Singularity, the private investment office of the Nigerian-based Dawlish family, is one of a handful of family offices based in Africa that’s investing directly in the continent’s vibrant startups. Since it was set up three years ago, Singularity has made more than 14 direct investments, with a number of these in Africa or connected to the region.
Lagos-based and Singularity’s principal investment officer Lexi Novistske says, despite the difficulties of doing business in the region, there is a buoyant business startup culture in Africa, offering investors a wide array of opportunities. “There are an incredible amount of barriers that make business – and life for that matter – in Africa difficult, but all of these problems are truly opportunities,” she says.
“Over the past five years, local entrepreneurs have really been given new tools in technology to build incredibly scalable businesses. I believe the inherent ‘hustle’ of local entrepreneurs, coupled with the popular lean startup model, access to global economies and learnings, and the size of the market potential itself has really attracted investors.”
Investments in Africa by Singularity have included a Nigerian-based online gaming company called Mayilo and a news and entertainment app called Sliide Airtime.
Novistske, who previously worked in private equity in Nigeria and asset management in New York, says Singularity has been at the forefront of investing in tech startups in Africa, but especially in Nigeria. “We have learned a lot from the journey, but what has really stood out to me is that the basic building blocks that much of the consumer-facing business models are not yet in place. Effectively you have e-commerce without logistics.”
Singularity was launched in 2014 by Issam and Mohamad Darwish. Originally from Lebanon, the Darwish brothers have been pioneers in the African mobile telecoms market and founded IHS Towers, one of Africa and the Middle East’s biggest mobile telecommunications infrastructure groups.
Based in Lagos and Mauritius, IHS Towers specializes in building telecoms towers and managing sites for mobile networks operators. Apart from the Darwish brothers, IHS Towers has an illustrious group of other backers, including the World Bank, a number of sovereign wealth funds, Goldman Sachs, and the French wealth manager and family group, Wendel.
Singularity has also made startup investments in more developed markets, especially in North America. Often these investments are linked to Africa. Notable investments include a Santa Barbara video data group called cielo24 and a Los Angeles apparel e-commerce company called Jewel Toned.
Singularity’s investments often have an impact side to them, but with a big emphasis on sustainability, says Novistske. “East Africa, especially, has been awash with impact investors trying to make a difference with their capital. However, we believe that sustainable impact comes by backing strong, scalable businesses that not only provide access to digital services, but in themselves will be a talent creation engine.”