From Wall Street to selling sugar in Dakar: How Tijan Watt built a pan-African VC

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Published: 2022-06-10
How Dakar-based venture capitalist Tijan Watt is working to develop a presence across Africa

TechCabal is the source of the image.

Wuri Ventures, a Dakar-based pan-African early-stage venture capital firm, was hosting its launch party on the historic Gorée Island on a windy Thursday evening in April. A delegation of investors, startup founders, and journalists gathered at the Port of Dakar to wait for the Chaloupe de Gorée, a formidable ferry that could hold as many as 340 people, to transport them to the island. Wuri Ventures is an early-stage venture capital firm based in Dakar.

Tijan Watt, 45, co-founder and general partner at Wuri Venture, had specifically chosen this Gorée Island, which used to be the "point of no return" during the Transatlantic Slave Trade, to introduce his firm to the world. This island is located away from the high-end restaurants and 5-star hotels' seaside bars in Dakar's city center, where most other events of this nature took place.

Watt, who was wearing a white shirt made of Guinea fabric and black pants, towered above practically everyone else who was on the chaloupe. Even though his beard had nearly turned completely white, he was still full of energy, and the ambition in his eyes was probably the same as it had been 21 years ago, when he moved back to Senegal for the first time.

Wuri Venture is not a brand-new company; it has been around for more than three years. It was initially conceived of through an early advisory business that Watt had started known as African Tech Leaders. The purpose of this business was to counsel entrepreneurs as they sought admittance into global accelerators such as Y Combinator and went through the process of fundraising. But Watt said with TechCabal that in 2018, he came to the conclusion that providing advising services alone wasn't enough to develop the ecosystem, which is when the idea to begin investing in startups in their early stages emerged. Jerome Cretegny, a seasoned investment expert who was running the Senegalese operation of the International Finance Corporation (IFC) at the time, became his business partner. The two individuals pooled their own resources and used that money to invest in successful African startups. They established Wuri Ventures in 2019, and within a year of doing so, the two of them had made six investments.

Watt stated that they required additional funding in order to realize their pan-African objective. They did this by selling 7.5 percent of the equity that was held by their general partner, which allowed them to bring 15 of the most successful tech and financial operators into the business. They also formed a partnership with Capria Ventures, which enabled Wuri to obtain the credit line it required in order to invest. This partnership ultimately resulted in Wuri making an investment of $1.5 million in South Africa's Whereismytransport, which had raised $14.5 million. a further cycle of the extension before the collaboration was dissolved. After that, the company started a subscription model so that they could pool funds from local and international individual investors, such as angels, endowment funds, family offices, and so on, by using the Angellist Venture platform. (This is the same platform that Nigeria's Future Africa and Kenya's Mutua Venture use to power their subscription angel investing models.)

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Carry1st is a mobile game publishing firm that Wuri Venture invested in at a very early stage and at a valuation of $4 million. However, in January of this year, the company successfully closed a $20 million series A extension round from a16z and Google at a valuation of $100 million. This one transaction returned twice as much money as their previous six agreements combined had brought in over the years. Therefore, Wuri made the decision to withdraw so that it might become sufficiently liquid to fund additional ventures.

According to what Watt shared with TechCabal, "we generated some decent returns and exited so that we may continue helping other early stage firms."

Even before the company's official launch in April, Wuri Ventures had already provided consulting services to more than 20 new businesses and invested a total of $2 million across 14 separate transactions. Some of the companies that Wuri Ventures has worked with include Carry1st, Whereismytransport, Lori Systems, Kotani Pay, Tambua Health, Norebase, Nestocoin, and Caytu Robotics. The company is continuing to invest alongside industry leaders in global investment such as a16z, Google, Toyota Tshusho, Avenir Growth, and others. Now, Watt believes that its subscription model is going to help ramp up their investment number from $2 million to $4 million within a year's time, and they feel this will be possible thanks to the model's ability to help them increase revenue.

In addition, Wuri Venture offers founders of startups the opportunity to participate in incubation programs that will teach them the ropes of the startup business. One of these start-up companies, Caytu Robotics, which Wuri helped to incubate, recently displayed one of its robots, an Autonomous Delivery Robot, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where it was remotely controlled from Dakar, which is approximately 6,000 kilometers away from Boston, where MIT is located.

From the financial markets of Wall Street to the sugar markets of Dakar

Watt was conceived in the United States of America by his Senegalese father and his African American mother. He spent his childhood in Washington, District of Columbia, where he attended Sidwell Friends School, a renowned educational establishment whose notable former students include Chelsea Clinton, as well as Sasha and Malia Obama. After that, Watt attended Howard University, a historically black college, to pursue his education in mathematics and computer science.

After a brief foray into the scientific field during which he conducted laboratory studies on both humans and animals, Watt worked as an investment banker for Goldman Sachs in New York and London for a total of three years before making the decision, in the year 2001, to go to Senegal.

Even though the dotcom boom had shown indications of bursting in the year 2000, it didn't, and the cool kids of Wall Street were still ditching their six-figure incomes in order to embrace the promise of the digital revolution. Watt formulated a strategy to travel to Africa and become a dotcom pioneer there, despite the fact that many of his colleagues were leaving to join companies such as Priceline. How challenging could doing it be?

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In point of fact, Watt had only been to Senegal once, when he was 18 years old, and he knew almost nothing about the country's topography. First, he wanted to become an internet service provider (ISP), but the "existing player had a massive capital warchest to kill him on arrival," he giggled as he narrated this part of the story. After that, he started to abandon one startup idea after the next. In 2002, following a period of one year in which he spent his time experimenting with various concepts, he established his own flavor sugar firm. Crystal, the name of the company he said was inspired by a song by Notorious BIG, was how he waltzed off the track of his dotcom ambitions. Crystal was named after one of Notorious BIG's songs.

The Mimran Group, a French family-owned business, controlled the majority of the Senegalese sugar industry, just as they did with his earlier idea for an ISP. The Mimran Group is the owner of the Compagnie Sucrière Sénégalaise (CSS), which grows sugarcane on 8,000 hectares of land in Senegal. During harvest season, the company employs more than 5,000 people, making it the second largest employer in Senegal behind the government of the country. To give you an idea of how much money this family generated from the sale of sugar in Senegal as early as the 1980s, consider the fact that in 1981 they paid three million dollars to acquire Lamborghini and therefore prevented the Italian sports car manufacturer from declaring bankruptcy. After growing its model line of products from one to three in the span of six years, they eventually parted ways with the company and sold it to Chrysler Corporation in 1987.

Watt remarked, "My idea at the time was: since everyone in the country uses sugar, it's really like a tax on the population." "And therefore, that should not be kept under the control of a single individual or that single family," the speaker continued. At the age of 26, the enterprising Watt challenged the Mimran empire.

Watt would lead the company to become an industry leader, eventually employing close to one hundred employees and generating fifteen million dollars in revenue. Watt is of the opinion that this has produced a new narrative, despite the fact that in the broad scheme of things, this did not threaten the dominance of the Mimran. "There is a great deal of value in Africa, and it is unfortunate that outsiders are the ones who are appropriating the majority of it. We were able to make some adjustments to that.

Watt left the company after serving as its CEO for three years and creating its structure and operations before deciding to get an MBA at Harvard. After that, he worked as an investment officer at Travant Capital in Lagos, Nigeria, where he remained for 2 years before returning to Senegal in 2009 to operate Crystal. He had previously worked in Nigeria. Watt finally left Crystal seven years later and moved to Ethiopia to work as the chief revenue officer of mFino, a fintech company that provides banks and telcos with mobile banking solutions in major markets in Africa including Ethiopia, Nigeria, and Senegal. Watt's responsibilities include providing mobile banking solutions in major markets such as Ethiopia, Nigeria, and Senegal. He worked at mFino for a little over a year before relocating to Silicon Valley in 2017 to launch African Tech Leaders, an advisory firm that would eventually transform into Wuri Venture. During his tenure at mFino, he was responsible for a number of important projects.

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The same hunger can be seen in Watt's eyes as the ferry reaches the island. This causes the guests to bring out their smartphones and take pictures as they make their way to the Keur Louise, a colonial mansion that was built in 1864 and will serve as the venue for the event.

As the visitors, who were already gathered in the gorgeous stone lined courtyard of the historical house, enjoyed a variety of hors d'oeuvres, an artist blessed the atmosphere with a peaceful rendering while sitting in a corner hugging his Kora instrument passionately to his bosom. Following the meal, the guests socialized with one another and carried on conversations for a while. The music came to a halt, and Watt indicated that he would now be giving a speech from an improvised platform. Watt gave a condensed summary of his experience as an entrepreneur and tried to sell the audience on the goal of Wuri Ventures, particularly its subscription model. He encouraged the audience to partner with Wuri Ventures in their mission to create a prosperous Africa one business at a time.

Watt stated that "we support the concept of entrepreneurship, which is the notion that through proactive initiative, founders can create positive change in their own societies and can create their own economic opportunities." "We support the concept of entrepreneurship because it is the notion that through proactive initiative, founders can create positive change in their own societies and can create their own economic opportunities." "By giving ordinary investors more agency, the subscription fund contributes significantly to the realization of that ambition."