By Semir Mela, Vice President @ VestedWorld, Jeff Stine, Managing Director @ VestedWorld, and Kwame Osei, Investment Fellow @ VestedWorld and MBA Candidate, Chicago Booth ‘21
On January 11, 2020, the news that China had experienced its first death from the novel-coronavirus outbreak spread like wildfire on billions upon billions of screens across the globe―televisions, smartphones, billboards, laptops — and, if you are anything like us, you spent the remainder of the year 2020 so inundated by the 24-hour-news cycle that, at any moment, new bits and bytes were traveling to your screen through millions of miles of fibre-optic cable and across the airwaves to deliver constantly-refreshed updates.
But what if you were one of the many individuals living in an emerging market who remain “disconnected”? What would you do to learn more about the virus? Would you walk miles and miles to the nearest shop with a television to watch the local news, just to catch the snippet at the end of a report on COVID-19? Would you sit and wait for the next broadcast, as the sun begins to set, to try and learn more about how to protect yourself and your family? Or would you promptly leave, seeking safe passage back home with the setting sun as your companion, in order to tend to your family, shop, or farm?
Thankfully, due to our newest portfolio company, Viamo, millions of people did not have to make that choice: in 2020, Viamo delivered over 200 million minutes of COVID-19 content, across 66 million sessions to over 17 million users (and counting). Each of these sessions, initiated at the user’s request (most often with a simple feature phone), allowed navigation through various topics, with critical information delivered at the press of a button, in the user’s own language. These users could also (and did!) access weather reports, sports scores, entertainment and education content, and more, but the depth and breadth of Viamo’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic is something the team (and we) are most proud of in 2020.
Why invest in connecting the disconnected?
Despite increased mobile penetration over the past decade, at least 3.7 billion people across the world do not have access to even basic digital-information services, let alone to more life-enriching aspects of the digital economy¹. The reasons are numerous — language barriers (e.g., the number of languages spoken in Africa is estimated at between ~1,250–2,000), the cost of connections (57% of the world’s population cannot afford more than 500 MB of mobile data a month²), poor literacy rates, and slow technological adoption. The state of the market was thoughtfully described by the UN when they wrote:
The rapid spread of digital technologies is transforming many economic and social activities. However, widening digital divides threaten to leave developing countries, and especially least developed countries, even further behind. A smart embrace of new technologies, enhanced partnerships and greater intellectual leadership are needed to redefine digital development strategies and the future contours of globalization³.
Despite these challenges, this represented a market that, for us, was simply “too big” to ignore. The economic benefit of connecting the disconnected over the past 40 years is indisputable: the digital economy generates $11.5 trillion of global GDP (~15.5%), and in recent years has continued to grow 2.5x faster than global GDP⁴. Similarly, the key role that platforms have played in this transformation is undeniable: in 2017, the combined market capitalization of digital platforms was over $7 trillion, and is even higher today⁵. These platforms — their names are familiar to you already: Facebook, Instagram, ZocDoc, Spotify, Udemy, Uber, Netflix, Robinhood, etc. — have moved education, transportation, healthcare, personal finance, shopping, socializing, music, sports, movies, art and more to the “cloud,” transforming the lives of billions through unmitigated, cheap, fast access to resources and opportunities that were inaccessible only decades before. While users in emerging markets, especially those who live far from large cities and use older phones, often have much fewer options for engaging digitally across these dimensions of their lives, they are, in our experience, just as eager as you or me to experience the benefits of the digital economy.
Founded in 2013 with the mission to connect organizations and individuals via mobile technology, Viamo is the #1 platform worldwide for engaging the 3+ billion people in emerging markets that are missing from the digital economy. In 2020, 30 million end users in 26 countries have connected to the Viamo platform, via the mobile phones in their pockets, providing them with relevant and timely information & services that address their healthcare, agriculture, education, financial services, news and entertainment needs, and allowing them to connect with relevant organizations in these areas. Through the platform, Viamo’s users’ lives have been impacted dramatically in many ways, including:
- Financial Services — Connected with a bank branch specializing in serving the underserved, opened a bank account, and attended a financial literacy program to encourage proper use and increase savings rates
- Healthcare — Connected with an online + offline digital healthcare provider, learned about the services they provide, and found a clinic nearby
- Lifestyle — Engaged with a multinational CPG company on a market research and consumer preferences study regarding the launch of a packaged snack product in their market
- Entertainment — “Binge-listened” to radio dramas, caught up on sports scores and engaged with Viamo’s “edutainment,” including pick-your-own adventure games
- Civic Engagement — Engaged with a “Get Out the Vote” campaign, learned about candidates, voting requirements, and the voting process, resulting in 30%+ greater voter turnout in their community
- Vocational — Digitally connected (repeatedly) with an agricultural extension service provider, increasing their vocational skills and resulting in yield increases between 30% — 80%
- News and Weather — Listened to daily news broadcasts, seven day weather forecasts and registered for extreme weather alerts
While we’ve been impressed with other platforms connecting the disconnected, we found that Viamo was uniquely positioned for the following reasons:
- Sustainable Impact at Scale — Viamo presented a rare opportunity to invest in a social enterprise that can impact billions of people within the foreseeable future. The company’s record of social impact in the regions where we invest was very impressive and they have a clear path to grow it.
- Defensiblity — Viamo has developed a complex technology solution for mobile communications and related services on a global scale. This is extremely hard to do and has taken many years of work to get it right — and we believe they have.
- Product-Market Fit — Viamo’s has already reached 30 million users and replicated their model in 26 countries. They have also worked with over 200 organizations at the global and in-country level. We were particularly impressed with their ability to expand their operations across many geographies and find efficiencies along the way.
- Team & Culture — This was probably the biggest factor for us at VestedWorld. Viamo has an experienced leadership team and amazing people throughout the organization whom we enjoyed getting to know in the due-diligence process. The company’s laser focus on sustainable impact at scale and its culture of empathy, high performance, and testing hypotheses quickly led us to believe that the company will continue to attract and retain the best talent in the markets where they operate.
With new funding, Viamo will expand its offering to millions of new users across both existing and new markets, and will continue to add new product features (content, services, and verticals) that will increase the platform’s value. While the world continues to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, the work that Viamo does with previously disconnected populations has become even more critical―not only due to the lifesaving information its users receive, but also by providing access to other content & services that have been forced to “go online” amidst the restrictions put in place by governments the world over. We applaud Viamo’s audacious goal of reaching 1 billion users in the coming years and look forward to rolling up our sleeves to help them achieve their vision.
- VestedWorld due diligence