Presenting Bitcoin Remittances at the Brookings Blum Roundtable 2015


I’ve just come back from speaking at the Brookings Blum Roundtable earlier this August, a closed-door session for policymakers, investors, and entrepreneurs held yearly in Aspen. This year’s agenda involved the impact of digital money on the world’s poorest, and my role was to talk about how we were using Bitcoin in the Philippines and elsewhere around the globe.

To say that it was a very educational three days seems almost like I’m wilfully diminishing the experience. More than once during the conference, I found myself sharing a breakfast table with two former prime ministers, a former secretary of state, former or current CEOs of billion-dollar financial institutions, and other heavyweights. If I needed to check out the background of any of the other participants, I had only to look up their respective Wikipedia pages.

Mixing it up with these big names were the entrepreneurs, whose businesses were doing relevant work in their respective regions. We had folks providing solar power to Kenya, payment processing in Nigeria, logistics in India, social news in the Philippines. And of course, there was Rebit, leveraging cryptocurrencies to make remittances cheaper.

The roundtable was exactly that, a huge circle with 55 seats and large timers in the middle. Resource speakers would provide the opening remarks for a given topic, and then the rest of the participants would chime in with commentary and questions over the course of an hour.

I spoke about the “rebittance” concept and how we were abstracting Bitcoin technology in such a way that the Filipino migrant workers that used our service never needed to understand or handle crypto.

I also spoke about how the few dozen rebittance businesses around the world could potentially form an ad hoc “Eastern Union” of remittance corridors — connected only by the blockchain. That label was particularly resonant with the audience, as I had been seated right next to one of the vice presidents at Western Union.

The reaction was very good-hearted and not at all hostile, but there was still a lot of uncertainty about Bitcoin in the room after the session. After all, this nascent industry couldn’t really be viewed as much more than a curious little technology at this point in time. I estimated that less than $100M in total would run through these various rebittance corridors in 2015 — not even 0.02% of the world’s money transfers. It isn’t clear to me (or to anyone else in this sub-section of the space, I’ll wager) what kind of numbers we’ll have to be seeing before regulators and policymakers start to take notice, but I imagine we won’t reach it in the immediate future.

Overall, it was an amazing experience, and gave me a much better idea of how to talk about Bitcoin and its various implications at the policy-level. As entrepreneurs we tend to focus a lot more on implementation and growth strategies, and this conference forced me to consider the bigger picture and our own place within it.

There are some collected pre-conference briefs available here, and they tell me that a document that condenses this year’s discussion will also be produced and made available to the public.