Argentina's Uala eyes fintech expansion with Tencent, SoftBank backing

BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - Argentine digital banking startup Uala is looking to more than double in size, expand its product range and leverage expertise from new investors including Chinese tech giant Tencent and Japan’s SoftBank, founder Pierpaolo Barbieri said.

FILE PHOTO: Prepaid credit cards of Argentine mobile banking startup Uala are displayed at the company's offices in Buenos Aires, Argentina November 13, 2017. REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci

Uala, a personal finance app, announced this week a $150 million in new investments, led by Tencent Holdings 0700.HK and SoftBank Group Corp. 9984.T, the Japanese technology investment giant.

“We think there is much to learn from them in the development of WeChat as a payment ecosystem,” Barbieri said of Tencent in an interview on Thursday.

“They have had amazing success at scaling small lending to create a credit history in China.”

Tencent’s messenger-to-payment app WeChat has more than 1 billion users in China. The firm, one of Asia’s most valuable listed companies, announced last year it would boost investments in a number of “key areas” including digital payment, where its service competes with rival Alipay, backed by Alibaba Group Holding.

Uala, which offers prepaid debit cards, transfers, payments and savings and lending services, announced an initial investment by Tencent in April. Since then, its relationship with Tencent has been “very close,” Barbieri said.

In recent months, Tencent advised Uala as the first financial technology company in Argentina to implement a system by the central bank that eased money transfers, Barbieri said.

He said Tencent also helped Uala develop its savings product, launched in the last two weeks, after the success of its own investment product in China.

Barbieri said the new investments will allow the company to grow staff to 500 in the next year, up from 185 employees currently and just 20 two years ago.

SoftBank’s investment in Uala was its first in Argentina. It invested $1 billion in Colombian delivery app Rappi earlier this year.

Barbieri said SoftBank and Tencent now had members on Uala’s board. Uala also counts George Soros and Point72 Ventures LLC among its inventors.

The investments by the Asian tech giants prompted a meeting invitation by Argentine President-elect Alberto Fernandez.

Latin America has a large “unbanked” population. In Argentina alone, at least 10 million people have no bank account, according to 2017 data by the World Bank.

According to its own data, Uala has added more than 1.4 million debit card registrations since it launched in October 2017.

Reporting by Cassandra Garrison; Editing by Sam Holmes