Bill gates surprised listeners in an interview with Jimmy Fallon this week, saying that the future of increased financial liquidity in Africa for the everyday user lies in mobile payments, and not in the expansion of the traditional financial framework.
The admission is perhaps the most conspicuous move yet on Gates’ part to confirm his belief and acceptance of alternative currency models.
Speaking to Fallon about the Bill Gates Foundation’s work in Africa, Gates explained:
“Poor people don’t have bank accounts and so when they have an emergency [or] they want to borrow or save, it’s very tough. [With] small transactions, the fees are just too high when you have banks and ATMs and all that. If we take the cellphone and just use digital currency, then you can have all those financial services.”
Although he did not go into further detail on the idea, it is likely that Gates was referring to schemes such as M-Pesa in Kenya, which already handles SMS-based payments, albeit with certain caveats. A move to integrate or create an alternative digital currency-based model is one already being taken, and it has clearly caught Gates’ attention as a potential investment opportunity. He continued:
“It requires a little bit of work getting the regulation right, getting the critical mass, getting people to trust it, but the magic of that cellphone with the right software means that people have banking, and that’s really big for their lives.”
The Bill Gates Foundation is not the mogul’s only venture into digital currency, as Microsoft’s sudden Bitcoin acceptance late last year has proven. In their current activities, both Microsoft and Gates himself are notably distancing themselves from Apple and other major competitors in adopting a progressive approach to non-fiat payment systems.
In another interview regarding the Foundation, this time with Medium.com’s Backchannel, Gates went on to mention Bitcoin explicitly, noting its technology held real promise in an on-the-record view shared by an increasing number of prominent businessmen.
“There’s a lot that Bitcoin or Ripple and variants can do to make moving money between countries easier and getting fees down pretty dramatically,” he told the publication, “but Bitcoin won’t be the dominant system.”
Explaining that issues such as the need for transactions sent in error to be made easily reversible, Gates continued that Bitcoin alone “is not good enough,” but that there is a need to “draw on the revolution of Bitcoin.”
To this end, the Foundation has even released information about their vision of payments in Africa five years from now, a model Backchannel says “seems much more advanced than what’s in the United States now.” The video shows everyday transactions being made by Kenyans using smartphones and tablets in scenarios such as the local market in the city of Arusha, or at home making payments to family members.
Gates’ enthusiasm and confidence are easily detectable, and it will be interesting to watch what appears to be a flagship scenario in Kenya demonstrate a workable solution which can be applied throughout the world’s poorest countries. Whether this will ultimately include Bitcoin, however, is less likely.
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