Pilot Launch | Unlocking access to the digital economy for underserved groups in Africa through Web3

Mercy Corps Ventures and Fonbnk launch a new pilot to accelerate access to the digital economy, swapping prepaid airtime for digital currencies while training a new generation of users on financial literacy and Web3 skills.

This post is the first of a two-part series; the second blog will share key insights after the pilot is completed. Written by Njeri Muhia, Pilot Manager at Mercy Corps Ventures.

In Africa, the digital economy is estimated to reach $180 billion by 2025, representing 5.2% of the continent’s gross domestic product (GDP). Digitalization brings many socio-economic benefits that can catalyze development, such as income generation opportunities for underserved groups, like youth.

However, despite significant developments over the last few years a large digital divide continues to exist. Nine hundred million people remain unconnected to the internet, and the cost of connectivity and limited bandwidth remain barriers to participation. It’s imperative to bridge this digital divide for the continent to harness the digital economy as a driver of economic growth and innovation.

To increase access to, and participation in, the digital economy (often referred to as “on-ramping”) a multi-pronged approach will be required, including reducing the cost of connectivity, increasing digital literacy, and building inclusive financial services.

This becomes particularly important as digital literacy will play an integral role in addressing unemployment challenges. It is forecast that 230 million jobs across Africa will require digital skills by 2030.

Moreover, the digital economy is growing. It is continuing to evolve, and we expect that Web3 technology will become a more dominant player in the underlying infrastructure of digital ecosystems and opportunities. Emerging markets leapfrogged fixed-line telecoms straight to mobile phones. Now, there is potential to leapfrog traditional banking straight to decentralized financial services. As such, it becomes important to include underserved populations in digital literacy training and up-skilling.

The Pilot

We partnered with Fonbnk to launch a “Learn to Earn” program focused on financial and Web3 literacy and digital earning opportunities offered on Fonbnk’s ‘market maker’ program. This pilot is a first-of-its-kind initiative to educate and demonstrate the value of Web3 and crypto to financially underserved users in key African markets.

Fonbnk

Fonbnk is a fintech company focused on enabling a frictionless, financial on-ramp to the digital economy for emerging market users. This is achieved through a distributed, person-to-person (P2P) marketplace that enables users to swap prepaid airtime for digital currencies, such as regulated USDC. This is a particularly innovative solution built on the existing socio-economic context in Africa, where prepaid airtime accounts for 94% of all mobile subscriptions and is actively treated as a de facto currency. This is an indispensable on-ramp into mobile commerce for 600 million African mobile subscribers. By leveraging the existing network of mobile phone accounts and the increase in mobile penetration, Fonbnk has built a blockchain-powered marketplace that allows African mobile phone users to convert their airtime credits into digital money quickly. Users can also use virtual cards funded by digital money to make online payments.

In addition to this, Fonbnk creates earning opportunities whereby interested and qualified individuals and enterprises can earn additional income with their smartphones by acting as ‘market makers’ — individuals or companies that actively trade airtime on Fonbnk’s marketplace and ensure that Fonbnk users (Airtime Traders) can easily transact by creating liquidity for the swaps. Enabling these individuals and businesses to execute transactions, earn a commission on trades, sell any excess airtime, and use airtime in general as a form of transactable value creates a bridge to Web3 and the digital economy at large.

Through this pilot, young job seekers, will be offered learning programs on the crypto economy. Fonbnk will create a localized learn-to-earn program where job seekers can take courses on financial literacy and Web3 skills and the Fonbnk market maker opportunity. Once completed, participants will earn a small crypto incentive. Once individuals conclude the market maker curriculum, they can earn additional income by completing transactions on Fonbnk’s digital marketplace.

Through this model, Fonbnk expects to launch in new markets, including Kenya, Nigeria, and other select countries where the program will be directed towards underserved groups such as youth, women, rural communities, and low-income populations. The ambition of this pilot is to empower and upskill individuals to unlock income-generating opportunities for over 300 people in crypto and Web3 on the Fonbnk platform and beyond

Our Hypotheses

The pilot will increase financial and Web3 literacy amongst underrepresented groups, broadening their skillset to participate in the digital economy. We will measure:

  • Total # of users registering for and completing courses
  • % of individuals from underserved groups, i.e., youth, women, rural communities, and refugees

This pilot will create new digital earning opportunities that were otherwise inaccessible, improving income across underserved groups. We will measure:

  • $ amount paid out as incentives for market makers
  • $ revenue earned by market makers on the Fonbnk platform

This pilot will enable Fonbnk to access new markets, specifically Kenya, Nigeria, and other select countries growing their total user base and deepening marketplace liquidity. We will measure:

  • Total number of learners completing the market maker course
  • # of new market makers registered from key markets

Learning Questions

  1. What is the market demand for financial literacy and Web3 literacy programs?
  2. Does digital work / ‘market making’ provide an opportunity for geographically, socially, or economically marginalized groups to earn incomes otherwise impossible?
  3. What are the market dynamics in Kenya, Nigeria, and other select countries concerning accessing the digital economy? What are the barriers to access, and how can they be overcome?

This pilot will test new ways of bridging the digital divide by increasing literacy and creating inclusive financial services for underserved groups. The pilot aims to illustrate that groups across Africa can leverage newly acquired knowledge to participate and earn within the digital economy once digitally upskilled. Scaling this solution could significantly democratize access and participation in Web3 while simultaneously improving income opportunities for underserved communities in emerging markets.

Stay tuned for updates, evidence, and insights on our other Mercy Corps Ventures pilots, responsibly testing Web3 solutions for unbanked and underbanked populations in emerging markets.

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We invest in and fuel high-impact enterprises that increase the resilience of people and communities in frontier markets.

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