(Bloomberg Markets) —
Geneviève Léveillé was born in Haiti and has spent more than 45 years living in the U.S. and U.K., advising on projects around the world for Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), Hewlett-Packard, General Electric, and other companies. She was working for IdenTrust, which provides digital certificates, when she discovered blockchain and embarked on a new entrepreneurial path.
Cryptocurrencies make headlines, yet it’s the underlying technology that really intrigues banks, companies, and institutional investors. So-called blockchain networks provide a source of truth, ensuring every phase of a process can be verified on an accessible ledger.
In 2016, Léveillé’s passion for food led her to start AgriLedger, a business that uses the blockchain to give farmers more direct control of logistics and finances. Working in partnership with the World Bank and the government of Haiti, an AgriLedger pilot project helped mango farmers retain more profit by cutting out intermediaries. Now she says AgriLedger is embarking on new projects in Haiti and Tanzania.
It hasn’t been an easy journey, and Léveillé, 58, says she’s seeking funding to expand beyond the pilot software. She spoke with Bloomberg Markets in late February about her career and her insights into startup life and crypto culture. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
EMILY NICOLLE: Tell me about your career journey into blockchain.
GENEVIEVE LEVEILLE: I have always been tasked with trying to find: How do we change the status quo? How do we make it better?
[IdenTrust] asked me if I could go to South Africa and look at this thing called blockchain that Barclays was looking at in 2015, at the beginning of the craziness.
The one thing I wish I had done is actually bought Bitcoin. Somebody told me about it, and I was confused and couldn’t be bothered. It was less than maybe $100, and you could actually mine it yourself very easily. But I started looking at technology as a mechanism for getting things done, removing intermediaries to check what was going on. I decided, hell, why don’t I start my own thing?
Whatever I did, it had to be something I was passionate about. There had always been two passions in my life—food and travel—and while travel is not an inherent human need, food is basic to survival.
The AgriLedger concept was born out of a hackathon. Usually things coming out of hackathons don’t have a long life. But I had too many people telling me this couldn’t be done. I felt I had to prove it could be, that it wasn’t just a technical breakthrough.
EN: How does AgriLedger help farmers?
GL: A streamlined value chain, powered by blockchain, is value-accretive for all the stakeholders. This cuts out noncontributing players and ensures that the essential service providers work collaboratively with producers as partners and provides them a more direct access to markets.
By tracking information, recording financial transactions in an immutable ledger, and implementing smart contracts, we can work with banks to put in place a security structure that then allows them to provide these communities with working capital facilities. Currently, smallholders rely on other intermediaries, such as the agents and brokers, for their financing needs, which is extremely inefficient. Providing a direct interface between the farmers and the financial institutions is a paradigm shift and has the potential of unlocking significant value and efficiencies.
EN: How does startup life compare with working for a big company?
GL: I can change something on the fly. The risk is greatly minimized when you’re in a startup vs. in a big bank.
I used to love working for Hewlett-Packard because I could have this crazy idea of a technology and then search within the organization to find out who had knowledge about it and could help implement it. Now you may only have very few people on your team. That doesn’t mean they’re not brilliant, but you can’t overwork them in the same way.
At AgriLedger, the cash is not flowing in. I’ve been told it’s because I’m not bothering to market it in the right way. But then a lack of funding means you don’t have the right people, and yet we expect in the startup world to pay people less. That’s not sustainable, because if you don’t raise your staff to the market value very soon, they will walk away.
We cannot afford from a moral standpoint to fail to deliver, not only to our partners but to those communities they seek to uplift by collaborating with us in delivering this technology.
EN: How do your challenges compare with traditional finance?
GL: I ran a project at RBS where we ended up with over 400 people working on it. There, you are using a prevetting process, either hiring through an agency or another company. In the blockchain space, there are a lot of people who, I hate to say, are just very good talkers and not really good at action.
It’s a gold rush, and the challenge I find is that a lot of the good people don’t need to come to a startup anymore. Now the game is on with corporates trying to get in the space. A lot of people are going into roles as consultants. India has been going crazy with the startup world. So the salary expectations have now tripled. We lost a major developer because he got offered a job we couldn’t even match.
EN: Is innovation getting priced out of the market?
GL: Innovation used to be done at the corporate level. Now [research and development] is mostly done by acquiring because it’s cheaper. But I’m finding that in this space, corporates are realizing you can’t just acquire, because you may acquire a shell of nothing. There’s now a bit of going back to actually having a team internally.
It’s not just crypto. Even with central bank digital currencies, you need to be aware of this new way of doing business, these new data sources you’re going to need to consume or data you’re going to need to provide. It’s like those companies that decided they didn’t want to get on the internet: They faded away very fast.
EN: What’s your opinion of cryptocurrencies?
GL: I don’t use crypto or tokenization in my solutions, because crypto is still in the process of creating a new economy and will go head-to-head with regulators and financial services. But if I work with someone and they cannot send me fiat money, I will take Bitcoin now. What people have to realize is that what you receive is the value at the time of the settlement, but within 10 minutes it can either go up or down.
In 2020, I needed some cash, and I had a friend I could exchange my Bitcoin with. What I gave him was [worth] about £500 ($659), but a few months later, the damn thing tripled. But that’s the risk you take.
I find the concept of decentralized finance—or DeFi—very interesting. For example, yield farming, where you use part of your crypto holdings to lend to others and receive interest back, is a very interesting concept on a peer-to-peer level. There’s no KYC [know-your-customer checks]. You’re just staking your coins and then getting them back at some point. I can see those ideas becoming mainstream, but they’re going to have to have KYC at some point if they’re going to continue and start being regulated.
Now that China has launched a digital currency, let’s say you are a company in the U.K. but you have individuals working for you or clients in China. You become exposed to this new way of transacting. Financial departments are going to need to understand how to retrieve that transaction information.
EN: How will the industry mature over the next decade?
GL: I think we have a couple more years of mayhem before crypto settles down, but settling down means it will likely be taken over by established brands and organizations. There is a trust mechanism that has come into play. I liken it to the evolution of cellphones. In the ’80s, they were just for people in emerging markets who traveled. Large organizations are now going to start understanding what it is they need to do to be able to reach customers faster.
I’m also not sure how long governments are going to allow this to continue. You can already see some regulations coming in and others trying to sort of keep tabs on what’s going on through various exchanges. The purpose of crypto is getting lost because those exchanges are really becoming like the banks.
Blockchain still has a certain level of digitalization that means some individuals may not have the comprehension or the ability to use it. Unlike many of the digital transformations we’re looking at, there’s no thought of really how to be inclusive.
At ETHDenver [a major crypto gathering in February], I heard only 3% to 5% of the crowd were women. There are a lot of organizations across the world looking at creating more inclusiveness of women, either in trading or through being part of technology solutions. But when you then go to these conferences, it’s still a big bro party. An even bigger challenge is inclusion for anyone who is physically impaired. Current solutions do not allow them to use that technology, and there isn’t any thought of how they can be included.
Nicolle covers cryptocurrencies for Bloomberg News in London.
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