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Saturday

CowryWise micro-savings service opens high-yield government bonds to everyday Nigerians

9:15 AM 0 Comments

In emerging market countries where economic volatility is a way of life, there aren’t a lot of relatively safe options for members of the burgeoning middle class to park their money.

For instance, countries like Nigeria have experienced a tremendous growth in the number of citizens entering the middle class, which now accounts for about 23 percent of the population (it’s around 50 percent in the U.S.), according to a recent article citing the African Development Bank.

While Nigeria now faces some significant headwinds from a weak domestic currency (the naira), high interest rates and a manufacturing recession, there are ways that local investment can both protect the wealth that’s been created and encourage investment domestically to potentially spur development.

At least, that’s the conclusion that college friends Razaq Ahmed and Edward Popoola came to while they were thinking about opportunities for new financial services options in their home country of Nigeria.

The two men, Ahmed with a background in finance and Popoola in computer science, are launching a company called CowryWise that gives Nigerian investors a way to save their money by investing in high-yield government bonds. The rates on those products are high enough to absorb the wild swings in value of the naira and still provide a healthy return for investors, according to Ahmed.

Set to present at this year’s demo day from Y Combinator, CowryWise is one of a number of startups that Y Combinator has backed coming from the African continent, and an example of the wellspring of entrepreneurial talent that is flourishing in sub-Saharan Africa.

Using CowryWise, a customer would just have to sign up with their email address and phone number and link their bank account up to the CowryWise platform.

There are already roughly 57 million savings accounts in Nigeria and 32 million unique bank users. By investing in the bonds, these savers gain access to interest rates that range between 10 percent and 17 percent, according to Ahmed.

“The bonds… are similar to the treasuries issued by the U.S. government, which is A-rated,” says Ahmed. Even if there were foreign currency risk from investing in the naira, the inflation rate is currently around 11 percent, according to Ahmed. Given that most of the bonds are yielding interest rates on the higher end, it’s just a better deal for consumers, he said.

“There’s more value in keeping the money in government treasury bills” than in the bank, says Ahmed.

For Ahmed and Popoola, the decision to launch CowryWise was a way to bring investment opportunities to a retail investor that hadn’t been able to access the best that the financial system in Nigeria had to offer.

To target these retail investors meant leveraging technology to scale quickly and cheaply across the country. The two men started developing their service in January and tested it in February and March with friends and family.

CowryWise isn’t without competitors. Another Nigerian company, Piggybank, recently raised $1.1 million for its own automated savings solution. Like CowryWise, Piggybank also taps into government bonds to offer better rates to its investors.

That company already has 53,000 registered users — who have saved in excess of $5 million since 2016, according to a release.

There are subtle differences between the two. Piggybank touts its ability to save through bonds, but it is primarily working with banks to get Nigerians saving money. CowryWise is using Meristem Financial (Ahmed’s old employer) as the asset manager for its investments into the bond market.

Another difference is the time customers’ funds are locked up. Piggybank has a three-month savings period required before investors can withdraw funds, while CowryWise will let its customers withdraw cash immediately, according to this teardown of the two services.

Ultimately, there’s a large enough market for multiple players, and a need for better financial services, according to Ahmed.

“We kept having interest from retail investors on why they want to do micro-savings and micro-investment, but they didn’t have the required capital,” Ahmed says. “That was the major reason for staring the company. Why not democratize the assets? And make them available in investments and savings in this traditional instrument?”

Data breach exposes trade secrets of carmakers GM, Ford, Tesla, Toyota

2:35 AM 0 Comments

Security researcher UpGuard Cyber Risk disclosed Friday that sensitive documents from more than 100 manufacturing companies, including GM, Fiat Chrysler, Ford, Tesla, Toyota, ThyssenKrupp, and VW were exposed on a publicly accessible server belonging to Level One Robotics.

The exposure via Level One Robotics, which provides industrial automation services, came through rsync, a common file transfer protocol that’s used to backup large data sets, according to UpGuard Cyber Risk. The data breach was first reported by the New York Times.

According to the security researchers, restrictions weren’t placed on the rsync server. This means that any rsync client that connected to the rsync port had access to download this data. UpGuard Cyber Risk published its account of how it discovered the data breach to show how a company within a supply chain can affect large companies with seemingly tight security protocols.

This means if someone knew where to look they could access trade secrets closely protected by automakers. It’s unclear if any nefarious actors actually got their hands on the data. At least one source at an affected automaker told TechCrunch it doesn’t not appear that sensitive or proprietary data was exposed.

UpGuard’s big takeaway in all of this: rsync instances should be restricted by IP address. The researchers also suggest that user access to rsync be set up so that clients have to authenticate before receiving the dataset. Without these measures, rsync is publicly accessible, the researchers said.

The breach exposed 157 gigabytes of data—a treasure trove of 10 years of assembly line schematics, factory floor plans and layouts, robotic configurations and documentation, ID badge request forms, VPN access request forms. The breach even included sensitive non-disclose agreements, including one from Tesla.

Personal details of some Level One employees, including scans of driver’s licenses and passports, and Level One business data, including invoices, contracts, and bank account details.

The security team discovered the breach July 1. The company successfully reached Level One by July 9 and the exposure was closed by the following day.

Friday

Indie gem Stardew Valley will get multiplayer on August 1st

7:46 PM 0 Comments

Stardew Valley, the popular indie farming simulator (it’s more fun than “farming simulator” makes it sound, I promise) is quite possibly the chillest game of all time. But, without any multiplayer aspect, it can get … a bit lonely. From farming, to fishing, to exploring mines, it’s always felt like a game that would be better with friends.

We’ll soon find out if that’s true. After about year of work has been put into the feature, the game will get cooperative multiplayer starting on August 1st.

There’s a slight catch: multiplayer will be limited to PC/Mac/Linux, at first. The trailer (below) says support will roll out to Nintendo Switch/PS4/Xbox One “soon,” but doesn’t get into specifics.

Multiplayer Stardew Valley will support up to four (4) players on the same farm, with all players sharing the same money and farmland. According to this page on the Stardew Valley fan wiki, groups will be able to tweak the game a bit to their tastes (specifically, they can scale things like profit margins and in-game item costs) to account for the added ease of having four players doing the work that was previously designed for one.

Stardew Valley is surprisingly in-depth for a game built primarily by just one person; while it’s published by a company, the vast majority of the work — from the pixel art, to the musical composition, to the programming — is done by Eric “ConcernedApe” Barone. By the beginning of this year, it was reported that the game had sold more than 3.5 million copies. GQ did a profile on Barone and how he built the game.

Barone clarified a few things on Twitter shortly after the trailer went live:

  • If you’ve already found your way into the multiplayer beta, there won’t be any major changes in the public releases besides a “few last-minute bug fixes”
  • While work on the console builds is underway, he doesn’t have any release dates in mind yet
  • No split-screen or shared screen co-op — if you want multiplayer, you’ll need your own device to play on

Niantic explains how and why it bans players in Pokémon GO

12:51 PM 0 Comments

Getting banned for cheating is nothing new in Pokémon GO. There’ve been big ol’ ban waves every few weeks for ages now.

The policies have never been totally set in stone, however — at least not publicly. Like many of the game’s mechanics, the player base has had to share info amongst themselves to figure out the offenses and their relative punishments, from slaps on the wrist to lifetime bans.

At long last, Niantic has published a proper “Three-strike Discipline Policy.”

As the name implies, most infractions will be handled on a three-strike system. Niantic notes, however, that “some misbehaviors” (they leave that one pretty open ended) will work out to an instant perma ban.

So what’s worthy of a strike? Spoofing (making the game think you’re somewhere you’re not), using modified Pokémon GO clients or bots, or doing something that accesses Pokémon GO’s backend in an unauthorized way.

On the first strike, you’ll get a warning message. You’ll still be able to play, technically, but you won’t see anything even remotely rare for seven days.

On the second strike, they’ll close your account for a month.

On the third strike, the account is banned for good.

And if you think you got stuck in the crosshairs by accident? Niantic has an appeal process for that.

It’s worth noting that these punishments aren’t really new; bans of all variety have been happening since shortly after the game’s release. This is just the first time Niantic has really put the hows-and-whys in stone.

Niantic could probably go a few steps further in their clarifications here, though, as plenty of players are still confused as to whether or not they’re breaking the rules.

Will they get in trouble for using third party software (like an automated IV calculator) that doesn’t modify the client or access Niantic’s backend but does provide the player with more info? What about players using third party versions of the Go Plus hardware, like the Go-tcha? That thing pretty much automates catching/spinning as you walk around… but it’s also been sold in retail stores for years now, likely to many players who’ve never considered that this thing they bought in their local Gamestop might not be allowed.

Blavity raises $6.5 million Series A round led by GV

6:26 AM 0 Comments

Blavity, the digital lifestyle media company geared toward black millennials, recently closed a $6.5 million Series A round led by GV with participation from Comcast Ventures, Plexo Capital and Baron Davis Enterprises. As part of the investment, GV Partner John Lyman is joining Blavity’s board of directors.

As the media landscape continues to change, with some businesses up for sale, a prominent black media publication moving under new leadership and other ones shuttering, Blavity is at a point where it’s thinking about what phase two looks like, Blavity CEO Morgan DeBaun told TechCrunch over the phone.

“There’s just a lot going on where it’s important now more than ever that Blavity is committed and has the resources it needs to grow as a publication,” DeBaun told me.

Most of the funding will go toward opening a new office that is strictly focused on engineering and data, DeBaun said. As part of that, Blavity intends to triple the size of its engineering team. The office, which will likely be in Atlanta, will be home to engineers on additional products and content creation tools to facilitate better storytelling.

“A lot of innovation will come out of that office in the next six to nine months,” she said.

Currently, Blavity employs 30 people full-time and has between 60-80 contractors across its five brands. Since launching in 2014, Blavity has acquired Travel Noire, a travel startup for black millennials and media platform Shadow and Act to expand its focus from news to lifestyle.

Founded by DeBaun, Aaron Samuels, Jonathan Jackson and Jeff Nelson, Blavity ultimately aims to be a digital voice for black millennials. Prior to this Series A, Blavity raised a little over $1.8 million from MACRO, New Media Ventures, Base Ventures, Cross Culture Ventures, Harlem Capital Partners, the Knight Enterprise Fund and others.