Barbara Iyayi founded Unicorn Growth Capital in 2020 as a women-led VC fund that invests in the future of fintech and bridges traditional finance (TradFi) and decentralized finance (DeFi). The fund focuses on early-stage Web 2.5 and 3.0 companies delivering fintech infrastructure in Africa and other emerging markets with high crypto adoption. So far it has backed Credrails, ThankUCash, and Churpy. Barbara also currently serves on the board of the Web Foundation.

Why are you focused on early stage companies operating in Africa? 

Africa presents the most lucrative opportunity for fintech, DeFi, and Web3 because it is predominantly mobile, with a high unbanked population [66%], large credit gap, volatile and illiquid currencies, and inefficient and expensive cross-border payment rails. As a result, Africa has embraced the decentralized nature of crypto, and several countries in Africa have seen the highest crypto adoption in the world. 

What’s your thesis on the role of decentralized finance in the African context?

The future of fintech is Web3, so DeFi platforms are a key part of our investment thesis. DeFi fundamentally creates opportunities that traditional finance cannot provide. DeFi is frictionless, inclusive — used by anyone with a wallet — and offers real-time transactions. It also enables ownership, monetization of assets, borderless transactions, and global capital flows. These opportunities are revolutionary because we can unleash the continent’s true economic potential and integration into the global economy, when businesses and consumers can tokenize assets, easily trade and monetize their assets, get more capital and better financing, and transact cost-effectively and efficiently across borders. 

What are the main challenges facing the African tech ecosystem right now?

Capital has been a major challenge in the last five years, and while there has been a significant increase in VC funding to the African tech ecosystem recently, over $5 billion is still relatively low compared to other emerging markets, such as Latin America. It can be tempting for founders and investors to rest on their laurels with the assumption that capital solves everything and is free flowing. The ecosystem is still dependent on international capital, which means that it’s not self-sufficient and does not have robust local angel networks and institutions that have sizable allocations to venture. 

In addition, founders face challenges stemming from the institutional voids in Africa, such as lack of experienced local tech talent and punitive or unclear regulations, making it harder for companies to operate efficiently. We are seeing progress on both fronts. Developing local tech talent is more important to me because it’s also what makes the ecosystem self-sufficient and keeps local tech hubs at the forefront of innovation. 

*This 3 Minutes With interview first appeared in the Rest of World weekly newsletter. Sign up here.