Blockchain, Identity, Chamas and Africa: A Q & A with Ian Grigg

Way before bitcoin and the blockchain, Ian Grigg was part of a vibrant group of pioneers that pursued the vision of digital cash and financial cryptography in the 90s – what is now call blockchain. It is an understatement to say he has seen it all.

By God! There is too much noise in the blockchain industry. I know because I live it everyday; have been living it for the past 5 years.

Over time, I have devised a method to navigate and filter out the practical and realistic from the bold, utopian-dream proclamations. The trick is to seek out and follow the more sober-headed minds in the industry; these are the older wiser tech heads and the level-headed critics in the industry.

Ian grigg is one of them.

Ian Grigg is an architect and financial cryptographer who has been building, auditing and consulting for cryptographic ledger platforms for over 20 years. Way before bitcoin and the blockchain, he was part of a vibrant group of pioneers that pursued the vision of digital cash and financial cryptography in the 90s – what is now call blockchain. It is an understatement to say he has seen it all.

He is mostly known for 3 accomplishments (amongst others)

Co-inventor of the Triple Entry Accounting Ledger, a concept that sparked the explosion of a $400 billion Bitcoin, cryptocurrency and blockchain industry – bitcoin is the world’s first triple ledger entry system at scale.

The inventor of the Ricardian contract, a canonical design pattern for tying legal contracts into digital assets issued over the internet. His work on Ricardian Contracts foreshadowed today’s blockchain smart contracts.

Confirming the identity of 2 of the members of the team Satoshi Nakamoto that birthed Bitcoin – Craig Wright and Dave Kleiman

More recently, Ian was an architect consultant for one of the world’s largest consortium based distributed ledger protocol, R3 Corda, formed by 43 of the world’s largest banks, a partner at the $4 billion EOS blockchain for business and commercial scale and an audit consultant for Senegal’s Digital Currency roll out masterplan for Francophone Africa, serving under eCurrencyMint on behalf of Omidyar Network.

Today, Ian is a cofounder and Chief Technology officer at Chamapesa, a project using blockchain elements to digitize the indigenous culture of social savings and investments that is prevalent across Africa and the developing world. Ian believes the Chama groups of Kenya and savings groups communities in Africa and Latin America hold the key to designing identity systems for a blockchain powered internet economy.

So when Ian speaks, you listen and pay attention.

I managed to lock him down for a question and answer session, probing his mind on Blockchain, Identity, Chamas and Africa.

Whatever your opinions, what follows is one of the best bits of wisdom  you will come across on the interwebs.

Enjoy!

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How Africa’s Airtime Currency Traders Birthed A Fintech Innovation Playbook

This is a story of how informal airtime currency resellers of Africa birthed mPesa, mobile money, and an innovation playbook for Africa’s emerging economy.

Not everyone can see it.

If you are keen though, you’ll realize Africa’s informal economy is an open playbook on how to innovate, build and scale successful products and services for the emerging African consumers. Ask me how I know, and I’ll point you to the little known story of prepaid airtime currency re-sellers in Africa who, by cobbling up a rudimentary hack, were able to model a country-wide money transfer network, that would later be adopted by Africa’s telecommunication companies (Telco), spun off into a massive revenue generating business to eventually dethrone the monopoly of banks in East Africa.

But the real story is neither about airtime, nor Telcos. What it is really about are the lessons we can draw upon Africa’s informal economy on how to approach innovation in Africa.

This is a story of how the prepaid airtime re-sellers of Africa not only birthed mPesa, and mobile money, but an innovation playbook for Africa’s emerging economy.

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How Nairobi’s Matatus Defied the Will of Kenya’s Cashless Policy Makers

Nairobi’s failed cashless experiment, an attempt to digitize all commuter payments in Kenya is a poster child on the pattern of thinking that’s left a trail of struggling Fintech experiments in the name of Silicon Savannah.

 

We often fall into the trap of making broad sweeping assumptions about people and places based on our preconceived notions of an what we consider is an ideal world. In the context of East Africa and its bulging informal economy, countless technology entrepreneurs, policy makers, donor agencies and wazungu NGOs have fallen victim to throwing resources at reality hoping to turn it into their Utopian dream. Pick a sector, any sector – be it agriculture, transport, banking, ecommerce. Everything but the kitchen sink has been tried at perceived problems. I say perceived because the definition of the problem depends on who you ask.

Kenya’s short innovation history is littered with such experiments, typically ambitious, well funded but not lasting long before packing up.

Nairobi’s failed cashless experiment, an attempt to digitize all commuter payments in Kenya is a poster child on the pattern of thinking that’s left a trail of struggling Fintech experiments in the name of Silicon Savannah.

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How the Central Bank Of Kenya Plans To Regulate Bitcoin and Cryptocurrencies

Rather than fight change, the Central Bank of Kenya now seems to be reconsidering its stance on cryptocurrencies as a radically new way of high-speed, low-cost value transfer independent of traditional financial intermediaries.

Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies are a puzzle especially for regulators. Over the last 4 years our dear Central Bank Governor, Dr. Patrick Njoroge has consistently been opposed to the idea of cryptocurrencies. He issued 2 damning public notices warning the public to stay away and another circular expressly requesting banks to choke any value transfer activity related to cryptocurrencies.

As per the Central Bank of Kenya Act, he is well within his right. A bank is a regulated private business. You cannot compel a bank to take you as a customer or take your business. Thus, every once in a while, the governor pulls out his trump card to remind us who is boss.

But mounting pressure has pinned the old man against the wall, forcing him to revisit his dogmatism. An article from the Standard dated May 23rd titled “CBK Warms Up to Cryptocurrencies”  read

“CBK Governor Patrick Njoroge said the regulator was open to introducing cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin as alternative payment vehicles with the opportunity to reduce fraud.”

While in the past, all the the financial instruments that intermediary companies use for fund transfers were based on fiat currencies, in the forms of cash, bank deposits and electronic money – it is no longer the case with the advent of Bitcoin.

Rather than fight change, the Central Bank of Kenya now seems to be reconsidering its stance on cryptocurrencies as a radically new way of high-speed, low-cost value transfer independent of traditional financial intermediaries.

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5 Types of Pesa We Use in Kenya Today

Pesa is dynamic. We need look no further than Nairobi for 5 types of pesa in Kenya you’re likely to have come across.

Pesa is dynamic.

One of my favorite projects in Kenya is Bangla Pesa. Besides being greatly underappreciated as an example of how to empower rural and informal communities, its perception is a great example of the miseducation of pesa. Back in 2013 the members of this community currency project were arrested and paraded in the media as secessionists out to overthrow the national government.

Of course it was but a clear case of misunderstanding, like so many out-of-the-box ideas in Kenya.

When thinking about pesa, you gotta loosen up. We need look no further than Nairobi for 5 types of pesa in Kenya you’re likely to have come across.

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Why Bitcoin ATMs in Kenya are Dead on Arrival

Bitcoin ATMs in Nairobi are only a great idea on paper. Electronic ATMs have lost to human agents in Kenya

I get it. Bitcoin ATMs are cool. You can walk up to a machine, insert cash and instantly get cryptocurrency. But Bitcoin ATMs in Nairobi are only a great idea on paper.  

For cryptocurrencies to take off – for whatever use cases – people need a way to exchange their regular pesa in and out of the system. There is no way around this. It is the only way to bridge access and grow adoption. Calls for Bitcoin and cryptocurrency ATMs in Kenya and Africa typically stem from this access gap.

Unfortunately, this idea in Kenya and East Africa is dead on arrival.

The evolution of banking in nations, like Hong Kong, the US or the UK, took a vastly different form compared to East Africa’s much talked about mobile banking phenomenon. Any successful models for cryptocurrency adoption in East Africa have to be informed by local contexts. For starters, taking notes from existing digital money systems.

Agent networks – henceforth human ATMs – are the key to unlocking access.

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