Saturday, June 15, 2024

Everything I learned at HPS’ iconic WeMeeting23 Conference

By Hannah Duncan, on behalf of FF News

There is no doubt that HPS throws one hell of a party. Over the three days I spent in Marrakesh, I was treated like a princess, served the most delicious food and had some of the best evenings of my life. The ABBA-themed Gala Dinner was so goodthat I even wiped a tear. And the day-time conference hall was adorned with incredible entertainment, attractions, plus ways to earn or spend digital currency.

But what about the content itself? When you get right down to the (cloud-based) nuts and bolts, what nuggets did I dig up? And what was the result of my panel interrogations? (If you don’t know me, I ALWAYS have an awkward question for panellists.).

Here’s my top content highlights:

Central Bank Digital Currency is not a new crypto

Ijeoma Okoli delivered a brilliant summary of Central Bank Digital Currency. It was concise, informative and bursting with facts. Ijeoma has fingers in every pie, and as well as founding Impact X Capital Partners LLP, she’s also a director at the Digital Economy Initiative, on the board of the Museum of London and the Women in Law Empowerment Forum. She’s a badass lawyer who found a razor-sharp niche in digital currencies. I think I may have found a new fintech hero.

I asked Ijeoma whether central banks would be able to “print more” digital coins – a process known as Quantitative Easing which can cause inflation… and if so, wouldn’t that defeat the entire point of crypto? The druid-like Ghela “The Boss” Boskovich and Ijeoma answered my question together as a dream team and everything became spectacularly clear.

When Ghela summarized, “I cannot conflate crypto with CBDC at this point… CBDC is simply a translation of fiat into digital format”, I could almost hear my brain pop as everything clicked into place. CBDC is not government-backed crypto. It’s a digital version of cash. That one sentence unravelled months of confusion for me.

Fintech leaders in Africa are ramping up instant payments… But at what cost?

Deputy Editor of The Banker and rebel rockstar Liz Lumley moderated a fascinating panel, “Payments, Everything is Instant”. Although the panel itself was male-only (slap on the wrist for HPS), the conversation was lively and full of gems.

The panel spoke about how instant payments doesn’t just mean transactions, but also service. Customers are looking to create wallets, move money and borrow in picoseconds. Nobody wants to hang about waiting anymore.

One of the most notable speakers was Archie Hesse. As well as having the most perfectly white teeth ever seen, he’s also CEO of Ghipps. In 2020, Archie and HPS famously pioneered QR payments in Ghana. It’s a trend that’s just exploded in Kenya.

Archie thinks that payments are just the beginning. “Everything is gravitating towards instant”, he nods. But, he notes, “it comes with a whole set of complexities, fraud is increasing”. As payments speed up in Africa, scams will be one of the major roadblocks that fintechs will need to face.

The panel bubbled with energy and passion about the possibilities ahead. But there was something that didn’t quite connect with me. The day before, I’d had to walk 6km into Marrakesh to find an ATM that accepted my Revolut card. And when I looked around the marketplaces, cash was clearly still king. When I chat with humanitarian hero Sofie Blakstad, founder of Hive Online, she explains how her clients in rural Kenya and Nigeria walk for a day just to get phone signal. So, it was a bizarre feeling to marry these two extremes.

I quizzed the panel on the social implications of pushing a cash-free world in Africa. It was something Liz also picked them up on. Honestly, the answers were not really that satisfying. I wonder how instant payments will widen the wealth gap in Africa, and whether communities will get left out.

HPS is closing in on metaverse payments and physical embedded finance

I was lucky enough to speak to HPS’ CEO himself, Abdeslam Alaoui Smaili. I had 15 minutes to pound out question after question. Here’s what I dug up.

As I suspected… Abdeslam is laser-focused on metaverse payments. “This is something that will definitely happen”, he nods. “It’s part of the digital economy… people are selling, people are producing and people are buying”. Abdeslam believes the future is in merging physical and virtual experiences using web3. He wants to position HPS as a leading player in the space. “We would like to be partnering with all the actors”, he affirms.

Abdeslam also has his sights set on physical embedded finance. Like paying for petrol instantly as soon as you pull the nozzle out of your car. He’s keen to grab all the traffic, all the transactions that could go through our own technology”. We talked about how everything – especially cars – will one day be a wallet or instant paying device.

Talking to Abdeslam was kind of like listening to progressive goa music. Each step of the conversation made sense, but when you put it altogether it’s a futuristic kaleidoscope of concepts.

We talked democratizing data, embedding finance, blockchain, web3, metaverse payments and more. Abdeslam is undeniably a visionary within his field. Like Neo from The Matrix, he has one foot in each world.

Sustainability cannot take a back seat

Although the metaverse is a fascinating concept, it comes at a huge risk to the planet. Intel estimate that 1000 times the computational energy will be needed to make it work. And our climate really can’t afford that. I confronted Abdeslam about this directly. He explained that for a payments provider like HPS, they’re not in a position to – for example – incentivise consumers to make more sustainable choices. That’s up to the merchant.

But Abdeslam did talk about data centres. He’s looking to work with cloud-providers that use renewable energy. That got me thinking. Continents like Africa could be ideal locations for solar-powered data centres. Some have already started the journey.

Abdeslam told me that he’d like to come back to me another time with reports, measurements and goals about HPS’ climate impact. I like the sound of this. I would love to come back again next year and ask the same question.

Throughout the two days, I watched panel after panel. And although the content was interesting, it always surprises me that the climate crisis is not front and centre of every conversation. Especially in a region like Africa, where the effects are already beating down on the people. After all, how will we befw able to pay for anything if we can’t breathe?

Whenever I could, I grabbed the microphone – like a French Bulldog plunges it’s teeth into a broom – and refused to be shaken off. I challenged PwC’s Jeremy Dalton about the climate impact of the metaverse. He told me that PwC is partnering with the likes of Sustainalytics and Meta to track their carbon footprint. That raised an eyebrow for me,  especially as Meta has proved itself to be an untrustworthy player several times in the past (around data, tax and fake news algorithms to name a few). If Zuckerberg is going to be in charge of the planet, we might as well give up now. I asked Jeremy directly if he could trust Meta and after a pause, he replied “We trust ourselves”. Slick answer… But I hope that there is more to it than that.

The digital race is on

The WeMeeting23 was unlike any other conference I’ve ever been to. It was bursting open full of facts, ideas and visions. And it was splitting at the seams with progressive new concepts for the future. In two days, I gained a much fuller understanding of EMEA fintech than I could have ever hoped for.

But I also felt a disconnect. It’s one that I often encounter in London fintech conferences too. A disconnect with the environment and the people.

For me, a winning payments movement uses its technological prowess for good. It’s fintech that can see the real problems – like droughts, flooding, social deprivation or poverty – and find a way to soften the blow. After all, Robin Hood was created in the wake of the 2008 crisis as a way to wrestle back some of the power from Investment Banks. Bitcoin was devised to break free from the interference of central bank quantitative easing and rise above political shocks. Paytech should be made by the people, for the people.

In the coming years, I very much hope to see more of this. More women speakers and more focus on the planet. After all, the cost of payments isn’t always financial.

Sidenote: Massive thank you to HPS for the kind invitation, hospitality and answering my never-ending questions!

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