Sony is making a bold bet on an African gaming startup to boost PlayStation’s reach in the continent

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The PlayStation DualSense controller and PlayStation 5 console.
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Sony is making a bold bet on Africa’s video game industry. 

The Japanese consumer electronics and gaming giant has invested an undisclosed sum into Carry1st, a video game studio based in Cape Town, South Africa, via its Sony Innovation Fund venture arm, Carry1st told CNBC exclusively. 

The deal is a strategic investment that will see the two companies partner on a range of commercial opportunities. For now, the two companies are in the “exploratory stages” of that partnership.

Cordel Robbin-Coker, CEO and co-founder of Carry1st, said talks with the Sony Innovation Fund began about eight to nine months ago, and that his pitch to the PlayStation console maker was that Africa is the next big market to find growth in video games. 

“As large companies like Sony that have really strong footholds in tier-one and tier-two markets start thinking about where the next billion customers and gamers are going to come from, our pitch is that Africa is a prime market for that,” Robbin-Coker told CNBC in an interview. 

“We believe very firmly that there is an incredibly underrated console opportunity in Africa,” Robbin-Coker said, citing countries like Nigeria, Morocco and Algeria as places where console adoption is rising a lot. 

Sony is coming into an emerging gaming market with blistering growth potential. Sub-Saharan Africa’s gaming industry is expected to generate over $1 billion for the first time in 2024, according to research from Carry1st and venture capital firm Konvoy. 

Many gamers in Africa are buying consoles on “gray” markets — in other words, from vendors who’ve imported consoles from overseas to resell them locally, Robbin-Coker added. 

Expanding PlayStation in Africa 

One aspect of Carry1st’s partnership with Sony was about helping the games and entertainment giant expand PlayStation’s footprint in Africa. 

Sony forecast it would sell a record 25 million PlayStation 5 units in its 2023 fiscal year, which would mark the best year for any PlayStation console in history. The PS5 was initially blighted by shortages due to a scarcity of chips and supply chain disruptions.

Sony’s bet with its stake in Carry1st is that Africa will be the next major market to drive growth in PS5 sales.

“Our hope is that we can help [Sony] to expand their reach of PlayStation in the region and support them in a range of ways, including broader go-to-market strategies, as well as digital payments,” Robbin-Coker told CNBC.

He noted Carry1st could take advantage of the changing console business model, where sales have gone from primarily in-store payments for physical consoles and games to a more online experience marked by digital downloads, free-to-play games, and in-app purchases. 

Carry1st’s localized payment service Pay1st allows African gamers to buy games using local infrastructure, bank accounts, and payment methods including M-Pesa and mobile wallets. Game makers can monetize their games on Carry1st, the company’s online marketplace for games and add-on content. 

Original games in the pipeline  

Carry1st, founded in 2018, specializes in developing mainly social and casual puzzle-based mobile games for an African audience.  

Carry1st currently only makes and scales games for other clients, like Activision. But the company is now planning to develop its own original titles this year, with development underway on three new games.  

Little is known about the original games for now, but Robbin-Coker says he is “very confident” about the road map for Carry1st’s original titles, and that he “firmly believes” the company is on track to launch its debut first-party game sometime in 2024. 

Carry1st is still an early-stage startup, but its growth has been on a tear in recent years. Carry1st says its revenues climbed nearly ninefold between 2021 and 2023. Carry1st said it was unable to give a fuller picture of its financials given the sensitivity of the numbers. 

Carry1st works with the likes of Activision, Supercell and Riot Games to bring Western game franchises like “Call of Duty: Mobile” and “Valorant” to Africa. 

The company is behind the mobile games “Mancala Adventures,” “SpongeBob Krusty Cook-Off” — made in partnership with Nickelodeon — “Ludo Blitz” and “Mine Rescue.” 

Sony’s investment in Carry1st marks the first financial commitment of its new flagship African venture fund, Sony Innovation Fund: Africa, which launched in October 2023 to invest in early-stage startups in Africa’s entertainment industry. 

Sony Ventures Corporate, Sony’s venture arm, allocated an initial $10 million to its Africa fund.  

Carry1st’s latest deal adds to its list of venture backers, with another top name on the cap table. Andreessen Horowitz, Bitkraft Ventures, Google, Riot Games, and rapper Nas have so far backed the company with $60 million of funding to date. 

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