Initial coin offerings (ICOs) see companies create their own digital tokens and sell them to the public.
They are like initial public offerings (IPOs), but investors take no equity in the business, and rather invest in the potential value of the token.
They are proving attractive to firms and investors alike, with over 230 companies raising almost $4 billion in such a way in 2017.
“Initial coin offerings allow companies an easy way to raise capital while bypassing many of the regulations and requirements associated with initial public offerings. ICOs also allow companies to tap into the hype around cryptocurrencies and crowd-sourcing,” says George Etheredge, Research Analyst in the Digital Transformation Practice at Frost & Sullivan Africa.
But are ICOs relevant in the African context? It’s early days, but a number of startups have recently given them a whirl. Nigerian remittances platform SureRemit netted $7 million, while South African company and property investment portal ProsperiProp secured $200,000.
ProsperiProp founder Llew Morkel says ICOs offer entrepreneurs an opportunity to dip into a global source of capital without having to go through formal channels like banks or venture capitalists.
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“Investor institutions require the entrepreneur to commit to a period of exclusivity while the funder conducts their due diligence. In the event where the application is rejected, the entrepreneur has to start over, often costing valuable time to market. This cycle is discouraging,” he says.
The lack of regulation in this space makes it easier to fund starved African businesses. But it’s also the main drawback of ICOs.
“It’s far easier for groups to set up ‘fake’ ICOs. The general hype around the crypto space may cause investors to be insufficiently diligent,” says Etheredge.
This is likely to mean the space becomes the focus of more regulation as time passes.
“One factor here will be those parties that currently make money from the way things are done at the moment will have powerful incentives to lobby for regulation. This is a pattern in most disruptive industries, just look at Uber,” says Etheredge.
Getting the legal ducks in a row was one of the challenges for ProsperiProp.
“It’s important for an ICO to move inside the guidelines of each country’s legal framework. The country’s framework not only protects the ICO investor but also the entrepreneur,” says Morkel.
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With all the noise around ICOs, and awareness of potential scams, marketing is key. Wala CEO Tricia Martinez says trust, transparency and community are key elements.
“We quickly recognized that in order to gain trust you must be transparent. And the only way to build a community is by being transparent. Once we gained the trust of the individual and were transparent our community began to grow,” she says.
Africa’s foray into the world of ICOs have been tentative thus far, but those that have made the jump expect more to follow. SureRemit co-founder Adeoye Ojo says they are about more than just capital.
“There needs to be a real utility for the underlying token being distributed. Many businesses are rushing to tokenise without a proper plan to sustain the new economy they are creating. This isn’t unique to Africa,” he says.
“ICOs shouldn’t be used as a funding mechanism. Only if there is a real use case to build a token economy should an entrepreneur look at this as a potential channel,” she said.
Yet the potential for token sales to provide access to funding cannot be ignored.
“The good thing is that barring countries that have some strict financial regulations about ICOs, almost anybody can participate. This allows projects, including African ones, to have exposure to a diverse audience who can both back and be first users of the product,” says Ojo.
This diversity, however, also means the usage of ICOs by African companies will depend on how these strategies perform globally.
“They are attractive in an African context as they can, for now, get past regulatory and bureaucratic red tape. However, Africa is some distance behind wealthier areas with respect to crypto adoption,” says Etheredge.
Yet all the signs are that crypto, in Africa and globally, is on the rise. Much of the future of ICOs in Africa may hang on the level of success experienced by first movers like SureRemit, Wala and ProsperiProp. For now, it’s a question of riding the wave and seeing where it goes.
– By Tom Jackson