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The past was cashless, and the future is heading that way.
Yet the concept of money – which can be used as a widely accepted means to exchange goods and services, as a measure of value, or a source of accumulated wealth – is not going to disappear into the digital void. Cash may be a casualty, but money will retain its utility, even in the cloud.
Why do we need money?
Our hunter-gatherer ancestors foraged for or hunted down what they needed. No money was required, and certainly no cash. Desired goods could be obtained through barter. The agricultural revolution did not immediately alter this state of affairs, but the rise of densely populated kingdoms and cities did.
As the Israeli historian Yuval Harari noted in his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, barter is effective only when exchanging a limited range of products. It cannot form the basis for a complex economy. What if a fisherman has a catch and needs shoes from the cobbler, but the cobbler wants grapes, or a potion to cure his ills? Most societies eventually found a way out of this conundrum: money, which, as Harari points out, “is not coins and banknotes. Money is anything that people are willing to use in order to represent systematically the value of other things.”
The world’s first currencies
The Mesopotamian shekel was the first known currency in coinage form, coming into circulation about 5,000 years ago. The Bible is peppered with references to money, where it “answereth all things” or is “the root of all evil”. Plenty of commodities have been used as money, including cowrie shells in pre-colonial West Africa. Precious metals – there is a reason why they are called precious – have also been linked to or used as currency.
Silver extracted from South America by the Spanish in the 16th century was exported to China, the world’s largest economy then, which used it as its main store of value and a medium for monetary circulation. The value of a currency can also be linked to a precious metal without using it in coinage. The “gold standard” is the classic example of that, and the US maintained vestiges of this until 1973. The dominant monetary system globally now is a “fiat” system, under which the government’s fiat insists its currency be used as the recognized means of payment.
By the 19th and 20th centuries, money increasingly came in the form of the banknotes and coins with which we are all familiar. But banknotes and coins were not necessarily needed for transactions. Other things could stand in, such as cheques – which have now gone the way of eight-track tapes.
The future of money – blockchain and CBDCs
As our world and economies have become increasingly digital, the future of currencies is headed that way and we are seeing a response to tectonic technical shifts in the global economy.
According to Ian Putter, head of blockchain at Standard Bank, “The most important thing for a payment mechanism to work is to have a reliable store of value.” In other words, it must play its historic role. “The Blockchain Research Institute has released a research paper on Stablecoins providing price stability in decentralised financial systems,” Putter explains. “These collateralised tokens could be linked to a basket of currencies or could be pegged to the local currency, for instance, to the rand in South Africa.”
There are numerous digital currency initiatives at the moment. Writing for The Conversation late last year, Gavin Brown and Dr Richard Whittle of Manchester Metropolitan University said there are about 3,000 cryptocurrencies – Bitcoin of course being the most well-known – but that over 1,000 have failed. These figures underscore the sheer scale of the change at hand.
One of the initial criticisms of such initiatives was central bank resistance, but that has melted away.
“The flavour at the moment is central bank digital currencies. This is going to change the landscape,” says Putter.
Central banks are embracing digital currencies – or central bank digital currency (CBDC) – by fits and starts. The Chinese central bank, the People’s Bank of China, is leading the charge, sparking a race with the United States. The dollar still dwarfs the yuan as the medium for cross-border transaction and as a reserve currency, but that may change in the digital space, making it one to watch. The South African Reserve Bank (SARB) in April 2019 put out an expression of interest to explore whether a central bank digital currency could fly here.
Putter points out that there are huge advantages to digital currencies – just as there are to anything that goes digital.
How digital currencies can benefit Africa
Blockchain, which is essentially a database, is key here. Standard Bank is working with the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC), which has a 20% stake in the South African bank, to synchronize its blockchain systems.
“We are very far in the process of building an interbank blockchain network between us and China with ICBC. In the first phase through the blockchain we have developed importers in South Africa who can pay suppliers in China at virtually zero transaction cost. And then importers in China can do the same for South Africa. Then we want to expand that blockchain to all of the African countries where we have a presence,” Putter explains.
The main point here is that value can be transferred seamlessly. The fisherman can sell his catch and buy his shoes with much less hassle. No need for change.
Indeed, Africa stands to gain significantly from this and related initiatives. Small-scale rural farmers for example can have money delivered for their produce through e-wallet and other platforms. “There are opportunities to partner and leverage some of the big blockchain player’s work to enable faster innovation and learning through exploration and experimentation,” explains Putter. “You don’t have to build everything from scratch, but could collaborate and co-create with suitable partners.”
And digital currencies are trackable and traceable through a consensus mechanism (such as Hedera), making them a thorn in the side of organised crime when governance structures are in place.
Putter says barter transactions may also become common in the digital space in the future – a case perhaps of the global economy coming full circle.
Create your own virtual bank cards and buy, send and store currencies (forex and rand) completely digitally using the Shyft app. Visit getshyft.co.za to download it for free and find out more.