Emtech, an African provider of central banking infrastructure, introduced its Central Bank Digital Currency (CBDC) Innovation kit last month. The kit caters to fintechs and financial service providers interested in experimenting with solutions and business models based on digital currencies pioneered by central banks.
The New York-based business is today announcing a $4 million seed investment led by Matrix Partners India. It plans to further the development of this CBDC stack and that of its regtech solution. BTN, Vested, Equity Alliance and LoftyInc Capital are some of the other investors in the round. They join Emtech’s previous investors, including Noemis Ventures, Octerra Capital and 500 Global on its cap table. This round brings the four-year-old’s total investment to $10 million (including a $4 million pre-seed last year and a recent $2 million extension).
The CBDC Innovation Kit’s unveiling in July comes as no surprise. Last March, founder Carmelle Cadet said Emtech would deploy its first version of a CBDC platform this year. Emtech’s digital regulatory platform previously included the innovator’s center, which assists fintechs in preparing and testing requirements for numerous regulators and pre-market technological integration. The regulatory sandbox enables regulatory bodies to respond to innovations based on live testing results.
The four-year-old startup had hoped to work with at least 10 central banks by now. However, it is currently working with six. It has presently developed regtech and CBDC stack solutions for the Central Banks of Ghana, Nigeria and the Bahamas. That’s in addition to collaborating with fintechs in other countries to provide crucial regulatory and innovation insights.
“We’re the only company globally working with that many central banks at a time,” CEO Cardet told TechCrunch in a recent interview, stressing that Emtech had to open up its seed round, which took a year to complete, to follow through on the partnerships with these banks. “Like other companies, fundraising wasn’t easy because of the downturn and the FTX and Terra Luna saga. We had to manage our cash flow and resources and grow our footprint across the region while delivering for the central banks, especially now that we’re on a journey of digitizing cash infrastructure for them.”
Performance of local digital currency
Emtech also signed a collaboration deal with the West Africa Monetary Institute this June. In addition to establishing a joint central bank, the institute’s long-term objective is creating a single currency for the area. What more effective way to achieve the latter than through CBDCs? Central banks globally have been exploring and producing digital versions of their currencies for retail and wholesale use. This is to avoid leaving digital payments to the private sector as cash usage drops. With $10 trillion cash in circulation, the percentage of banks engaged in CBDC climbed from 80% to 93% in 2022. Also, according to a BIS survey, 24 central banks will have digital currencies in circulation by the decade’s end.
Nigeria is one of just a few countries having an operational digital retail currency: the eNaira as it’s known. Yet, it’s had an abysmal acceptance despite the central bank’s incentives to make it appealing to its Nigerians. Earlier this year, the country’s cash scarcity — an ill-conceived government initiative to push for a paperless economy — demonstrated how much citizens disliked the eNaira. Per Bloomberg, less than 0.5% of Nigerians have utilized the eNaira since its inception two years ago.
The event showed that most Nigerians preferred waiting hours for cash rather than using digital money. However, Cadet feels that the eNaira’s implosion should not overshadow the relevance and benefits of CBDCs in general. “Although the eNaira was launched to major fanfare, there were missteps in planning, technology, and implementation. Most importantly, the architecture was not open to fintechs,” she stated. “What we’ve had the opportunity to do is present an alternative that is fintech-friendly. We think the fintech ecosystem has many untapped opportunities regarding CBDC.”
Deployment of the innovation kit
That’s where its newly released innovation kit comes in, she says. Emtech’s regulatory sandbox promotes relationships between central banks and fintechs regarding licensing required to go to market. Similarly, the CBDC innovation kit will provide these fintechs access to a digital cash infrastructure that banks may imitate.
Emtech’s simulated token “Beyond Cash (BYDC)” will be utilized for innovation initiatives, leveraging the Hedera Hashgraph as a layer 1 protocol and the ERC-20 (standard for tokenization). The CBDC Innovation Kit functions as a simulator accessible through APIs and a “bring your app” framework. Here, fintechs gain access to a CBDC simulator wallet BYDC and extract data from the ledger to test transactions and new business models. Emtech believes this route will close the gap observed in the current system between fintech innovation and central banking oversight.
“Our point of view has been consistent: enabling central banks to deploy their CBDC as a digital cash infrastructure safely. Imagine if the $13 trillion or more of paper cash floating worldwide was issued digitally, used and accounted for securely, in real-time and seamlessly. Imagine what fintech apps could do for their users. That’s truly exciting to us,” said the CEO, a former IBM blockchain executive, in a statement. Emtech has about 200 fintech companies on its waitlist, ready to work on the platform.
Digital assets and programmable currency in the form of regulated CBDCs, according to Aakash Kumar, principal at Matrix Partners India, may turbocharge financial inclusion in Africa. “Emtech’s vision of shaping blockchain-powered fintech infra for CBDCs and solutions for fintech regulation is compelling, and we are excited to partner with them on their journey,” he said on the firm’s investment in Emtech.