More than 40 African startups from a handful of countries have passed through YC in the last decade. Zambia joins that list today, and its entrant, Union54, is a worthy first entry.
Union54 (54 is a nod to the number of African countries) is a fintech company founded by Perseus Mlambo and Alessandra Martini. The startup claims to be Africa’s first card issuance API and just launched this year. But to paint the picture, Union54 didn’t come out of nowhere; is a project of the couple’s previous startup, Zazu.
Zazu was launched in 2015 as a challenger bank in Zambia. As with any fintech on the continent, Zazu had to create his own debit cards that users could connect to a wallet. Most of the time, Zazu would have to wait months for partner banks in the country to issue these cards. Mlambo tells me that at one point they had to wait 18 months.
All this while the founders began working with banks throughout the region to begin issuing cards themselves. But the banks were lethargic in their approaches. “We just realized that the processor or the bank was not necessarily well equipped to be able to answer our questions or to be able to give us the product we are looking for,” Mlambo told TechCrunch in an interview.
The startup decided to go for the bullseye and meet with Mastercard. I mean, why wait for the banks when you can pocket those who issue these cards in the first place, right? Ultimately, the company obtained a Mastercard Principle membership, Africa’s first fintech, he claims.
As a main member, Zazu was authorized to act as an “issuing bank”. In other words, they can provide debit cards and as “acquirers”, which means that they can provide transaction processing services.
Along the way, the founders realized that to truly advance African financial technology, it was imperative to make it easier for fintechs in any African country to issue virtual or physical debit cards. So the team separated Union54 from Zazu. The platform now has several APIs that make it easy for any fintech to issue programmable debit cards.
“Now we have used our membership to be able to help other companies, any African fintech that wants to issue their own cards. They can just come to us, connect to our APIs and move quickly, without having to spend a lot of time negotiating,” Mlambo said about the provision of the service for other African fintechs.
The CEO adds that the company is targeting fintechs that don’t want to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in setup fees to get virtual or physical cards. Union54 claims to issue cards in weeks via an API that does bin sponsorship, program management, and settlement, among other features.
Being able to do this gives Union54 bragging rights as Africa’s first card issuing API. Fintech companies have rarely seen this opportunity; most focus on other segments, from payment gateways to wallets. It’s an interesting point to keep in mind because somehow all the big players in these segments end up trying to create virtual and physical cards for their clients and face complications in doing so. That is the void Union54 wants to fill, and although it is currently in beta, the company has an impressive nameless clientele on its waiting list who are currently using the platform.
“The fascinating thing about these companies is that they are not B or C players. They are in the top 5% of African fintech. And for me, I always tell people, now we are in the golden generation of African fintech. really the perfect time for a card issuance product to work with all these guys considered leaders in their space. It means we really have something that people want to wear every day, “added the CEO.
On the company site, there are eight use cases for its API: Ledger-Based, Acquirers / Gateways, Buy Now, Pay Later, Credit Union, Delivery Companies, Digital Banking, Credit Card Management credit and corporate cards.
Fintech companies using Union54 can also design the cards and set the currency in which they want the cards to be loaded, and establish an extensive catalog of who will use them, what they will be used for, when they will be used and how they will be used.
Union54 charges fintechs on a pay-per-pay basis for each API call. If a fintech company wants to create a physical card, it is charged a flat fee between $ 7-9 and an undisclosed flat fee when making a transaction.
Mlambo says that entering the summer batch of YC 2021 has allowed the company to enroll its first set of clients, as most of them come from the YC network. He calls YC a show that has been “worth it from day one.”
“I am very excited and proud that Union54 has become the first fintech in Zambia to be accepted into Y Combinator. And the second in South Africa. As you may know, when global investors look at Africa, they often do so from a West African perspective and our entry into Y Combinator validates a small part of our larger hypothesis: it is possible to serve Africa from friendly jurisdictions like Zambia. “