Beyond the Buzz: Crypto Opportunities in Emerging Markets
Hi! Thanks for tuning in. As a two-sentence intro for anyone not familiar, we are Alter Global, an early-stage venture capital firm investing in emerging markets, namely Latin America, South and Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Africa. Every month or two, we publish our developing perspectives on various sectors and their applicability (or lack of) to our investment theses in the hopes of engaging with other founders, investors and enthusiasts.
Since Alter began investing 3 years ago, we have focused our investments on technologies digitizing traditional businesses in emerging markets around the world. Specifically, this has meant investing heavily into logistics and supply chain infrastructure and digitization (Shipper and Kargo in Indonesia, Flextock in Egypt, or Melonn in Colombia), B2B e-commerce marketplaces (Ula in Indonesia, Bazaar in Pakistan, Chiper in Colombia) and financial services setup and management (Pomelo in Argentina, Clara in Mexico, Kippa in Nigeria), among others. While we believe ample opportunity remains in these sectors and will continue to invest in them, it’s only prudent that we also research the spaces in which we’re not yet active, e.g. crypto at large. We’ve slowly been crafting our thesis on crypto, and given the events of the last few weeks, thought it to be a good moment to share our early-stage, emerging market-oriented perspective on it.
In the first days of November, the world of crypto was humming along as usual — investors were investing, enthusiasts were learning about and buying into new tokens and tools, and “dubiousts’’ were expressing their suspicions around the technology’s long-term potential. Everything was as it seemed; that is, until Binance announced a plan to liquidate about $529M dollars’ worth of FTX’s native token FTT and kicked off a chain of events that ultimately resulted in FTX filing for bankruptcy and investors losing billions. It’s been a very difficult time since, with thousands of people affected and a significant amount of uncertainty raised around what’s next.
Understandably, some will use this as a chance to say “I told you so,” that a situation like this was inevitable given cryptocurrency’s volatility and lack of cohesive global regulation. We believe this position to be short-sighted, because crypto no longer only refers to currencies and/or the exchanges that allow users to buy, sell, trade and convert on. Aside from tokenization, crypto has become the umbrella term for everything built on the blockchain and in service of decentralized finance (DeFi) and web3. As such, what we hope to explore is that while the current market is at an incredibly difficult moment, there is a world of opportunity that continues to exist in the broader crypto ecosystem, especially for emerging markets. In doing so, we also acknowledge our perspective may be limited, and pose our findings as much as an invitation to a conversation as a definitive thesis.
So, why explore crypto/DeFi/blockchain technology at all, especially in emerging markets?
Most foundationally, crypto aims to give individuals everywhere the chance to participate in global markets with greater ownership over their financial assets via secure systems strengthened from user participation.
Elaborating on the above, a core innovation that the blockchain specifically has enabled is trust creation between previously unconnected groups. Due to its “non-editable” nature, the blockchain has enabled previously unfamiliar entities to transact with each other without the involvement of a third party. Let’s look at a practical example. Traditionally, when a user has chosen to purchase an item from an online retailer, an intermediary/authority is needed to facilitate the process, e.g. a checkout.com or equivalent to verify the legitimacy of the website and the purchaser, protecting both parties’ data through the transaction’s completion. This process works, but incurs the cost of the intermediary’s processing fees. On the other hand, when transactions take place on the blockchain, the blockchain and its participants act as validators, replacing these intermediaries and reducing the overall cost. Additionally, validators are rewarded for their work in the chains’ native value, becoming owners with true shares in the overall system. This then creates a circular incentive structure that encourages sustainable growth.
Another area where crypto offers a new model of thinking and working is global talent distribution. Typically, the employee-employer relationship and income distribution have been pain points of cross-border employment, i.e. an Indonesian citizen may not be able to work for and receive income from a Brazilian company and vice versa. In the past two years, however, we have seen creators, developers, and others set up companies and operate global teams through the use of decentralized autonomous organizations (DAO’s) and smart contracts, beginning to reduce historical labor resource inequality. This adoption has undoubtedly also been aided by COVID and an era of remote work at a scale previously unseen, cumulatively providing fertile ground for decentralized, global work to flourish.
Perhaps surprisingly, emerging markets actually represent 7 of the 10 countries with the highest rates of crypto adoption today. In Latin America, Africa, and South and Southeast Asia, where inflation and devaluation are common, formal banking access is low, cross-border payments are expensive and regulatory environments change frequently, crypto, particularly in currency form, offers consumers global market access and potential volatility protection. This Perhaps surprisingly, emerging markets actually represent 7 of the 10 countries with the highest rates of crypto adoption today. In Latin America, Africa, and South and Southeast Asia, where inflation and devaluation are common, formal banking access is low, cross-border payments are expensive and regulatory environments change frequently, crypto, particularly in currency form, offers consumers global market access and potential volatility protection. This early data is encouraging, signaling a general market openness to financial innovation via crypto technology. Now, let’s look a bit closer at Alter’s specific areas of interest.
Alter’s Areas of Interest:
1) ON / OFF—RAMP PLATFORMS
The first generation of crypto users were onboarded through exchanges. Users would deposit fiat money into a centralized exchange, and then use it to buy bitcoin or another digital asset, a typically confusing process for those not familiar with crypto. With the surge of new applications such as NFTs and GameFi, we believe the next generation of users will be onboarded through consumer applications, and for this on-ramp solutions will be needed.
Crypto on-ramps are applications that allow users to buy Bitcoin, Ethereum and other digital currencies with fiat money, without having to jump between exchanges, wallets and applications. Off-ramps are the opposite, helping users cash out their crypto earnings and convert it to fiat money.
With easy-to-use APIs or widgets, these solutions can be integrated in consumer applications and streamline the crypto onboarding process in a safe and reliable way, taking care of KYC and AML, and delivering a better UX experience.
2) DEFI ENABLERS
Understandably, the recent collapses of centralized finance (CeFi) platforms such as FTX and BlockFi have created fear among retail and institutional investors about trusting centralized entities. Instead, we see decentralized finance platforms (DeFi) such as DEXs gain momentum for being less externally controllable. However, as investor Hemant Mohapatra shares, “Individual DeFi products are complex, hard to access, and offer a variety of use cases in a fragmented manner. A single user may be holding a position on multiple chains, putting money into various yield farms, staking cryptocurrencies across a variety of protocols, and holding crypto in multiple wallets.” This friction for users to engage with DeFi makes it hard to achieve mass-adoption.
DeFi aggregators such as Zerion or Zapper are strong examples of platforms working to allow users to interact with a complex host of apps without going outside a single interface. Such solutions are very important to onboard more users into DeFi, solving for the trust and ease of onboarding issue most users face when using DeFi applications today.
3) DATA ANALYSIS PLATFORMS
2021 saw an explosion of activity in the crypto space, with NFTs and DeFi reaching mainstream awareness. As more people onboard the blockchain, more data is generated. The good part? This data is mostly public and ready to be unpacked. The bad? Transaction information is extremely fragmented across chains, projects and exchanges. This situation creates a perfect opportunity for data analysis platforms. Players like Dune Analytics and Nansen are already building in this space, and we believe product differentiation will come from the creation of distinctive individual and enterprise solutions.
4) FINANCIAL OPERATIONS TOOLS
As teams usually have funds spread across several wallets, it can be difficult for leaders to get a clear sense of their real-time financials. Traditional finance tools — bookkeeping, accounting, treasury management, employee payment systems, etc. — are often incompatible with crypto and digital assets. Accordingly, as more Web3 companies are born and Web2 companies see more use cases in crypto, there will be a strong demand for solutions that merge traditional assets with digital assets and integrate cryptocurrency payment functions.
5) DEVELOPER TOOLS
Developer tools refer to tools such as APIs, SDKs, protocols, and other software solutions that help engineers complete the development of blockchain projects faster and easier. Given the increased attention to and need for crypto innovation, the number of developers and projects will continue to rise, bringing along with them a demand for clear, flexible, fast developer tools.
Overall, while we are still at the beginning stages of investing in developer tools, on/off ramps and the other business models we spotlighted, we are sharing our current thoughts in the hopes of engaging with and learning from others. We also hope to spotlight the large amount of opportunity we believe continues to exist despite the current intense fluctuations in the cryptocurrency markets by broadening the scope of the conversation. If you are a founder building in the space or a fellow investor or disagree entirely (we welcome that too!), we would love to hear from you. Please feel free to reach us at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you for reading!
Chongyue Yue worked at Alter as a Summer Associate during his MBA at NYU Stern School of Business. Before his MBA, Chongyue used his knowledge and investment experience to build a fintech startup.
1 — https://www.investopedia.com/binance-to-sell-ftt-6826211
2 — https://www.investopedia.com/ftx-files-for-bankruptcy-6828164
3 — https://variant.fund/articles/the-ownership-economy-crypto-and-consumer-software/
4 — https://onezero.medium.com/why-decentralization-matters-5e3f79f7638e
5 — https://blog.chainalysis.com/reports/latin-america-cryptocurrency-geography-report-2022-preview/
6 — https://www.brookings.edu/blog/africa-in-focus/2022/01/27/figure-of-the-week-the-rapidly-increasing-role-of-cryptocurrencies-in-africa/
7 — https://techcrunch.com/2022/06/14/crypto-southast-asia-2022/
8 — https://fortune.com/crypto/2022/09/14/global-crypto-adoption-dominated-emerging-markets/