IFC backs Bolt with $24M to expand its transportation network in emerging markets

Bolt, an Uber competitor that is building an international on-demand network of services to transport people, food and other items in cars, scooters and bikes across Europe and Africa, has picked up some strategic funding today to continue expanding its business in emerging markets.

The International Finance Corporation, a division of the World Bank, is investing €20 million ($24 million) in the Tallinn, Estonia-based startup to open up more services across Eastern Europe and Africa, with a specific mention of more services in Ukraine and Nigeria, two of those regions’ biggest economies, and more innovative services to target demographic groups that might be under-represented or under-served, such as women. 

Funding from the IFC is a significant endorsement of a company, if at the same time a relatively small amount compared to Bolt’s wider fundraising efforts.

Most recently, it raised $182 million in December at a significant hike to its previous valuation (which had been $1.9 billion). A Bolt spokesperson tells us that, once again, “our valuation has grown with the latest funding round, but we’re not disclosing the updated number.” (For the record, in December we calculated that the valuaton was probably around $4.3 billion, based on a 1.5x multiple on GMV of €3.5 billion, figures provided to us by CEO and co-founder Markus Villig. That figure wasn’t disputed, nor confirmed, though.)

People may not consider the IFC in the same breath as more typical VCs like SoftBank, Sequoia, Index Ventures, or Andreessen Horowitz, but it’s a significant player when it comes to backing startups around the world. Last year alone it invested $22 billion in companies, it said.

Backing a transportation startup is a notable move for it, considering that a lot of the IFC’s interest in tech has typically been around financial services. For example, it has also invested money into CurrencyCloud, Remitly, CompareAsiaGroup, and Kreditech, among others.

But improving transportation is another development target — in particular when you consider that companies like Bolt are built like marketplaces that provide income to people, infrastructure to businesses (in the form of delivery), on top of its most obvious service helping consumers get around.

“We are looking forward to partnering with IFC to further support entrepreneurship, empower women and increase access to affordable mobility services in Africa and Eastern Europe,” said Villig, in a statement. “Together with the investment from the European Investment Bank last year, we are proud to have sizable and strategically important institutions backing us and recognizing the strategic value Bolt is providing to emerging economies”.

Bolt’s efforts in emerging markets have long been one the key ways that the company differentiates itself from Uber — perhaps logical, considering that the company itself was founded in an emerging economy. Since launching in 2013, it has picked up over 50 million customers and more than 1.5 million drivers in 40 countries, including 400,000 drivers in 70 cities on the African continent.

That strategy has also grown over time to include services for under-represented groups in these under-represented markets. Bolt is piloting a “Women Only” ride-hailing service in South Africa, with female drivers and passengers to improve job opportunities and general safety, one of the programs that the IFC funding will support, it said.

“Technology can and should unlock new pathways for sustainable development and women’s empowerment,” said Stephanie von Friedeburg, IFC Senior Vice President of Operations, in a statement. “Our investment in Bolt aims to help tap into technology to disrupt the transport sector in a way that is good for the environment, creates more flexible work opportunities for women, and provides safer and more affordable transportation access in emerging markets.”

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