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How Tijan Watt built a Pan-African VC after quitting his Wall Street job

In April, a group of investors, startup founders, and journalists assembled at the port of Dakar waiting for the Chaloupe de Goree. A formidable ferry to transport them to the historic Goree Island, where Wuri Ventures, a Dakar-based Pan- African early-stage Venture capital firm, was hosting its launch party.

Tijan Watt, co-founder and general partner at Wuri Venture, had specifically chosen this Goree island, which used to be the point of no return during the Transatlantic save Trade, to introduce his firm to the world.

Tijan Watt, a 45-year-old Senegalese who grew up in Washington DC where he attended a side well friends school, a prestigious institution that counts Chelsea Clinton and Sasha and Malia Obama among its esteemed alumni.

Watt went on to study mathematics and computer science at Howard University a historically black college. After a brief into science, running lab tests, on both humans and animals, Watt spent 3 years as an investment banker at Goldman Sachs in New York and London, and in 2001 he decided to move to Senegal. Though the dotcom boom had shown signs of bursting in 2000, it didn’t, and the cool kids of wall street were still dumping their six-figure salaries to embrace the promise of the digital revolution. Even though Watt said his colleagues moved to companies like Priceline, he devised a plan to move to Africa and become a dotcom pioneer there. How difficult could that be? Watt towered over almost everybody else on the Chaloupe in a white, Guinea-fabric shift and black jeans. Even though his beard had nearly gone grey, he is still full of energy.

Wuri Ventures is not a new establishment though it’s been more than 3 years old. Watt had founded startups in the process of fundraising and seeking entry into global accelerators like Y combinator.

Watt stated that their Pan – African ambition, needs more funds. So they sold 7.5%equity from their general partner equity, bringing 15 top tech finance operators into the venture. They partnered with Capria ventures, which provided Wuri with the credit line it needed for a $1.5million investment in South Africa.

However in January this year, Cary1st, a mobile game publishing company, Wuri Ventures Invested in at a very early stage and a $4million valuation, close a $20million Series A extension round from a 16z and Google at a valuation of $100million. This single deal returned double all the 6 deals they had made over the years. So Wuri exited so that it could be liquid enough to find other deals.

Wuri Ventures has focused on innovating the spectrum between market-based solutions and pure public goods it realises that much successful innovation in Africa has occurred in this space, where innovation around market failures such as information asymmetry (data), platforms and public goods can solve problems. Its unique mathematical properties, from cellular automata and emergence to numerical methods, studied by researchers, link ancient African culture to modern technology. It supports world-class entrepreneurs in solving Africa’s biggest challenges using innovation.

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As of April, Wuri Ventures has advised more than 20 startups and invested $2million across 14 deals including Carry1st where is my transport, Lori Systems, Kotain Pay, Tambua Health, Norebase, Nesto coin and Caytu Robotics amongst others. The firm invests alongside global investment leaders such as a 16z, Google, Toyota Tshusho, Avenir growth and others. Now, Watt believes that its subscription model is going to help ramp up its investment figure from $2million to $4million within a year.

Wuri ventures also have another program for founders to learn the ropes of the start-up world. Caytu Robotics, one of such startups that incubated with Wuri, recently displayed one of its robots an Autonomous delivery robot, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where it was remotely controlled from Dakar- 6000km away from Boston where MIT is located.

Watt when he was 18, knew close to nothing about the landscape. He started to abandon one startup idea after the other: he first wanted to become an internet service provider (isp) but the “existing player had massive Capital Warchest to kill him on arrival, he giggled as he narrated this part, after spending a year playing with ideas, he started his own flavoured sugar company in 2002. The company was called crystal, a name he claimed was inspired by a Notorious Big Song and that’s how he waltzed off the track of his dotcom ambition. His earlier ISP idea, the Senegalese sugar industry was dominated by The Mimran Group, a French, family-owned company. The Mimran Group owns the company Sucriere Senegalaise (CSS) which cultivates 8,000 hectares of sugarcane in Senegal and has more than 5000 employees during harvest time – the largest employer in Senegal after the country’s government.

To understand how much money this family made from sugar consumption in Senegal as far back as the 1980s, in 1981, he paid $3million to acquire Lamborghini and saved the Italian fast car company from bankruptcy. Then they sold it to Chrysler corporation in 1987 after expanding its model line of products from 1 to 3 in the space of 6 years. 3 years after running the company as CEO, building processes and structure, Watt left to pursue an MBA at Harvard- after that, he worked as an investment officer at Nigeria’s Travant Capital in Lagos, where he stayed for 2 years before returning to Senegal to run Crystal in 2009.

Seven years after, Watt finally exited Crystal and moved to Ethiopia to work as the chief revenue officer of mFino, a fintech company, providing banks and telcos with mobile banking solutions in major markets in Africa including Ethiopia, Nigeria and Senegal. He stayed at mFino for a little while over a year before moving to Silicon Valley in 2017 to start African Tech Leader, an advisory firm that would morph into Wuri Venture.

Wuri Ventures’ dream, especially its subscription plan, urges others to join in building a prosperous Africa and Startup at a time. Wuri Ventures support the concept of entrepreneurism, which is the notion that through proactive initiative, founders can create positive change in the society and create their economic opportunities, “Watt said