Why Norrsken founder Niklas Adalberth is betting on Africa

In 2016, Niklas Adalberth, co-founder of Klarna, exited the buy now, pay later giant to establish the Norrsken Foundation, a nonprofit organization grounded in the principles of effective altruism.

While at Klarna, Adalberth immersed himself in the intricacies of credit ratings, offerings, and payments. However, these themes lost their appeal over time, prompting Adalberth to seek a more profound purpose, leading to the inception of the Norrsken Foundation.

The concept of Norrsken was to foster and invest in both for-profit enterprises and nonprofit entities to make a positive societal impact. Over the years, the Norrsken Foundation has evolved into a multifaceted entity, giving rise to a venture capital firm and establishing three impact-driven co-working spaces and foundation hubs globally, all part of an ambitious plan to create 25 hubs within the next decade. From Stockholm to Kigali and recently Barcelona, these hubs have nurtured and invested in hundreds of startups, including through an accelerator program in its origin city.

Last week, Adalberth visited Kigali, home to the nonprofit’s first hub in Africa. Launched in 2019 but only fully operational this year, the hub is designed to accommodate over 1,000 entrepreneurs, investors and operators. It is the largest hub for entrepreneurship in Africa and is part of the Foundation’s broader initiatives on the continent, including the Norrsken Africa Seed Fund and Norrsken22.

Adalberth sat down with TechCrunch to delve into Norrsken’s strategy for its African hub, the choice of Kigali, and the Foundation’s vision for success on the continent.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

TC: Since establishing Norrsken in 2016, you’ve put so much into the organization. I’d love to learn how much and why.

NA: I’ve donated about $125 million, almost half of my wealth, to the Norrsken Foundation. And we do a bunch of different initiatives — [including] creating a big impact hub in Stockholm. And I’ve also just launched the biggest impact hub in Europe in Barcelona. This initiative in Kigali is $20 million. I’m fortunate to have been born in Sweden, with free healthcare and education. And we had perfect timing with Klarna. Had we started one year earlier, there’d be no Klarna or e-commerce to base that on. I still have half of my wealth left, so if I don’t give back or do anything meaningful, who should?

What influenced the decision to create a hub in Africa, and how does its strategy compare to Europe?

What we were trying to do in Europe was to change entrepreneurship from going to start any business to inspiring entrepreneurs to go into impact entrepreneurship. So here, companies will be tackling climate change, biodiversity and humanity’s biggest challenges, not just the next online casino, or Klarna, or an addictive computer mobile game, but to use technology for good.

That’s more true when you look at the challenges of Africa. If you’re serious about making an impact and want to do a positive thing in the world, I think Africa is where you need to consider. And that’s about the challenges. On the flip side is the population, going from 1 billion to 4 billion people by the end of the century. That’s one of the world’s most significant opportunities. Also, you can already now see that Africa is leapfrogging many old technologies used in the EU and the U.S. And to me, and to the people I spoke to, the best thing we can do is that a hub like this can contribute to economic growth by creating jobs and tax dollars. Those are long-term sustainability goals you should have.

The Kigali center is the first hub the Norrsken Foundation has opened in Africa. What’s next after that?

I’ve always had a passion and interest in Africa. And then, when it came to countries to select, it had to start somewhere. Rwanda has been a great testbed and gateway to the rest of Africa. So this has been like a natural first step for us into Africa. But this is all about taking the next steps into perhaps even bigger geographies and markets in Lagos, Cape Town, and Nairobi to reach even more people and inspire them to go into entrepreneurship to create jobs and economic growth.

Interesting. Would you also say that government collaboration was a factor in picking Rwanda in the first place? 

Yes. Rwanda has a friendly and collaborative government. It is also progressive regarding startups, for instance, with the Startup Act now established. Also, we found this fantastic spot in the middle of Kigali, a beautiful old school that we then transformed into this center, which will soon be able to house 1,500 people.

Tell us about the accelerator in Stockholm and how African startups benefit from it. 

In the accelerator, we select 20 companies every year, put in money, bring them up to Stockholm, and accelerate them in two months, providing the network and mentors to ensure they get their next financing round. We’ve done it now for three years. And I think in the last cohort in 2023, around half were from Africa.

We have a network of 120 mentors in Stockholm, ex-unicorn founders, and ex-corporate builders who come to help out during these two months to boost these companies. So that’s the kind of vehicle where we invest very early pre-seed. Then, in Africa, we have another seed vehicle. And then we just announced this with the Norrsken22 $205 million growth fund. We want to be able to provide capital in the various stages.

That’s a healthy pipeline. However, wouldn’t it be more strategic for the Kigali center to have an accelerator of its own? So, instead of moving African startups to Stockholm, they can do it here and use the knowledge and expertise of the mentors on the continent.

I think that makes a lot of sense; then you get the local expertise, which is very much needed. So, yes, we are looking into that. But nothing to share at this moment.

Okay, that’s great to know. What will your success look like in the next five to 10 years?

Success would be having thriving ecosystems all over Africa, like Silicon Valley, Stockholm, or London. There’s no reason why it shouldn’t be. I mean, the talent is there; they just need to get the opportunity and access to capital. And I think that with our different vehicles, we can prove that this is not only the right thing to do, but it’s also very good business to be done in Africa. They have a population of 60% below age 25, and most have smartphones. I mean, they will transform the content with digital solutions. So, we want it to have thriving ecosystems for entrepreneurship all over Africa. If it’s us setting up these different hubs or if we can inspire someone else to do it, it doesn’t matter. We’re a nonprofit, so we don’t have to do it as long as it does take place.

I like the optimism. Lastly, what’s next for the Foundation?

We’re looking into multiple geographies, but we’d have to come back to you on that. We won’t stop with Stockholm, Rwanda and Barcelona; we’ll go farther.


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