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Sudan has its first Y Combinator startup

Sudan's former president Omar al-Bashir is in a meeting with four men
Reuters/Hamas Media Office/Mohammad Alostaz/Handout
Omar al-Bashir out, startup investments in. Wonder why.
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When the demo day for Y Combinator’s winter cohort of startups begins later this month, Bloom will put Sudan on the American accelerator’s famed map for the first time.

The barely year-old company was founded by Ahmed Ismail, a Sudanese former Barclays investment bank associate, and Youcef Oudjidane, an Algerian former managing partner at an American venture fund.

They had set out to invest in digital banking opportunities in Africa but decided to build one instead, according to Techcrunch, settling on Sudan because of its familiar territory and their ability to “navigate what may appear to be an ambiguous landscape.”

Sudan has been covered for years as a land of anti-authoritarian protests, internet shutdowns, and military coups, the popular impression being that it is perpetually on the brink of collapse. Ismail and Oudjidane are proposing a different narrative backed by consumer demand.

Using fintech to leap past Sudanese inflation

Sudan’s decades-long reputation as a crisis country has been costly in many ways, particularly in the citizens’ low trust in the financial system. Set back by years of foreign sanctions on the deposed Omar al-Bashir government, “many of Sudan’s 37 banks are undercapitalised, lack proper accounting standards and show strains from years of an unrealistically valued currency,” a Reuters analysis found last year.

One startup can hardly change this dire scene overnight, which probably explains why Bloom isn’t posing as a disruptor.

Instead, it hopes to be a tech partner to the Export Development Bank, a private company, to change Sudanese perceptions of what kinds of service banks should offer. The big picture is to help users to save in dollars but spend in the Sudanese pound. That sounds like a useful service in a country of more than 40 million people where inflation surpassed 350% last year. The company says it has 15,000 people on its waitlist.

Getting Y Combinator’s badge of approval could help draw more attention to Bloom, and opportunities in Sudan at large.

Bloom will compete with 18 peers from other African countries for investors’ attention on demo day, hoping that its story will ride interest in fintech while breaking through the usual attention on Africa’s big four VC destinations (Egypt, Kenya, South Africa, and Nigeria). At least 13 of the 19 startups at this YC cohort are from Nigeria alone.

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