Zambia-based card issuing startup, Union54, raises $12m in seed funding

Omoleye Omoruyi
Union54 is a fintech company offering card issuing services in partnership with licensed card issuers in their respective countries
Zambia-based card issuing startup, Union54, raises $12m in seed funding
Zambia-based card issuing startup, Union54, raises $12m in seed funding

A Zambia-based card issuing fintech startup, Union54, has announced it raised $12 million in a seed extension round.

The seed extension round was led by Tiger Global, Vibe VC and new investors Earl Grey Capital and Packy Mccormick’s Not Boring Capital, and follows the company’s previous seed round funding of $3 million, still led by Tiger Global.

Union54?

Zambia-based card issuing startup, Union54, raises $12m in seed funding
A screenshot of Union54’s landing page

Union54 is a fintech company offering card issuing services in partnership with licensed card issuers in their respective countries.

Co-founders and couple Perseus Mlambo and Alessandra Martini started Union54 in 2021 after launching, Zazu, a challenger bank, six years ago.

Union54’s API allows software companies from the African continent to issue and manage their debit cards without requiring a bank or a third-party processor, enabling cross-border payments and easing the overall process. 

What Union54 wants to do with the new funding

Union54 says it aims to create a homegrown alternative to worldwide known card issuers Mastercard and Visa, who dominate the continent but impose higher fees for merchants.

Union54’s CEO and founder, Perseus Mlambo, mentions that signing agreements with central banks across Africa can build a sense of trust and lead the company to start issuing a domestic and continental debit card, to shorten settlement time, and integrate more local payment methods and APMs. 

According to Mlambo, recent global events like Visa and Mastercard pulling out from Russia, leaving China’s UnionPay to fill in the void, have made it evident that payments can be influenced by politics.

The purpose of creating another card network is an inspiration of what’s happening right now. Number one, we’re vulnerable and hostage to any political decisions that might affect trade on the continent. And if anything were to happen, we would wake up and would not have access to our funds.

Perseus Mlambo

“Number two, when you think about the card networks today, they’re not fit for African merchants because settlement is often taking three days for a local debit card, maybe it’s taking over seven days for an international debit card. There’s a significant opportunity as the world realigns itself; we need to get to a point where we’ve got a payments route that needs to be developed locally for local use.”

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Previous funding round

Only two months after graduating from Y Combinator’s summer batch, Union54, the first Zambian startup backed by Y Combinator, got another major venture capital firm on its term sheet: Tiger Global..

San Francisco-based venture capital firm Runa Capital, Ace & Company, Todd & Rahul Angel Fund and Vibe VC participated.

The fintech also received checks from angel investors such as Babs Ogundeyi, the CEO of Nigerian neobank Kuda; Risana Zitha, managing director of Renaissance Capital; and Gbenga Ajayi, former director of SMB Growth at Wise. 

Then, Mlambo said that over 50 companies are currently in Union54’s API sandbox environment. They range from digital banks to post-Series A fintechs and “companies founded on the basis of Union54’s availability.” Mlambo says 30 more could join before the end of 2021.

With the funding, Union54 said it plans to use the investment to ramp up recruitment across engineering, product, marketing, and sales teams.

The purpose of this funding is to help us find the best of African talent, people who want to work on big problems. The investment helps us to be able to go to them and say, ‘hey, we’re a well-funded company, we’ve got customers using us, we’re earning revenue and this is going to be one of the most important companies to come out of Africa.’

Perseus Mlambo

Union54, Visa and Mastercard

A card scheme, a central payment network, uses credit and debit cards to process payments – to manage payment transactions, including operations and clearing. The card scheme transfers the card transaction information from the acquiring bank to the issuing bank (merchant to customer), and then the payment is sent back to the acquirer to accept and confirm the payment.

Union54 wants to operate like two of the largest global brands, Visa and Mastercard.

Visa and Mastercard have so much in common irrespective of logo. Both are widely accepted worldwide, and the benefits that matter most to card users aren’t determined by whether it’s a Mastercard or Visa card.

Union54

Visa and Mastercard don’t actually issue or distribute credit cards. Instead, they are payment networks — they process payments between banks and merchants for credit card purchases.

Union54 wants to play in that space and ease the processes for Africans, eliminate possibilites of politisation and reduce fees for merchants, as mentioned by Mlambo.

Union54 says it has gotten in touch with three central banks keen to explore how settlement agreements would work with a new card scheme.

According to Tech Crunch, Mlambo says the challenges they may have will bother on trust

Ultimately, the card is a physical manifestation of that trust. By going through Central Banks, we want to understand and agree on a common framework for the paperwork that documents that cements that trust.

Perseus Mlambo

“We’ve invested a lot of time and effort to understand what needs to happen and when. So our goal is that in the next 18 months, we should be able to do a test transaction. We’ve set ourselves to target the end of this year to have at least nine member banks join to participate in this scheme,” Mlambo adds.

Union54’s partners include Flutterwave, Payday and Plumter (cross-border fintechs) and crypto exchange platform, Bitmama.


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