Finance 2.0: Crypto for Good

When Akin Sawyerr T’03 began looking for an efficient way to bring financial access to unbanked Africans, he quickly realized that cryptocurrency was the best way forward. 

Sawyerr, who lives just outside Washington, D.C., became interested in crypto when he invested in a mobile payments company in Sierra Leone. He has been advising fintech firms and companies in Africa ever since as a managing director at Feleman, a pre-seed investor, and builder of decentralized financial networks. 

“Eighty percent of the population in Sub-Saharan Africa does not have access to formal financial services, and it is not because they do not want financial services. It is because access is just prohibitively expensive,” Sawyerr says, noting that Sub-Saharan Africa is the most expensive part of the world to transfer money into. 

“When you think about what crypto does for those currently shut out, it kind of flips everything on its head because it says that someone doesn’t need an identity to interact in the global financial space,” he says. “Providing increased access to financial services is a driving force for me.”

Interest is higher than ever in cryptocurrency, which is owned by 20 percent of U.S. adults and 36 percent of millennials, a Morning Consult survey reveals. Those who use cryptocurrency, such as Bitcoin, exchange their digital currency on a decentralized computer network known as the blockchain, which is typically public. Transaction records are visible to users and do not require a bank or another central authority to oversee them. 

Sawyerr says that crypto has plenty of benefits for Africans who find it impossible to gain access into Western banking institutions. Sometimes they are blocked simply because they do not have basic identifying information that Americans take for granted, such as a social security number. 

“For those who don’t even have basic things like a bank account, you are excluded because it becomes extremely prohibitive for you to interact with the global financial system,” Sawyerr says. “It makes it really, really expensive for Africans to gain access because it costs more to prove that you are trustworthy and have credit.” 

I think the most disruptive technology in the crypto space is NFTs. We are beginning to see that a lot of creatives realize that they can issue tokens to their community that gives them rights, membership, and shared ownership in what they produce.
—Akin Sawyerr T’03

Cryptocurrency helps solve these problems. Because it is decentralized, crypto does not require a user to have a traditionally verified identity to bank with global financial players. Sawyerr says it is much faster and cheaper to move money back and forth over the blockchain than it is with a traditional money transfer service, all while giving the user an opportunity to access other financial products like interest bearing accounts and loans.

“Crypto is predominantly a virtual space where you can walk into anyone’s office and have a conversation with whoever you find there, and at any given point in time, you can interact with different communities every day to drive your own decisions,” he says. “Cryptocurrency has introduced a new lane that anyone can access.” 

Another trend gaining momentum in the crypto space is non-fungible tokens. NFTs, as they are commonly known, are digital assets that confer limited or complete ownership rights to the holder (think: images, artwork, and music). Anyone can purchase, sell, or trade these assets in open marketplaces. Sales of NFTs hit $25 billion in 2021, according to data from market tracker DappRadar. They are exceptionally popular with artists and musicians, who use them to monetize their creations and take control of their distribution. 

“A lot of creatives are now realizing that they can issue these tokens to give their fans ownership rights and build close knit communities on the basis of shared ownership and membership,” Sawyerr says. Whether it is exclusive merchandise or access to buy their new album, NFTs also remove the rent seeking intermediaries between creatives and their fans, allowing them to interact more directly. 

“I think this is where we are going to see much more disruption in Western countries, particularly in service driven economies where people pay a lot of money for entertainment,” Sawyerr says. “Young people are naturally digital natives—we are seeing a lot of interest, and a growing migration of talent into the crypto space, and capital is following them. As more talent and capital migrate into the crypto space, we will begin to see accelerated disruption of the intermediated world as we know it today.” 

Another benefit of NFTs is that they create a close network between people who share the same values and experiences. Sawyerr likens these communities to what he experienced as a student at Tuck, where there was “a culture of sharing.” 

“Part of my decision to go to Tuck was the community, and the NFT space is a lot closer to what being at Tuck felt like, with smaller, more intimate groups of people aligned on a certain experience,” he says. “I think that’s part of the thing that really attracts me to this space. Shared ownership around common goals is an effective way to bring people together and create value. Tuck was my first window of exposure into how to get the most out of a community and support each other toward shared goals.”

This story originally appeared in print in the summer 2022 issue of Tuck Today magazine.

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