder then that there were significant increases in African M&A activity through 2022 and early 2023. But mergers and acquisitions, particularly between companies founded in emerging markets, have other significant benefits too.
Geographic expansion made simpler
One of the big benefits we’ve seen is that an acquisition makes moving into a new territory much simpler. Had we tried to enter Mexico by raising equity capital to establish our own lending operations there from scratch, it would have cost us multiples more in terms of time and money.
That’s to say nothing of the fact that hiring a team in a different country comes with its own set of challenges. It requires co-founders to relocate to that country for months or years to fully understand local market dynamics and hire the right people. For us, acquiring an existing team that had already been working together for four years and nearly achieved profitability was a huge value proposition as we were able to instantly launch our business on a new continent and hit the ground running.
An additional benefit is that unless you’re acquiring an extremely distressed company, you’re also going to get a nice revenue boost. In our case, revenues increased 33% overnight. There are very few things one can do to achieve such rapid growth in such a short amount of time, and acquisitions are one of them. As a global asset manager, we are also now able to diversify currency and interest rate risk across two highly uncorrelated markets.
Emerging markets understanding
Another significant benefit of acquiring a company in another emerging market is that the challenges and opportunities are familiar. Like Uganda, Mexico remains a cash-dominant economy. In fact, World Bank figures show that just 37% of adults in Mexico have a formal bank account and as few as 32% have made a digital payment.
While the two markets are undoubtedly unique, there are at least enough similarities that we can apply various lessons learned in Uganda. I believe that those similarities also allow us to be a more understanding acquirer. That, in turn, means we won’t run at the first sign of trouble, as might otherwise happen with a developed market acquisition.
That’s not to say that acquisitions of emerging market companies by their developed market counterparts and vice versa can’t work. But having a deep understanding of emerging market challenges like corruption, weak institutions, and a lack of credit infrastructure makes the likelihood of success that much higher.
These kinds of acquisitions could also become increasingly important, particularly when it comes to ensuring the survival of good businesses in these markets. It’ll be some time before interest rates go back down to the levels we saw in 2020 and 2021, meaning that alternatives will be critical.
Not a cure-all but still important
Of course, not every single merger and acquisition involving emerging market companies will work out smoothly. Even with thorough due diligence in place, things might just not work out. Nonetheless, I believe that the potential gains from emerging market mergers and acquisitions are too big to ignore.
Before any company makes such an acquisition, however, it’s important to remember that it takes time to fully understand the opportunities and risks of acquiring a target company. And you often have to pull the trigger even before you have all the information you might want.