Mapping the future – Blockchain Africa 2017

Early this month, a group of people huddled at the Focus Rooms conference centre in Sunninghill, Sandton. The purpose was to discuss the future of money, and the technologies that are currently disrupting the financial services status quo. It was a coterie of experts, hobbyists, entrepreneurs, nerds, enthusiasts, evangelists and other types fitting somewhere in the middle. At a meet-up like that, you certainly expect see the banking types – they never want to miss out on the revolutionary ideas that are disrupting the very fabric that the financial services sector is woven from. The event was the Blockchain Africa Conference, held from 1-3 March in Johannesburg, partly sponsored by SAP and As with every new innovation, it’s blockchain is virgin territory full of opportunities and blind spots that require debate among stakeholders.

Organized by Bitcoin Events, the conference was attended by the who is who of bitcoin and blockchain on the continent and beyond. The conference hosts were smart. You see, they brought in a passionate and highly regarded Bitcoin and blockchain veteran to keynote and set the tone for the conference. That was none other than Andreas M. Antonopoulos, a highly-regarded author and expert on cryptocurrencies, information security and tech-entrepreneurship. A leading voice on bitcoin and blockchain, Andreas made emphasis on the need to ensure that the nascent blockchain technology is not stifled and encumbered by regulation. He argued emphatically that it is counter-productive to have any regulation fashioned by incumbents in the financial services industry, first because they want to upend the disruption which is potentially dangerous to their existence, and second, because they least understand the technology and innovation underpinning Bitcoin. The message was – wait until the technology is better understood by all of us – there are many applications and spillovers anchored on blockchain and any interference, regulatory or otherwise would stifle this technology and rob mankind of its benefits.

Because Bitcoin gave birth to the innovation called blockchain and subsequently various other applications, the conference invariably spent a large amount of time talking about Bitcoin and the issues associated with it. For the uninitiated, Bitcoin is like the, Mercedes (not Rolls Royce) of crypto-currencies. With about an eight-year history of having proven to work, albeit its volatility, it is an amazing innovation, which in my view is so revolutionary as to rival the advent of the Internet in the 90s. This is why Llew Claasen, who presented on ‘how to create an inclusive financial system with Bitcoin’ kept referring to it as ‘this gift given to us’. Llew is the executive director of the Bitcoin Foundation who spoke about how Bitcoin has the potential to become a viable alternative to the current financial system which is prone to market failure. Despite Llew’s bullish view, the jury is still out on the prospects of bitcoin – especially in the developing world where large pockets of our population remain not only unbanked, but have limited access to the Internet, which is a pre-requisite for cryptos.

Other presenters spoke about distributed ledger technologies (DLT) in the financial services sector. It must be noted that these other efforts, such as Ripple, represent an effort by the financial services status quo to adopt and adapt Bitcoin technology to prop up incumbents. One such presentation was by Clive Cooke, managing director of the R3 CEV, a blockchain start-up that has built a DLT platform named Corda, which is anchored on engagement with regulators with a view to serving banks. R3 CEV in in fact funded by various large banks that are partners in the venture. I could not make head or tail of what they are trying to achieve with this project, however. But what is clear is that anything tied to incumbents, albeit comfortable to run, would not be as revolutionary as cryptos like Bitcoin. It seems that that the common interest among them is that, unlike the Bitcoin public ledger, they intend to keep their ledgers private, but ride on the ‘gift’ called blockchain technology to speed up and lower the cost of transactions.

Regulation made its way into the presentations throughout the two days. Farzam Ehsani, team-lead of Rand Merchant Bank’s blockchain project, made the case that the evolution of mankind’s social systems has left us structured as nation-states and regulation is the glue that provides checks and balances to the excesses of some players. Ehsani explored the disruption by blockchain of some of the fundamental assumptions underpinning the modern-day financial system. Similar issues were broached by Franscisco Khoza, the Head of Banking at Bowman Gilfillan – a South African corporate law practice. Khoza shared his views on the possible role of central banks as intermediaries and regulators. What is interesting is that cryptos like Bitcoin, in their original form, are designed to function without regulators. As a matter of fact – as an innovation, cryptos are anchored on a libertarian philosophy and a good number of persons involved in driving their evolution shun the role of regulators, whose agenda is largely driven by politicians.

Other cryptos and DLT issues that were discussed at the conference include Ripple – a distributed financial technology which enables banks to send real-time international payments across networks. The best way to think of Ripple is to think of a real-time gross settlement system (RTGS) built on blockchain. The importance of DLT and blockchain is common cause to all large technology companies. This is why Microsoft’s Michael Glaros spoke about how that feeds into their Azure cloud services. Microsoft sees the opportunity and is investing in blockchain as a service.

An even more interesting application of blockchain was the use of bitcoin smart contracts to finance, set-up and manage solar power projects. Presented on by Abraham Cambridge, the CEO and founder of Sun exchange, I found the idea to be revolutionary – as it crowd-sources funding per solar cell in solar power projects, enabling ownership of cells in a solar plant by anyone across the world. The solar exchange is an idea that I think all African countries should tap into as they suffer from perennial energy deficits. It’s a smart way to go green without whining about the costs of solar technology.

Nicole Anderson, CEO and co-founder of Fintech Circle Innovate talked about the role of investors and their impact on global innovation in DLT /blockchain, exploring trends and lessons from Silicon Valley, Europe and elsewhere and what it means for Africa. The key point she shared was that blockchain fintech innovations are a very young industry. As such anybody investing with a five to seven-year horizon is better advised to stay out. Instead, investors have to think about getting returns in at least ten to twenty years.

One gentleman from the Central Bank of Nigeria made an interesting observation from the floor. He lamented that because the technology is so young, it is at best misunderstood and at worst receives revulsion (driven by lack of understanding) from central banks who don’t know how to deal with it. He noted that it was hard for him to justify attending the conference to his bosses. This attitude is not unique though to the central bank in Nigeria, it is deep-seated in many banks across the continent, who eventually become late-comer consumers of the technology when it becomes mainstream years from now. Significant debate also arose on whether central banks should issue their own crypto-currencies riding on DLT.  

While Bitcoin gave birth to blockchain, the DLT technology has created wide opportunities for applications outside the digital currency space. For example, land ownership can be digitized by keeping land titles on a blockchain.  This is a very important window for emerging markets – specifically Africa to ride on this wave to leapfrog various stages of technology evolution and catch-up with the rest of the world. Blockchain/DLT has tremendous potential and there is a whole landscape of opportunities and use cases both in the public and private sectors. Unfortunately, most African countries, for one sad reason or another, are often way behind the curve, and when they catch-on ten or so years later, the tech will be mainstream elsewhere, and we have to shell out millions of dollars to learn, acquire and play catch-up.

Taurai Chinyamakobvu is an enthusiast of blockchain, Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. He is an early stage investor and director of Bitfinance (a blockchain company), Flocash and Wezeshwa Fund. He is also an advisor to some international corporations. He has deep interests in fintech, and is also a member of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe’s committee on digital financial inclusion. He can be contacted on


  1. Taf Makura

    Well written

    1. Tino Kuonai

      Yes, thank you, Mr Condescending

    2. Taurai

      Thank you Sir

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