Borrower Interview #1 - Fluna


Borrower Interview #1 - Fluna

In conjunction with the re-launch of the Fluna Receivables pool on Atlendis, we decided to sit down with the founder and CEO Miguel Sousa Dias and his Head of Finance and Strategy, Lauren Bovard. Both have been instrumental in the launch of this pool and have continued to impress us with their forward thinking and desire to push crypto capital markets into the real-world and improve global access to credit. As such, we thought it would be interesting to ask them a few questions on how they ended up in their current roles and what they see as Fluna’s role in shaping the future of capital markets.  

Miguel, when you started Fluna, what was the original vision? How did that vision transform and adapt as your company grew and evolved? 

When starting Fluna approximately two years ago, our primary focus was on building a treasury platform tailored for African SMEs. The initial vision revolved around offering insights into their cash flows and delivering personalized recommendations to optimize financial operations through value-added services such as financing and FX management. As we onboarded a diverse array of companies onto our platform, spanning various industries, we discovered the unique challenges faced by exporters, and how they were notably underserved by incumbent financial institutions. We thus tailored our growth around developing products to solve the distinct pain points of exporters, enabling them to scale their businesses across new markets, and creating a trickle-down effect on the communities and farmers they serve.  

This evolution led to a concentrated effort on three core aspects: providing financing solutions, facilitating access to credible international buyers, and offering tailored training programs. This transformation in our vision reflects a responsive approach to the dynamic needs of our user base, and solidifies our commitment to empowering exporters and fostering their growth in a comprehensive manner. 

What made your company decide to borrow using Crypto infrastructure and stablecoins?  

After participating in several diligence processes with TradFi alternatives, we found ourselves going through the same frustrating cycles. After hearing our story, analyzing our track record and credit quality, Western lenders were excited about the opportunity to participate. Unfortunately, burdened by legacy bank mindsets, these funds allowed their inherent biases and “Africa lens” to affect their decision-making process and place a heavy, unsustainable premium on our cost of capital. We were introduced to Atlendis via an investor, who highlighted the opportunity that less risk-adverse crypto infrastructure offered, enabling us to reach investors across the world searching for RWA diversification to de-risk their portfolio, without the same partiality and lack of context. Cicada and Atlendis implemented a data-driven, fundamentalist approach to credit underwriting, which removed those biases and gave us access to a diversified pool of capital at rates that promote financial inclusion. Finally, another benefit is that the diligence processes with large debt funds have been painfully slow, sometimes spanning over a year, relative to the in-depth but much more efficient underwriting from DeFi players. 

Can you take us back to a defining moment in your entrepreneurial journey that had a profound impact on Fluna’s growth? Paint us a picture of that moment. 

It’s difficult to pinpoint an exact moment, given where we are today is a function of a continuous set of catalytic events. However, an interaction with one of our customers this summer stands out. Though we’d initially rejected their funding application due to a lack of exporting track record, this Kenyan avocado supplier nevertheless decided to use our platform to receive payments from his buyers over the next six months. Thereafter, he reapplied for a loan. Based on the data and insights available to us, we disbursed funds and have since supported the export of six containers of avocados to Spain via Rotterdam. The impact of this funding extended beyond mere financial assistance. It empowered the Kenyan supplier to make crucial hires, access uncollateralized funds traditionally unavailable from banks to grow his business, and fulfill purchase orders that might otherwise have been challenging. Indeed, after leveraging our platform, he 3x his export volume this year.  

This avocado supplier subsequently entered into dealings with an unrelated Ghanaian pineapple exporter, and continued to use our platform to pay invoices. Our interconnected ecosystem and vertically-integrated SaaS solution not only provided valuable insights into the exporter's needs, buyer network, and suppliers, but also became instrumental in fueling our buyer-led financing initiatives. This was the first time at Fluna that we witnessed the culmination of two years of groundwork, and observed the synergy of our efforts across the company.  

Share a story of a strategy or approach that you consider your “game-changer” in scaling your business. What were the key elements that made it successful, and what can our listeners learn from this experience? 

As a business, we’ve always been very intentional about learning from our customers and developing a roadmap driven by their feedback. Where we are today reflects this core value. While we initially began as a treasury platform, we have been highly responsive in adding incremental capabilities that better serve our users, allowing their evolving needs to shape our trajectory. From our beginnings as a treasury platform, we swiftly incorporated lending solutions to address their critical funding needs, before subsequently layering in embedded payments once we understood their struggle to access foreign currency. More recently, we launched our buyer marketplace, helping exporters solve one of their most pressing issues: access to credible international buyers. The key takeaway for us has been the importance of adaptability and a customer-centric mindset in developing business strategies for sustained growth, rather than remaining committed to an original idea that might not offer the best product-market fit. 

Entrepreneurship often involves setbacks and challenges. Can you narrate a specific setback or mistake that stands out to you, and the valuable lessons you learned as a result? 

 While we knew relatively early on that we would eventually want to be supporting buyers directly as a way to de-risk our supplier transactions, we only realized this year how important that was as a value proposition for our users. We could have prioritized building out this marketplace earlier on to accelerate our growth trajectory relative to today. Nevertheless, we spent the past two years pre-vetting hundreds of exporters through our lending platform, collecting valuable insight into their needs and behaviors, and extracting buyer names from submitted documents. These learnings are now the driving force behind our growth strategy.           

Looking forward, as you continue to write the story of your company’s growth, where do you envision the next chapters? What opportunities excite you, and what aspects do you feel you still need to develop or master to realize your vision? 

We have never been more bullish on our ability to support African SMEs to scale into new markets. The African continent as a whole is exceptionally well positioned to capitalize on supply chain issues faced by many developed markets, while leveraging exports to bolster local currencies. With over $23m of loans disbursed across 10+ countries to date, we have just begun our journey of helping African exporters competitively participate in global trade. The next phase of growth for Fluna will involve establishing dedicated trade corridors between Africa and other markets, while cultivating a robust supplier base equipped to meet rigorous international standards. We are excited at the prospect of being a driving force across the continent, linking marginalized fresh produce farmers with mainstream agricultural value chains. 

What made you target the African market specifically? Was there a single event or relationship that impacted you enough to focus on this region?  

Fluna initially grew from a personal investment with pockets of Nigerian diaspora, who were pooling USD-denominated funds on a small scale to finance SMEs in their home country. Through further discussions, we began to grasp how limited access to credit, complex regulatory environments, and insufficient digital infrastructure across Africa generated a trade finance gap, hampering the continent’s ability to harness its full potential. This stunted not only business growth, but also upward mobility within these societies who struggle to remain competitive in an increasingly globalized economy. It also presented a significant untapped opportunity for the right player to drive an inflow of foreign currency across the continent.  

Fluna was thus created to inject liquidity into local businesses while earning a high risk-adjusted return, first in a sector-agnostic fashion, before narrowing down our focus to the exporter space. This focus represents the intersection of two core beliefs. Firstly, that African trade remains a significant, largely untapped market — the fresh fruit, vegetable, and nut market export from Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa alone totaled $23bn of trade volume in 2022 per the Observatory of Economic Complexity. And secondly, our conviction that funding exporters can enable our funding to unlock the most significant socioeconomic impact on the African SME landscape. 

What makes Fluna different? How have you been able to differentiate your Company from the rest of the industry? 

Two things stand out: firstly, we do not have direct competitors in the markets we serve. Commercial banks, who also operate in the trade finance space, not only do not provide the uncollateralized loans our customers need, but also can take over 8 months to originate a loan, relative to the rapid disbursement required for exporters to fulfill time-sensitive purchase orders. Our differentiated underwriting capability stems from the data we accumulate, allowing us to evaluate the standout players in the exporting space across Africa before issuing a credit recommendation. Other SME digital lenders struggle to serve this specific segment, as funding exporters requires cross-border trade capabilities that a generalist player cannot replicate. This in turn creates a product moat over time: the more we lend, the better the dataset we accumulate, the more successful we are at lending on a risk-adjusted basis.   

Secondly: our people. Since the beginning of Fluna, we have been intentional about finding the best hire for each part of the value chain, bringing together individuals with vastly different skill sets to craft a high-impact team. Examples include for instance our BD manager with over 3 decades of experience on the buyer side, strategically based between the world’s two largest ports, Rotterdam and Antwerp. An expert in the exotic fruit space, she now spearheads our buyer strategy efforts for fresh produce, drumming up buyer interest across Europe. Our COO, formerly at the helm of one of Ghana’s largest non-bank lenders managing a $100m+ SME loan book, now leads our lending efforts. Or our Head of Finance & Strategy, joining us from years of credit underwriting and distressed investing in New York’s top financial firms to build out our finance function. These people — and the many others who make up our DNA — have allowed us to leverage their broad range of experience, vast networks, and their geographic footprint, to jointly build a global trading business.      

To learn more about Fluna and their story, check out their website here.