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Breaking Barriers and Driving Adoption: Meet Yaliwe Soko
From Devcon to leading ecosystems, we trace Yaliwe's Journey through the world of blockchain in Africa
by Menna Shanab, media writer
Yaliwe Soko's foray into the world of blockchain began with a practical problem: she was paid in Bitcoin, but had no idea how to use it. As a result, she had to learn how to convert the cryptocurrency into cash, which sparked her curiosity. Her subsequent research led her to become an advocate for the technology, recognizing its potential to solve real-world problems. Through her work, Soko discovered that blockchain could be used to improve transparency, accountability, and efficiency in various sectors, from finance to government.
From being an early adopter of this revolutionary technology to establishing her presence in the male-dominated sector, she has truly made a name for herself. As the former South African Ecosystems Lead at cLabs working on Celo, a carbon-negative, mobile-first, EVM-compatible blockchain ecosystem, Yaliwe has been instrumental in driving the adoption of blockchain technology in Africa. Her passion for education, technology, and financial inclusion inspired her to delve deeper into the world of crypto and blockchain, discovering the transformative impact it could have, particularly in Africa.
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A true trailblazer, Yaliwe has not only founded Essence Crypto Consultants but also United Africa Women in Blockchain and serves as the Chairwoman of the United Africa Blockchain Association. Recognizing the importance of education in driving adoption, she is thrilled to lead Africa's blockchain journey.
Soko's story mirrors those of many others in Africa who have recognized the potential of blockchain technology to address real-world problems and have become pioneers in the field. Across the continent, a growing community of entrepreneurs, innovators, and social impact organizations is harnessing Web3 to effect positive change. And they have something powerful: a shared belief in technology's power to transform lives and communities.
Like Soko, many of these pioneers have come from non-technical backgrounds and have had to learn about blockchain from scratch. It is clear that Africa is not simply following in the footsteps of more developed countries but is taking a leading role in shaping the future of blockchain technology.
The potential of blockchain technology in Africa is vast, and there are already many initiatives underway that are leveraging these cutting-edge tools to create positive change. For example, in Nigeria, it is being used to create a decentralized platform for trading agricultural products, making it easier for farmers to access markets and receive fair prices for their crops. In Kenya, blockchain-based systems are improving land registries and securing property rights, which are vital for economic development.
Where did your journey with Blockchain begin? Why did you choose to embrace this technology despite it being in such a nascent stage when you began?
I got into the blockchain space somewhere around 2016. I had a part-time job online and we were getting paid in Bitcoin. I had to learn how to convert these coins into cash that I could actually use and to get more insight into exchanges and different platforms that were available. I decided to look a little bit deeper. I started doing my research and, with that, I came across the blockchain as the technology that was powering this bitcoin that I was now using to meet some of my needs.
What did you uncover when you took a deeper dive?
I looked at some of the characteristics of the technology and I look at Africa. I saw a loophole in how we can utilize this technology to improve some of the inefficiencies that we have on the continent and also just to make lives easier for the masses. That's in terms of transparency and accountability, especially coming from an African perspective.
I looked at different things such as verification of qualifications. That's a huge problem that we face. We have a lot of fake certificates flying all over the place and people are not able to get jobs because there is somebody sitting in a position with a fake certificate. I looked at land titles and looked at my own experience with a piece of land when we had some disputes. I started to look a little bit deeper into the technology, and I wanted to learn more, but not only learn, I wanted to educate people as well.
I started a small meetup group in Johannesburg, which was called the Johannesburg Women in Blockchain where we would discuss possibilities in the space and learn a little bit more. I continued with my research and developed a learner guide, which is like a curriculum. I realized it had gone to about a hundred and seventeen pages and I used that to actually further my knowledge, not only mine but the knowledge of the people around me. With that, speaking engagements started to arrive, both locally and internationally. Along the line, I founded the United Africa Blockchain Association, which I chair at the moment.
Education and training are critical components in promoting blockchain and cryptocurrency adoption and I know you’re a big advocate in this regard. What are some of the most effective educational initiatives you have been involved in, and how are they supporting the development and adoption of emerging technologies across the continent?
Yes, education is a big deal not only for me but for also the association. When people are not informed, they cannot make the right decisions and they cannot participate. We came up with an initiative called the One Million for Blockchain Program. This was to reach and teach one million people about blockchain in Africa. We developed what we call ‘Train the Trainer’: we train one person to reach at least ten people within their communities and networks and potentially refer those people as well to become trainers.
That has been the driving force behind every initiative that we've done. We did a lot of webinars and partnered with different organizations. Starting last year, when airports and borders opened up, we traveled to a number of African countries. We did a forum in Kenya, and an event in Nigeria focused on blockchain entrepreneurs and startups and introducing them to investors.
You are the chairperson of the United Africa Blockchain Association (UABA) and former ecosystem lead for cLabs/Celo. How are these organizations collaborating with other stakeholders in the ecosystem to drive forward the growth of the industry?
We started engaging with Zambia quite a lot because its government was opening up to technology and, specifically, blockchain. Firstly, we did some introductory training and information sessions. We partnered with the Zambia National Commercial Bank to use their hub to educate different people that were interested in learning about blockchain. We trained the Ministry of Technology and Science and its governmental agencies on blockchain technology and the potential that it has to improve and enhance the systems in the country.
With that, we were given a mandate by the minister himself to do a pilot project, which we did in about four townships (areas that have very little to no access when it comes to things like technology). We had to go on the ground. This pilot project was to showcase the feasibility of blockchain for social good. Our aim was to register about 300 participants for the pilot but we ended up having way more than that. We had about 634 participants and people were able to interact with crypto and actually buy food and different things with it.
We also organized the Blockchain Summit in November with a number of governmental entities participating. This year in February, we trained the entire Zambian government, all the ministries, regulators, roads and transport agencies, the big telcos (MTN, Airtel), and even the banking sector as well.
A few weeks ago we had a huge master class at the University of Zambia. We partnered with them to bring blockchain education to the university for two days. We had over 1,500 students participating. Now we are focusing on other trainings here in South Africa, and a few other countries as well.
How have you operationalized your belief that "Collaboration is the new competition. We are gradually building the Africa we want.”
Almost all the projects have been collaborative. We've worked with different partners from foundations to exchanges to different stakeholders within the blockchain space. What's exciting for me is getting to interact with real people - getting to teach somebody something that has the potential to change their lives. Just being on the ground is exciting. It's a lot of work but being able to walk those streets and interact with people, I think that's the highlight for me.
You also founded the United Africa Women in Blockchain, and as an African woman, navigating the space, can you speak to the challenges and opportunities that exist for women and underrepresented groups and what you think the industry needs to support these groups?
As a woman, sometimes, you have to work ten times harder to prove yourself. There are quite a number of incredible women that have seen coming up trying to do their part and participate in the ecosystem, which is amazing to see. We need more women like us saying, “Hey this is achievable. You can do this.” The space is still very new. There's a lot of room for everybody and you don't have to change who you are. You can be the same person that you've been outside there in the traditional space, in the blockchain space.
So giving them the confidence to come on board. That’s the key to changing our continent.
In terms of challenges, obviously, we’re still in the beginning. There is a massive lack of confidence. Sometimes funding is not available personally to get to this place. I've had to make a lot of personal sacrifices. I was determined to do it because if I sat back and waited for funding, it was not going to happen.
It has taken a lot of sacrifices to get to a point whereby, you're getting partnerships and you're getting people jumping on board, and a lot of women might get discouraged. It took me almost five years to get the organization to what it is. A lot of people don't have that type of patience.
You have a background in finance and administration, which gives you a unique perspective on the intersection between traditional finance and blockchain. In your opinion, what are the potential implications of this disruption for the African financial sector?
We still have a long way to go in terms of adoption. Crypto is being used widely for speculative purposes and if people want to get real value items, they normally have to convert their crypto to fiat. The only thing that I believe it has done is that it has placed the traditional financial sector where it is supposed to be or it was supposed to be from the beginning.
I don't want the banking sector. I just don't want them in my space. They're supposed to be rendering a service, not interrupting or being in my personal life. If I have to send you value using crypto, I don't need anybody's permission, right? But if I have to send you money using the bank, there's a lot of bureaucracies and a lot of questions around that, looking at forex regulations and all these other things. It's my money, I can do with it whatever I want. You should render me a service that allows me to either use this or convert it. I think that's what it has done mainly. Where you can have the power to determine what you can do with your finances. Though, it's still like I said, we're still navigating the waters, there's still a lot to learn.
You’ve been an active participant in the ecosystem for years, how do you see the African blockchain landscape evolving in the context of global blockchain developments and what role do you believe Africa will play in the future of this technology?
I think Africa is playing a huge role already. Most of the use cases that are there will be very effective in Africa compared to other more developed countries. Africa has a lot of building when it comes to infrastructure but the advantage is, when it comes to technology, Africa can still be at the level where the world is right now. There are a lot of startups coming up offering solutions. There’s a supply chain across Africa that could be improved quite a lot.
Asset-based stablecoins would be a huge thing for Africa because we've got a lot of minerals and natural resources.
There’s also a population or demographic advantage there. There are a lot of young people in Africa. In my experience, it looks like there are a lot of products that are actually being designed or developed outside Africa, actually targeting, mainly Africa, Latin America, or even the MENA region because that's where there are use cases when it comes to this technology. Africa is at the forefront already; we just need more understanding, adoption, and solutions that are actually developed by Africans as well.
Can you speak to any of these use cases or real-world applications that you find to be the most promising or exciting?
I would say land title registration. That's still a big deal for me because land is a huge part of Africa. If you own land, you own everything. That's the African mindset but sometimes disputes do arise when it comes to land because there's no proper record-keeping. Sometimes, files can go missing or corrupted. The disputes sometimes never end. Land titles on the blockchain solve a whole lot of things when it comes to African land registrations.
Another thing is voting. If governments actually embrace a blockchain-based voting system, that would solve many problems that we see across the continent like rigging. It would give people a voice without being suppressed. There are a lot of use cases. I think if they're embraced, a lot could change, including the currency issue as well. Look at how many currencies we have in Africa and they don't even speak to each other. Almost every African currency can speak to the dollar, but African currencies can’t speak to each other. That could solve a lot of problems and also ease trade.
Africa is a region that is rich in resources, but many of its citizens still face significant challenges, including poverty, corruption, and inadequate access to financial services. Blockchain technology has the potential to address many of these challenges. For example, it can help improve transparency and accountability in government and business, and it can facilitate more secure and efficient financial transactions. In addition, blockchain can be used to create decentralized systems for storing and sharing data, which can be particularly valuable in contexts where traditional centralized systems are unreliable or inaccessible.