Black Founders Fund: A chat with Pivo’s Nkiru Amadi-Emina on impact and future plans

David Afolayan
Nkiru-Amadi-Emina-CEO-and-cofounder Pivo
Nkiru Amadi-Emina, CEO and Co-founder, Pivo

In 2021, Google CEO, Sundar Pichai announced the plan to invest $1 billion over 5 years to support Africa’s digital transformation. Among other things, the company revealed, at that time, that the fund would cater for a plan to empower businesses to embark on their digital transformation and provide funding for nonprofits.

It also includes low-interest loans to help small businesses and equity investments in African startups. Other investment ideas include the Hustle Academy and Google Business Profiles and helping job seekers learn the skills they need through Developer Scholarships and Career Certifications.

Before that announcement, Google had launched the Black Founders Fund in 2020, following the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on businesses around the globe. The Black Founders fund includes a $5 million fund for black founders in the United States, a $2 million fund for Europe and a $3 million fund for Africa. 

The $3 million Google fund is allocated across a pipeline of 50 investable startups in Africa through non-dilutive funding, meaning founders do not relinquish ownership in their company in exchange for this funding. 

Over 800 companies applied in the first few weeks. Out of that, 30 startups were selected for the first cohort to receive part of the fund. All 30 startups that made the list will each receive up to $100,000 in non-equity funding and up to $120,000 in Ads grants. They will each also have access to $100,000 in Cloud credits. Of these, 6 were Nigerian-led startups.

Google's Black Founders Fund
Nigeria gets 23 out of 60 grantee startups selected for Google’s Black Founders Fund

In October of the following year, 26 Nigerian tech Startups were named as beneficiaries, rising to more than half of the total participants. The second cohort had 23 Nigerian startups. Among these was Pivo, a credit-focused digital bank for trade, supporting businesses across Africa.

A brief about Pivo

Nkiru Amadi-Emina and Ijeoma Akwiwu founded Pivo in 2021. The startup is an all-in-one financial services platform for SME vendors – logistics and transport, suppliers, and wholesale distributors – that operate within large supply chains.

It has three main products: Pivo Capital- which gives SMEs access to loans of as much as US$50,000; Pivo Finance- which provides customers access to a digital-only banking solution and Pivo Plus- which provides insurance, corporate compliance and tax regulation support.

Pivo Team
The Pivo team…

Nkiru and Ijeoma have accomplished the feat of being the first all-female founded team Y Combinator has backed in Nigeria — and the second in Africa after the defunct Ghanaian startup Tress.

Amadi-Emina launched an on-demand delivery platform targeted at e-commerce brands in North and Central Africa in 2017. The platform was acquired by Kobo360, one of Africa’s most prominent e-logistics players.

I spoke with Nkiru about her experience during the fund application process, the impact of the fund on the Pivo team’s projects, and their plans for the future, among other things. Please find below the excerpts of our conversion:

David: How would you describe your experience of Google’s Black Founders Fund programme from application to the end? What lessons stood out for you?

Nkiru: The process was very interesting. We heard about the Black Founders Fund sometime mid-last year. We were at the point where we were just about to start activities for raising our seed round. We had just closed the pre-seed round and had recorded significant growth.

So the application happened online; it was very straight to the point relatively but also relatively short.

After that, we had the opportunity to join an interview to talk about the business, talk about the founders of the business, talk about each of our individual experiences, talk about our growth to date and talk about, you know, where we want to be in the next 9, 10 months. We also had to share about the technology, what we’re building, and how our technology was poised to solve the challenges in the area we were building for.

After that, we recorded a video and submitted it as part of our application process. We submitted it with a bit of nerve but also with a bit of optimism. That gave us a bit of optimism because it is difficult to find a program focused specifically on minority founders in Africa, which is a completely different story on its own was really exciting.

So, we submitted our application and waited. Then, we got the call that followed, which changed our lives and business forever.

I remember getting that call, and it was a mix of emotions. It was a mixture of joy, a mix of tears and a mix of gratitude as well.

And it was the validation that came with accepting our application that added extra fuel to our fire.

Nkiru Amadi-Emina and Ijeoma Akwiwu, Co-founders at Pivo
Nkiru Amadi-Emina and Ijeoma Akwiwu, Co-founders at Pivo
David: What key lessons stood out for you through the process?

Nkiru: Yeah, I think one of the key takeaways for us was learning how to craft our brand and not just a story but a compelling story.

We were a digital bank. But, in this clime, a lot of digital banks exist. So, it is important that we craft a narrative that is different from every other digital bank that currently exists.

I think the application process helped us to craft a narrative about who we are, what we do and why we do it. It also helped us articulate the economic and social impact we will have with what we are doing.

David: After the fund, you have gone ahead to raise $2 million from notable investors across the globe. Do you think that the BFF has in any way helped you get to this point?

Nkiru: The short answer is yes.

Some of the things founders need to know regarding fundraising are. number one, you need the capital. Number two, you need capital that will not dilute your ownership significantly.

The grant gave us access to capital that doesn’t dilute equity. It also gave us access to timely capital.  At this point, we had just closed about 40% of our entire round, and that added significantly to our lot.

That gave us the chance not to take our feet off the gas pedal because it gave us a bit of leverage to focus on business and growth. Every founder that has raised knows that balancing the acts of building and fundraising is pretty difficult.

Pivo Logo
The Pivo logo…
David: So, are there other non-financial benefits?

Nkiru: We gained access to a robust local and international network. We also gained access to resources we would have otherwise been unable to access.

You know, they say that an individual is only as good as his network. The program opened up every single startup that participated in the same cohort to us. It was a rich network of local and international professionals across every single sector of the industry. Beyond idea sharing, the network provided a potential pool of partners we could work with.

It also provided a wide repository of knowledge and experience for Pivo. If we needed someone to help us think about how do we grow a product? We found that.

If we needed someone to help us think about sales, think about hiring, think about hiring for leadership, think about fundraising conversations. We were also able to find that in that group.

The beautiful part was that we had a network of people that literally understood what we were going through.

David: Following your recent fundraiser, your team disclosed plans to launch additional products to graduate from a pure fintech lender to a full-fledged financial services platform. How far have you gone with this?

Nkiru: We have gone pretty far. 

In our entire roadmap as the business, there are three financial services that we have always wanted to provide within the context of the supply chain: access to capital, payment facilitation and insurance.

Payment facilitation includes making, collecting, reconciling, facilitating and managing your payments. For insurance, we observed that many SMEs do not understand the value, and it is expensive.

We are currently on two. The first is payment facilitation. We are providing SMEs access to a bank account where all of their receivables go, and it has accounting functionality built into it.

We are looking at adding other features, such as receiving payments and facilitating collections with electronic invoices and links. We are planning to roll out POS on smartphones. Also, we are rolling out an expense-wallet, so they can bucket whatever payments they need to make.

Then, a debit card to monitor the cost and where it is coming from. The last piece is tracking which customer owes you and who has just paid.

Nkiru-Amadi-Emina-CEO-and-cofounder Pivo
Nkiru Amadi-Emina, CEO and Co-founder, Pivo
David: How has the reception been so far for these new products?

Nkiru: We are growing at about 5x month on month. We are currently recording millions of Dollars in transaction value. We are witnessing 3x growth in transactions accounts every month as well. 

Now, we want to start looking at transaction counts. Because transaction value is how much inflow is coming into customer accounts. Transaction count is how many transactions they are doing.

We also want to now look at transaction process volume. That is how we are processing the payments for these businesses. 

But our numbers are growing significantly. We can only just continue to do more month on month.

Similar: Meet the 23 Nigerian startups selected for Google’s Black Founders Fund cohort II

David: Tech is a male-dominated space. We cannot deny the existence of a number of barriers that serve to keep women out. What do you think we need to do to see stronger female representation coming from Nigeria and Africa?

Nkiru: Let me start with, are we doing enough? At the moment, we’re not doing enough.

And let me just provide a bit of context here.  As long as a business is viable, the gender of the founder should not matter. Unfortunately, that is not the reality, especially in the tech space. And that is why the term gender gap exists.

First of all, doing enough comes with an understanding that it is important to support women-led businesses because they have a right to the same support male-led businesses have.

Currently, enough of that support does not exist, which is quite alarming. This is because studies show that startups led by female founders bring in 20% more revenue than their male counterparts.

I think we need to move as an ecosystem towards supporting more women-led companies. Because the truth is that supporting women-led companies increases the chances of more successful businesses.

This is why it is important that programmes like the Google Black Founders Fund exist. It supports a minority group and places a significant emphasis on female founders. And this goes beyond funding. It also includes mentorship and access to the network.

Here is how to apply for the third cohort of Google’s $4m Black Founders fund for Africa
David: Some people believe that the challenge is that women are not stepping up to sit at the table. How would you encourage women to take on more roles in tech?

Nkiru: It seems a bit cliche to say, but let me use my favourite brand slogan, Nike, which is literally “just do it”.

I want women to understand that they deserve a seat at the table. The first thing is to know that the table exists. Then, know that there is a seat at the table for you. 

Then the second thing is to do it afraid. Do it uncertainly. But, just do it. Don’t be afraid to do it right. Don’t be afraid to try. Try and fail. Learn from your failures and build again.

For instance, this is literally my second startup and my 3rd company as an entrepreneur. My first is an IT consulting outfit that still exists. My second is in the logistics space which was sold to Kobo360. And now, I am building Pivo.

There is a seat for all at the table. And it is important for women to know that they deserve a seat at the table.

David: What are the future plans for Pivo?

Nkiru: Our plans are huge. 

First, we plan to expand our operations and product offerings over the next couple of years. We are building a financial services platform to power the supply chain across Africa.

And that requires us to be present in key trading hubs across Africa. So, that involves expanding to other commercial countries like Kenya, Ghana, Rwanda, Benin Republic, Togo and Cote d Ivoire, but we will be taking each country at a time.

And, with expansion comes new roles and openings. So, we look forward to having more members join the team.

David: Thank you for your time.

Nkiru: Thank you.

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