Bridging the Gap with John O’Connor, IOHK's Director of African Operations

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Jessica: Hello and welcome to World Mobile. Joining me today, I have John O’Connor, Director of African Operations at IOHK. We’re going to talk about the progress and get a little more insight into John himself. John, thank you so much for joining me today. How are you?

John: Doing very well Jessica, thanks very much for having me on the show; I’m delighted to be here.

Jessica: Great to have you, and it would be good to start by giving the World Mobile community just some insight into where in the world you are today?

John: Yes, we’re shooting today from my garden in Addis Ababa, capital of Ethiopia, so this is home for me, and also I’m Head of the Operations on the African side for the Input Output and Cardano efforts.

Jessica: Fantastic, and you’ve got some of the World Mobile team with you there too. I’d love to give our viewers some more knowledge of your background; how did you first get involved with the Cardano foundation?

John: So I’ve been working on Cardano now for five years. I was one of the original crew, before we raised for Cardano, before we’d written any code. I was living in London at the time, working in technology, and heard about this opportunity of a new cryptocurrency. And at the time actually, it was early on in the industry and I’d been reading about blockchain for a while. In my head, I was starting to think: “Do we really need another cryptocurrency, does it make sense when there’s so many?”. Then I watched the video of Charles Hoskinson, our CEO, doing a TEDx Talk in Bermuda.

“Charles talked about the value that blockchain can bring in terms of digital identity, faster payments, and how you can add all of these things together and actually, what you have is a recipe for financial inclusion. And it just made a lot of sense to me”.

So since then, I’ve been all in and working exclusively on Cardano for the last five years.

Jessica: So that was your eureka moment! And your role has evolved quite a bit, hasn’t it?

John: I started at the Cardano Foundation, heading up the strategy there. After I’d done that initial piece of work around getting us listed on exchanges, doing the upfront stuff that you need to do to launch, I realised that I wanted to work a bit more on my passion, which was on the financial inclusion portion. So I pitched Charles at a community event that we should set up an African focused entity to really work at driving adoption and, as we say, bridging the gap between technologists and academics, who are all doing this incredibly valuable blockchain research. But also the real requirements and business cases from the people we profess we want to build products for. So for me, that meant moving over to Ethiopia, setting up operations here and making sure that we deeply understand the problems we’re trying to solve.

Jessica: So you ended up having sub-Saharan African economies as your main focus. You must have seen the huge potential here for a lot of opportunities; how did you see blockchain coming into play with this?

John: Essentially, the problems that we’re trying to solve break down towards the fact that there is a lack of identity and there’s a lack of good finance options; if I’m going to be really simple about it.

“From the perspective of a blockchain technology provider, what we’re trying to come in and do is to build this financial infrastructure much cheaper, much more economically, than what traditional finance offers”.

It doesn’t make sense for a bank to be banking a smallholder farmer in Ethiopia. There’s not enough money in it; you don’t want to set up a branch there, you have the property, you have all of the staff, and then the revenue that you’re going to be generating from this user is too small. As a result, they have no financial inclusion.

So what we do is we just build out a set of technologies that can provide this faster, cheaper, and more efficiently to the point where it becomes economical to bank these populations through digital wallets, through smart contacts and through faster payment rails. So that’s really what it’s about for us, flipping the model on who you should or shouldn’t bank by changing the economics.

Jessica: Absolutely. And I read an extraordinary statistic earlier today which said that for every one bank account, there’s around five mobile phones in the world, which leads us onto your introduction to World Mobile. Tell us about that.

John: So this was probably two and a half years ago, I believe that Micky Watkins, the World Mobile CEO, was in London and heard that there was a Cardano meet up in Edinburgh, so Micky got on a train and went. And he very quickly pitched Charles about the idea. Charles sent over an email to me about it, and since then, we’ve been talking with World Mobile. I flew over to Tanzania to visit them shortly after that first introduction two years ago. And since then, through the plotting and scheming, I think we’ve come up with a really interesting model of building a sustainable telecoms business that also gives back to the people that are going to be operating it and using it. So that’s essentially what we’ve done.

“We’re taking the latest innovations from blockchain and from decentralised finance, and we found a real-world sustainable model to implement them within technology and within Tanzania.”

Jessica: So it started with a strong pitch from Micky and led to something extraordinary. I’d love to ask you what, in your opinion, makes World Mobile stand out from other blockchain projects out there that are also looking to bridge this connectivity gap?

John: Well, firstly, I’d say that there aren’t that many projects looking to bridge the connectivity gap. From our perspective, if we want to bank the unbanked, we’ve got to connect the unconnected, and very few people have really tried to engage with that core fundamental problem. And I believe that World Mobile stands out in its class for engaging with that and creating a very interesting sustainable model. They’re able to continue to roll out infrastructure to new territories without having to make the huge CapEx investment that traditional telco operators do. So for me, it’s that. We designed a lot of these concepts around the sharing economy, hand in hand with World Mobile.

“The real magic about this project is that it’s the first implementation of all of the things that we’ve been talking about with regards to financial inclusion, in a real use case. And you know, it’s happening this year. Not five years, not ten years, this is real stuff that people will be able to see and touch in the imminent future.”

Jessica: Fantastic. “Banking the unbanked” is a phrase that in the blockchain and crypto community you do hear quite frequently, and taking a step back, we need to connect the unconnected. And it just seemed so obvious as soon Micky highlighted how many people in the world live without an Internet connection and what significant effect and ripple effect that could have on regions, continents and economies. So, I’d love to ask you what kind of significant effect this will have on Africa; what can we expect from this?

John: So to give you the example of Ethiopia, the statement of the internet here, Ethiotelecom, for years and years and years they were overcharging people for data. When I moved to Ethiopia, I was buying top-up scratchcards all day, every day, to be able to keep up with video calls with the IO team. So over the course of the last year, in expectation of Vodacom moving in, they’ve dramatically cut prices, and you can see it everywhere. People on low incomes who could previously not afford to stream YouTube, to engage in online banking services, none of these things existed because the cost of data was too high.

“So overnight, what you’ve seen is a dramatic shift. Technology businesses can finally be built because there’s infrastructure for them to exist on. Retail businesses can start thinking about eCommerce, people can start thinking about exporting because they’ve got more information about what those markets look like. It’s a game-changer.”

It’s completely transformative, and I’ve seen it with something as simple as a price cut here, so when World Mobile comes and does exactly the same in economies all across Africa, much faster speeds, half the twice of your traditional telco operators, it’s going to be transformative, how could it not?

Jessica: Amazing, and it seems like there’s such momentum. Do you have any upcoming Input Output projects that you can share with the World Mobile community that we can put in our calendar and keep an eye out for?

John: Yeah probably not; I get myself into trouble sometimes by releasing information a little bit early, but what I will say is off the back of the project we’re doing in Ethiopia, where we’re implementing digital identity for five million students, we’ve seen a lot of interest across Africa from top-level stakeholders to be able to implement the same digital identity solutions across government credentials, government documents, and for us the real opportunity is that we can come in with a coalition including World Mobile, these two products are synergistic. So keep your eyes peeled but I can’t say anything else.

Jessica: Watch this space! Well, thank you so much for joining us, and it’s fantastic to see the work that you do with the World Mobile team on behalf of Cardano and IOHK. I’m sure we’ll be catching up again very soon.

You can also watch this episode of Bridging the Gap on YouTube and we’d love to hear how you found this video, so please share thoughts in the comments and don’t forget to subscribe to the channel, so you don’t miss any more updates like this.

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Helen Towers
Helen Towers is a content creator and copywriter with over a decade of experience making brands matter to the people who matter to those brands. Creating for a wide variety of platforms with an even wider variety of clients, she’s at her happiest when working with others who care about results, relationships, and doing good.