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Gmail gets a new look, Instagram trips while trying to be TikTok and India blocks Battleground Mobile

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Hello hello! Welcome back to Week in Review, the newsletter where we do a quick rundown of the most-read TechCrunch stories from the past week. The idea: When you’ve had a busy few days, you should be able to skim Week in Review and still have a good idea of what’s up lately in tech. Want it in your inbox? Sign up here.

The most read story this week was about Battlegrounds Mobile India, a popular battle royale title that has found an audience of tens of millions in India. Players woke up to find the game suddenly blocked from both Google Play and Apple’s App Store by order of the Indian government. Why? That’s…not exactly clear yet, but Manish has the breakdown of everything we know so far.

other stuff

New Gmail for all: Use Gmail? Don’t be surprised if it looks different soon. The company announced this week that the “Material You” interface overhaul it has been testing will roll out to all users in the coming weeks. Don’t like the new styling? For now, at least, you can find a toggle hidden in the settings menu to switch it back.

Instagram’s bad move(s): As best anyone can tell, TikTok seems to be eating Instagram’s lunch. Is the answer for Instagram to become more like TikTok? Recent updates — like a focus on full-screen video and more content from people you don’t follow — have made the Insta interface feel more and more TikTok-y…and, well, the complaints have been loud. Instagram is at least pretending to listen, though, and says it’ll be walking back many of said changes. Maybe.

Rivian layoffs: Rumors earlier this month suggested layoffs were looming at Rivian; sure enough, the company confirmed this week that it’s laying off around 6% of its workforce as part of a “restructuring plan.”

A penny for your prompts?: OpenAI’s DALL-E 2 can generate incredible art seemingly out of thin air, but sometimes getting the exact results you want can require some…finesse. This startup wants to “sell strings of words that net predictable results” on DALL-E 2 and other such systems. An interesting story made all the better by its oh-so-Seussian opening image, which I’ll note was created by an actual human (and a lovely one at that).

Meta shutters Tuned: Did you know Meta had a social app for couples? Probably not! Called Tuned, it was part of Meta’s New Product Experimentation efforts, and it seems this particular experiment is over. Meta announced this week that Tuned will go away on September 19. The app was meant to help couples communicate and “create a shared scrapbook” of photos/videos/etc. It doesn’t help that it was launched right at the beginning of the pandemic, when many couples probably had no trouble keeping in touch because they probably weren’t going anywhere anyway.

audio stuff

Is cutting your company’s internal valuation ever a good thing? Natasha and Anita focused on that question on Wednesday’s episode of Equity. Meanwhile, on Chain Reaction, Lucas and Anita chatted about Minecraft, saying, “No friggin’ thanks” to NFTs, and Lauren hopped on The TechCrunch Podcast to fill us in on why (as we learned last week) Netflix is bleeding customers.

additional stuff

If you’re a TechCrunch+ subscriber, (a) thanks! and (b) we’ve got good stuff for you this week. Such as:

3 views on Amazon’s acquisition of One Medical: Love it or hate it, Amazon is buying One Medical. Good thing? Bad thing? Alex Wilhelm, Walter Thompson and Miranda Halpern weigh in with their perspectives.

8 fintech VCs on how to pitch them: What are fintech investors looking for right now? Mary Ann Azevedo checked in with eight of the top investors in the space.

Could the CHIPS Act spark another U.S. startup renaissance?: The U.S. Senate clearly wants more semiconductor production happening stateside — but chip manufacturing is wildly expensive. Is this “potential cash injection” an opportunity for new startups to change the way it’s done? As Haje puts it: “Those weird theories you were studying as part of your PhD thesis? Now’s the time to dust ’em off.”

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Google picks South Africa for its first cloud region in Africa

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Tech giant Google has today announced the launch of a cloud region in South Africa, its first in the continent, playing catch-up to other top providers like Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Microsoft Azure, which made inroads into the continent a few years ago.

Google said it is also building Dedicated Cloud Interconnect sites, which link users’ on-premises networks with Google’s grid, in Nairobi (Kenya), Lagos (Nigeria), and South Africa (Capetown and Johannesburg), in its quest to provide full-scale cloud capabilities for its customers and partners in Africa.

Google plans to tap its private subsea cable, Equiano, which connects Africa and Europe to power the sites. Equiano has been under development since 2019 and has so far made four landings — in Togo, Namibia, Nigeria and South Africa.

South Africa now joins Google’s global network of 35 cloud regions and 106 zones worldwide, and the announcement follows the recent preview launch of regions in Malaysia, Thailand and New Zealand. Google Cloud regions allow users to deploy cloud resources from specific geographic locations, and access several services including cloud storage, compute engine, and key management system.

“We are excited to announce the first Google Cloud region in Africa. The new region will allow for the localization of applications and services. It will make it really easier for our customers and partners to quickly deploy solutions for their businesses, whereby they’re able to leverage our computer artificial intelligence or machine learning capabilities, and data analytics to make smarter business decisions as they go forward,” said Google Cloud Africa director, Niral Patel.

He added that the new region and interconnect sites will take its cloud computing services closer to its clients, allowing its customers to choose where to consume the products from.

“What we’re doing here is giving customers and partners a choice on where they’d like to store their data and where they’d like to consume cloud services, especially in the context of data sovereignty. This allows customers to then store the data in the country should they choose to do so… I guess for me the most important element is that it gives customers the element of choice,” Patel said.

The ability for users to choose where they store their data is increasingly critical as countries like Kenya implement privacy and data laws, which require companies to store their data within borders and process it through servers hosted locally.

The decision to set up a region in South Africa was informed by the demand for cloud services and the market’s potential. Still, the company is looking to launch in more markets within the continent as demand for its products soars. Its early adopters include large enterprise companies, and e-commerce firms like South Africa’s TakeAlot and Kenya’s Twiga.

“We continue to evaluate market demands as we work with our customers to see them transform and grow in these markets. We continuously make these assessments and it is on that basis, that we continue to invest,” Patel said.

According to research by AlphaBeta Economics, commissioned by Google Cloud, the South Africa cloud region will contribute over $2.1 billion to South Africa’s GDP and support the creation of more than 40,000 jobs by 2030.

Google Cloud, Azure by Microsoft, and AWS are the three biggest public cloud storage players in the world, according to data from Gartner, but it’s unclear why until now, Google has been absent in Africa.

Microsoft launched two cloud regions in South Africa: Cape Town and Johannesburg (only the cloud region in the latter remains active) in 2019, the same year Google announced it “had no plans to establish a cloud region or data center in Africa,” according to this report; however, it didn’t rule it from happening in the foreseeable future.

Amazon followed suit in 2020, scaling its AWS data centers to South Africa through Cape Town. Oracle, another major player, also established its data center in Johannesburg this year. In response to whether Google is playing catch up with the other cloud storage players, Patel and Nitin Gajria, the managing director of Google Africa, painted a picture whereby every major player is concerned about broadening the internet ecosystem in Africa through their data centers rather than vying for a more significant market share.

“In terms of where we are on the continent with the internet, the job to be done is thinking of how do we bring more people and businesses online, how do we help more entrepreneurs get access to capital and so on,” Gajria remarked. “In business parlance, this is less of a market share zero-sum game, but more of how do we work collectively across the private sector, public sector, civil society, to just build a large, vibrant internet ecosystem that helps broaden economies and businesses, as well as generate jobs.”

With Google’s launch, South Africa now houses four major cloud storage providers on the continent.

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Nigerian proptech Spleet gets $2.6M led by MaC VC to scale its property management products

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For the average individual living in Lagos — Nigeria’s most populous city, with over 20 million people — apartment hunting is an extreme sport. Not only is rent expensive — low- to middle-income housing can cost between $1,000 and $5,000 yearly — but renters must also pay a year in advance, sometimes even two before moving in.

Landlords in the city, like any in Nigeria, have stuck to accepting rent in this manner for decades because they find monthly payments unsustainable; to them, annual up-front fees reduce administrative costs and the chances of renters defaulting. But in effect, renters are placed in a precarious position of finding their first lump sum for the first year’s rent and subsequently saving some money from their salary for the following rent.

Dolapo Adebayo encountered this problem while searching for an apartment after returning to Nigeria from the U.K. In 2018, he and Akintola Adesanmi — who was no stranger to how rent worked in Nigeria and also desired to effect change — brainstormed Spleet, a platform that partners with apartment owners to list their properties and offers renters options to pay rent monthly, quarterly and biannually.

While Adesanmi worked for years in Nigeria’s banking and fintech space, his family’s real estate background pushed him to establish a startup in proptech. This relationship also supplied Spleet with the critical network of landlords required to list multiple units when it went live; the pitch to landlords was that Spleet would bring proper KYC into the rental process and allow them to verify tenants and automate rent collection.

“Our solution on the tenant side was a no-brainer. It was the landlords who needed convincing, but it helped that we already had a network of landlords,” said CEO Adesanmi in an interview with TechCrunch on the company’s takeoff. “So instead of going out and raising venture capital, we decided that we were going to bootstrap because we could convince some landlords to list their homes on this platform that we had built and derisk some of their problems.”

The founders bootstrapped Spleet for 18 months before conducting a family and friend round of $265,000. This process allowed the four-year-old startup to establish good unit economics and significant traction before scaling, Adesanmi noted. It also became clear there was a great demand for its subscription-based product — it has had over 68,000 unfulfilled requests since launching — even though apartments listed on its platform can be pricey for the average renter in Lagos. Many of Spleet’s customers are middle- to high-income earners (paying between $200 and $1,000 monthly). To them, paying a premium on monthly or quarterly rent beats saving up cumulatively less than that for yearly rent.

Spleet’s growth has courted investors’ attention. This March, the company announced a pre-seed investment of $625,000. Then in July, it became the first African startup to join New York’s MetaProp Accelerator. Now it is announcing the completion of its $2.6 million seed funding led by Los Angeles–based early-stage VC firm MaC Venture Capital. The round also welcomed Noemis Ventures, Plug and Play Ventures, Assembly Funds, Ajim Capital, Francis Fund, existing investors from its pre-seed, MetaProp VC, and HoaQ Fund, and proptech operators such Eduardo Campos and Paulo Buchucher of Yuca and Majed Chaaraoui of Insurami.

Spleet

Image Credits: Spleet

The investment will see Spleet scale its products: the flagship residential rent management and rent financing solution. The rent financing solution, dubbed Rent Now, Pay Later, gives renters access to no-collateral loans up to ₦3 million (~$6,000) with an interest of about 3.5% monthly to finance rent payments. Spleet has beta-tested the product since December — built on the back of payroll access — with a handful of users, who make a one-month down payment while the company finances the remaining 11 months. Its nonperforming loans ratio recorded during this period stands at 1.2%, Adesanmi noted.

“If you think about more developed countries that have rent data, they use it to either get a mortgage or a school loan or things like that because you can verify yourself with that rent data,” the CEO said about the BNPL product. “So we’re getting a lot of that type of data. We will probably build a repository of that data so our customers can leverage that data to access other goods and services.”

Spleet is also expanding its residential rent management offerings to include Collect, a service that automatically receives rent payments on behalf of landlords and Verify, a tool that enables landlords and real estate agents to vet and carry out adequate background checks on tenants before offering lease agreements.

The proptech has processed over $3.5 million in rent since its inception and onboarded over 35 individual and corporate landlords; the latter lists multiple housing units at once. Spleet has also housed over 1,000 tenants, and while that might seem small, it’s worth noting that their average lifetime value is 26 months.

For years, proptech, unlike fintech, hasn’t witnessed exploding growth in Africa despite real estate needing as much innovation as financial services in the region. But there’s recent activity suggesting that growth is imminent in the African proptech space. One, startups are building solutions identical to other emerging markets, such as QuintoAndar in Latin America, Huspy in the UAE and NoBroker in India. Second, accelerators like Techstars are creating dedicated programs for such startups on the continent, while MetaProp is accepting more African proptech startups into its program.

Eventually, these various activities will foster competition in the space. There are similar providers in the relatively early proptech category Spleet plays in — for instance, Rent Small Small, Kwaba and Muster — and it expects to increase its significant market share and outpace competition following the raise. “I think one of the things that kept us grounded was that we didn’t come solving this problem as finance professionals. Proptech is infinitely different from fintech, and the beginning is always slower,” Adesanmi said about Spleet’s competitive advantage. “If you look at Airbnb, Booking.com, and other global players, even QuintoAndar, they started slowly before blitzscaling. For us, we didn’t take the burning cash to grow approach. We took a let’s get the business model right before we start to grow approach, and bootstrapping made us execute well and understand the landscape better.”

As Spleet prepares to test out new markets early next year, MaC Venture Capital managing general partner Marlon Nichols said his firm is proud to partner with the proptech company as “it continues to bring forward a comprehensive solution that effectively serves both sides of the housing market and makes true deposits to combating homelessness in Africa.”

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South African startup Talk360’s seed funding hits $7M after new backing

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Months after the initial close of its seed round, Talk360, a South African Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) startup, has raised an additional $3 million, bringing the total investment raised in the round to $7 million.

Talk360’s latest investors include Allan Gray E2 Ventures (AGEV), Kalon Venture Partners, E4E Africa, Endeavor, existing lead investor HAVAÍC, and a number of angel investors including Tjaart van der Walt and Coenraad Jonker.

The company plans to use the new funding to launch a pan-African payment platform next year and grow its VoIP market share. Talk360’s payment platform will integrate “all payment options” in the continent – creating a diverse pool of localized payment options, making it easy for international and local businesses to sell to buyers residing in Africa.

“The new platform will allow users across the continent to buy products and services using any currency and more than 160 payment methods. It will also be opened to other merchants,” Talk360 said in a statement.

Talk360 told TechCrunch, in a past interview, that its decision to be a payment aggregator was informed by the challenges it encountered in implementing digital payment options, which affected the bottom line of its internet calling business.

Dean Hiine, the startup’s co-founder and managing director for Africa, told TechCrunch that existing digital payment methods in Africa are scattered and some involve lengthy and complex processes, affecting its conversion rate.

Hiine, who co-founded the startup with Hans Osnabrugge and Jorne Schamp in 2016, hopes to tap the payment platform to enable more people across the continent to make international calls through its app. Talk360 users make calls at a fee, with its platform built in such a way that only the initiator needs the app and internet — a smartphone — to make calls.

“Our mission is to bridge distance and connect lives by offering reliable, affordable, and easy-to-use digital services, delivered in a localised manner to all communities, particularly emerging countries, so they can connect to the world,” said Hiine.

The startup also has a network of agents, including PesaPoint in Kenya and Flash in South Africa, which enable users to purchase airtime vouchers from over 750,000 physical points of sale.

“But we’re not just solving socio-economic issues: we’re also offering micro-entrepreneurship and income generating opportunities to our growing network of agents across the country.”

The company said its internet calling app has connected 2.3 million people worldwide so far this year, and attained a 167% growth in customers and 130% in revenues. The app has active users in over 170 countries including South Africa, Zimbabwe and Bangladesh.

“We invested more into Talk360 based on its strong progress in the South African market to date, as well as its potential in the rest of Africa. Since our first investment, the company has shown spectacular growth, and a genuine ability to crack the challenge of distribution in Africa. We’ve seen the company convert users to paying customers by offering them relevant services, and making this accessible in an easy, affordable, reliable and trustworthy way,” said HAVAÍC managing partner, Ian Lessem.

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