Two entrepreneurs, time zones apart, are working on building cutting-edge blockchain tech and communities in a big office they call the world.
Typical of the times we are in and the digital industry they promote, these two entrepreneurs work closely together, but in separate time zones.
Their work? Creating an open-source blockchain that will change the way we purchase and use digital assets.
We meet Riccardo Spagni in Johannesburg at 6.30 on a cold Johannesburg evening. Spagni, dressed in a pink t-shirt with an imprint of a pony on it, in his Woodlands office, is the lead maintainer of the Monero project. Dialing in for this meeting is his colleague and co-founder, Naveen Jain, who is based in Oakland, California.
This is an everyday mode of communication, in building their open-source blockchain protocol to help businesses and people manage, transfer and use digital assets. And they’ve called it Tari. For the uninitiated, the open-source model is a decentralized software-development model that encourages open collaboration.
“I like to see myself as the Elon Musk of South Africa, because I’m from South Africa as well,” says Spagni.
He has had a knack for cryptocurrencies ever since 2011 when he found himself mining around in the ecosystem. In 2013, he founded Monero, which provides increased privacy through encryption of transactional information by using robust and recent encryption tools available to safeguard investments. It basically protects any transaction by offering parties absolute anonymity.
Jain got involved in Monero as a miner and also fell in love with cryptocurrencies.
“So when Naveen said to me ‘wouldn’t it be cool to like put natively digital assets on a blockchain’, I was like ‘hmm why’,” recalls Spagni.
Through research and understanding the advantages, Spagni changed his mind.
“I came to realize there was nothing in the market that fit the needs for a highly-scalable and highly- robust native digital assets protocol. So that’s basically what we set out to build,” he tells FORBES AFRICA.
The Tari project will exist to allow companies transfer assets such as loyalty points, gaming points and tickets from one platform or user to another without losing value.
“The people issuing loyalty points remain the people issuing loyalty points. And the people writing games remain the people writing games. We are not disrupting any of that. What we are disrupting is them having to provide all that infrastructure on the backend for the issuing of their natively digital assets,” says Spagni.
The team already has investors backing them but they are working two years ahead of the actual launch.
“The real secret of sophisticated software systems is it takes long to build over time…We are doing something that hasn’t been done before, so we are not expecting this to be a walk in the park and our real mission right now is to build the best team in the world that wants to overcome the challenges along the way,” says Jain, on the call from California.
They aim to build a global team able to contribute and work on the project with them, which is one of the stages they are currently at.
“From our point of view, blockchain systems are global systems, they are not geographically focused in any way, shape or form, the network is a global network and so it’s very important that we take a global perspective from the beginning of the project,” says Jain.
Their key focus recruiting contributors has been in Johannesburg.
“There’s an incredible wealth of untapped talent in South Africa,” offers Spagni.
There’s a huge opportunity to bridge the gap and create a Tari lab in Johannesburg where developers can come and work on cutting-edge blockchain tech.
But the developers in Johannesburg will only be a segment of the team. The rest would be scattered around the world creating not only an ecosystem of blockchain but an ecosystem of a working community through online interactions.
“It’s weird because there are people all over the world and there are tons of people in this space that I respect and they are scattered all over the globe so we are constantly talking. It’s like being in a big office with some of the brightest minds on the planet,” says Spagni.
“Sharp people like to work with other sharp people and when you are exposed to that global community of people who are all throwing in and developing this open-source software that’s pretty amazing,” he adds.
One of the biggest industries the team aims to tap into is the gaming industry worth $10.3 billion in the United States alone.
Usually users would buy a game, play it and accumulate points. Once they get bored of the game, they play another and the points they accumulated in the first game goes to waste. But with Tari, the user would be able to transfer their end-game wealth into another game.
“Then nothing is ever wasted and they don’t have to build up infrastructure in one game to abandon it. So that excites me a lot,” says Spagni.
Similar to Bitcoin, Tari’s software will be open-source as well, meaning anyone would be able to have access to it. Jain believes this will allow them to gain the trust of users and businesses.
“The most powerful mode you can build is community so if you have a large group of people that are philosophically and ideologically aligned with your mission, and then you don’t really need to keep the software itself under lock and key,” he elaborates.
“You can open-source it with a highly permissible licence. Because anyone can use it and what it does is it creates trust. I think we’re in a new world.”
Although to some businesses, this may be a problem as they choose to keep their intellectual property, open-source is seen as a disruptor many have an appetite for.
A survey done by Black Duck Software and North Bridge in 2015 found that 78% of companies run on open source. What may have sounded as crazy a few years ago for businesses to put out their data has now became the norm. They found that open-source systems are critical to reducing potential security, legal, and operational risks while allowing companies to reap full benefits.
“To actually create this kind of a system, to earn people’s trust, that’s just a huge challenge and tremendous amounts of fun. I wake up every day, really excited about this incredible opportunity that we have within the Tari community to pull this off and make it happen,” says Jain, before ending yet another call to his colleague in Johannesburg and beginning yet another day of building an open-source world.
The Bolt And The Beautiful
From cheers on the track and field to cheers of a different kind, Jamaican sprinting champion Usain Bolt was in South Africa recently to launch his signature champagne.
Widely considered the world’s fastest man, Usain Bolt, the nine-time Olympic gold medalist who has broken records, is now breaking new ground in the business world.
He was in South Africa in January to launch a limited edition champagne in collaboration with champagne producer G.H. Mumm.
Having graced some of the world’s biggest Olympic stadiums, the retired Jamaican sprinter was at the swanky The Maslow hotel in Johannesburg, promoting the pink bubbly as it poured endlessly into fluted glasses.
As the $45 Mumm Olympe Rosé bottle was being passed around, all attention was on the world champion.
“In Jamaica, we do this naturally; we mix cognac with champagne, and it’s something I enjoy. So when we sat down in the first meeting and we were trying to figure out what direction we wanted to go with for the bottle and with the drink, I mentioned it and asked ‘is it possible?’ and they said ‘yes’. So for me, that was something I was happy about. When you taste it, you’ll taste the cognac and together it’s very nice, trust me,” Bolt tells FORBES AFRICA, aptly marketing his product.
The A-list sports star poses with two bottles, symbolic of the two years it took to create what he calls a premium drink.
G. H. Mumm’s Senior Global Brand Manager, Etienne Cassuto, says collaborations of this magnitude have to be a reflection of authenticity and teamwork.
“This is not something we created and said ‘great, put your name on it, sign it and we sell it’; he created this wine with us and that is why it is something that is truly collaborative and that is where some brands get it wrong,” he says.
“It took a long time to really get to know Usain Bolt… as an athlete, as someone who has broken records and who has surpassed everything in life to get to where he is today. This desire to partner with Usain Bolt, who is now a retired athlete but still pushing the limit to what he can achieve and really daring himself to go beyond to find his next victory… that is why since 2016, we have been collaborating to try and understand how we can build something in common.”
Bolt, who retired from athletics in 2017, has since pursued a career in football; he decided to hang up his boots in 2018.
His short-lived football career saw him play for Central Coast Mariners, and train in South Africa with Mamelodi Sundowns F.C.
The Olympic sprint champion says athletes should focus on building a brand beyond the track.
“In sports, I was always trying to be the best and do things that have never been done before, it is the same thing in business. You have to find things that no one has done before… As athletes, you should focus on trying to build your brand. Try to work hard and try to develop a personality.
“I think I get sponsorships because I have a personality. I am different, and I stand out. Develop a personality, a brand that people know, this is Bolt, this is Simbine, this is Wayde. I always tell Wayde ‘it is good to be fast and to be great, but if you want to build your brand you have to show your personality’. People will want you to be a part of their brand’,” he tells us.
Akani Simbine and Wayde van Niekerk are South African athletes.
And Bolt loves South Africa. “When they called and told me we are launching in South Africa, I was happy. Last year, I had so much fun. The energy was different. It felt like home because this is the only place I have been to that I have danced so much. In Jamaica, we dance a lot, but in Africa, you guys dance. A lot!” he says joyfully.
The whole vibe is that of celebration.
“Africa is an exciting market for champagne. African consumers want more premium goods; they want to really discover new things, new products, new categories and they want to spend a little more to discover high-quality products, whether it is luxury or premium goods,” adds Cassuto.
South Africa’s affluent market is no different, and Bolt attests to that – the man fast on the track and faster with his soundbites.
This Bioengineering Startup Just Raised $90 Million To Make Your Veggie Burger Taste Better
One of the ag tech world’s few unicorns is spinning off a new food ingredients company called Motif Ingredients with a $90 million Series A.
Motif will leverage intellectual property and facilities from its parent company Ginkgo Bioworks, which was last valued in 2017 at $1.38 billion, when it raised a $275 million Series D. Gingko is known for the ability to rapidly produce DNA for applications from microbes that replace fertilizer to ones that produce perfume fragrances.
At Motif, that technology will be inserted into yeast cells. The yeast is then fermented, as in beer brewing, except that instead of producing alcohol, the yeast creates whatever by-product Motif’s customers want.
These ingredients can be customized to mimic flavors or textures similar to those found in protein products like beef and dairy—a potential game-changer for the budding industry of plant-based foods, which has seen everything from burgers to cheese alternatives gain popularity in recent years.
READ MORE | The Foodies With A Drive For Business
Take Impossible Foods, backed by top investors from Bill Gates to GV. Its soy-and-vegetable-based burger still bleeds like the traditional beef version because of an added ingredient called heme, a molecule found in nearly all living plants and animals.
Impossible’s products rely on this ingredient, which is hard to source. But, as Jason Kelly, Ginkgo Bioworks cofounder and CEO says, Impossible doesn’t manufacture its own heme in-house. And that’s where labs like Motif come in.
“Instead of making another Impossible, we’ll be an ingredient supplier. We’ll supply the Impossible nugget or the egg-free whatever. There are many people who have branding and food development expertise who’d love to make new products in this space, but only a handful have the funding to do,” says Kelly.
“We’re focused on what you’d add to the existing supply chain to make it better. All these companies need it to make a veggie fish stick that tastes good.”
Motif investors include Breakthrough Energy Ventures, Louis Dreyfus Cos., Fonterra and Viking Global Investors.
Ginkgo Bioworks was first founded in 2008, based largely on research developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology by scientist Tom Knight, one of the company’s cofounders who came to biology after decades of work as a computer scientist. Knight’s philosophy of synthetic biology is to treat it as akin to computer programming, and Kelly sees his company as being a biological programmer.
“We’re like app developers writing a microbial app,” he said. “And our customers come to us and say, ‘Hey can you make me an app that does this?’”
This is Ginkgo’s second spin-off. In 2017, Ginkgo formed a joint venture with Bayer called Joyn Bio, which leverages the company’s assets and IP to create microbes that can replace or supplement fertilizer for different crops.
That company kicked off with a $100 million Series A round with investments from its parent companies and Viking Global Investors LP.
Similarly, Kelly sees Motif as a company that will operate in the same way for food ingredients, and he expects that as Ginkgo grows, it will spin out others. “We want to keep, in many, many verticals, popping business up that have access to our platform and ask for specs in different markets.”
-Chloe Sorvino and Alex Knapp; Forbes Staff
Handcrafted In A Cottage, Bottled For The Globe
The sisters had no idea their love for healthy food would catapult them into the international food market.
Siblings and foodies Mosibudi Makgato and Rosemary Padi grew up in a yard filled with fruits and vegetables in South Africa and with a mother who could rustle up any healthy dish using produce from the garden.
It was only natural that they started a catering business as a hobby in 2003.
The growing interest from customers drove the business to become a success until recession hit in 2008. The demand for catering decreased because people had less money to spend. However, the wedding season would always bring more customers for the sisters.
That avenue led to the birth of an idea – to develop an authentic South African drink known in some black communities as gemmer, which is commonly known as ginger beer.
“We catered at a wedding and guests kept saying it would be nice to have gemmer. We did the gemmer and people were raving about it more than the food. From the response we got, we thought this would be a nice way to push it into the industry,” Makgato recalls.
With the help and advice of their mother, the sisters did numerous tests and were impressed with the 18-day shelf life of their product. The pair decided to introduce the beverage at a contact’s shop that sold scones – Vero’s Cakes in the north of Johannesburg.
“Gemmer and scones go well together,” 37-year-old Makgato says.
Business was initially slow. They would deliver bottles at the Vero’s Cake store and two weeks later, the spoiled drinks would have to be replaced because they were not sold. This led to them hosting tastings for market research. As a result, they were able to establish that some people had bad experiences with gemmer in their childhood.
The duo went back to the drawing board, and worked on changing the perceptions of people and assuring them that they don’t use yeast in their product compared to the traditional way of making the drink. This was a healthier alternative and it was African, which meant it did not contain preservatives, Makgato says.
“We would set up a table, put cups, serve people at weddings and funerals and have conversations about gemmer with guests or attendees. We would invite ourselves to women’s gatherings, ask to be guest speakers and educate people about food, in general, because we are from a green-fingered family.”
In 2010, the sisters left catering completely to focus on the beloved South African drink. They registered their company as Yamama Gemmer after they had mastered their mother’s lessons on how to brew gemmer.
In just two years, people bought bottles without questioning and business was growing. They made enough money to buy their own double-door fridge instead of using the one at Vero’s.
The business finally had assets, at this time, Makgato and Padi were producing from a cottage in Randpark Ridge, about 33kms north of Johannesburg’s Central Business District. The cottage was once a storage facility and kitchen. Now, it has evolved into a factory filled with gas stoves and pots leftover from the catering business.
“In 2013, things were becoming busy; I would always have stock with me, I would go to functions and sell from the boot of my car, and would have to meet people who wanted to buy at petrol stations. People were talking about it. Gemmer was becoming a thing. In 2014, Rosemary left her high-paying position in banking to do gemmer,” Makgato says.
While Padi focused more on the business, it boomed further and they moved to certified premises, with a full-time employee at the store.
“When customers come in, I explain everything about gemmer. Customers are very happy, especially after the first introduction to it, even those that know ginger beer are happy with our product,” says Lynette Seleke, who has been working for the sisters for two years now.
The sister duo has also established distribution channels, reselling throughout Gauteng. Managing stock at Vero’s Cakes was becoming a challenge, so they opened a store in the same area in 2016, located not far from a restaurant selling African cuisine.
“Every year, we almost double the previous year’s turnover since 2016,” Makgato says.
Yamama Gemme has catered at a number of international events in South Africa like the Sanlam Handmade Contemporary Fair, the Delicious International Food and Music Festival, and they also had a stall at the popular Neighbourgoods Market.
The appeal is in their presentation. They infuse the drink with fruits and herbs and sometimes encourage people to have it with gin or rum, turning the drink into a cocktail.
“We guarantee that you will not have a hangover because ginger beer is a rehydrate. When you have a hangover, it’s because you are dehydrated, gemmer pulls those fluids that you were missing in your body, that’s why athletes love gemmer,” she says.
Padi adds: “Over the years, the demand has morphed to include a ready-to-drink bottle.” The two have since shown interest in the international market and have rebranded, as they have qualified to export globally. They could well be on their way to becoming known as the ginger beer baronesses of Soweto.
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