Since before the turn of the decade, techies on the fringe used what had then been emerging blockchain technology to develop a digital monetary system that could exist outside of the central banks, entities that have long controlled and dictated the value of the U.S. dollar and other currencies.
Despite its increasing appeal as an alternative form of exchange, Black entrepreneurs in the cryptocurrency space say their communities have yet to fully embrace what has been described as a key to economic freedom.
Some of them attempted to make their case during the Black Blockchain Summit, a Sept. 10-11 conference of enthusiasts and entrepreneurs from across the African Diaspora at Howard University in Northwest.
“This is about us using this technology to solve problems in the community,” said summit co-organizer Sinclair Skinner, co-founder and CEO of BitMari, a Pan-African bitcoin startup.
Skinner said he wanted participants walking through the university’s Interdisciplinary Research Building on Georgia Avenue to understand how technology and finance can improve Black people’s quality of life.
Since BitMari’s 2015 inception, Skinner and business partner Christopher Mapondera, another summit organizer, have expanded operations so people domestically and in Africa, Japan, Canada, Switzerland, the Dominican Republic and China could make bitcoin financial transactions on their mobile devices.
Two years ago, BitMari invested in Zimbabwe’s agricultural sector, raising more than $23,000 for 100 women farmers through the Zimbabwe Women Farmers Accelerator.
“Fundamentally, the monetary system is oppressive — we’re dealing with those who exploited our people,” said Skinner, 49. “The West was run by lying and cheating and we’ll counter that with technology. This [cryptocurrency] system will allow us to be successful, despite their racism.”
Blockchains, which are public ledgers, rely on a peer-to-peer network in which people from around the world can openly exchange digital currency from their computers. The name stems from the ceaseless “chain” of transactions that build on top of one another. Instead of a select group determining the validity of an exchange, as done in traditional banking systems, all of the users in the system must come to a consensus.
In recent years, IBM, JP Morgan and other large companies have invested in blockchain technology, spawning the creation of several cryptocurrencies, known as digital tokens, exchanged on blockchain networks. Bitcoin, the first and arguably most recognizable of the cryptocurrencies, traded for as high as $19,000 per share on the Coinbase exchange within the past year.
However, some experts in the blockchain space say a lack of disposable funds and skepticism about the emerging technology, amid fluctuating value, has precluded Black people from fully participating in the new economy.
But some industry mavens such as Alakanani Itireleng, a blockchain entrepreneur from Botswana and a keynote speaker at the summit, have persisted, raising funds for new cryptocurrencies through initial coin offerings, an unregulated method colloquially known as ICOs, often used in the creation of startups.
“Research takes time, about a year or two,” Itireleng said as she explained how to develop the best products and boost public confidence in cryptocurrency. “I would rather work on it for a long period of time, so when people invest in it won’t fail,”
On the first day of the summit, Itireleng addressed guests during a segment titled “Building a Blockchain Ecosystem with Integrity and Without Scams!”
“It’s important to build a working model,” said Itireleng, founder and CEO of SatoshiCentre, a company through which she has attempted to build her bitcoin-friendly crowdfunding platform for African startups. “You need advisers. You’ll make mistakes if you don’t have any. I’ve been in the blockchain space for so long, I have advisers in the United States and a lot of them all over the world.”
Itireleng also appeared alongside African Union Ambassador to the United States Arikana Chihombori-Quao, U.S. Rep. Stacey E. Plaskett (D-Virgin Islands) and Kwame Rugunda, chairman of the Africa Blockchain Conference, on a panel that explored how the technology could disrupt social inequality.
Organizers said the summit had been coordinated to immerse people of African descent in cryptocurrency and foster independence as Tanzanian fighters explained in the Arusha Declaration, a political statement on African socialism made in 1967.
More than 150 guests and volunteers, some of whom wore traditional African garb, listened as speakers from the U.S. and across the African continent explained how they tapped into blockchains in their business dealings. During workshops, participants weighed in on matters concerning diversity in the cryptocurrency space, avoiding scams, food and environmental justice and government regulations.
After listening to presentations throughout much of the second day of the summit, Wheaton, Maryland, resident Kathy Sonko said she felt more emboldened to explore blockchains, seeing it as a means for Black people to stay ahead of the curve.
“It might be hard to move into something that’s not tangible, but I feel that we have the opportunity to empower ourselves and live out of the matrix,” said Sonko, 57, a seamstress whose work includes garments worn by performers at KanKouran and other African cultural organizations in the region.
“This is about having a subculture,” she said. “The Jewish and other groups have a mainstream culture but do other stuff. We’re just getting there. You don’t have to purchase anything with American dollars. This is something that people aren’t sure about [because] they don’t understand foreign exchange.”
Cleve Mesidor, a blockchain enthusiast of two years, said she spent much of her time networking with other participants and outlining a strategy to build a global Black blockchain community. She said that the two-day gathering affirmed the potential for a vibrant Pan-African network.
“None of the forums at the blockchain centers in New York and San Francisco are diverse,” said Mesidor, founder of LOGOS, a social platform for blockchain activists. “What’s absent are Black and Brown people from the U.S., Latin America and Caribbean. This event brought Africans on the continent to connect with Black Americans.
“Now this can be a conversation about how we can connect and add value,” she said. “People don’t understand that in order for cryptocurrency to be real, you must build community. The space is growing exponentially and we can’t afford to be late adapters.”