An Interview With Rene Reinsberg: On EthDenver, Regenerative Finance, and Celo Ecosystem Growthby@terezabizkova
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An Interview With Rene Reinsberg: On EthDenver, Regenerative Finance, and Celo Ecosystem Growth

by Tereza BízkováMarch 7th, 2024
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At EthDenver, which attracted attendees from over 120 countries, Rene Reinsberg, co-founder of Celo and President of the Celo Foundation, discussed the platform's evolution to Ethereum Layer 2, its dedication to regenerative finance, and its efforts in promoting financial inclusion and climate action. Reinsberg expressed excitement about the fresh perspectives at the event and outlined Celo's ambition to integrate its unique features, such as low transaction fees and community currencies, into the broader Ethereum ecosystem, thereby enhancing its social impact and contribution to the blockchain community.
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At the buzzing EthDenver, which attracted over 20,000 attendees from 120+ countries, I had the pleasure of speaking to Rene Reinsberg, the co-founder of Celo and President of the Celo Foundation. We delved into the latest advancements at Celo, notably its ongoing transition from an EVM-compatible Layer 1 to an Ethereum Layer 2.

Celo is recognized for its initiatives that extend beyond technology, such as empowering builders in the Global South and contributing to regenerative finance (ReFi) projects, which reflect its broader mission for social impact within the blockchain ecosystem. This is what we talked about.

Rene, we’re at EthDenver! How are you feeling?

The energy is fantastic. What I really enjoy about events, and I find this particularly true in Denver, is the random encounters. I make it a point not to schedule my day too tightly so I can spend time at the booth and meet builders who come up to say hello. That's always a highlight.

I've seen a lot of newcomers here this year who are just coming into the Web3 space. At some of the conferences last year, it felt like we saw the same group of people sticking it out through the bear market. Now, there seems to be a new wave of builders bringing fresh ideas, which is exciting!

Do you see the narratives around blockchain and impact evolving, too?

Absolutely! There are two main directions: enhancing existing solutions within the traditional financial (TradFi) system and introducing entirely new ideas.

So, first, with real-world assets (RWAs) and tokenized on-chain assets, many innovations that might have seemed more hypothetical a few years ago are now feasible. For example, one idea is to create a better market infrastructure to fund carbon removal projects.

Web3 is great for this because it's transparent and leverages decentralized markets. It's somewhat similar to traditional infrastructure but also improves upon it.

Then, some ideas look not just at replicating existing systems but also trying something completely new. For instance, Celo uses a portion of transaction fees for positive climate action.

This concept, which we call “Ultragreen Money,” wasn’t possible before web3. Now, we can build positive climate action into each transaction on the network.

How has everything been going for Celo since its announcement to transition to layer two on Ethereum?

This was a proposal that the core team at cLabs put forward last summer, and it was met with huge excitement—more than anyone had anticipated. It was discussed within the community over the years, but it finally became feasible for Celo to retain its unique benefits like low transaction fees, which are crucial for micropayments, and to support the use cases we have on Celo, such as community currencies and credit.

It’s a great chance to bring the “magic of Celo” to the broader Ethereum ecosystem and be a much more active collaborator and contributor. Many of our projects either originate from the Ethereum community or align closely with its values, so there's a lot of enthusiasm for bringing these worlds closer together.

On top of that, I see Celo as an engine for integrating more users, particularly mobile users, into the Ethereum ecosystem and introducing them to web3. It has been a win for both parties and an incredibly fun journey!

Could you share some strategies Celo employs to foster financial inclusion globally?

Absolutely! The first step is creating accessible infrastructure, aiming for a world where everyone can easily access a web3 wallet on their phone without using much bandwidth. The goal is to enable easy cash-in and cash-out options to local currencies through mobile money or preferred methods, ideally at no cost.

This foundational infrastructure is vital for enabling various use cases on top of Celo and has been a core focus not only for the team at the Celo Foundation but for the entire ecosystem.

There's still much work to be done with on- and off-ramping, which is a massive undertaking. But it’s very encouraging to see around 100 projects across the globe all contributing different pieces of the puzzle. From companies facilitating mobile money onramps in the Philippines to those working on local stablecoins (e.g., Mento), these efforts are crucial for providing the basic infrastructure, ideally on mobile and with low fees, like the tenths of a cent seen on Celo.

What's happening now is people recognizing this infrastructure, realizing they can launch microcredit protocols, provide loans in local currency thanks to local currency stablecoins, and so on. This can be connected to the global financial system, still largely dominated by dollar stablecoins, through a series of DeFi primitives that facilitate this end-to-end flow.

For example, a financial institution in the US or Europe could deploy capital that becomes a loan in local currency in someone's noncustodial wallet—a concept we could only dream of a few years back, but it's now becoming a reality.

The challenge ahead is scaling this from thousands of businesses and hundreds of thousands of individuals to millions or even billions. Each transaction carries the potential for positive climate action—almost seamless for the user.

This regenerative aspect is something we're keen to amplify as the platform grows, and I believe it will soon be reflected in the data showing the significant impact of transactions on Celo across various use cases like commerce, payments, and lending.

Regenerative finance had its moment last year, but then people moved on to other shiny things. I think it’s going to come back, though, not just because it’s a great concept but because we’re starting to see real results.

Celo is currently at 6,445 tons of CO2 offsets, and with more economic activity in our network, that number could grow significantly. We can now really tap into the collective power of web3, where everyone can participate and work together on these big, important goals.

So, how else does Celo measure its success in terms of impact?

Ultimately, a chain's success boils down to the economic activity it facilitates, which is a function of the transactions being processed. But it’s also about how the overall economic activity aligns with the use cases we value.

We're particularly thrilled about use cases like microcredit protocols, but at the end of the day, Celo is permissionless, so anyone can build anything. And even a game on Celo can have a positive impact.

But I do see our focus evolving. We're here at the EthDenver BUIDLathon, and we run our own virtual “Build With Celo” hackathons. Often, someone will come up and say, “I really want to build this thing, but I'm missing this piece or that.”

This then leads to a conversation around, “Okay, maybe we know someone who can help with this, or we can connect the dots and make some of these things happen faster.”

So, can we empower the ecosystem to build what they want to build? That’s our key measure of success.

I’m based in Colombia, where the Celo community is huge! You've done a great job establishing a presence in some of the emerging economies. What has that been like?

Colombia is a prime example! There's currently a proposal for a Colombian peso stablecoin in the forum. Just yesterday, I was talking to Juan, a community member here, who was explaining how this could unlock a lot of local activity, especially in terms of credit, since people are looking to take out loans in their local currency.

There's also Roda, a credit protocol on Celo in Colombia that's quite impactful. It's facilitating loans for individuals to finance motorbikes, enabling them to generate income as Rappi delivery drivers.

At the end of the day, it's all about engaging with community members and understanding their needs to unlock further growth. Starting small and iterating is key, but eventually, you encounter certain barriers at the ecosystem level. Overcoming these can significantly scale the impact and take things to a much larger scale.

That's beautiful! On a personal note, what are you most proud of with Celo?

Honestly, getting into web3, it’s tough to fully grasp the power of open collaboration. We knew we wanted to create an open, permissionless infrastructure for others to explore and collaborate with us. But it's not something you can just plan out. You can't say, “We're going to launch a protocol and then expect thousands of builders to come and do their thing.” It just doesn't work like that.

Looking back six, seven years ago, if you had asked me what Celo would look like in 2024, I would have significantly underestimated the variety of products and their impact because I would have based my assumptions on what a single company could achieve. So, I'm most proud of the rich ecosystem that has emerged, filled with ideas, some of which I wasn't even aware of, but all made possible by Celo.

If I had to highlight a more recent example, it would be Opera’s MiniPay. They've done an incredible job and developed this product in-house, integrating a wallet into the browser that requires very low bandwidth.

It's really easy to use—you don't need to know anything about crypto. What I'm most proud of is that it was enabled by a series of ecosystem projects that, over the last few years, have created the conditions for this product to exist.

This is partly due to Celo's distinct features. For example, gas abstraction allows gas fees to be paid in stablecoins, simplifying transactions.

Tools like SocialConnect and FiatConnect let users send payments to phone numbers in a secure, trustless way, streamlining the process of entering and exiting the markets where Opera is active.

So, it's fair to say Minipay benefits from the collective efforts of the entire ecosystem, standing on the shoulders of what might be considered “tiny giants.”

This is exciting because, in the spirit of web3, each successful product not only stands on its own but also elevates other products or protocols it's integrated with. Minipay’s growing popularity has had a ripple effect, significantly boosting engagement with some OG Celo protocols, such as impactMarket, which has seen a huge inflow of new users.

Looking into the future, what are you most excited about?

I would come back to web3 as a toolkit for mass coordination, particularly around some pressing problems like financial inclusion and climate change. But its potential extends to many other areas.

For example, people in the ecosystem are now thinking about decentralized science (DeSci). Imagine if millions of people are connected through a wallet in a certain country. Could you leverage that to bootstrap development funding for a drug specific to that community?

Big pharma today might ignore this because it is a small market or is not worth the investment. The infrastructure is there, and it enables a whole set of new use cases far beyond what we could ever imagine.

So, in short, I’m excited about the things I don’t know yet. Every day, every week, every step we take, we get further along in having an infrastructure that is just so widely useful for coordinating people around these issues that would otherwise be hard to solve.