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With a population of 1.4 billion people—and 40 percent under the age of 15—Africa possesses a huge untapped workforce, set to explode in the next decade. Already, it’s seeing a surge of young entrepreneurs setting up new businesses.
However, these ambitious professionals face a host of challenges amid the continent’s struggling financial infrastructure, with dozens of currencies beset by volatility, hyperinflation, and government corruption. Transferring money across national borders is difficult, and more than 60 percent of people in sub-Saharan Africa don’t have a bank account at all.
If there were a single, more stable, and trusted currency that could unite all Africans, it could revolutionize the continent’s economy, says social entrepreneur Lynn Liss, ’01. That’s exactly what she has set out to do with a new cryptocurrency called Akoin (AKN) that she cofounded with Akon, a Grammy-nominated performing artist and respected social entrepreneur.
“It’s all about empowering entrepreneurship, bringing people into the global economy through this currency, and creating massive opportunities,” Liss says.
Unlike better-known cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin and Ethereum, which have massive swings in value driven by speculation, Akoin has been specifically designed as a more stable mode of exchange for smaller daily transactions, allowing for easy transfer in and out of other digital and state-based currencies and other forms of value. At the same time, it provides access to the kinds of transactions that businesses in countries with more developed financial institutions take for granted—all on a mobile phone. If Liss and Akon’s plan works, the new currency could help bring economic stability and opportunity to hundreds of millions of people.
Liss has the perfect combination of background and skills to set such an ambitious business in motion. In 1996, fresh out of high school, she worked at the startup Bank of Ann Arbor in Michigan, helping launch new financial products and set up the bank’s e-commerce platform well before e-commerce was the norm. Within two years, she landed a job as an executive consultant at Amsterdam-based BearingPoint Consulting, advising Fortune 500 companies on launching new technology products as they converted their operations to digital at the same time she was earning a Weekend MBA at Booth. “I was working with all the leading banks to deploy their cutting-edge technologies, and going to Booth on weekends,” she says.
With a new MBA in hand, she headed to California, where she helped launch a string of startups focusing on social impact, including Los Altos–based ICO Impact Group, which advised cryptocurrency companies on social impact initiatives, commonly referred to as “blockchain for good.” The experience led her in 2019 to meet Akon, a Senegalese American singer, songwriter, and record producer, who had worked with African governments to bring solar power to 14 countries. He was already thinking bigger, envisioning a “real-life Wakanda” in Senegal called Akon City that would run entirely on solar power and have its own currency, Akoin.
“It’s all about empowering entrepreneurship, bringing people into the global economy through this currency, and creating massive opportunities.”
— Lynn Liss
Along with a third cofounder, Jon Karas—Hollywood film producer and a longtime business partner of Akon’s—they hashed out the details for how such a currency could work. “Within a week of sitting down, we said, ‘Let’s do this,’” Liss remembers. They set up the currency on Stellar, an open-source blockchain framework that allows anyone to launch a new currency. “The next question is, what are you going to do with that currency?” Liss says. In their case, the answer was to set up a mobile platform that would allow users to build their own apps for money transfers, hiring, payroll, e-commerce, microloans, advertising, and other business activities—all using the Akoin token.
Across Africa, Liss says, people are already incredibly adept at using mobile phones for transactions, informally trading cell-phone minutes as a type of currency. “At the market, someone might pay for fish using their minutes because the vendor felt like there was value in that.”
As a pilot program, the company worked with the Mwale Medical and Technology City complex in Butere, Kenya, allowing its 5,000 hospital workers and 35,000 residents to use Akoin for transactions, and even receive their salary in Akoin in a digital wallet. Building on that success, the company is now launching a public wallet this month that will allow anyone to store Akoin tokens or transfer them in and out of state currencies, cell-phone minutes, or other cryptocurrencies.
“Akon saw this as a positive opportunity to create something better than the wildly volatile currencies that currently exist,” Liss says.
Ultimately their plan is to develop a dual-token currency, with both a stable token and a more speculative currency to which users can devote a portion of their assets as an investment.
Akon’s reputation within Africa as both a beloved recording artist and a respected entrepreneur creates a level of trust for those who might be nervous about getting into cryptocurrency, Liss says. At the same time, she hopes the usefulness of Akoin in allowing for easy and more stable transactions will help it catch on to become a transformative continent-wide currency.
“When you look at so many tokens that are coming out, you have to look at what their utility and their staying power is,” Liss said. “I wouldn’t have gotten into Akoin if it didn’t have the utility and the leadership of Akon at the helm, with this grand vision for Africa.”
Liss recently spoke at a fireside chat with Randall S. Kroszner, deputy dean for Executive Programs and the Norman R. Bobins Professor of Economics, as part of Booth’s event series, The Future of Capitalism. Watch the full event recording or the highlight reel.
In recognition of the Tulsa Race Massacre’s centennial anniversary, Black business and cultural leaders came together to discuss the complexities behind building up Black communities at Booth’s D&I Dialogues series.