Davos Agenda

Cryptocurrencies are democratizing the financial world. Here's how

An artist works on a mural advocating for retail M-Pesa mobile phone cashless payments as a measure against the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Nairobi, Kenya April 19, 2020. Picture taken April 19, 2020. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya - RC288G92R457

Kenya’s famed mobile payment systems are seeming old news as blockchain and cryptocurrencies look ripe to take financial inclusion to the next level. Image: REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

Stephen Stonberg
Chief Executive Officer, Bittrex Global
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Davos Agenda

This article is part of: The Davos Agenda
  • Close to a third of the world's adults are "unbanked," and the problem is not limited to the developing world.
  • Mobile adoption is supporting financial inclusion globally.
  • Increased cryptocurrency adoption is also improving financial inclusion, as well as helping to grow wealth and safeguard assets.

Many people don’t realise that opening a bank account, sending money to their friends, applying for a mortgage, and other basic financial services we take for granted are luxuries in the developing world.

According to the World Bank, close to one-third of the world’s adults are “unbanked”, meaning they don’t use formal financial services. That’s nearly 2 billion people lacking access to the traditional financial system. They can’t protect their money, gain access to wealth-building tools and services, or effectively plan for their future.

But the problem isn’t just in the developing world.

The Federal Reserve found that 22% of adults in the United States are either unbanked or underbanked. That’s roughly 63 million Americans who either have no bank account at all or rely on “alternative financial service products” such as money orders, check cashing services, or payday loans to fulfil their financial needs.

These problems are exacerbated when a pandemic like COVID-19 hits. According to Oxfam, nine months into the COVID-19 pandemic, roughly one-third of the world’s population, or nearly 3 billion people, had no financial safety net to fall back on.

Mobile phones facilitating payments and savings

However, there is hope. From the roughly 2 billion unbanked individuals globally, roughly two-thirds have mobile phones. With mobile phone and internet adoption growing, financial services can be provided to the unbanked through their mobile devices.

This means that anyone with a mobile phone can pay their bills or set aside a small amount every month in savings.

One widely cited success story for increased financial inclusion through mobile phone adoption is Kenya’s M-pesa mobile payment system.

Started by a local Kenyan telecommunications firm, the system allows Kenyans to send money, pay their bills, and make withdrawals from physical locations – all while using their mobile phone. Launched in 2007, the M-pesa network now has over 40 million users and has expanded to nearly 7 countries in Africa.

In China, mobile adoption has also spurred financial inclusion. Alipay’s financial arm, Ant Group, has pioneered this practice by providing micro financial services. In 2013, Ant Group launched Yu’e Bao, meaning “leftover treasure”, as a way to allow any Alipay users with as little as RMB 1 ($0.15) to place their money into a money market fund that returns higher rates than those provided by the government at banks.

The endeavour has been a huge success. Just four years after launching, Yu’e Bao has become the world’s largest money market fund, surpassing large US fund owners such as JP Morgan and Fidelity.

By 2019, 588 million people had placed their spare savings into a Yu’e Bao account, meaning the assets managed by the fund totalled nearly $167 billion.

Cryptocurrencies will take financial inclusion to the next level

All the positive trends towards increased financial inclusion can now be accelerated by blockchain technology and, more specifically, cryptocurrencies.

Blockchain is a decentralised ledger where participants can confirm transactions without the need for a central authority. Cryptocurrencies are a digital medium of exchange that have blockchain as their underlying technology – two of the most popular being Bitcoin and Ethereum.

The fact the technology is decentralised is the main reason why no existing financial institution or government owns or manages Bitcoin.

Have you read?

Ten years after the inception of Bitcoin, cryptocurrencies are finally reaching mainstream adoption globally – particularly in developing countries. For example, almost a third of Nigerians now own some form of cryptocurrency. Nigerians actively use cryptocurrency for buying or selling goods and services and sending money across borders to family and friends.

High rates of cryptocurrency adoption have also been recorded in developing countries, like Vietnam, Turkey and South Africa.

Increased cryptocurrency adoption paired with increased cryptocurrency innovation have a real opportunity to democratise the traditional financial system.

From safeguarding assets to growing wealth

Cryptocurrencies, such as stablecoins, which are cryptocurrencies pegged to other assets such as the US dollar, can now act as a safer and more trustworthy way of safeguarding people’s assets.

For example, if you were living in Nigeria, you would have seen your net worth drop by nearly 50% since 2016 as the Nigerian Naira dropped from roughly 200 Naira per US Dollar to nearly 400 Naira per US Dollar by the end of 2020. However, if those assets has been kept in a stablecoin like Tether (USDT), a stablecoin pegged to the US Dollar, they would have been safeguarded from any drastic devaluation.

Apart from safeguarding assets, cryptocurrencies can also be used to grow wealth.

In many countries, wealth-building tools and services are reserved for those with a large amount of investable assets. However, with cryptocurrencies, such as tokenized stocks – which are tokenized versions of traditional stocks – anyone in the world can get exposure to stocks such as Apple, Amazon and Tesla.

Because they’re tokenized, users can start investing in tokenized stocks with as little as $5. This is possible because they can buy fractional portions of a token, which inherently represents fractional portions of a share of stock.

Image: Statista

Cryptocurrencies also allow people to earn interest off their assets. Through the growth of crypto innovations such as staking and decentralised finance (DeFi), anyone in the world can earn interest, otherwise known as “yield”, by holding and staking certain tokens. No intermediary is needed to complete the transaction.

In 2020 alone, the total value locked up in DeFi projects soared 300 times to roughly $21 billion.

Cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology, paired with the global growth of mobile and indeed internet adoption, are tempering rising financial inequalities.

And it is not inconceivable to imagine that in the coming decades, the world will have a much more democratised and accessible financial system. Financial inclusion could be achieved thanks to cryptocurrencies.

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