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The cryptocurrency startups trying to save Argentina from itself

By holding their money in “stable” cryptocurrency, Argentines might avoid the notorious volatility of their peso. First, though, they have to be persuaded.
Photograph of Buenos Aires
Photograph of Buenos AiresAndrea Leopardi / Unsplash

A 1988 hit by the Argentine rock band Soda Stereo gave Buenos Aires a nickname that still sticks today: “La Ciudad de la Furia,” or the City of Fury. The “fury” of Buenos Aires is evident in the uneven quality of everyday life here. It’s not uncommon for strikes and demonstrations to cause street closures, or for the power to fail on hot summer afternoons. Prices for food and goods vary—sometimes substantially—by neighborhood and locale.

The most pervasive problem is the weak economy and a currency that has been quickly losing its value. Could digital currency be the answer? It might seem unlikely, but in recent months, a series of colorful new advertisements have popped up in Buenos Aires subway tunnels, among the posters hawking travel packages, shoes, and food-delivery apps. “250,000 Argentines have already bought bitcoins with us,” reads one, written in cheerful block type and featuring a flying pig. The ad belongs to Ripio, one of several startups betting that the time is right for cryptocurrencies to go mainstream in Latin America. For many, Argentina’s unique economic situation means it could be the perfect place to establish a foothold.

After Argentina’s government defaulted on its debt in 2001, the country was left with a lingering distrust of banks. And recent months have seen another economic crisis, characterized by the peso’s falling to a record low against the US dollar. To protect their savings against such volatility, it’s common for Argentines to convert their pesos into dollars and guard them at home.

In theory, buying a stable digital currency instead could give Argentines a more convenient way to save than hoarding $100 bills under the mattress. That’s why cryptocurrencies, which are supposed to be controlled by decentralized computer networks instead of centralized institutions, might take hold. The Argentine government’s openness to blockchain projects has helped shape Buenos Aires into a hub for developers. But convincing everyday consumers to use cryptocurrencies will require user-friendly, trustworthy systems with clear advantages over the ubiquitous and familiar dollar.

Ripio is developing what it hopes are easy-to-use tools for buying, selling, trading, investing, and spending cryptocurrencies. While its name is likely new to many subway commuters, the six-year-old company, which was originally called BitPagos, is already a blockchain veteran. In 2017, BitPagos shifted its focus away from merchants to consumers and rebranded as Ripio. It now has 300,000 users in Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico (about 85% of them are in Argentina).

Today, Ripio offers users a cryptocurrency exchange and software “wallet” for storing their digital assets. It has also launched a service that uses so-called smart contracts, or blockchain-based computer programs that can be used to automate complicated financial transactions, to facilitate peer-to-peer lending. This service, which relies on the Ethereum blockchain, allows Argentines to get loans in local currency without having to pay high fees to a bank.

Ripio will soon unveil a new platform to combine these services and a few new ones alongside educational content like articles, videos, and tutorials. The service is meant to help Ripio users access “the new economy,” says Juan Mendez, the company’s chief brand officer. “We understand that the economy is changing, that banks are digitizing, and we want to be there in that moment to offer access, financing, and investment options,” he says. The company is betting that crypto-assets will play a role alongside more traditional financial services, and it wants to provide a central place to find all the options.

But while these front-end tweaks may make cryptocurrencies more appealing to the average consumer, that will be only part of the battle. Convincing everyday consumers in Argentina to trust a new form of money is much more than a technological problem. After all, cryptocurrencies are relatively difficult to understand and use. Most are also susceptible to wild and unpredictable price fluctuations.

A relatively new breed of digital coin may be addressing the volatility problem, however. Called “stablecoins,” these are designed to maintain the value of stable government-backed currencies like the US dollar. In November, Ripio added a stablecoin called Dai to its exchange and wallet, to go alongside Bitcoin and Ether. Developed by a foundation called MakerDAO, Dai uses complex mechanisms—based on smart contracts on the Ethereum blockchain—to stay pegged to the dollar. A few other exchanges in the region also offer Dai, the most notable of which is Buenbit.

An easy-to-use, digital version of the dollar might indeed be compelling to Argentines. Instead of going to buy dollars on the street to store at home, Ripio customers can now head to the nearest convenience store to load pesos into their wallet to buy Dai. Later on, they could even spend them online, using Ripio’s service to change them back into pesos and purchase items from the popular e-commerce site Mercado Libre.

Some people in Argentina have begun to use Dai, mostly to send remittances or store value. But MakerDAO and its adherents have a more elaborate vision: essentially, that “decentralized” banking could broaden access to financial services, not just in Argentina but all over the world.

photograph of a ripio billboard in the subway

Despite some Bitcoin ATMs scattered across town, however, there is little indication on the streets of Buenos Aires that a crypto-infused future will be here any time soon. Most merchants haven’t added cryptocurrency stickers to their storefront windows alongside those for Visa, Mastercard, and American Express. Paying with cash is still common, and many retailers offer discounts for doing so. Though it’s becoming more common for merchants to also accept QR code payments via a service called Mercado Pago, most still seem unfamiliar with the whole idea of accepting crypto payments.

And there’s a bigger question: Why should everyday Argentines trust cryptocurrency any more than they trust the volatile peso? In Argentina, 32% of people are estimated to be living under the poverty line as salaries fail to keep up with the peso’s annual inflation rate of more than 50%. Many simply can’t afford to risk their account getting hacked, or their digital coins suddenly cratering in value.

First, buying, selling, and spending Dai has to be “totally understandable” for Argentines, says Nadia Alvarez, MakerDAO’s business development associate for Latin America. “One big problem that we have now is that all the crypto solutions have been for the crypto nerds, for the techie people,” she says, noting that MakerDAO thinks a coin pegged to the dollar will be easier for the average person to understand than one that fluctuates in value.

It might be easier to understand, but Dai has at times struggled to maintain its peg, and critics have argued that the system may not be able to remain stable forever.

Consumers should be aware of the “very real risks” posed by investing in cryptocurrencies, says Simon Johnson, head of the global economics and management group at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. Today’s cryptocurrency systems haven’t proved themselves any less risky than the traditional financial system, even when it is flawed, he says. And operating a private system within a flawed governmental framework could make the difficulties worse. “There are no good options for saving within Argentina,” says Johnson. “You’re just facing risks on all sides.”

Ultimately, it’s still very early days for blockchains and cryptocurrency. Mainstream adoption, if it ever happens, won’t happen overnight—in Argentina or anywhere else. In the meantime, Ripio’s Mendez says, education is crucial. “I don’t think in this moment it would be intelligent to tell the people, ‘Well, cryptocurrencies have arrived—you have to buy cryptocurrencies,’” Mendez says. “It doesn’t work like that.”

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