It is within 500’s DNA to invest in talented founders, no matter whether they are situated in Silicon Valley or on the other side of the world. Earlier this year, we partnered with Magnitt, one of the premier players in the MENA entrepreneurial ecosystem, to come out with a State of MENA Startups 2019¹. According to data collected by Magnitt and published in the report, our portfolio has a higher percentage of startups with at least one female founder than the average percentage of female-founded startups in all of MENA.² With all this data, we wanted to share some of the unique stories of these female founders in MENA.
Niama El Bassunie founded WaystoCap in 2016 on a mission to unlock trade in Africa. Starting in Morocco, the company has expanded rapidly throughout the region throughout its three years of operation. We sat down with Niama to explore how she started her company, the unique opportunities in the region, and what it’s like to raise funding in an undercapitalized startup ecosystem.
500: Why was WaystoCap initially started?
“WaystoCap was born following our experience trading in Africa. I spent 8 months living in Guinea, Conakry, where I was working on a big recycling project and other trade-related deals. The experience I had over that period taught me two things:
1. The potential and opportunity in Africa is vast, and this is mostly due to the people and their ambition and industriousness.
2. Transparency is key in international trade, and it is something that SMBs on the continent do not enjoy. But 90% of all the businesses in Africa are SMBs, so a huge number of companies are not able to interact globally.
These insights, inspired by my personal experience in the region and exposure to the technology industry in Silicon Valley, made me realize that there was the potential to create a marketplace that provides tools where companies could more easily buy and sell their products and access international commerce. This is why we say our mission is to unlock African trade.”
500: What unique challenges did you face while raising funding in MENA?
“We founded WaystoCap in Morocco and trying to fundraise there wasn’t really an option. It was not, in 2016, a market that was very mature in terms of startups and fundraising: the total invested in technology startups was less than the cost of a small villa in Casablanca. So a part of that effort was also educating people, but we realized that to find people who understood our vision we would have to look elsewhere; so we applied to international accelerators and approached international venture capital firms.”
500: What are some of the unique advantages to starting your company in MENA? How has your company used the region to excel?
“Since starting WaystoCap, we have seen a boom in interest in technology in the region. This has allowed us to recruit talented and ambitious people who perhaps previously would not have considered working for a startup company.
We have grown WaystoCap rapidly over the last 3 years, expanding into several countries starting from Morocco; then expanding to Benin, Togo, Ivory Coast, and Algeria. We now have team members all over the continent and are seeing huge changes in our users’ businesses as we help them trade via our platform. Having created a culture of excellence, attracting such great employees, and fostering the teamwork we have built is something we are extremely proud of.”
The Future for Diverse Founders in MENA
500 has found that MENA is filled with bold, yet humble female founders, and we are constantly hoping to improve the experiences of underrepresented communities everywhere. Diversity has always been a core value at 500. We’re committed to being champions of the global VC community, not as it is, but as we’d like to see it.
Investment, at the end of the day, is one of the most important resources for many startups. We especially love investing in companies that focus on creating more economic opportunity across their region, just as WaystoCap has done.
500 Startups will always be founder-first. And for that specific reason, we invite insight and feedback from the community. If you are passionate about founders in MENA, start a conversation on Twitter and tag us at @500Startups. We look forward to continuing our journey to discover and back the world’s most talented entrepreneurs, help them create successful companies at scale, and build thriving global ecosystems.
¹All data contained in the Magnitt State of MENA Startups Report was collected through an independent survey of certain 500 Falcons, L.P. (“500 Falcons”) portfolio companies, and no such information was directly provided by 500 Startups, 500 Falcons or their affiliates for purposes of the report. Under no circumstances should any information or content in the report be considered as an offer to sell or solicitation of interest to purchase any securities advised by 500 Falcons or any of its affiliates or representatives, as an offer to provide any investment advisory service with regard to securities by 500 Falcons or its affiliates, or as fund marketing materials by prospective investors considering an investment into any 500 Startups investment fund.
²Refers to Magnitt’s calculations based on Magnitt’s data of all investments across the MENA region since 2008.
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