Tricia Martinez is founder and CEO of the Wala financial services platform, which is built on the Ethereum blockchain and powered by the Dala ERC20 token. She presented her vision for Africa's unbanked on the mainstage of the Ethereal Summit, where much of the talk centered around global communities' developments in blockchain.
Martinez shared four key benchmarks that a cryptocurrency and banking system must meet in order to be adopted by an unbanked community: (1) zero fees, (2) instant payments, (3) ability to transcend borders, and (4) micropayment optimization.
"The financial systems in Africa are broken," Martinez began. "792 million Africans operate outside of the formal financial system. There are two reasons for this: access and cost."
The lack of accessibility varies for consumers; traveling to a bank could be inconvenient, the consumer could have poor credit, and, for many, it's a matter of poor financial literacy. As for cost, most banks in Africa operate much differently than those in traditional banking systems: Rather than operating on loans that receive interest from borrowers, every service – deposits, transactions, withdrawals, and account maintenance – requires a fee.
When asked why bitcoin isn't the currency they're pushing, Martinez answered, "As it stands today, bitcoin is still too expensive and too slow for African consumers." Along with these two factors, she mentioned that there are very few exchanges in Africa, so simply accessing bitcoin is a challenge.
As the first and most popular cryptocurrency, some argue that bitcoin is positioned to become the universal currency. However, it seems most people at the conference didn't agree. Ashoka Finley, a software developer at Consensys, noted that he believed bitcoin to be an effective store of value, but not useful for much else.
It would be difficult to purchase groceries with bitcoin; neither the consumer nor the merchant would want to wait a minimum of 10 minutes for the payment to clear. Other crypto assets have tried to combat this with faster payment speeds, but they haven't reached a monumental number of consumers and merchants.
Wala has amassed 50,000 users since its launch two weeks ago, and sees an average of 115,000 transactions per day. The tool is being used to pay utility bills, internet service bills, and even groceries. Martinez credits these results to Wala's ease of use of, which she likens to that of cash. If blockchain ventures want to build a cryptocurrency that's actually widely used, they may need to take a hint from cash and make it as fast, simple, and affordable as possible.