Mobile Payments Pioneer: I’m Betting on Bitcoin For Emerging Markets

Pete Rizzo
Sep 8, 2014 at 17:28 UTC
Updated Sep 9, 2014 at 03:09 UTC

carol realiniFor mobile payments pioneer and venture capitalist Carol Realini, the financial world is divided into three camps: those who believe in bitcoin, those who don’t understand it and those have yet to consider or study its technology.

Realini identifies firmly as a bitcoin believer, though she’s not surprised many of her peers don’t share her sentiment.

After all, the former CEO of Obopay – a mobile payments application provider that raised more than $140m, but whose profile declined amid increased interest in mobile wallets – has a blazed a unique trail in the world of payments. This has found her maintaining a focus on financial inclusion, even as the various technologies that could best help her to work toward this goal have changed.

For Realini, it’s her decade of experience striving to empower consumers in emerging markets that she believes allows her to see the full potential of what bitcoin – both its community and its underlying payment platform – could help achieve for global finance more clearly.

Speaking to CoinDesk, Realini framed bitcoin as a way for global innovators to sidestep many of the longstanding issues with legacy payment systems, systems she believes have been unsuccessful in emerging markets due to a fundamental weaknesses in technology.

Realini told CoinDesk:

“If you think about bitcoin in emerging markets, it’s creating a leapfrog opportunity. It’s open, it’s modern, it’s innovative and it isn’t bogged down with all the legacy stuff that supports a minority of the people in these societies.”

Realini isn’t just theorizing about this potential reality, however. She’s also made it clear she wants to support the bitcoin ecosystem.

Of the 100 companies she estimates she’s worked with this year, she’s made an angel investment in only one, emerging market-focused bitcoin services provider BitX, joining the company’s S$1m ($824,000) seed funding round this August.

Legacy systems fall short

Throughout the interview, Realini drew on her expertise in emerging markets, providing a unique perspective gleaned most recently through her book, co-authored with serial entrepreneur and PlaySpan founder Karl Mehta, Financial Inclusion at the Bottom of the Pyramid.

Emerging markets, Realini asserted, are being underserved by traditional financial players due to their inability to grasp the true challenge of the market. She pointed out, that in most of the developing world, ATMs aren’t found on every street corner and debit cards aren’t found in every wallet.

Mobile phones, she explained, offered financial innovators a new path forward in the 2000s, but, even then, the technology wasn’t enough. What happens when innovators have tried to harness the power of mobile phones to attack financial problems, she believes, is that legacy banking systems still form a serious obstacle.

Realini said:

“When you move to mobile, you start to hit up against these infrastructure issues and that these bank products and services are super inflexible and in most cases they don’t fit the needs of the mass markets. They don’t fit the needs and functionality and they’re complicated in most cases – that’s just the reality of emerging markets.”

Fulfilling the vision of mobile

Realini went on to suggest bitcoin could realize the broader vision of early mobile payments entrepreneurs, creating a better platform for the next-generation financial products needed throughout much of the world.

In particular, she cited the fact that many financial products that are commonplace in the developing world, simply will not translate successfully to emerging markets:

“You can just take a Bank of America checking account, introduce it and have it be successful, it just won’t work.”

For example, she cited statistics that suggest that while the average consumer uses a debit card 18 times a month in developed countries, in India this figure falls to just over one time each year. That figure is confirmed by research from the Reserve Bank of India, and provides evidence of Realini’s assertion that financial incumbents are falling short on providing essential financial tools to much of the world.

Realini said:

“If you look at the banks, they’re trying to change this, but the legacy technology and the legacy business is holding them back. They’re moving at a banana slug’s space.”

The ‘myth’ of M-Pesa

She also tackled another oft-cited argument in the traditional payments world: that legacy payments can successfully innovate in emerging markets, as evidenced by successful platforms such as Kenya’s popular mobile money platform M-Pesa.

Launched in 2007, the payment service is now used by more than 17 million Kenyans to transfer cash with their mobile phones in what has been widely viewed as the predominant success story in the global mobile payments space.

Still, Realini sees M-Pesa as an anomaly that not only isn’t likely to be replicated, but that could be outpaced by bitcoin-based solutions. The platform’s major weaknesses, she said, are that it is controlled by only one vendor and that it has yet to offer solutions for the business-to-business (B2B) and merchant markets.

Bitcoin’s open platform as more capable of delivering this full range of financial products, she said, adding:

“I’m betting that the bitcoin community will have a better platform. The basic architecture is better and [it has a] more vibrant and open community.”

More broadly, Realini sees M-Pesa as failing to fully deliver on the promise of financial inclusion:

“I want everybody in the world to have access to all the financial products they need to empower their life and work and M-Pesa was a massive success, but it did not accomplish that. They’ve got work to do. I would just bet on an open collaborative community versus a one-vendor closed community.”

Community over currency

In Realini’s view, bitcoin’s real strength is its open payments platform and its community, not necessarily its underlying currency. Realini expects that bitcoin will be used as a currency by some, but be more powerful for its application in new financial products.

Unlike banks, which she categorized as slow to innovate, bitcoin as a community could move to more quickly provide elegant solutions to emerging markets. These solutions, she suggested, are likely to originate in the bitcoin community before being embraced by banks.

Realini said:

“[Bitcoin] is different in that it’s a better platform to solve hard problems. If there’s any disadvantage in the platform, the community is there and they’re making it better every day.”

What bitcoin needs now, Realini said, is entrepreneurs who can identify specific challenges in select markets.

Scarcity of bitcoin startups

Realini further stated her belief that venture capitalists are beginning to see this same future for bitcoin, but that there will be challenges in the short-term that impede progress. For example, she noted that VCs are having difficulty finding the right startups for their portfolios.

Realini cited her long path to joining BitX’s latest funding round as evidence of this, saying:

“I’ve met a lot of bitcoin companies, a lot of very smart people, but [BitX] were the ones that were super smart and had enough experience. They weren’t so experienced that they were clouded by their experience, but they had just enough that they could build on the experience they had.”

Ultimately, Realini’s overwhelming perception was that the BitX team had both an existing platform and long-term market strategy that could be successful, and that the opportunity was just too big for her to pass up.

“I said I don’t want to sit here. I know these guys are going to be successful, I’m going on the board [of directors], but I don’t want to miss the opportunity to put real dollars in,” she said.

Further, this enthusiasm has led her to make bold predictions about bitcoin and its potential in emerging markets:

“I think we’re going to see bitcoin play a significant role in being the platform for coming up with next-generation banking solutions that are going to serve emerging markets.”

Carol Realini will host a live Twitter chat on 9th September from 12:00pm to 12:30pm EST that will address both the short and long-term outlook for bitcoin, as well as its potential for promoting financial inclusion around the globe.

More information about the event can be found on CarolRealini.com.

Images via Mobile BeyondSura Nualpradid / Shutterstock.com

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