As blockchain technology supporters, we often get excited about the potential for financial and social disruption through decentralization. From democratizing access to identity solutions, to providing access to capital through decentralized finance (DeFi), we regularly look for ways that blockchain can transform our daily lives.
But against the backdrop of a wider rapidly-moving technology industry, it can be difficult to see where the impact of decentralization will be felt most significantly. It’s crucial to identify who needs the benefits of decentralized infrastructure here and now — as these markets could come to define blockchain adoption in the 2020s.
Here, we are going to explore how blockchain and Cardano can fast-track financial inclusion in emerging economies. But first, let’s discover how blockchain has the potential to lay entirely new foundations for financial infrastructure, rather than simply disrupting the old.
Laying the foundations for inclusion before disruption
For those of us in countries with well-established economies, it’s easy to forget the importance of the traditional financial infrastructure we have. While we seek to disrupt existing solutions through blockchain, access to basic banking services is actually in high-demand and low-supply in other underserved areas of our global community.
In emerging economies, access to financial services — such as banking and finance — is scarce. For an estimated 1.7 billion people worldwide, banking infrastructure is non-existent. This makes it difficult for users to onboard and utilize financial products, ones that we may take for granted on a daily basis.
For example, in Sub-Saharan Africa, the World Bank found that just 5% of adults per year were able to access mortgages from a formal bank if they wanted to explore this method of financing a home. This may limit an individuals’ ability to purchase their own home if they choose to take the route of a traditional mortgage.
Likewise, it can also result in individuals exploring less-secure credit options, such as borrowing from informal lenders. Although many African’s have good access to alternatives that work in place of a traditional mortgage, it opens up new opportunities for individuals looking to move into highly sought-after areas where house prices or building costs may be higher than others.
Similarly, entrepreneurs and businesses in emerging economies, especially those based in industries such as agriculture or small-scale production, find it incredibly difficult to access business financing arrangements. This limits new enterprise, causes cash flow issues, and halts businesses’ ability to expand. These issues form part of the impetus behind the Cardano Foundation’s involvement in the South African National Blockchain Alliance (SANBA), and have also helped shape IOHK’s initiatives with coffee growers in Ethiopia.
But occasionally, radical and innovative technology emerges. Such technology allows those in emerging economies to rapidly move beyond existing legacy systems and incumbent financial providers. Referred to as ‘leapfrogging’, there are already numerous examples of technology helping to fast-track the development of social and financial infrastructure in the least served geographies.
Across Africa, for instance, the rapid rise of inexpensive mobile phone technology has provided ample opportunities for financial inclusion, despite limited access to traditional banking infrastructure.
The deployment of new technology doesn’t always have to disrupt existing infrastructure as it would in developed economies. Often, the infrastructure does not exist to be disrupted in the first place. Instead, new technology can serve as a foundational layer for a fundamentally different range of services — filling previously unserved market gaps.
Blockchain technology, and specifically a decentralized solution such as Cardano, could provide the next major leapfrog scenario for the world’s emerging economies. By providing tools for financial inclusion with low barriers to entry, blockchain could become a foundational technology for providing cost-effective financial infrastructure to emerging economies.
Let’s examine some of the most impactful short- to mid-term uses of blockchain in these areas.
Digital assets as a medium of exchange and store of wealth
In economies with poor infrastructure, instability, or highly inflationary fiat currencies, some participants have turned to blockchain-based digital assets as a medium of exchange or store of wealth.
Such is the demand for reliable mediums of exchange in emerging economies, that participants will often explore bleeding-edge technologies in order to gain access to greater financial independence.
This has been evidenced most reliably by M-Pesa, a mobile-based money transfer service that expanded exponentially across Africa and eventually into other underserved jurisdictions, such as in southern Asia and eastern Europe.
M-Pesa essentially allowed millions of unbanked individuals to access basic banking products on their phones, which in some cases included access to microfinance. Many of these individuals would likely have never used traditional banking services before or would have struggled to gain access to them.
Similarly, in Venezuela — where the bolivar has suffered inflation rates as high as 344,500% from 2018 onwards — many turned to Bitcoin as a daily means of exchange for basic goods and services. This is despite the volatile nature of Bitcoin itself, which is evidence that new disruptive financial technologies are in the highest demand in unserved areas.
Through the Byron value layer, Cardano could provide a reliable and low-cost means of exchange through ada (₳), one which is decoupled from the fiat currencies of emerging economies. With a highly scalable transactional capacity and inexpensive transaction fees, Cardano could hold the potential to serve as a financial operating stack for millions of unbanked individuals worldwide. But how do we ensure access for the unbanked?
Equitable access to financial infrastructure through blockchain
Not only do participants of emerging economies have limited access to physical banking locations and services, but they are also more likely to lack the crucial documents that allow people to prove their sovereign financial identity.
This is especially important for vulnerable individuals who are residents of countries at the center of conflict or refugees, where documents are easily lost or destroyed.
Through identity solutions such as Atala PRISM built on Cardano, blockchain-based digital identities could be linked to biometric data for these individuals. This would empower individuals to preserve their identity and financial sovereignty through the blockchain, irrespective of their location or current political status.
Also of great importance is equitable access to financial products. In most established economies, people are afforded access to financial resources based on their career or financial status. By contrast, in some emerging economies, you may be denied access to financial infrastructure simply because of your gender.
A report by the International Finance Corporation found that female micro-entrepreneurs’ access to finance in India was significantly limited due to higher perceived risks. This is despite findings that indicate that female entrepreneurs in India are 30% to 50% less likely to default on loans.
This has led to a finance gap for female entrepreneurs in India of US$116bn — with just 27% of the market demand currently served.
When blockchain-based identity solutions are paired with open, peer-to-peer lending protocols built on the blockchain, it could be possible to access finance while only revealing crucial aspects of your identity — leveling the playing field for all participants.
Similarly, the cross-border and decentralized nature of blockchain could allow female entrepreneurs or other underrepresented groups with limited access to finance to easily seek loans and investment overseas.
In this regard, blockchain can be seen as an equalizer for financial access, a powerful tool for financial inclusion that only requires a connection to the blockchain and a digital wallet.
Can Cardano fast-track financial inclusion?
When all the pieces begin to align, the vision for Cardano and the solutions it empowers in emerging economies becomes clear.
Through a combination of Cardano’s value layer, and the ability to store and process data on-chain through smart contracts, a whole host of interconnected social and financial services could be built on-chain.
This would empower participants in emerging economies and underserved communities to take ownership of their identity without reliance on paper-based services, and use these identities to gain access to financial services through decentralized finance.
By virtue of Cardano’s decentralized nature, participants in any corner of the world could access a global social and financial ecosystem powered by the latest decentralized applications and smart contracts.
If you could build financial tools to empower underserved communities, what would you build first? Let us know in the poll and comments below which issues matter most to you, and where you see the biggest potential for DApps on Cardano in the future.
In your opinion, what is the most important problem for emerging economies that blockchain could solve?
If you are interested in building tools for financial inclusion on Cardano, check out Marlowe Playground. Here, you can write complex financial smart contracts, ready to deploy on Cardano, using visual programming languages.