2023 was a breakthrough year for the future of finance. There were major developments this year that validate our thesis towards a blockchain-driven financial ecosystem that “unlocks liquidity across borders”, particularly in underserved markets, through payments, digital currencies and tokenization of assets. We’re excited to share these insights in our end-of-year newsletter, as well as updates on our portfolio companies and recent conferences we participated in. As we close out the year, we are grateful for our partners, founders and investors that continue to support our vision for the future.
2023 was still a challenging year for venture capital; however, the blockchain space showed resilience given the crypto market cap of $1.69tn, a surge of 112%, and Bitcoin’s price increase of 154% in the last 12 months, driven by the anticipated halving in April 2024 and approval of Bitcoin spot ETFs from institutional investors. While a crypto bull run may have begun this year, we don’t need to speculate on crypto prices, as our investee companies have built financial infrastructure rooted in value and utility that scale across Africa, the fastest growing FinTech region, and emerging markets, where there are sustainable and impactful use cases for the blockchain technology and recent regulatory oversight.
The NY Times article, The World is Becoming More African, shed light on the growing importance of Africa and its increasingly young tech-saavy population, shaping culture, climate, and technology — 1 in 4 people in the world will be African in the next two decades. Africa is a fertile ground for emerging technologies as it leapfrogs into using blockchain-powered financial rails, building Africa-smart AI machines, and transitioning to a low carbon economy. Barbara Iyayi discussed the impact of these technologies at the Milken Institute Middle East Africa Summit’s Africa Fintech Revolution panel. At Unicorn Growth Capital, we are going into 2024 focused on our three pillars of the future of finance: open finance, decentralized finance and embedded finance. We expect our investments to benefit from the anticipated growth of the FinTech & Blockchain industry and the rise of institutional liquidity in crypto that can fuel the multi-billion dollar cross-border financial opportunity between Africa’s underserved market and the rest of the world.
KEY DEVELOPMENTS IN 2023
We expect these developments to persist next year and continue to fuel the growth of our portfolio companies.
USD stablecoins dominated markets with volatile currencies
USD backed stablecoins have emerged as the most widely used digital currency bridging traditional finance with decentralized finance. The large demand for digital dollars has been driven by retail users in emerging markets, from Nigeria to Argentina, that want access to dollars in FX constrained economies, cheaper and frictionless remittances, and a stable store of value to hedge against local currency devaluation and rising inflation. While the U.S. saw declines in crypto volumes, Nigeria, which has seen its currency weaken to record lows (over 40%) and inflation hit record highs of 27.33%, is ranked 1st for P2P exchange trade volumes and 2nd for overall adoption, rising from its previous ranks of 17th and 11th, respectively on Chainanalysis’ Global Crypto Adoption Index. From July 2022 to June 2023, Nigeria, the largest crypto market in Africa, witnessed a 9% year-over-year growth in cryptocurrency transactions, amounting to $56.7 billion (out of Africa’s $117.1bn in on-chain value), much of which was driven by USD-stablecoin activity for peer-to-peer transactions.
Legacy payment providers took note of these trends. This year, PayPal announced that it will be issuing its own dollar-backed stablecoin (PYUSD) and has been listed on African crypto platforms such as our portfolio company, Bitmama, even though it’s not as widely distributed as USDC and USDT. Visa announced that it will expand stablecoin settlement capabilities on its platform in partnership with Circle’s USDC. An increasing number of USD stablecoin wallets by larger FinTechs, some in Africa have launched to capitalize on this opportunity such as Cenoa, Nubank, Moneygram, Telegram, Opera Mini (one of the most popular browsers in Africa with 11% market share). A US Stablecoin bill is critical to provide transparency, compliance and consumer protection given the widespread use of USD stablecoins and the risk of depegging. We expect to see more variations of USD-backed stablecoins, including yield generating stablecoins and stablecoins backed by other forms of liquid collateral. Nigeria will be a key market for USD stablecoins, and we expect that more African mobile wallets, including telcos, will offer stablecoins to bring Africa’s 650 million mobile users and 44 million MSMEs access to the global financial system.
While USD stablecoins have become essential infrastructure used to provide emerging markets with access to the world’s reserve currency, Bitcoin still holds dominance as a “digital gold” alternative store of value. In Africa, Bitcoin takes up the biggest share of transaction volume compared to the US and the rest of the world. As Bitcoin prices surge, we expect more startups to build Bitcoin infrastructure and applications fit for Africa, such as leveraging Bitcoin’s global value for payments, lending, insurance, and other financial services for the underserved market.
Non-USD stablecoins have proliferated to bring FX on-chain
While demand for the dollar will likely continue, a market for non-USD stablecoins is emerging to streamline the financial infrastructure that is critical for a fully on-chain FX market, which currently facilitates over $7.5 trillion in daily volumes. On-chain FX trading and settlement significantly reduces settlement risk, lowers the cost of transactions by as much as 80% and provides T-0 settlement, 24/7 trading with on-chain price transparency. Beyond the non-USD stablecoins across Europe, Canada, Latin America and Asia, there are operational non-USD stablecoins in Africa including the recently launched Francophone eXOF and South African ZARP, which became part of the global industry body, the Stablecoin Standard. Given Nigeria’s FX woes, it recently announced the development of a stablecoin cNGN, that’s built on public blockchains, backed by fiat currency (Naira) held in Nigerian banks, and has on / off ramps for international transfers, unlike the eNaira CBDC. On-chain liquidity is important for these stablecoins to penetrate the global FX market. Existing decentralized exchanges do not have FX-denominated pairs from Africa. LINK provides on-chain global payment infrastructure to businesses and is the only company that has established a USD/NAIRA stablecoin (USDC/NGNC) orderbook on the Stella DEX to power swaps and remittances products, a reward based liquidity pool with yields on DFX Finance using Polygon and an on-chain Naira oracle.
We expect more stablecoins tied to local fiat currencies to be issued, especially as countries adopt crypto regulations. Unlike in the US, 83% of G20 nations have, such as the UK, Singapore, Japan and 27 countries in Europe. Notably, the Central Bank of Nigeria recently lifted its crypto ban and provided new guidelines for the regulation of digital assets and “Virtual Asset Service Providers” that also includes KYC, AML and other measures for permitted transactions with banks. This is a positive development for the growth of the crypto ecosystem as it provides a more favorable and secure operating environment for crypto companies.
Institutional adoption of tokenized Real World Assets (RWAs)
Tokenized Real World Assets emerged as one of the fastest growing assets in DeFi, with a TVL of $5.7bn at the time of writing. Crypto natives are increasingly seeking on-chain yields from off-chain assets, such as treasuries, real estate and private credit (RWAs). Putting assets on-chain could also revolutionize traditional markets by allowing instant settlement and the ability to rapidly transfer assets, reducing risk and increasing liquidity, especially for illiquid assets such as private markets. Institutions and major financial institutions have been seizing this opportunity such as JPMorgan that transacts up to $2bn a day on the blockchain. From Larry Fink to Mark Yusko, they all believe that RWA tokenization is the next big evolution of financial markets and the biggest wealth creation opportunity of our lifetime. Initiatives to tokenize assets have been put in place by regulators seeking to be Web3 hubs such as the UK, Singapore and Abu Dhabi, where Coinbase has launched Project Diamond to enable institutions to tokenize assets on it’s Layer 2 protocol, Base. While institutions have the regulatory and liquidity advantage, startups can build compliant and interoperable infrastructure that institutions can use. An emerging number of Web3 startups tokenize assets such as treasuries and short-term credit, and establish marketplaces to attract investors into these assets. We expect that more Web2 platforms will embed tokenized RWAs and more vertically focused platforms will tokenize non-financial assets such as data, carbon credits, physical assets, IP, and in-game assets. Africa has a huge opportunity to use this technology to access new intstiutional money from the global markets.
Bitmama recently integrated with Paypal’s stablecoin / PYUSD wallet enabling customers to send money or make purchases with PYUSD globally. Bitmama’s Changera platform recently acquired Payday, a FinTech startup previously backed by Nigeria’s leading FinTech, Moniepoint.
Verto co-founder, Ola Oyetayo discusses how the company contributes to FX liquidity for businesses in Nigeria amidst the country’s FX shortages. Verto now offers multi-currency business debit cards and continues to expand across Africa with recent partnerships such as Investec for South African businesses and UBA for Kenyan businesses.
Churpy co-founder, John Kiptum, describes in an interview, its API-first approach to integrating with enterprises / businesses to read & write transactions on major ERP systems such as SAP and QuickBooks, automating manual CFO functions like reconciliation, posting of bank feeds and cashflow forecasting.
Barbara Iyayi, Founder & Managing Partner, shared insights about the FinTech & Blockchain opportunity at the following conferences in the last half of the year.
Panel discussions attended: Agora Global Blockchain Congress: Web3 Going Mainstream, Africa Prosperity Network: Strengthening Diaspora Networks for Direct Investments in Africa, Lattice Fund’s Seed3: How crypto is being used in Africa, Gaingels Week: The Future of Fintech, SuperReturn Africa: Igniting innovation in Africa; and recorded sessions of Unbounded Capital Summit: Venture Capital Perspectives, and Milken Institute Middle East and Africa Summit: Africa’s FinTech Revolution.
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