Taurai Chinyamakobvu (Yale Mandela Washington Fellow ’14), Founding Chairman of Zimbabwe’s Largest Cryptocurrency Exchange
Taurai Chinyamakobvu is the former founding chairman of Golix, the largest cryptocurrency exchange in Zimbabwe and the country’s first Bitcoin company. Golix’s mission is give every person in Africa financial autonomy, and it currently boasts live exchanges in Cameroon, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda. At the same time, Mr. Chinyamakobvu is a partner and former managing director of FloCash, a pan-African payment gateway. He also serves as a director to Wazeshwa Fund Limited, a consultant and founding director to Autocom Japan in Zimbabwe, and an advisor and consultant to Marubeni Corporation, a Japanese Fortune Global 500 company. Previously, Mr. Chinyamakobvu founded Pazimba, an e-commerce start up focusing on providing retailers with a convenient online platform to sell their goods, served as a business development manager for Misys PLC/Ethics Consultancy, marketing lead for Powertel Communications in Zimbabwe, group head of marketing for Zimbabwe Allied Banking Group, marketing manager for Royal Bank, and served on the advisory committee on digital financial inclusion for the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe. Mr. Chinyamakobvu attended the Yale School of Management in 2014 as an inaugural Mandela Washington Fellow under President Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative.
The Politic: Why did you choose to study in the U.S. and Japan after attending college in Zimbabwe?
Taurai Chinyamakobvu: After college, I worked in commercial banking and finance all the way up to C-suite level. At various stages along the way, I was either involved in or led project committees which were focused on implementing a variety of technology projects. Leading the marketing function of the bank got me involved in various technical implementations. I became very interested in innovation and technology through that experience.
As a result, I chose to pursue an MBA at a business school in Japan for a number of reasons. The major reason was the widespread belief in Japan’s technological edge. This turned out to be very true. Among other areas of research, I was interested in the low usage of technology and machines. For example, there were always very under-utilized vending machines at every corner. Another reason for the move was that I wanted a learning environment which was very different from the Zimbabwean one; I aimed to disrupt my thinking process. Asia was where everything was happening ten years ago, which is still largely true now, and I was keen to understand all of that. The final reason, at the bottom rung of the ladder, was that I was a big fan and practitioner of martial arts, having practiced taekwondo for years. I was keen to learn the Japanese styles such as karate and aikido.
I chose to come and study in the U.S. largely for similar reasons, and more broadly, to just figure out how the world works. The U.S. has the world’s largest economy. You cannot have that scale of gross domestic product if you don’t know what you are doing, so I took up U.S. education to broaden my knowhow across many fronts.
What were the differences/similarities in the academic/business/technological environments? Did you find the U.S. and Japan to be similar in comparison to Zimbabwe? Did you find the U.S. to be lacking in comparison to Japan?
There are some significant differences and similarities. At that point, Zimbabwean education emphasized rote learning. There are plenty of bookworms in Zimbabwe’s education system. However, I have not seen this feed into problem-solving and practical application. I suspect it cascades from Zimbabwe’s colonial history and delays by subsequent administrations to align the education system with contemporary challenges. I think they have made some changes now.
Japanese graduate education, at least at my university, was very pragmatic in its approach: It emphasized group learning and practical application of knowledge to solve problems. I learned a lot about the strategy of technology, innovations, business modelling, technology spillovers, and enterprise learning. One of my professors then gave me a book by Hirotaka Takeuchi and Ikujiro Nonaka on knowledge creation (I was to meet Professor Takeuchi last year for coffee at Harvard where he teaches at Harvard Business School).
In Japan, we also visited a lot of companies to see production processes in action: steel manufacturing, automotive engineering, semi-conductors, and so forth. However, contemporary Japan is mostly dominated by large manufacturing and global firms, compared to very low levels of start-up activity. This is largely because potential entrepreneurs are risk averse, possibly because of the consequences of failure. It’s important to note that a lot of the literature used in our MBA program was actually from American authors like Michael Porter (who I was to meet at Harvard a few years later). I first encountered the Bitcoin whitepaper while in Japan, and I found it very intriguing.
U.S. education, on the other hand, is a combination of old ideas, groundbreaking ideas, risk-taking, innovation, thought leadership, and experimentation. It is equally focused on practical application as Japan’s education system; however, the U.S. also invests significantly in research, theory development, and thought leadership. The U.S. has start-up and innovation ecosystems where individuals with ideas can try them and fail without fearing the risk of failure. Such eco-systems are largely absent from Zimbabwe.
In Japan, innovation and knowhow resides in clusters rather than ecosystems and is largely driven by big companies. The U.S. has a lot of institutions pursuing a wide range of innovations and ground-breaking ideas. For example, Yale has the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute (YEI) and the Yale Center for Engineer Innovation and Design (CEID). These institutions allow students and faculty to explore groundbreaking ideas beyond the classroom. Harvard has many the same institutions and centers, too.
How did you first get involved in the cryptocurrency/blockchain space? Were you aware of crypto/blockchain when you came to Yale as a fellow? If so, did you think the environment stacked up to Harvard in that regard?
I first encountered cryptocurrencies in Japan. I was in Japan at the time the world was experiencing the great financial recession, and it was at that time that the whitepaper, which first introduced Bitcoin, was released. The idea created quite a ripple, if for nothing else, by proposing an alternative to banking intermediation. I read the paper and found it revolutionary. It was also extremely impressive in its grasp and understanding of a broad range of complex issues such as the momentary system, bank intermediation, bookkeeping and accounting, economics, computer science, and cryptographic security. I transacted with some cryptocurrencies way before coming to Yale, but the infrastructure was way more cumbersome than it is now with all the easy-to-use wallets that are now available. I became increasingly engaged in the community in subsequent years, especially in Africa.
What kind of work do you do at FloCash? Is it your main project right now? Was it a natural progression from your previous experiences (e.g., at Golix)?
At Flocash, I am a partner (equity investor), and until I came to the U.S., I was a managing director. Flocash is a pan-African payment gateway; you can view it as the PayPal of Africa. It aggregates and processes online payments and facilitates e-commerce for many companies in several African countries, from Ethiopia in the Northeast to Zimbabwe in the South. Flocash facilitates e-commerce and secures mobile payments over the internet for large continental companies such as Ethiopian Airlines. For example, you may be aware of the very high penetration of mobile money payments in Africa via platforms such as M-PESA, Ecocash, Airtel Money, and so forth. Flocash enables large and small companies to collect payments from users of mobile wallets over the Internet.
My role included growing the business, engaging in strategic engagements with partners such as mobile networks operators, banks, and regulators, overseeing technical integrations, and exploring new innovations– among other responsibilities. More broadly, I was also interested in the social goal of increasing and scaling digital financial inclusion. For example, I sat on an advisory committee of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, where I worked on strategizing for digital financial inclusion. Zimbabwe arguably has the highest level of digital payments adoption in Africa, possibly due to cash problems as well as very high levels of mobile phone penetration.
I was involved in Golix when I was running Flocash, initially as an angel investor and then as a board member. Golix was providing a unique solution as a crypto-currency exchange because it was helping people in practical ways at a time when Zimbabwe was facing foreign currency shortages. So, Bitcoin helped people who wanted to import goods from certain markets, Japan being one of them. Because cryptocurrencies were an enigma and complexity for many people, I was involved in giving a lot of talks at conferences and other gatherings in different African countries to help people understand them.
The cryptocurrency community has some of the most self-motivated and enthusiastic people I know, many of whom are keen on educating and expanding the space. It was during those days that I met prominent people in blockchain and cryptocurrencies such as Andreas Antonopoulos, Llew Claasen, Vinny Lingham, Adam Meister, Farzam Ehsani, Lorien Gamaroff, Stephan Thomas, John McClean and Andrew Keys among many others.
What do you see as your future in the crypto/blockchain space? If I’m right, it seems like you’ve semi-pivoted from more of a business angle to perhaps more of an administrative/policy angle?
I came to Harvard to explore the policy nexus of technology, government, and business. In business, we often blame the government for lack of understanding or for not-so-business-friendly policies. People in government, on the other hand, are not as concerned with the success of businesses alone but also with the broader impact on a number of stakeholders whose interests are also important.
Harvard has experts at the cutting edge of these issues. For example, experts on cryptographic and national security, such as Secretary Ash Carter and Bruce Schneier; leadership, such as Ronald Heifetz and Farai Chipungu; and of course, my faculty advisor, development economist Ricardo Hausmann at the Center for International Development. Ricardo and Danny Rodrik’s work on economic complexity and growth diagnostics is revolutionary. So, there is plenty to learn, both vertically and laterally, and lots of scope to build your own ideas too.
In future, I am interested in seeing increased adoption of innovations such as blockchain and cryptocurrencies, and how they can blend with other emerging technologies to solve the world’s largest problems. Cryptocurrencies have grown by leaps and bounds in the last decade since they came into being. They started from the periphery, but are now dominating debate at both policy and regulatory levels– something that was unthinkable five years ago.
For example, Facebook’s intent to bring Libra into the market is a sign that cryptocurrencies have come of age. Regulators and policy-makers are now forced to think beyond regulation; they need to find ways of encouraging such innovations to solve some of the world’s most pressing problems. It was unthinkable a few years ago that central banks, the World Bank, the IMF, Congress and other regulators would invest time and energy into talking about cryptocurrencies. I would like to be involved in thinking and developing policies related to the regulation of cryptocurrencies and technology platforms. I am interested in the adoption of such innovations in Africa and other developing countries to help improve digital financial inclusion and the socio-economic conditions of our people.
Anything else you want to say to the audience? Anything I should have asked that I didn’t?
I am currently working on a whitepaper for a digital currency I would like to propose for Africa– one that will help increase intra-Africa trade. I am also incubated in Harvard Innovation Labs, exploring a marketplace lending solution. I believe that so long as there are still problems out there, we must never cease to innovate. We must innovate, investigate, and deploy solutions to the problems we face without ceasing.