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Innovators’ Club tackling cryptocurrencies and the future of blockchain.

Grove’s Innovator’s Club tackled a hot topic when Sonya Kuhnel, one of South Africa’s foremost experts on the digital currencies industry and the bitcoin craze, shared her insights and tips with fellow thought leaders.

In 2015 Sonya founded the Bitcoin Academy, later renamed to the Blockchain Academy, which provides training and consulting for financial institutions, corporates, developers, entrepreneurs, startups, schools, government and interested individuals on digital currencies such as bitcoin and blockchain technology in South Africa.

Sonya said she was introduced to bitcoin in 2013 when her husband was invited to one of the first bitcoin meetings. “I didn’t know what it was and no one was talking about it. The venue was a dodgy place close to Claremont station under the bridge. I was so suspicious, but it turned out to be one of the most important experiences of my life. Some of the people there were libertarians and anarchists. I’m not a libertarian nor an anarchist, but I am a technologist. These guys were talking about something being invented that was based on 20 years of research by cryptographers and security experts who were trying to solve the problem of peer to peer payments over the internet.”

Coming from a programming and tech background, Sonya was intrigued by this new invention. She started to go to more meetups and talking to people who really understood the technology behind bitcoin. “It took me a long time to understand what it really was about because it is quite difficult to grasp. It is not based on current monetary systems and the regulatory side is very complex.”

Sonya was especially interested in the cryptography side of digital cash for the internet with no intermediary involved in the transaction. “If you think about traditional money, it all goes through a banking system and there is heavy regulation involved – this bypasses all of that. I became so hooked and so passionate about it that I dropped everything I was doing and spent a year to create a company called Bitcoin Payments, affiliated to the company BitPay, one of the biggest payment processing companies in the US.”

BitPay was processing bitcoin payments for retailers and instantaneously converting them to into fiat currencies so they are not affected by the volatility of bitcoin.

Sonya soon found out her enthusiasm for the new technology was not shared by companies and retailers in South Africa. “I went around and tried to get the top guys involved explaining how revolutionary this is. I was met with blank stares and sometimes aggressive responses. This was based on a lot of things happening at the time around the sale of illicit substances on the dark web. The media was focusing on the negative issues relating to bitcoin and nothing was mentioned about the magic of blockchain technology.”

It was a difficult time for Sonya, but she realised she had to take the lead to educate businesses about the benefits and opportunities. She started Bitcoin Academy to address the basics as well as the most complex issues around the new technology. In 2015 the interested suddenly started to grow as people grasped the possibilities.

“Our biggest clients were the financial institutions. Within two months big banks were inviting us to their head offices in Johannesburg and they were super interested in how this technology was going to disrupt banking and the financial industry as a whole. I realised these institutions were not interested only in bitcoin but they wanted to hear about blockchain technology. So I renamed the company to BlockChain Academy.”

Sonya said it’s been a fascinating journey to see how this industry has evolved. “When I started, I felt incredibly lonely. I’ve not only become interested in technology but also the economy and how money is issued.”

“For me, the biggest learning curve was to think out of the box. I used to accept things as they are. I accepted money was money. I accepted the government had these policies and we had to adhere to them. If I had wanted to send money I had to do it through a bank – a long complicated process. I’ve had to rethink all of that. There is no central authority online. Bitcoin is not owned by any government. Bitcoin is issued through a mining process, not through a bank or a CEO, it’s built into code.”

Sonya believes that Blockchain technology is contributing to a whole new world, not only for big companies but for individuals as well. She predicts that cryptocurrencies will eventually be regulated like other currencies, but she agrees with experts who say this new system should be given “breathing space” to develop before it becomes regulated. “We need to see where this will go. Regulation should follow innovation. It’s very important that governments understand that.”

“Blockchain technology can create jobs and it has so many amazing possibilities. It is solid and super secure because of its decentralised distributed nature. Like with any emerging technology, there will be teething problems such as scaling issues. The transactions are sometimes not very fast and the cost is high. It’s like the internet – initially, it was slow and expensive and not very user-friendly. This technology is in its infancy – the problems will be sorted out.”

Sonya stated that she is especially passionate about the social good blockchain technology can offer. “If you look at the United Nations World Food Programme, they’ve implemented a blockchain system where they are using biometrics to give 10 000 refugees who don’t have access to banks the means to buy food from a grocer. It removes inefficiencies and mismanagement of funds.”

Innovators’ Club guests had many questions, especially about the stability and reliability of cryptocurrencies. Sonya commented that most South Africans see bitcoin as an investment. “People are not yet using it to buy goods and services on a big scale. When people start getting paid their salaries in bitcoin and you can buy your groceries at a retailer with it, there will be massive adoption and the currency will become more stable.”

Sonya reminded the audience that we’re still in the nascent era of this technology and problems are expected. Sonya expressed that she’s working non-stop to encourage businesses to adapt to this brave new world. She’s working with retailers to create platforms using ripple blockchain that allows any retailer to accept any kind of cryptocurrency. The retailer will be saving money and consumers won’t need a bank account to buy groceries. Asked about her faith in bitcoin, Sonya was very clear: “I’m extremely committed to BitCoin. It’s a good long-term investment.”

  • This Innovator’s Club meet-up was live-streamed on social media and close to 200 fans tuned in to watch this fascinating discussion online through Twitter Periscope and Facebook.

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