LatAm is not traditionally considered a popular region for FinTech developments. With major headlines being hogged by China’s FinTech giants, America’s booming VC investment and the growth of open banking in Europe, it’s not hard to see why LatAm struggles to get a look in.
But is the lack of attention justified, or is this region flying under the radar?
In terms of investment value, it’s fair to say that the LatAm region is significantly behind other areas. The region’s lack of investment value is not down to an insufficient number of deals though. For example, LatAm saw only slightly fewer FinTech deals than China did in 2018 but its investment value was over 20 times smaller.
Total FinTech Investment and Number of Deals in 2018
With a noteworthy number of deals going ahead in the region, there are clearly plenty of FinTechs to invest in, and this number is growing rapidly. The estimated total number of FinTechs in the region increased from 619 to over 1100 during 2017-18, representing a 73% increase year-on-year, with Brazil (150%) and Mexico (93%) experiencing the biggest increases. Recent estimates put the number of FinTech start-ups in the US, Canada and LatAm combined above 5,700, so LatAm is starting to make a dent from this perspective.
When it comes to producing FinTech unicorns – companies with a valuation over $1BN – LatAm has some way to go but is certainly making up ground. Brazil gained 2 new FinTech unicorns in 2018, while Argentina gained a new FinTech unicorn in January this year as Prisma Medios de Pago, one of the country’s leading payment providers, attained a valuation over $1.5BN. Let’s look at some of the FinTechs that have managed to thrive in LatAm so far, including one of these recent unicorns.
In much of the LatAm region, SMEs struggle to obtain finance due to issues such as stringent credit check requirements and high costs. This challenge is tackled by the likes of Konfio, which received the most funding of any Mexico-based FinTech across 2017 and H1 2018, receiving $95M through debt and equity financing. As Mexico’s leading online SME lending platform, Konfio uses innovative credit algorithms to provide access to affordable loans, an approach which has seen it recognised as one of the 100 most innovative FinTechs globally.
Mexico’s Clip is a prominent payment provider in the region. Formed by two ex-PayPal employees, it has become one of the country’s most recognisable mobile payments brands. Clip started out in 2012 with the goal of emulating the success of Square in the US and has since helped many Mexican SMEs accept card payments at low cost, focusing on customer service, a smooth onboarding process and an intuitive product. Merchants can now buy Clip devices at over 17,000 locations countrywide, and the Fintech recently attained $20M in funding from Japan’s SoftBank, representing a growing Asian interest in LatAm and a promising outlook for Clip in particular.
PayU’s operations in LatAm began through the acquisition of Colombia-based Pagosonline in 2010. Since this acquisition, PayU LatAm has established itself as an online payment provider across 7 Latin American countries, using the global knowledge and financial backing of PayU to expand both organically and through mergers & acquisitions. The PSP claims to target developing economies with great potential; with 7 out of 18 operating countries in LatAm, PayU’s focus on the region is clear, so it owes its LatAm operations a lot for its performance globally - a $5BN valuation, 100M+ consumers and 200K+ merchants.
Mercado Pago, Argentina
Argentinian online payment platform MercadoPago is one of the leading online payment providers in the region, competing with globally established players such as PayPal across several of its operating countries. Perhaps more impressively, its parent company Mercado Libre is the most popular e-commerce platform in LatAm and, following its recent $750M investment from PayPal, intends to strengthen its presence and compete directly with the likes of Amazon and eBay.
While Uruguay doesn’t often grab headlines in the LatAm FinTech world, the progress of payments provider dLocal certainly stands out from the crowd. Founded in 2016, dLocal aims to close the gap between emerging and developed countries in terms of payment technology. Unlike many other FinTechs in the region, dLocal has set its sights beyond LatAm and established operations in Asia, Europe and North Africa. The FinTech has achieved rapid growth in its time in market so far, having expanded to 120 employees worldwide and incorporated 300+ local payment methods as of March 2018. With the guidance of expert investors, dLocal is set to continue tapping into the mass of underserved online merchants in emerging countries – watch this space.
Since its achievement of reaching FinTech unicorn status in 2018, NuBank has become one of the most talked about FinTech companies in LatAm and by some measures the largest challenger bank in the world; its customer base (over 5M) significantly outnumbers some of Europe’s most successful FinTechs, including Revolut (3M) and N26 (2.3M) . David Vélez, NuBank’s founder, attributes its success largely to the decision to offer credit cards first and the shift this brought to the trust dynamic between customers and the bank: “While customers wonder whether it's safe to deposit money for a challenger to look after, we are the trusting party when it comes to credit.”
Prospects for LatAm
Latin America certainly has some promise as a force in the FinTech world. While there is still some way to go before it can compete with the world’s established FinTech hubs, there are a few trends that will govern its progress.
1. Interest from global tech giants
The last few years have seen companies such as Amazon, Visa, Tencent and others step into the LatAm ring. This trend could provide the necessary capital injection to even out the discrepancy between the number of deals and investment value in the region. For instance, it was Tencent’s $180M investment that took Nubank to a valuation of $4BN, making it one of Brazil’s first FinTech unicorns. The conglomerate’s investment in NuBank is far from a one-off occurrence, but reflects a greater trend of China’s investment focus shifting away from infrastructure towards service industries such as financial services. Most recently, Tencent invested in Argentinian mobile payments firm Ualá at the end of April this year, making a bold statement when most are reluctant to invest in a turbulent Argentinian economy.
Visa has also weighed in through its Visa Everywhere competition for FinTech funding, and by backing several accelerator programs, including Kyvo/GSVlabs in Brazil and Startupbootcamp in Mexico.
One downside of this attention from overseas is the addition of experienced and affluent competitors to the market. Amazon, for instance, saw the opportunity to launch a debit card product in Mexico, one of the few Latin American countries that doesn’t lean heavily towards credit cards. The tech giant has an effectively endless pot of money to develop and push its offering, as well as a wealth of data on the Mexican population and similar markets from its e-commerce channel. If more global conglomerates make similar moves, the growth of FinTech from within the region may be supressed.
2. An increasing focus on innovation from regional banks
Banks in the LatAm region are increasingly supporting the development of FinTech. Bradesco and Santander have launched innovation spaces in Brazil (InovaBra Habitat) and Mexico (Spotlight) respectively, aiming to promote collaboration and developments using emerging technologies. Other banks, such as BBVA Bancomer, have similar programs with a focus on inviting FinTech start-ups to work with the bank on new product developments that can add value to their offering.
Meanwhile, Colombia has played a key role in this trend through established players such as Bancolombia, which has partnered with the Silicon Valley-based ‘Plug and Play’ start-up program to promote collaboration between early-stage FinTechs and larger financial companies. This forward-thinking approach from banks promises to foster a stronger FinTech ecosystem in the region, while offering access to funding for those that can use these platforms to gain the support of financial institutions.
Playing the game under the bank’s rules places limitations on the types of FinTechs that can thrive though. Many of the schemes call out specific focus areas, such as Blockchain, AI and Big Data, so FinTech sub-segments like crowdfunding, which are less directly valuable to a bank’s operations, may be left by the wayside.
3. Regulation is catching up
As is the case in other regions, LatAm FinTechs in many areas have been calling for more supportive regulation.
In recent years though, the regulatory framework for FinTechs in the region has been making up lost ground. Brazilian regulators have released an array of policies covering several FinTech sub-segments. Notably, its National Monetary Council issued a regulation in 2018 allowing direct lenders and P2P lenders & marketplaces to provide banking services without using an incumbent bank as an intermediary.
In terms of FinTech regulation in LatAm though, Mexico’s FinTech law is the key talking point. The regulation, claimed to be the first of its kind globally, covers areas such as licensing requirements, the use of APIs and authorisations for sandbox testing. However, while providing a framework for growth, Mexico’s FinTech Law exemplifies some of the downsides of accelerating regulation. FinTechs in the country will now need to adopt a host of new processes and many will need to go through time-consuming, and likely expensive, licensing processes. Depending on how well-balanced these requirements prove to be, they may provide unwelcome roadblocks.
More than meets the eye
At first glance LatAm seems to be trailing the world’s established FinTech nations despite the promise of a large number of investment deals and a huge underserved population. In recent years though, we’ve seen the region start to deliver on its potential, aided by booming international investment, a commitment to FinTech innovation by banks, and the creation of more supportive regulation by government bodies.
LatAm’s FinTech sector may not be able to compete with the world’s established regions just yet, but with a forecast value exceeding $150BN by 2021 you won’t regret keeping one eye firmly on this one.