Why this French investor does not look for unicorns in Africa 

February 21, 2024
4 min read
Benoit Delestre is the Founding Partner at Saviu Ventures

Benoit Delestre has been investing in Francophone West Africa for five years, but he's not interested in unicorns.

Rather, he's always searching for what he describes as sustainable businesses — revenue-generating businesses with low burn rates. That is rare in an industry characterised by the pursuit of outsized returns, but this approach is informed by the region his investments are focused on.

Saviu Ventures, which he founded in 2018 alongside Samuel Touboul, invests in early-stage startups across Africa, but with a strong focus on Francophone West Africa.

Historically, the region has lagged behind West Africa in terms of attracting investment. More specifically, of the seven unicorns in Africa, only one — Wave — was founded or primarily operates in the region.

"To invest in a Francophone West Africa unicorn, I can wait a long time, so it's not in my investment thesis," Delestre shares. "I need some multiples; I need to return cash to my investors, so to bet on a unicorn in the next ten years, you will see that in the end, I won't have any return," he adds.

Where most VCs are okay with losing the bulk of their investments, Delestre is keen to ensure there are very few failed investments.

"If I have ten investments, at the end of my fund, I would like to have maybe eight to lose two," he says.

Although some LPs were initially hesitant to invest in the firm's first fund given his approach to investing, he could draw on his success and network from the companies he had founded. Now he says LPs are more willing to invest in Saviu Ventures, having seen the success of the first fund.

"If you have a look at every VC fund with the crisis we are living in now, the trend is between 1.5 and 2x for the best one. So I'm better than every VC fund because I bet on ten companies, I'm bringing value on ten companies, and I'm not doing spray and pray."

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Francophone Africa is on the rise

A map of Africa's unicorns

Before founding Saviu Ventures, Delestre built and exited two startups in Europe — Integri AB and 4G Secure SAS. Flush with cash from his exits, he began looking for startups to invest in but no entrepreneur met his criteria.

Though French, he has family who have lived in West Africa all their lives. Around 2015, he began receiving requests from them to invest in businesses but only started actively investing two years later.

Where he found European entrepreneurs overly focused on fundraising, he discovered that most of the African entrepreneurs had great ideas but lacked the experience to scale businesses beyond their primary base of operation.

"I started to invest in Africa because I was disappointed and frustrated by the European entrepreneur generation, and it was the perfect time in Africa to invest.

"We had this promising generation that did some college studies in Europe or the US, and they are finally back in Africa with some very crazy and interesting ideas. I was much more comfortable investing in such a generation looking for revenue than in Europe."

In 2017, Saviu Ventures made its first investment in ICT4Dev, which it exited in 2023. It also founded Kamtar, a marketplace for logistics services, after struggling to find great companies. Since then, the firm has made 12 investments across 14 countries and counts Julaya, ANKA, and Zanifu as portfolio companies.

One of its earliest investments was in Lapaire, an online eyewear retailer founded in Nairobi, but now boasting operations in six countries and more than 350 employees.

In January 2024, it announced $3 million in fresh funding to drive its expansion across the continent and exceeded $6 million in revenue while being profitable in 2023.

Since making his first investment, Delestre says there has been significant growth in the region. The most obvious is that more investors are willing to back founders, and he attributes this to the return of the diaspora.

"Five years ago, all this generation wanted was to create some company in the US or Europe, but now they are back in Africa, and they want to create these companies here."

The best investors think like entrepreneurs

Although he heads up Saviu Ventures, Delestre does not see himself as an investor but as an entrepreneur.

"For me, the best quality to invest in Africa is first acting as an entrepreneur because you need to understand the behavior of the people you are talking with. That's why, for me, the best GPs are the ones where you have a mix of entrepreneurs and professional investors," he says.

Angel investors or former entrepreneurs typically have smaller funds to invest, and Delestre says it forces one to critically assess the potential of earning a return on their investment.

However, professional investors with larger funds can afford to have a few bad investments and hope the others cover up for them.

His first tip for first-time investors in the region is not to invest in the first entrepreneur they find.

"Spend some time onsite. Try to meet all the entrepreneurs and do a bit of what I call 'know your entrepreneur'. You need to understand the mind facing you, and that's key for me because you can invest in many companies, but at the end of the day, you need to be very comfortable with the guy."

He also advises investors to always invest with an exit in mind and suggests investing to exit to a corporate or exiting during secondaries.

He adds that investors will need to help portfolio companies with business development, hiring, and exit opportunities, as these are the three major challenges startups in the region face.

Accidental writer, covering Africa's startup landscape and its heroes. Find me on Twitter @chigo_nwokoma.
Accidental writer, covering Africa's startup landscape and its heroes. Find me on Twitter @chigo_nwokoma.
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Accidental writer, covering Africa's startup landscape and its heroes. Find me on Twitter @chigo_nwokoma.

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