Digital Bank Umba Raises $15M, Plans To Expand Into African Markets

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Umba

There’s no shortage of digital banks in Nigeria and, in general, in Africa. As the region continues to experience rapid growth in mobile usage and the corresponding growing young population, these fintechs think this is the right time to provide financial services to every market category, from the banked to the unbanked.

We’ve covered a host of these platforms in the past. Their overarching pitch is to provide financial services to the underserved market, so their customers essentially overlap. In the latest development, Umba, a digital banking platform operating in Lagos, Nigeria, has raised $15 million in Series A funding. The news comes almost two years since the fintech raised a seed round of $2 million.

Umba said it brings a wide range of transparent and accessible financial products to those underserved by legacy banks across Africa — only 43% of the region’s population are account holders at financial institutions.

Its features include free bank accounts, interbank transfers, peer-to-peer transfers and bill payments. These are standard features digital banks in Africa provide, whether they’re deposit-first like Kuda, credit-first such as FairMoney or Carbon, or both like Fintech Farm.

The company’s CEO, Tiernan Kennedy, told TechCrunch on a call that Umba operates the credit-led model pioneered by Nubank, where it first solves the problem of liquidity for customers before upselling them on a broad spectrum of banking products.

So, in addition to getting a no-fee current account, free payments and bill payments, Umba users can access loans. Kennedy said the company uses proprietary data generated by customers to offer credit products. The fintech company generates most of its revenues from charging consumers a monthly interest of 10%.

“I’d like to think that we’re the cheapest in the market. The reason is we’re collecting data, making automated underwriting and retraining models every month based on customer performance to deliver credit in seconds,” said Kennedy, who founded the company with CFO Barry O’Mahony in 2018. “Also, we’re best in class in terms of lending, which allows us to offer the lowest interest rates in the markets,” he claims.

Interestingly, as part of this Series A round, Umba convinced a couple of Nubank executives to wire some checks.

“The Nubank guys saw what we’re doing and recognized it is the right model for emerging markets. Credit is the hardest problem to solve and to underwrite customers at scale in multiple markets is challenging. It took us 18 months to build that. But now it’s up and running and performing,” Kennedy added.

Other investors include Tom Blomfield, the co-founder of Monzo, and previous backers Lachy Groom and ACT Ventures. New investors such as Lux Capital, Palm Drive Capital, Banana Capital and Streamlined Ventures participated, while VC firm Costanoa Ventures led the round. The fintech has raised a total of $17.5 million to date.

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Umba has been in operation for about two years now. Kennedy didn’t divulge hard numbers when asked to share some financials, only saying that the company has doubled its revenues every three months since launching 18 months ago with over 1 million installs on Google Play Store.

Kennedy acknowledged that the firm’s focus on engineering and customer experience has been key to this growth. He also said they’d be instrumental in Umba’s push to serve multiple markets, currencies and payment infrastructures.

“Typically, like a legacy bank, some startups will buy off-the-shelf banking systems and customize them for their customers. But they’re not thinking about the customer first. For us, we designed core banking systems from the ground up and can deliver a customized experience for the customer at the drop of a hat in both banking and mobile money markets,” said the chief executive.

“We can take in all that open banking data and underwrite at scale with these different fragmented payment types and data types. What that means for us, in practice, is that we’re multi-currency, we can go multi-country, we can do all different payment types. And that takes time. But then when you get your ability to move extremely fast against competitors.”

Establishing an interoperable digital banking experience across African markets is an arduous task, especially between banks and mobile money operators. And Umba is yet to actualize Kennedy’s claims, given its sole operation in Nigeria. Thus, it’s still early to say if the company can underwrite loans and provide financial services across various systems on the continent.

However, the new funding will allow the company to test this out as it prepares to launch in new markets, including Egypt, Ghana and Kenya, where mobile money is prominent.

Before Umba, Kennedy was the CTO of PearUp, a dating app, and led the engineering team at IoT firm Canary. O’Mahony, on the other hand, was the former head of operations for Tola Mobile, a U.K. fintech with operations in Uganda, Rwanda, Mozambique, Tanzania and Kenya.

The founders told TechCrunch that they have made several key hires for Umba’s new phase of geographical growth, including the ex-CFO of Interswitch and senior staff from Zynga.

Umba will also make some expansions product-wise rolling out debit cards, savings accounts, and stock trading in the next 18 months.

“Right now, we’ve solved for credits and spending; what’s next is savings and investments, creating new markets opening up, that means hiring up staff in our three new markets,” added Kennedy.