Viral Tech: London Blockchain Week Spreads Into Day Two Despite Coronavirus Scare

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The second day of Fintech Worldwide’s Blockchain Summit kicked off to unusually glorious sunshine. But you’d be hard pressed to notice that in the venue because there was no natural light filtering through to the handful of attendees that braved the ongoing coronavirus scare.

Despite COVID-19’s spectre looming large over the conference, panelists spoke about an impressive range of topics, including how Blockchain can help local women in the Maasai Mara, to the day’s debate on the state of adoption.

As MakerDAO’s Gustav Arentoft told me during the conference, speakers in London often come from a more institutional perspective that naturally tilts toward a critical perspective of the industry. While yesterday witnessed panelists clashing over decentralization, volatility, and more, today was mainly about cutting through the fluff that surrounds so many projects in the industry and thinking pragmatically about how to move forward.

Compelling use cases in Africa

Any international Blockchain or crypto project worth its salt is turning its attention to Africa; a continent abundant with use cases for Blockchain. Africa’s huge market and the fact that many millions of people on the continent are considered “unbanked,” seems to indicate that Blockchain is a good fit for many of the complex challenges faced in the region.

Technology entrepreneur John Kamara said that, in Africa, women are one of the most important economic driving factors for growth. Kamara explained that groups formed by local women currently represent a multi-million dollar informal lending economy:

“One of the most important economic driving factors is women. Savings groups. Saving informally among themselves, to borrow themselves so they can survive in the markets. We’re talking about millions of women. All of these women have 4g phones. I was in the Masaai Mara and I could use my whatsapp. They can borrow money at a reduced interest rate among themselves. There are millions of dollars circulated in these groups, they just don’t know it because they are siloed.”

But an emerging use of technology is not contained to the women of the Maasai Mara alone. Kamara gave a fascinating insight into the growth of Opay, a Nigerian startup that received around $120 million in Series B funding from Chinese investors last year. According to Kamara, Opay has revolutionised the motorcycle ride hailing sector in Nigeria:

“Opay went to these guys and said “we’ll take every motorcycle and we’ll pay you 5 percent if you get the consumer to pay with Opay.” That’s probably like 30 cents, but, to the drivers, that’s a shitload of money. Now they’re saying “you need to pay Opay”, it’s the only currency I’m taking. The drivers will help you download the app and pay you to use it. They’ve built an economy using over 4 million people.”

Getting blockchain done: Governments & blockchain

For many people, whether passive observers or innovators working at the coalface of Blockchain development, there is too much talk going on and not enough action. The reasons for this are many. Technologies like Blockchain suffer both from being quite hard to explain to anyone not involved in tech. It can also be difficult to gauge how long it will take for Blockchain projects to turn a profit.

For Laura Bailey, governments and companies alike need to get stuck in with trialling real-life solutions using Blockchain. As Chair and Founder at Qadre, Laura worked on the first ever Blockchain pilot to be used by a government (Isle of Man):

“There’s talking about Blockchain and talking about Blockchain innovation, and then there’s actually investing, doing, trying and getting things wrong. You need to look beyond the initial KPIs and metrics of what we’re trying to achieve, then smash it out of the water and prove them wrong.”

Lavan Tharasarathakumar, vice president of blockchain services at Chainyard, told the audience that government services are outdated are crying out for effective tech solutions:

“Current government services are not fit for purpose. Blockchain is an enabler to provide better services for citizens. If we look at welfare, the hoops people need to jump through to get their payments, it leads to people being underpaid or for the system to be gamed. If we implement Blockchain, we can give one easy and efficient distribution of welfare.”

Mass Adoption

The ambitious goal at the heart of cryptocurrency is that it will one day replace traditional methods of conducting finance. But panelists discussing prospects for mass adoption were split over how this would happen and even questioned whether mass adoption would ever occur.

Sometimes, philosophical arguments about the fundamental nature of cryptocurrency and Blockchain can hold back promising projects from gaining traction. A cursory glance at any kind of crypto media shows that division runs rife between fans of particular tokens and those that identify with certain ideological camps.

One panelist, “Customer Devoted” founder James Sandberg, took a different approach. He stated that the vast majority of people simply don’t care about the philosophical intricacies behind most emerging technology. Over the question of Libra and where CBDCs would first emerge, Sandberg said that adoption will be driven by consumers, not idealogues:

“As a customer, I want it to be good, to be safe, and to do the job well. I don’t care if it’s going though China, Turkey, Europe, or the UK. If the question is currency, the only question that drives me is “Does it get the job done?” On that basis, central banks will try to do a bit of a land grab, but it is driven by customers and that will drive adoption.”

Barry James, founding chair at the BBFTA, was a lively moderator, playing the panelists’ views against one another and posing provocative questions. One such question put to the panel was whether CBDCs are “reverse Bitcoin.” James’ question drew a skeptical response from Fintricity founder & CEO Alpesh Doshi, who took a dim view about the prospects for widespread crypto adoption:

“I don’t think it’s reverse bitcoin. It’s a defensive mechanism. I think mass adoption of digital currencies will happen. I don’t think mass adoption of cryptocurrency will happen, not yet.”

The question of CBDCs soon turned political. Speakers throughout the summit found it hard to divorce the race to create the first CBDC from its undeniable political connotations and this panel was no different. Caroline Thomas of the Innovation Advisory Objective Group didn’t mince her words when laying out her analysis of CBDC development:

“The biggest amount of content is coming in from china. Major chinese Blockchains are demonstrating the use cases. When we talk about central banks coming together. It’s not just Facebook and Libra and so on, it’s geo-politics.”

Fintricity’s Doshi said that the adoption of digital currencies is directly linked to the ongoing battle for the ultimate financial prize: The world reserve currency status. Doshi told the audience that from a geo-political perspective, China’s ascent to pole economic position seemed certain:

“Look at it from a geopolitical, payments perspect. China is moving faster because the reserve currency is the dollar and they want to maintain this. China want it to be their currency. It will do this because it’s easy to move it around the world. China has the second biggest economy. It will become the reserve currency and that is why China is doing it.”

Regarding who would come out on top in terms of owning the customer in a world of mass adoption, there was clear consensus among the panelists: Libra. Customer Devoted’s Sandberg said that it all boils down to who can offer the best service through data insights:

“Who’s got the most data? That’s the answer. I care about using a product that is more personal to me. Facebook are able, through their algorithms, to understand the next product that customers should be recommended. The experience will be superior.”

For Doshi, it’s about reach and ease of use. Doshi outlined his view that the sheer number of users that Facebook already has, combined with the potential for Libra to undermine state fiscal sovereignty places the tech giant firmly in the lead:

“Libra is the one, there are 2 billion people on Facebook. You just go online, find someone and pay them. That is much easier than trying to send 10 dollars to the same person. It’s going to get adoption. Central banks are scared because the reach Facebook has is so great.”

More days of blockchain discussion to come

The two-day FWW blockchain summit may have drawn to a close, but Blockchain Week here in London soldiers on, despite the COVID-19 hysteria that continues to grip the country. There might not be toilet paper, hand sanitizer or much in the way of public sanity, yet CryptoCompare’s Digital Assets Summit is still scheduled for Tuesday. Stay tuned for live Cointelegraph coverage, interviews, and features from the event.

However, with news of the Washington D.C.’s blockchain summit cancellation due to Coronavirus fears breaking only hours ago, it feels like the fate of London Blockchain Week could change at a moment’s notice.