Rubén Galindo Steckel, Caroline Young
Here at SDF, we like to talk about how blockchain enables real-world use cases. Joining today’s conversation is Rubén Galindo Steckel, CEO and Co-founder of Airtm, who shares his team’s firsthand experiences in building blockchain-based products for a demographic and market they are intimately familiar with – the people of Latin America.
Airtm was founded to help citizens living in unstable Latin American economies protect their wealth from devaluation. By providing dollar accounts connected to a P2P marketplace, users can exchange their local currency for AirUSD (Airtm’s native digital dollar) with another user at a free market rate.
It’s been seven years since Airtm first started, and after expanding access to their products throughout Mexico, Colombia, and Brazil, the Airtm team began questioning its impact. Giving people the ability to hedge against local currency devaluation was important, but only some people were lucky enough to have disposable income or savings in the first place to preserve at the end of the month. How could Airtm provide a solution to low wages and growing unemployment though?
Ruben continues his thoughts below:
Especially affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, Latin America’s economy contracted an average of 7% while over 34 million jobs were lost (ECLAC). Roughly one third of Latin Americans live below the poverty line, and another third constituting the middle class earns $13-70 per day. With global uncertainty driving demand for dollars up and the perceived value of their local currencies down, Latin Americans are struggling to navigate the economy as it stands today.
Political instability hasn’t helped, increasing migratory flows throughout the Americas. Folks, eager to improve their living conditions, are risking their lives for a shot at the American Dream even as borders tighten. Data from 2020 indicates that more than 32 million Latin Americans live outside their country of origin. Mexicans make up 25% of the migrant population in the United States, and Latin Americans make up another quarter (Pew Research Center). The number of children migrating from this region and the Caribbean is projected to hit 3.5 million this year, a 47% increase compared to 2020 (UNICEF). Migration flows have become widespread in the entire Western Hemisphere, and they are here to stay.
We have to qualify the following statement by saying we are not economists, but rather entrepreneurs. We look at problems and propose solutions. We believe that one of the largest problems facing our people is our high dependency on our government’s ability to provide stability and prosperity for us. When our government fails, we fail.
So, why not aim to become financially independent from our country?
Migration in Latin America is a clear reflection of our government’s inability to provide opportunities for us. Well, migration is growing. What does that say about our local situation? Would you leave your success in the hands of your local government? Why not aim to become financially independent from our country?
That is where the digital economy comes in, and the growing ability of Latin Americans to make a living by working online. We don’t have to sit and wait for our country to generate enough jobs. We don’t have to migrate in search of employment.
Web2 platforms and cross-border payments catalyzed a thriving digital economy. Every day, more income-generating opportunities surface online and create more opportunities. Millions are already thriving as digital entrepreneurs, including freelancers, microtaskers, and content creators among many other occupations.
Rising internet penetration, relatively low salary expectations, and the ease with which one can learn a trade online have also made it easier for people in Latin America to join the online workforce. People throughout the developing world, let alone Latin Americans, no longer have to conform to the opportunities their country can offer. They can take charge of their financial stability and security simply by going online.
Proposing that the digital economy could end forced migration would be an overly simplistic view on the problems plaguing Latin America. After all, violence and food insecurity drive people away from their homes just as much as poverty (worldvision.org). Furthermore, digital jobs can’t get to people without access to the internet. However, we do believe that a large portion of the digital economy remains grossly underdeveloped; it would be remiss not to grow it given the circumstances and economic incentives:
Becoming part of the digital economy is a huge opportunity for a Latin American, especially for those in most need.
Annex 1: Minimum estimated earnings per digital entrepreneur segment (comparably.com)
But without proper cross-border payment infrastructure, can a global digital economy be built around a lower income workforce? If you can’t pay them, why even consider building a business that revolves around them let alone an industry?
There is surely someone out there in Venezuela willing to design that logo for five bucks, but how would you pay them? Could you use a major e-wallet? But major e-wallets collect an average $5 + 6% transaction fee at the time of cashout, while also taking six days to process!
If you can’t pay the people you want to hire in a way that makes sense for them, why would they even work for you? This is the chicken-and-egg problem deterring the digital economy from taking hold of the developing world.
Today, Airtm’s dollar account and P2P marketplace operates in most countries in Latin America and can deliver digital dollar payments at a $0.40 + 3% fee on an average of 6 minutes. Our cross border payment rails are available for American consumers currently you can pay anyone $5 for your awesome new logo anywhere in the developing world, and this kind of transaction can even be leveraged by large enterprises. Companies like Scale use Airtm’s enterprise solutions to deliver mass micro cross-border payments to their digital entrepreneur workforce in Latin America and other developing world countries.
Our hope is for Airtm to lay the foundation of a new Web3-based digital economy similar to how Paypal laid the foundation for the thriving digital economy today. By enabling cross-border micro transactions we believe that entrepreneurs around the world will be able to generate net new forms of value creation and opportunities for millions of people throughout the developing world.
With the proper cross-border payment systems in place, the current Web2 and nascent Web3 platforms can broaden their reach. To prospective employers, these platforms could offer more competitive demand side prices; to Latin Americans and others seeking financial independence, the opportunity to become digital entrepreneurs.
Airtm began with a retail wallet, expanded to cross border payment disbursement as a way to help Latin Americans earn money in a way that worked for them. Looking forward, we will continue investing in more financial services for enterprises and consumers to exchange value amongst each other. E-commerce enablement and payment processing are other critical cross-border payment tools we envision to create. More than just technology, Airtm aims to power a brand new economy.
On one side, enterprises will join this new economy creating earning opportunities. On the other side, people in need will come online to fulfill demand for their value creation. There are already more than 2 million Airtm account-holders, most of them Latin Americans subjugated by their countries’ precarious situation. Our enterprise team is already working tirelessly to help them thrive by giving them access to new income-generating opportunities.
Similarly at Airtm, we aim to transform the economies of Latin America and other developing world regions into ones where financially independent people are able to thrive thanks to their fluid access to their global economy. One where financially independent people, not their governments, make the developing world shine.