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How blockchain can democratise Africa

How blockchain can democratise Africa

Blockchain technology has the potential to "democratise" Africa and take social finance to a new level, yet its potential is being held back by adverse regulation.

That is according to panelists who discussed the future of FinTech at last week's Dot Finance Summit in Kigali, Rwanda. They agreed blockchain had the potential to encourage transparency and democratisation on the continent.

"Tech will be the new democracy. It will create a level playing field," said Viola Llewellyn, CEO of alternative lending company Ovamba. "Transparency that has been missing will become normal. Tech and blockchain will create a permanence."

This was a view shared by Samer Saab, co-founder of blockchain-based payments startup Wala, who said where blockchain was most necessary globally was in Africa.

"There are millions of people out there that would benefit from a real blockchain solution. It is democratisation, and it is social finance, which is in use in a major way in Africa. How many savings groups are there? How many people lend to each other? The blockchain is social finance on a global scale. What happens if we take it down to a micro level? That's what I think is going to happen over the next few years," he said.

Saab said it is important people look beyond the buzz - both positive and negative - around cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin and look at other potential impacts of the blockchain, especially with things like smart contracts.

"People need to stop thinking about bitcoin as Silk Road and the Dark Web. You can see every single transaction that has ever taken place," he said. "It has more capacity to solve the issues we have to deal with, and once governments and banks start to realise that we can start doing thing so much better."

Saab said there was a need for regulators to do more to encourage innovation in this space, with a number of regulators across the continent at least cool on blockchain, or, in some case, hostile to it.

"Most of what comes out of the regulators is carbon copies of what happens in the West. If you want African innovation and African FinTech, why do we want European finance laws? Why not tailor it?" he said.

Llewellyn agreed, saying African regulators had exhibited a tendency to shut industries down or overtax them. Yet with governments slow to respond to the innovation occurring on the continent, she said it was vital regulators applied themselves in a more active way.

"If you try to send an email to a minister in the Cameroonian government he has a Yahoo! account. And he is not going to respond to you," she said.

"The regulators need to come to the table and be aware that on behalf of government they need to responsibly pay attention to what is happening so that they can stay ahead."

Saab also laid some of the blame for the lack of encouragement for innovation in Africa at the door of the banks.

"Regulators make the rules, but it is compliance officers at banks that apply them. They can often be the killers of innovative solutions. If you want to create an environment that encourages innovation, then give yourself as a bank room to go and do something," he said.

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