Tighter funding cycles for startups are forcing them to be prudent, thus creating opportunities for solutions that promote internal fiscal discipline through spending management software. There is a big market for whoever can pull this off.

It’s not a problem that is unique to startups. Many African businesses still process internal reimbursement for staff or vendor payments manually. For businesses that have regimented procurement processes and upstarts where procurement is more fluid, managing business spending is an additional cost layer in both time losses or losses from manual errors. For finance departments, these payment requests can be difficult to keep track of. 

The World Bank says business payment transactions by micro-retailers alone in Africa can reach $1.5 trillion annually. This amount compares favourably with how much African households spend on consumption. In 2021 final household consumption expenditure in Africa sat at around 1.93 trillion (Statista). It’s a difference of little more than $400 billion—not a small figure, to be sure. But only 22.2% higher than what businesses purportedly spend in a year.

The script flips if you take McKinsey figures for total business and consumer spending. As early as 2015, total business spending in Africa already surpassed consumer spending. According to McKinsey, businesses in Africa spent $2.6 trillion while consumers spent $2.1 trillion. The business spending was heavily concentrated in Nigeria and South Africa, McKinsey consultants reported. Differences in numbers aside, businesses in Africa clearly spend hundreds of billions every year and do manage to do these significant payments with mostly manual approval processes. Brookings, the think-tank, says these trillions of business spending will only go up—to $4.2 trillion by 2030, 7 years away.

Despite this significant business spending, fintechs have historically focused on digitising consumer payments. Consumer payment fintechs have raised hundreds of millions of dollars every year since 2019 at least, to digitise how people pay for goods or services. B2B-focused fintechs on the other hand, are a relatively new phenomenon.

That may be changing. DAI Magister, a London-based investment advisory says investor focus is moving from consumer payment fintechs to “B2B payment solutions incorporating the CFO tech stack.” Already some fintech firms have sprung up around digitising B2B payments, with a noticeable focus on digitising how vendors collect or make payments to other businesses.

Flex Finance stands out from this B2B payments group as it is instead built around giving the operations and finance departments of businesses smooth but tighter control over how they spend money. The company has built a suite of tools accessible via web browsers or mobile apps that allow finance controllers to pre-approve spending limits and speed up vendor payment and reconciliation. Flex Finance believes its software can save business users approximately 40% of additional costs and losses from the manual processing of payments.

The current venture funding crunch is a tailwind

Saving money is a valid value proposition. As funding becomes harder to come by, startups are now more conscious of every dollar spent. With new investors harder to persuade and current investors demanding accountability, upstarts can barely afford to spend vital business capital carelessly. Every little bit counts.

But Flex Finance does not only serve startups. Its roll call of customers—a 2,500-strong-list—includes midsized businesses like Ntel, an internet provider, the National Open University of Nigeria, and Sporting Lagos, a football club owned by Shola Akinlade of Paystack fame.

What Flex Finance does not cater to is micro-businesses. Nigeria’s several dozen million MSMEs process millions of microtransactions daily, but they are more difficult and expensive to serve. Given their informal nature, they are understandably not a fit for Flex Finance which targets the manual back offices of more formalised businesses.

Part of Flex Finance’s offering to customers includes virtual and physical corporate cards with pre-approved spending limits for business staff. Spending limits mean finance departments can plan better and diminish the shock of unexpected invoices while tying expenditures to easily trackable activities and employees.

It charges a 0.1% fee on all transactions under ₦200 million. Fees for transactions above ₦200 million (roughly $252,000) are negotiated on a case-by-case basis. 

Expensya, a similar spend management solution founded by Tunisians, is a leading provider of software for European accounting offices. It was recently acquired by Medius, another leading business spending management provider based in Stockholm, Sweden. In Africa where Expensya’s founders hail from, no company yet owns the spend management space, making the space wide open for solutions like Flex Finance. 

For now, Flex Finance is only available in Nigeria. But there is an opportunity for it to help uncover the business spend management opportunity across the continent. Globally, the business spend management software market size was valued at $19.07 billion in 2022, according to Fortune Business Insights. Figures for Africa are hard to come by, which is understandable given the little attention that has been paid to the space.

Publicly available data from Crunchbase suggests Flex Finance has raised at least $800,000 since its founding in 2019. This includes $200,000 of undiluted funding from Accion Venture Lab, The MasterCard Foundation, and Catalyst Fund. Other investors include LoftyInc Capital Management, Berrywood Capital, and Gumroad CEO, Sahil Lavingia.

Yemi Olulana, the founder and CEO of Flex Finance says his company is not in a hurry to raise additional funds.

Tracking everything

In the years leading up to 2020, Strava, a physical activity tracking app, rocketed into popularity on the back of an interoperable application that users described as “uncluttered” and made “for adults”. Between January 2020 and May 2020, the app grew by 179% leaping into the public consciousness and out of America into the devices of 100 million users in 195 countries by 2022. 

Strava’s popularity and growth have hinged on the clarity and depth of analysis that it offers users, and a strong social network of amateurs, professional athletes and the everyday person who likes to show off athletic activity.

Like Strava, Flex Finance appears to be betting that it can offer superior analytics and visibility into business spending. The idea is that this will help money managers make better decisions on how to allocate capital. Olulana says his company has already helped some of its customers renegotiate vendor payments after discovering that they had been overpaying relative to market prices. Whether this—and pre-loaded debit cards—will be enough to expand and win the hearts of finance teams across Africa is what we hope to see Olulana’s team pull off.

Unlike Strave and likely never, Flex Finance does not have a social layer—at least not yet. A social network for finance nerds will be at least more boring than Meta’s Twitter replacement. But word-of-mouth from satisfied accounting officers and CFOs can have a strong social effect on growth. As I said earlier, there is food on the table for whoever can pull this off.

Corrected paragraphs 11 and 17 to reflect that Flex Finance offers physical cards not just virtual cards.

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