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The crypto exchange this 26-year-old launched in 2019 has done $1.75 billion in

  • Yellow Card is the largest centralized cryptocurrency exchange in Africa.
  • For its nearly 1.4 million users across the continent, Yellow Card – which offers an experience similar to Block’s Cash App – is a vital lifeline to money. 
  • Co-founders Chris Maurice and Justin Poiroux launched the exchange from their dorm room in Auburn, Alabama.

ACCRA, GHANA – On the afternoon of Dec. 26, 2022, Chris Maurice finally capitulated and went to the emergency room at Hospital Clinic de Barcelona, just west of the city’s gothic quarter. For roughly 10 months, the 26-year-old CEO of the largest centralized crypto exchange in Africa had ignored many of the symptoms consistent with malaria as he bounced between 21 different countries on the continent, advising heads of state on bitcoin adoption and setting up institutional accounts for his business, Yellow Card.

By the time Maurice was admitted to the intensive care unit, plasmodium parasites had been wreaking havoc on his red blood cells for nearly a year, multiplying in his liver and threatening to shut down many of his major organs, including his kidneys. His face and eyes were yellow from jaundice. As his hemoglobin levels plummeted in response to the intravenous meds administered as treatment, four days of blood transfusions helped save his life.

But to Maurice, his brush with death was simply the price of doing business. Since graduating from Auburn University in Alabama with a finance degree four years ago, he has traded security and stability for a career on the road, all with the goal of fundamentally disrupting Africa’s broken financial system. 

“I’ve slept more nights than I can count in the Joburg airport,” Maurice told CNBC on the sidelines of the Africa Bitcoin Conference in Ghana. “I’ve mastered the art of where to go to find chairs with no armrests. I’m six-foot-five, so I need my space.”

For nearly 1.4 million users across the continent, Yellow Card – which offers an experience similar to Block‘s Cash App – is a vital lifeline to money. 

“We wanted to make it as easy as possible for anybody to be able to come on and buy crypto within three minutes,” explains Maurice in an Uber ride cutting due south through the Ghanaian capital of Accra. 

Yellow Card CEO Chris Maurice just before meeting with the Securities and Exchange Commission in Accra, Ghana.

Chris Maurice

From there, Yellow Card users can send or receive digital cash in eligible markets. But unlike a centralized exchange like Coinbase, where many customers store their tokens for an extended period of time hoping that their digital assets will appreciate in value, the average customer on Maurice’s exchange keeps money on the platform for under five minutes. People take their local fiat currency, turn it into bitcoin or a U.S. dollar-pegged stablecoin like tether to send it across a border, and the recipient instantly cashes it out.

“It’s literally like, I deposit a million Francs in Cameroon, I buy USDT or BTC, and then I send it off,” continued Maurice. 

Yellow Card customers can receive cryptocurrency from anywhere in the world and pay only a network fee, which typically ranges from 5 cents to $1, according to Maurice. That is especially helpful for people who would customarily turn to a money service provider like Western Union and MoneyGram, which sometimes charge heavy commissions on remittances.

The service is a game-changer for many Africans, who rely on money sent home from abroad, especially in countries where unemployment and inflation is rife. The latest data from the World Bank shows that in Sub-Saharan Africa – where up to 65% of adults are unbanked – remittance flows reached $50 billion in 2021, the most recent year for which data is available. The actual number is likely much higher when you factor in money transferred over informal channels. Meanwhile, World Bank data shows that it is more expensive to send remittances to Sub-Saharan Africa than to any other region in the world. On average, it costs $15.60 (7.8%) to send $200 to or from Africa. That percentage can be as high as $38, or 19%, in some countries.

Building the crypto payment rails necessary for Yellow Card requires jumping through a lot of legal and regulatory hoops, which is why Maurice spends about nine months a year in the countries where he operates or plans to launch crypto services. He has local lawyers in pretty much every country on the continent, and he meets with elected officials and regulators to further foam the runway for adoption. The level of hospitality varies widely across the continent.

Yellow Card CEO Chris Maurice in Accra, Ghana loading cash onto his Mobile Money account, MoMo.

Chris Maurice

Maurice stands out pretty much wherever he goes thanks to his height and plume of curly black hair. His speech is punctuated with laughs and smiles, and that friendly demeanor puts people at ease. But it’s underpinned by an intense work ethic — he’s got a black belt in TaeKwonDo, was an Eagle Scout in his youth and a finalist for Rhodes and Marshall scholarships in college. He also cares deeply about revolutionizing a broken financial system. These traits help enlist supporters for his longshot ideas – like launching a centralized cryptocurrency exchange in Africa from his dorm room in Auburn, Alabama.

Yellow Card has facilitated $1.75 billion in transactions since launching in 2019 and has about 220 employees – mostly in Africa. The exchange lets users send money to 16 countries on the continent – and crucially, at the other end of that transaction, the platform has streamlined the process of converting crypto back to local currencies.

On a good day, the service will do $5 million in transactions. On a slow day, it is closer to $1 million, according to Maurice.

The company has also raised $57 million, including from Jack Dorsey’s Block and Valar Ventures, a venture capital firm co-founded by Peter Thiel. Maurice says his ultimate goal is to expand service to the rest of the continent and turn Yellow Card into a billion-dollar company, up from its current valuation of $200 million. In practice, that means capitalizing on the exchange’s first-mover advantage.

“I realized very early on that there’s so much opportunity in all these countries and that we needed to be the first one there,” said Maurice. 

“I drove from South Africa to Botswana, Zimbabwe to Zambia, then flew up to Ethiopia, Ghana, and Uganda. In all of these places, I was doing the grunt work – things like company registration and opening bank accounts, so that we would be ready to go.”

Maurice doesn’t stay anywhere for long, but the transient lifestyle suits him. He’s currently in Barcelona, but it’s just an apartment in a timezone that lets him take his morning work calls from a desk, rather than the shower. 

“I can brush my teeth in peace,” Maurice says with his trademark smile.

Moving money in Africa is an expensive and complicated process.

Commercial bank branch access is limited, especially for people living in remote and rural areas. Digital banking options are also limited. The latest stats from the World Bank show that just 29% of the population in Sub-Saharan Africa uses the internet. Tack on rampant hyperinflation, widespread government corruption, and capital controls trapping domestic cash in banks, and money can stop making sense altogether.

“If someone wants to move money to the country next door, normally, you’d have to fill up a suitcase full of cash and move it over the border,” explains Ray Youssef, the CEO of Paxful, a peer-to-peer crypto marketplace where users can exchange tokens with one another.

Companies like Western Union and MoneyGram offer an expansive physical network of storefronts around the world designed to move money for those who are unbanked. That cash network was extraordinarily difficult and expensive to build, which is why there aren’t a lot of direct competitors. It is also why those cash transfers often incur substantial fees.

“The entire system of cross-border payments is all about rent-seeking. That’s what it’s designed to do,” argues Alex Gladstein, chief strategy officer for the Human Rights Foundation, an organization that works with human rights activists from authoritarian regimes around the world.

“It’s not designed to help you move money from A to B. It’s designed by someone who’s going to make money off you moving money from A to B,” continues Gladstein.

If someone wants to move money to the country next door, normally, you’d have to fill up a suitcase full of cash and move it over the border.

Ray Youssef

Paxful CEO

Part of the problem stems from the continent’s quasi-colonial payment framework, in which roughly 80% of cross-border payments originating from African banks are processed offshore, mostly in the U.S. or Europe. That translates to higher costs and processing times that are sometimes measured in weeks.

“The mainstream way of approaching this is, ‘Oh, let’s just Africanize it. Let’s replace the intermediaries over there with intermediaries here,'” explains Gladstein. “That’s probably even worse because they’re going to be corrupt and expensive.”

Across the continent, there are fintech companies built on top of the existing banking system. These platforms abstract away the complicated back-office processes, but the fundamental problem remains. These businesses go through the same legacy payment networks, where they spend a lot of money settling payments — costs which they then pass on to customers.

The Pan-African Payment and Settlement System, or PAPSS, launched in Jan. 2022 with a goal of bringing existing payment systems together under one interoperable network. But it’s too early to tell through official metrics whether PAPSS has begun to deliver on its promise of saving African users more than $5 billion in annual transaction fees.

An employee uses a Nokia 1200 mobile phone inside an M-Pesa store in Nairobi, Kenya, on Sunday, April 14, 2013.

Trevor Snap | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Then there’s mobile money, which has been around since the early 2000s. Think of it like an electronic wallet tied to a phone number that does not require a smartphone or data to operate. Users can pay bills and shop with their phone through SMS texting, instead of having to rely on traditional banking options.

Africa’s mobile money transactions rose 39% to more than $700 billion in 2021, according to data from the GSM Association, a non-profit representing mobile network operators worldwide. World Bank data shows that account ownership at a financial institution — or via a mobile money service provider — has more than doubled in the last decade, rising to 55% of adults in Sub-Saharan Africa.

But even as adoption proliferates, mobile money users don’t get the perks of legacy banking, including earning interest on banked savings and building up a credit score based on a history of spending. Interoperability on the continent also remains a major issue with this alternative way of banking.

“The entire…

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