Alejandro Machado is a co-founder of the Open Money Initiative, a non-profit research organization working to guarantee the right to a free and open financial system. He heads research efforts at Valiu, a crypto startup that serves Venezuelans.
Venezuela is dollarizing: About 64% of transactions in the country take place in U.S. dollars now. The majority of these are cash transactions, as local banks don’t offer dollar checking or savings accounts for the masses. As a result, Venezuelans have to handle two kinds of suboptimal money: digital bolivars that quickly lose their value, and physical dollars that are dangerous to store in one of the world’s most crime-ridden countries.
In theory, crypto-dollars should fill this space, and dollar-stable assets that anyone can hold have seen a demand spike in the last few months, even if so far the global trend is only beginning to take hold in Venezuela.
Bitcoin day traders don’t want to be exposed to the asset’s overnight volatility, so they convert their working capital to tether, the leading stablecoin. Forex traders with bank accounts in Panama or the U.S. are beginning to trade dollars in the banking systems of those countries for USDC (another stablecoin) in private WhatsApp groups. And platforms like Binance P2P have just added support for the bolivar, allowing people to trade them for BUSD directly.
Cryptocurrency startups have mostly attracted two kinds of users: traders and technology enthusiasts, but no company has yet made a convincing case for regular people – neither traders nor the especially tech-savvy – to use these assets as money. Given Venezuela’s unique circumstances, the stage is set for this to change.
Valiu, the company where I work as Head of Research, offers a mobile app where any Venezuelan can hold a digital dollar balance that can be converted, with one tap, to bolivars, leveraging the growing trading ecosystem without showing this complexity to the user.
Little do most people know, and little do they care, that these dollar balances are crypto-dollars: assets backed by bitcoin and derivatives that are liquid enough to be readily converted to assets that people already recognize as money.
What makes crypto-dollarization so powerful? Inclusion. It is estimated some 20% of dollar transactions in Venezuela go through platforms such as Zelle that require a U.S. bank account to sign up and that in turn require a passport, a visa, a flight ticket and an arbitrary approval by a bank officer.
Most U.S. banks don’t need Venezuelan customers to thrive, so they have been shutting down their accounts. This places an artificial limit to the growth, and even the maintenance, of digital dollar accounts that depend on traditional financial institutions. Accounts that are powered by cryptocurrency, and that are supported by dedicated firms, can be made to have much fewer user-facing requirements. A smartphone may be the only physical equipment a person needs to get an account.
As an industry, we need to target specific populations and get to the point where the technology changes lives. Through our research at the Open Money Initiative and Valiu, we have learned a few insights specific to the region that we want to serve.
First, people trust mobile apps more than web sites for their finances (and many, many people aren’t even aware their phone has a browser – their whole digital world is the Google Play Store).
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Second, it’s important to prioritize support for low-end devices and reliability under low connectivity. This is how WhatsApp won over the world’s communication, and this is how the world’s most inclusive financial app will win, too.
And third, regular people do want to trust a branded entity with their money. Unfortunately, bitcoin is currently not the best brand. Many associate it with the petro – the unpopular Maduro-issued cryptocurrency – after countless state TV mentions. Most don’t want trustless systems. They want greater choice as to whom they trust.
Most important: Only assets and technology that don’t need to be explained can really earn the trust needed for mass adoption. If you have to explain it, it’s not money.
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