“It’s important to bring the values out, and make the rest of the world know the opportunities in Africa”
Avi Sarma meets Julius Akinyemi of UWIN Corp
Julius Akinyemi has many strings to his bow. The CEO and founder of UWIN Corp (Unleashing the Wealth of Nations), he’s also the Resident Entrepreneur at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Pre-residency, he was Global Director of Emerging Technologies for PepsiCo Inc., and before that, he was the Senior Vice President of Wells Fargo Bank in San Francisco for Emerging Technologies and the Wireless Business Technologies for Mobile Banking and a member of the US Mobile Finance Steering Committee of the Financial Services Technology Consortium and Bank Information Services (BITS). Throw in a lifelong passion to give something back to Africa, and a project so groundbreaking it won the 2016 Self Help Africa’s Spirit of Africa Award, and we’re only starting to get close to scratching the surface of this incredibly inspiring Nigerian native.
Julius Akinyemi knows that most people don’t understand how to handle Africa. “It’s important to bring values out and make people like you, and the rest of the world know the opportunities on the African continent,” he muses.
His passion for extrapolating the best out of Africa transcends simple philanthropy, to become something personal for Julius, originally from Nigeria. “One of the encouraging things about Africa is that each time people talk about African infrastructure and opportunity, everyone agrees that it’s the next frontier. The assets are so undervalued. People talk about it from an investment point of view, but I take it more personally, and think about human capital and human assets, and the opportunities therein. It’s this personal side that makes it difficult for me to say “we can’t do it”. It’s a personal responsibility, because who else will do it? I know the lay of land better than anyone else, and so I can manage the risk better than anyone else.”
It’s from these tenets that UWIN (Unleashing the Wealth of Nations) was created. The wealth of African nations, and indeed, the wealth of the African continent is so passive, that it requires external mobilization. Like many developing areas of the world, Africa has an abundance of what Hernando de Soto Polar referred to as “dead capital”. In broad terms, this is when poor infrastructure, bureaucratic processes and weak economic processes hinder developing countries from correctly valuing, recording or mobilizing their assets — hence dead capital. This, Julius believes, is not necessarily a bad thing. “Even though everyone talks about poverty, it’s poverty that exists at the middle of a web of great wealth. No-one had created a platform that allows people to mobilize and escape poverty, or that encourages people to do so, and built a system for it. But by doing so, we could mobilize the huge wealth of Africa, which could change the whole face of the continent.”
Julius assembled a team of equally passionate developers and managers, who share his believe that this platform needs to be built. The logic behind UWIN is to allow these assets, whether skills, land or people, to be registered and recognised within these communities. With the assets being registered and quantified, the next step is to monetize them. One such way of doing this is to connect the database to banks, so that these people can leverage their assets against loans from the bank. But outside of the normal bureaucratic structures which exist in more developed areas, how could this be possible?
UWIN understands that in developing economies and regions, there are always those who occupy a position of being highly respected within the community. Whether a doctor or lawyer, they will have a better understanding of the assets of the community and which belong to whom. With this basic hierarchy in mind, Julius has created a way to fill this database of assets by using a trust “reputational” format. Whenever people register, they agree through a mobile form to allow for an attestor to confirm their assets. This reputational index is built in collaboration with MIT Media Labs.
Every time an asset is registered, it is indexed, both on the general register and with the name of the attestor. A simple protection against fraudulent assets is that any deception will inherently affect everyone in the community and the credibility of the register for that region. However, the more advanced protection against fraudulent claims is that for each region, a respected elder, like the chief of a village, will attest to every claim in the village. This written verification codifies his previously unwritten knowledge in a way that is simply revolutionary for Africa. It is in fact, so revolutionary, as Julius points out, “The Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria and South Africa thought this was going against the whole societal system of the countries we wanted to work in. In these countries, it was normal to think that the old people were just passing their time. They were still respected, but not expected in any way to contribute to anything economical. What we were trying to show is their knowledge was actually useful, critical even, and could contribute to the GDP. We need their knowledge.”
The very fundamental platform itself began as a pilot project in Senegal, and was joined by students from Australia who wanted to create the database. Soon after, Cameroon became interested in the project, after hearing about the logic of how the database and project would work.
Julis met with Philémon Yang, the Prime Minister of Cameroon, and explained how building a mobile app and collecting data for a mobile commodity exchange worked. The registering of assets and verification process not only relied on trust, but created it as well. With the commodities registered, information could be bridged and shared, and the market would determine the price of trade. Although it was built upon the simple farming model of a developing part of the world, there were many layers on top to consider. With a projected $3 billion GDP improvement, updated governance processes and document commodities and assets to consider, both Yang and Paul Biya, the President of Cameroon, approved the UWIN database for use.
Of course, no great idea is without competition. The Ethiopian Commodity Exchange, similar to the Chicago Board of Trade, is the nearest thing UWIN has to a competitor. There are some huge differences, however. Unlike Julius’ model, the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange keeps all the trade very much in the hands of the high traders. What Julius is trying to do is take this power away from the high traders and instead make it accessible to the African sundry. By allowing this horizontal proliferation of power, he hopes that the wealth of Africa truly will be unleashed. There is currently still a huge gap between potential and actual commodity trade, and not just in Africa.
Euronext have already recognised this application on a global level. They have spoken with Julius about bridging the gap between potential and actual, beyond even Africa, making it accessible to the global sundry. A mobile platform will eliminate the barrier of trade isolation, and this is the first time in history where technology and possibility have aligned. Mastercard too, have expressed an interest in the project, not just in terms of investment from the Mastercard Foundation, but also to become the carrier to help make this “mobile wallet” a reality.
What does the future hold for UWIN? What challenges face the project? Fundamentally crucial aspects like support for the core team, developing the platform and a co-operative society in Cameroon as all essential. Having people actually on the ground, who can really document things, is also vital. Julius estimates that $2 million would take them through the next year comfortably. Happily, interest in the project is lively.
Julius also cites a lack of understanding in the benefits as a stumbling block. “When people don’t understand the value of commodity trading, they can be reluctant to declare all their assets. They think that it might mean more taxes, and they don’t see how an asset registry connects to commodity trade. Once this is understood though, it’s a non-issue. How we’re going to combat it though is to not target everyone. We’d prefer to work from the bottom up, and initially work with producers who do want to trade. Once the model proves itself, we know that everyone will want to participate.” From this point, it is not unlikely that this could sweep across Africa. Economic communities exist across nations in Africa, and so the project would automatically scale up and spread to other nations, once the value is clear and recognized.
Moving forward, Julius hopes that the project will be launched in Cameroon by the end of the year. Senegal and South Africa are waiting. As we spoke, Julius was preparing to go to Mauritius to meet his friend, and President Ameenah Gurib. When they first met 6 years ago, they shared a mutual interest in registering assets (Ameenah was passionate about cataloguing the indigenous plants of Mauritius, which have huge medical and cosmetic uses, and are in demand from many French perfumeries). There was an obvious overlap, and only know is the operational potential being realised.
“Why wasn’t this being done before? People didn’t realise the value of commodity marketing, nor was the technology there to create a mobile platform to make it simply so accessible. But, ultimately, this is not about technology, this is about the millions of people who will be impacted,” he smiles.
Find out more about Unleashing the Wealth of Nations.