Strate to blockchain
Consensys envoy and ex Strate head says blockchain is a no-brainer if SA wants to prevent repeats of recent fraud cases
A small spelling mistake gifted the former CEO of Strate, SA’S central securities depository, her new job as ambassador for New Yorkbased blockchain firm Consensys.
Uruguay-born Monica Singer headed Strate for 18 years, introducing electronic settlements to the country’s financial markets. But she left the company when the board — perhaps understandably — wouldn’t listen to her pleas to revamp its business model and shift all processes onto blockchain.
Blockchain refers to the decentralised, public ledger system that records transactions. In Singer’s eyes, the technology “will change everything”.
What is frustrating her is that, just as it was when the internet was first launched, most organisations in SA are keeping a safe distance.
After leaving Strate, Singer planned on setting up her own blockchain consultancy, but things took a curious turn when a reporter asked her in an interview which fintech companies she’d most like to work with.
She said “Consensus” — the chain of blockchain conferences and events that had stirred something in her earlier in 2017 — but the journalist wrote “Consensys”, mistakenly assuming that she was referring to the start-up founded by Joseph Lubin, the Canadian entrepreneur behind the ethereum cryptocurrency.
A week later, Singer, who’s also a former World Bank consultant and director at the SA Institute of Chartered Accountants, was speaking to Lubin himself on a surprise call. Not knowing who he was or the real purpose of the call, she says she “rambled on” for an hour, telling him what she knew about smart contracts and all things blockchain, and cutting him off whenever he tried to interject.
Deeply regretting her blunder when she found out, she asked for a second shot and was shortly after given the task of building Consensys’s SA business.
“I feel 20 again,” says Singer, who 36 years ago followed her husband-to-be to SA from
Uruguay. Save for a stint with the World Bank in Washington, she spent most of the time since then in Johannesburg before Consensys took her to Cape Town in late 2017.
Time has hardly softened her Spanish accent or her South American passion, but it has shattered her prior views on the financial and auditing industries, sectors she now deems “totally broken”. Having risen to prominence in both, she clearly means it when she says blockchain will rip the foundation from beneath their feet.
In blockchain-based accounting a real-time shared-records system lets auditors, the taxman and regulators view and validate ledger entries as they happen.
Singer says blockchain-based accounting is a no-brainer if SA doesn’t want repeats of the Steinhoff or VBS Bank fraud cases.
That’s why people who have chosen to study accounting have made a short-sighted mistake, in her opinion. “In the future, we won’t be able to work without knowing how to code,” she says, adding that a revamp of school curricula is desperately needed.
Stock exchanges, costly and outdated, will find new listings “dry up” as companies turn to sleeker fundraising mechanisms like initial coin offerings (ICOS), she predicts.
Elsewhere, the legal profession, particularly contract law, will face a similar revolution, she says.
In a rental agreement, all payments can be automatically enforced, while if a tenant breaks the agreement, the technology can even be programmed to lock the person out of the premises. This could be a game-changer for large listed landlords, she says.
But most people aren’t yet convinced by her seemingly outlandish predictions — at least in her adoptive country. She acknowledges that she sounds like a mad prophet to many companies she meets. “SA is so far behind,” she laments, citing the fact that governments in Dubai and Europe have committed to shift all processes onto the blockchain to raise levels of transparency and efficiency and to stamp out fraud.
But SA is not devoid of pioneers. One is Consensys-backed Ujo Music, which has built a platform that allows musicians to license their songs automatically through ethereum.
The technology cuts out the middlemen, lets artists be paid immediately and reduces barriers to entry.
Meanwhile, The Sun Exchange, a Cape Town-based blockchain start-up that lets individuals buy into solar projects, has already installed a number of solar plants and is running an ICO. The start-up lets individuals buy solar panels or individual cells and then lease them to end users, who do not pay upfront costs but rather monthly rentals. Investors can receive their rental income in rands or bitcoin, and electricity costs on the system rise in line with inflation each year.
Singer even sees blockchain helping refugees, by allowing them to store verified personal details, including academic qualifications, safely on the blockchain so that these can be retrieved in their host country. The technology will shake up the nonprofit world, cutting out middlemen and allowing donors to track where their funds end up.
In other words, no industry will be untouched, says Singer.