“India has one of the largest unbanked populations, 50% of the population is unbanked, I think Bitcoin can play a part in banking the unbanked.”
- Sunny Ray, Unocoin Co-Founder
Bitcoin and the Indian market being a rare combination, especially after early central bank disapproval makes Sunny Ray and Sathvik Vishwanath, the co-founders of Unocoin, amongst the few in the league of Bitcoin entrepreneurs in India.
Sunny Ray graduated an Electrical engineer from The University of Toronto and spent a few years in clean energy before he left to get into financial services.
Just around 2008-09, when the financial meltdown occurred. He vividly remembers asking a lot of questions about how the financial system worked and asking the question, “what is money?”
And even though he had accumulated several licenses and met many a financial whiz, nobody could truly explain to him, what money was. This led him to eventually leave financial services and foray into a passion of his, robotics, which he pursued for 7-8 years before eventually discovering Bitcoin.
That’s when everything changed both for Sunny and arguably the Indian Bitcoin market.
Unocoin became the first Indian Bitcoin start-up to be funded internationally in August 2014 when legendary investor Barry Silbert infused US$250,000 in Unocoin.
Today, the Bangalore based start-up has more than 11,000 registered users and is growing at a rate of more than 25% month over month (across the board).
Cointelegraph: How would you describe the position of the Bitcoin community in India?
Sunny Ray: I would say it’s on the rise. But it’s still 2-3 years behind the rest of the world when compared to China or USA.
CT: You were one of the founders of Bitcoin Alliance India, what initiatives have you’ll spearheaded there?
SR: The alliance started off with me and my wife and two other guys and eventually grew close to 1,000 people in Bangalore alone. So through those meet ups we had bankers, lawyers, entrepreneurs, technologists and other people come together and talk Bitcoin. We eventually threw the Global Bitcoin Conference in Bangalore and took some big attempts at mining. We also began distributing physical bitcoins in an effort to educate the public and policymakers.
“If you look at the Internet, India was fairly late to that party as well but once they showed up, there was no stopping them. I think the same thing is happening with Bitcoin.”
CT: The rise of Bitcoin seems to be very slow in India, where do you think the resistance in acceptance lies? Do Indians seem inclined to accept and understand Bitcoin?
SR: Being a Canadian raised by Indian parents, the one thing I know about Indian people is that they always show up late to parties, but once they show up, there is no stopping them. I think the same principle follows in other aspects of India. If you look at the Internet, India was fairly late to that party as well but once they showed up, there was no stopping them. I think the same thing is happening with Bitcoin.
India is the golden place for Bitcoin for a couple of reasons:
- Bitcoin is often referred to as digital gold and India is the largest importer of gold, India has the largest number of IT professionals, people who actually have the technical chops to understand Bitcoin, so if you mix those two elements, digital gold definitely has a huge potential here. So that’s one big reason.
- The remittance market is about a US$700 billion market with about US$70 billion coming into India, so India is the largest inward remitter. India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, a couple of months ago in front of the G-20 mentioned that one of the main goals of the country is to try and bring down the cost of remittance and I think Bitcoin is positioned to do that. With Bitcoin you could easily bring the cost of remittance down from 10% to 1%.
- I also think that India has one of the largest unbanked populations, 50 % of the population is unbanked, I think Bitcoin can play a part in banking the unbanked.
CT: You mentioned earlier the applicability of Bitcoin in microfinance and helping the unbanked. With the latest changes in RBI regulation towards payment bank policy, do you think Bitcoin could play a bigger role in the Indian microfinance sector? And would that be a play that Unocoin would be interested in?
SR: Yeah, we’re definitely very interested in potentially being able to help the unbanked. But Bitcoin the way it stands today I don’t think is very well positioned to help the unbanked because it is volatile, while say for a millionaire to loose 5-10% of the asset value in a week wouldn’t be a big deal but for someone in a rural area with an income equal to US$5-10 it would be extremely risky. So I don’t think that BTC as a savings mechanism makes lot of sense for the poorest but the protocol of Bitcoin could definitely help in the rural sector.
There are companies such as blockstream and colorstream, which are working towards launching a digital rupee or digital dollar that would have all the benefits of Bitcoin. Being able to move it around fast, freely and cheaply but at the same time it would be tied to the national currency, so I think something of that sort would be a safer option for the poor immediately. However, in time we’re sure that Bitcoin itself could also help with microfinance.
“Unocoin is the leading Bitcoin Company in India and we are a wallet service similar to Coinbase[.]”
CT: How has Unocoin managed to integrate Bitcoin in the average Indian’s wallet?
SR: Unocoin is the leading Bitcoin Company in India and we are a wallet service similar to Coinbase where we enable people to come onto our system and buy and sell Bitcoin. This off course after you get through our extensive registration and KYC process. You can send us money from your bank account and we send across the equivalent in bitcoin or you could send across bitcoin and we would send the equivalent in Rupees, so our main role has been to be the bridge between the old and the new financial system in India.
CT: With the various innovations taking place in the Bitcoin space, one such innovation being the Gemini exchange in New York, which seeks to have a regulatory approach towards Bitcoin, what kind of approach in terms of regulations would you foresee in India in terms of dealing with Bitcoin?
SR: So far the main source of concern for regulators in India has been protection, so governments want to make sure that if people are dealing with bitcoin or Bitcoin companies in India that people are not left in the wind. So most of the regulation should be around protocols like Know Your Client (KYC) and Anti-Money Laundering (AML) and most of that we take care of at Unocoin, so we require anyone who uses our system to go through the process of providing legal documentation, we do a phone verification and then we do all of that in the absence of regulation, but we believe that in the near future that those types of verification will come into play.
I know that our investor Barry Silbert has just launched the Bitcoin Investment Trust, which will now enable anyone in the US through their 401 (k) or their retirement savings plan to actually invest in bitcoin. All these institutions are making sure they play fair with regulators so that is definitely a big step.
CT: What would you say is the typical path of a Bitcoin entrepreneur in India?
SR: Well, it’s definitely riddled with failure and trying different things. Like for us we’ve explored mining, throwing conferences, using physical bitcoins, we just kept trying different things, which were exciting for us. Then finally we discovered that a trading platform would be most useful, especially because we ourselves in India were in the need of a trading platform where we could buy and sell bitcoin easily and safely.
So scratching your own itch is a big part of entrepreneurship especially in India.
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