Yele Bademosi is passionate about helping his home continent of Africa. Born into a missionary home in Ibadan, Nigeria, Bademosi’s mother and father used to deliver medical services and bibles to the Yoruba tribes-people in the forests surrounding his home-town, often going from hut to hut. When he and his sisters were old enough, they helped. “That is my earliest memory in terms of thinking about how to give back,” he says, “But as I grew older, I changed my views to thinking about, how do you actually help people at scale?”
Last year, Bademosi became a director at the venture capital arm of the world’s largest cryptocurrency exchange Binance, which trades $1.5 billion in crypto assets each day. And today he is excited because he’s launching Bundle, one of six African startups the Malta-based crypto exchange is now funding, and the first it launched. The startup is being run by Africans in an effort to get Africans to use cryptocurrency, not as an investment vehicle, but as a global means of exchange. Bundle is essentially a social payments app, similar to Venmo or Square’s Cash App.
It lets users send, receive and spend bitcoin, ether, and Nigerian naira with little more than the recipient’s phone number. Unlike Square though, Bundle will also let users spend Binance coin (BNB), the exchange’s native cryptocurrency, which has been doled out to loyal and active traders using its crypto exchange. In the near future they’ll be able to spend and (more importantly) save Binance U.S. dollars (BUSD), stablecoins backed by U.S. dollars and regulated in the United States.
Bundle joins numerous tech giants working on ventures in Africa. Facebook intends to co-launch a cryptocurrency targeting the unbanked and Square’s founder Jack Dorsey recently announced plans to immigrate to the continent. “Regardless of your geography, you should have access to the best financial services. And unfortunately, your geography today defines the quality of financial services that you have,” says Bademosi, who is also Bundle’s CEO. “The same way the internet created freedom of information, I think blockchains create freedom of quality of financial services.”
Born in 1991, the only boy among five sisters, Bademosi always knew entrepreneurship was in his future. Perhaps rebelling from his bossy sisters, he knew he didn’t want to work for others. Bademosi’s first experience with a computer was at an internet cafe. As a child, he’d walk up a flight of stairs to the second floor of his local shopping center, push open a sliding door and frantically scan for cheat codes to his favorite computer games in 30-minute chunks, before his money ran out.
It wasn’t until 2007, when Bademosi was 16-years-old, that he finally got his first computer, an Acer Aspire One Series his parents got for him when he started classes at Lansdowne College, a preparatory school for University, similar to a high-school, in Westminster, England. For the first time, he had unlimited online access and an outlet to focus his burgeoning interests. By the time he graduated two years later, the 6’ 6” Bademosi had not only competed on the school’s football and basketball teams, but studied biology, chemistry, psychology and mathematics. “There’s a huge difference between what you learn in college in a structured environment and what you can learn online,” he says. “It felt like what I imagined the Enlightenment period felt like for people who lived when the printing press was first available.”
Growing up in Nigeria, he says, meant that students who did well in school were pushed into the sciences. When his youngest sister decided to go into economics, or what he called “liberal-type accounting,” he was in shock. In spite of his entrepreneurial aspirations, he knew he would be expected to either to become a medical doctor like his father, an engineer or an architect. He hated physics though, so passed on engineering, and architecture was out because as he put it, “I couldn’t draw straight lines.” His father convinced him that even if he didn’t end up practicing medicine, the University of London’s accelerated three-year program meant he’d have extra time afterwards to find a path of his own, and he enrolled in 2009.
In his first year of medical school his father died of kidney-failure. His father’s death gave him the courage to rebel. He had always found that he was more interested in computers than medicine so he dropped out of medical school with plans to build apps for Apple’s OS. After a few unsuccessful months building a social media app Bademosi flew back to Nigeria.
There he got a job as manager of Starta, devoted to helping African companies get off the ground by providing education, tools, and networking opportunities. After developing a taste for helping startups get off the ground, Bademosi founded his own angel investing firm called Mircotraction. His venture had well connected backers: Nigerian energy and real estate tycoon, Tunde Folawiyo; the CEO of Y-Combinator, Michael Siebel, and Google’s head of ecosystem for sub-Saharan Africa, Andy Volk.
Lagos-based Microtraction is now among the most active investors in Western Africa, having funded 15 companies, including 54gene, an African genomics research startup that recently attracted $15 million from Adjuvant Capital, Y-Combinator and others.
Bademosi had learned about bitcoin in college but it wasn’t until 2017 after he read a book called Master Switch by Columbia professor Tim Wu, that he began to see blockchain as a way to let networks of individuals compete against the likes of Facebook, Amazon, Google, and Apple using a shared technology infrastructure. “We’re not there yet,” he says. ‘But I believe that blockchain and decentralized technologies can open up the internet again, and create a new playing field that new entrants could play on.”
While the jump from medicine to blockchain may seem big , Bademosi sees them as strongly related. “The similarity really is the fact that you have individual organisms, whether that’s a cell or a human or a computer, acting in their own best interests towards what’s still a common goal, and there are a bunch of rules they all have to obey.”
Just a few months after founding Microtraction in August 2017, Bademosi bought his first bitcoin and as its price fluctuated wildly he became hooked on crypto asset investing. That led him to Binance, which was, founded in China, and is now doing business from Malta. In November 2018, Binance published a ten-point thesis on why it was dedicated to the continent and launched a subsidiary in Uganda. Number four on Binance’s list was Bademosi’s childhood mantra: scalability.
“For me, blockchains are as big as the internet,” says Bademosi. “And can you imagine Bill Gates or Larry Page or, Mark, Zuckerberg coming to Africa less than one year after the company was started?” He was impressed. So much so, that by January 2019, he had pitched his vision for what Binance should be doing in Africa and instead of taking him up on his advice, the company hired him, making him the first director at Binance Labs focused on investing in Africa-based blockchain startups and leading the Africa chapter of the organization’s incubation program.
So far Binance Labs has invested in five African startups, one from South Africa, one from Kenya, one from Ghana and three from Nigeria, all serving different aspects of the content’s growing crypto economy. Notably, Lagos-based Yellow Card is a way to buy bitcoin even without a bank via local agents, and Flutterwave is the same fiat-to-crypto bridge that lets Binance customers buy cryptocurrency with naira.
Binance and its new Bundle have Western competitors in Africa. Facebook’s Libra has its sights set on banking the unbanked. Another potential competitor using cryptocurrency to serve the unbanked is Akon, the Senegalese-American musician whose Akoin project announced recently that it would be the exclusive currency of the Mwale Medical Technology City in Kenya. “Our goal is for akoin to be the official currency of the continent,” says Akon.
To give an idea of the total market up for grabs here, even if the average account holder might only own a fraction of what Western banks require to open an account, the World Bank estimates that 1.7 billion adults around the world are without such access. Fifty-seven percent of adults in sub-Saharan African, or about 350 million people, don’t have bank accounts, according to the World Bank. To help close that gap nearly $700 million was invested in fintech in Africa last year, according to media firm WeeTracker. Of the 1.2 billion people living in Africa, Bademosi estimates only 1.4 million are already using crypto.
In two weeks Bundle expects to add BUSD, a stablecoin pegged to the U.S. dollar, created by blockchain startup Paxos, regulated by the New York Department of Financial Services, and spendable anywhere in the world. One possible financial product that could eventually be offered using this technology would be what amounts to a savings account denominated in U.S. dollars for people living in Nigeria, and eventually other African nations. Instead of Nigerians losing 12% to inflation at current rates by keeping their cash in a savings account, they could be paid interest denominated in U.S. dollars for funds held in custody elsewhere. “Being able to save in stablecoins and earn interest per annum is huge,” says Bademosi. “And we can offer that up to anyone anywhere.”
Users will also be able to cash in and cash out using local fiat currencies. Longer term plans include a physical debit card and the ability to purchase U.S. stocks, Nigerian mutual funds and agriculture debt, and unspecified incentive programs designed to jumpstart the cryptocurrency economy in Africa, according to internal documents provided to Forbes. The documents compare Bundle to Mosaic, the internet browser invented by Marc Andreessen, and credited for weaving together the previously esoteric processes required to use the internet into a single, intuitive browser.
In September 2019, Bundle quietly raised $450,000 from Binance, Pave Investments and other African investors. “We believe Bundle can become one of the key projects that will support Binance’s mission of scaling the adoption of crypto on the continent,” says Binance CEO Changpeng Zhao (CZ). To help do that, Bundle will be free at launch, with plans to eventually charge 0.5% to 2% per transaction on all short term trades and 3% of assets under management on yearly gains, for longer-term investing. While the finer details of how that works have yet to be announced, we can look to Binance for some intriguing clues.
After creating BNB in July 2017, the asset has grown to a total market value of $2.2 billion, making it the eighth largest crypto-asset according to CoinMarketCap.com, the widely used cryptocurrency markets site Binance recently acquired for a reported $400 million. But it’s the way Binance uses that asset, which users acquire in exchange for making transactions on-site, that Bundle perhaps has the most to learn from.
Binance’s users are allowed to pay their fees on the site using the same BNB cryptocurrency they are rewarded for being regular users, and a new platform, called LaunchPad, lets users raise capital via initial coin offerings (ICOs) also payable in BNB, establishing what cryptocurrency news site CoinDesk called “a virtuous cycle by which its users were incentivized to stay within its platform.” Bademosi, it would seem, has learned his lessons well, a promising sign for the future. “Bundle does an excellent job of putting fiat and crypto side by side,” he says. “And then nudging the user to use some of these digital currencies or assets in innovative ways.”