Why did you decide to study Web 3.0 in Africa?
Web 3.0 has been a hot topic in media lately, since we talked about cryptocurrency in 2015, and it’s something I’ve had my pulse on but wasn’t paying a ton of attention to. As I was preparing for my grad school applications, my younger brother—we’re about two years apart—started to get really involved in NFTs as they were blowing up, and as I was entering school it was something I saw a lot [of interest from] venture capitalists. And I began to think, ‘There is something here that I should spend time doing during school.’ I was talking with one of my professors, Sudev Sheth [a senior lecturer at the Lauder Institute]about my interest in exploring this topic further and how there weren’t a lot of opportunities to do that in the school curriculum. He suggested finding ways to ingrain it in any way, shape, or form, and obviously a lot of my work at Lauder is focused on Africa.
On one hand, we have this cool rising technology everyone is talking about, and have this continent with so much opportunity. I think there are a lot of use cases here and wanted to know why no one was talking about it. There’s a lot of innovations taking place, as mentioned in my presentation about M-Pesa [mobile money service] and a lot happening on the mobile side of things. I was wondering, ‘Why aren’t we aware of what’s happening anywhere else on the continent? That led me down the rabbit hole of Web 3.0 and blockchain technologies, and understanding its application to the continent. From a case of ‘Why is it not there? What are the opportunities in place? Why are those not happening? And what’s happening on the ground we should be aware of?’ That’s how I started to get more involved with it .
What is internet adoption broadly like in Africa?
Despite having a very high mobile penetration rate and a lot of generic cell phone services, a majority of people on the continent do not have access to electricity. And as a result, not having electricity leads to not having access to internet.
A lot of countries where you may want access to the internet, the cost is very high. It can be as high as $32 per gigabyte, just to use the internet. Whereas you compare it to Europe, it’s something like $3-$4. So , there’s an inequity piece of access as well as financial means of doing so. And you must think about the geography of the continents well: It’s very spread out. Thirty-eight or so countries in Africa are on the coast and the remaining landlocked countries have limited access to the internet. So, if you want to run a cable line from the ocean to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), that becomes very difficult. And the DRC is roughly four times the size of France.
The other piece of trouble is contracts and the way business is done. We often read about corruption in Africa—which remains true and there are a lot of countries doing, as they can, work to improve that situation—but because of that corruption, it becomes difficult to ensure what is contractually promised will actually take place. And when you see that happen, it becomes very frustrating.
But mobile is pretty widely adopted and expected to grow. So, is there a ‘reset button’ type of opportunity here in terms of internet access?
I think so. I think you have to think about what they’re doing on their phones, for the most part, and I think it’s very much low-bandwidth mobile service at the moment—not 5G or streaming that we have in a lot of countries.
What this foreshadows is that the user is eager for connectivity and will be prepared to use this service once the infrastructure is in place. The younger population, if you think about the general American person in that age group, they’re very tech savvy and connected to the internet. They’re aware of what’s going on in their respective regions or countries, and I think that a similar mindset will happen in Africa for those who are empowered with this internet tech laid across that can be built, from a mobile standpoint.
What are some examples of being ’empowered’?
Let’s think about financial literacy as well as savings.
Many Africans are very concerned with having a bank account. I read some statistics in the French-speaking countries of Africa, particularly the Ivory Coast, and the majority of people were not comfortable having a bank account because the banking systems have failed them so many times. They’d rather have their cash saved under their mattress—literally—than a bank account. With an option like M-Pesa, you’re actually comfortable having this money stored on your phone and mobile device, and sharing it in that way. Through a Web 3.0, there’s an opportunity to decentralize the system again, so you’re not necessarily focused on a bank owning or having access to your funds, but relying on others within the blockchain ecosystem that’s been developed to communicate with one another in order to have access to their funds.
So, that’s just one use case where I think they could be empowered more.
We’re still, here in the US, trying to figure out how to use Web 3.0. In that case, what kind of potential innovations do you think could emerge from this in Africa? How would they use Web 3.0 in a way that might be different than how we’re using it?
I think what we’re trying to do with Web 3.0 in America is to disrupt these established ecosystems we have. There’s often talk of ‘De-Fi,’ to decentralize finance, and finding ways for Web 3.0 to implement that. And cryptocurrencies come up a lot. There’s a lot about content creation with the idea of NFTs and the metaverse—these are cool, far-out ideas we’ll see develop quickly in the next five to 10 years, but when we think about Africa, we have to take a step back and think, ‘This use case is probably applicable, but we have to think about what infrastructure is in place and what does the audience look like?
The first thing we need to prioritize is internet connectivity, and also ensuring there’s a system of governance in place that’s equitably accessed by everyone. Once that’s done, we’ll see a lot of startups grow. And we’re starting to hear about some projects in Africa related to NFTs, related to marketplaces, to the metaverse, which are very interesting and appealing, but you really need to have that infrastructure in place as well as a founder or team that understands the customer demographic and whether they see value in these use cases. We need to think about what they need from a day-to-day standpoint, and it varies by country. But understanding and having local knowledge is what will push innovations for Web 3.0 over time.
What is a good way to balance trying to invest in an emerging market, versus exploiting it? It seems like a fine line.
It’s something we think about often with countries that have been investing heavily in Africa, like China, for instance. I think one of the most important things with investing in countries is to leave them in a position where they can grow from there.
Sometimes these companies will come in and say they want to do a large infrastructure project costing X amount of money and leave a country with a large indebtedness to this nation that’s invested in them. I think for any type of investment you make in an emerging market , you need to be prepared for a longer term project that’s not going to see an immediate payout; one that is for partnership, and can grow and you can leave them better than you found them. So, no matter what the lofty idea is, you want to see it all the way through.
But there are a lot of examples of projects that started but didn’t finish in Africa, and you see what you would have hoped to develop not actually go that way. Investing in emerging markets are difficult anywhere they’re viewed as emerging, but I believe you really need to have an understanding of what’s needed for the user and the businesses on the ground.
How did you hear about the Penn Grad Talks?
We started taking public speaking classes at Penn this past semester; you take two public speaking classes in your first year. After my first semester course, I was speaking closely with my professor about how I can take advantage of public speaking opportunities at Wharton, and how she built her career. She said it’s a lucrative industry and people build niches, but the more opportunities you have to speak, the better. I wasn’t sure about Grad Talks; watching videos from previous years, I recognized Wharton and Lauder hadn’t ‘t really participated in the past. But we had done a lot of interesting work people might find cool. I remember sitting in the cafe submitting a research paper I’d written beforehand. And I got chosen to move forward and didn’t know what to expect, but it ended up being a great experience—not just to have a platform to share my research, but meeting other contestants. Oftentimes at a big university like Penn, you can get siloed in your own school; it was nice to see innovative things happening across the University and be able to keep in touch with those people.
What course was your research for?
It was called the Political Economy of Entrepreneurship, a class we take at Lauder in our first year, taught by professor Sudev Sheth. He spends a good chunk of the class talking about what’s happening on the ground in a lot of places, talking about institutions , governance, laws, etc., to get an understanding. We have a lot of debates in the classroom about what’s happening in different markets and in the world, and he brings in guest speakers as well from other facets of the world, connecting he’s had, and share stories of different topics. There’s one about Black entrepreneurship in America, another about being a woman entrepreneur, and the final deliverable for the course is to write a 10–15-page paper on a topic related to entrepreneurship from that year , but focused on your region for Lauder.
Has anything spun out of that research paper that’s continued to keep your interest or you’ve wanted to expand on?
Yes, it’s opened a lot of different conversations for me. I’ve been approached by various people on campus—classmates—wanting to understand more about blockchain and Web 3.0. When you start to Google it online, it can be pretty daunting; I ‘ve heard my talk was educational and a great starting point to learn more. I’ve been approached by alumni and Ph.D. students about working with them on projects, and I recently completed an internship with a company called Magpie, which was founded by someone on the Lauder board, Kathryn Harrison, and she’s creating an asset management platform for collectibles, like watches or trading cards, purses—physical assets that trade like stock prices but there’s no way to track it. And there’s a large blockchain Web 3.0 component that can go into that. She appreciated my background and research, so that led to that conversation.
Anything to add?
I think the big takeaway is recognizing there is a lot of opportunity in Africa, and to not think that nothing is happening already. There’s some very innovative stuff happening on the continent, both on the government level and across a variety of countries, and some strong entrepreneurs who have bright ideas. I think we’ll see a shift from VCs having more access to the space and wanting to become a bit more involved.