Leaf Global: from mobile wallet to refugee-generated NFTs

The internet has democratized the art industry for both collectors and creators, shifting the power from the few to the many. The “many” now includes Leaf Wallet users in East Africa. Leaf launched one of the first ever NFT collections of impact art generated by refugees in November 2021. We have partnered with current Leaf users in Rwanda, introduced them to the concept of NFTs, and have assisted in the listing, marketing, and facilitation of payments directly into their Leaf Wallets. We seek to empower the artists and interfere in the process as little as possible, allowing the artists to use the tools of their choice and create art based on their lives and the world around them.

Background

The Leaf Wallet is an individual, multi-currency Stellar wallet in which users can send, receive, exchange, and store fiat-backed stablecoins for Kenyan Shillings, Ugandan Shillings, and Rwandan Francs (more currencies coming soon). Leaf is integrated with local payments systems as onramps and offramps so that users can transact even with people who do not have Leaf accounts. Leaf enables historically marginalized populations to access critical financial tools from any mobile phone–even non-smartphones.

Many of Leaf’s users are grassroots entrepreneurs who need a financial boost to help them get started or accelerate growth. A successful art sale creates that opportunity by providing the necessary capital to start or expand their business. Other Leaf users are the providers for their families and often support many additional community members. As global funding streams for refugees become thinner, especially for those in long-term displacement circumstances, alternative methods to increase self-reliance are required.

Through the process of receiving a grant through the Stellar Community Fund (SCF), the Leaf team became familiar with Litemint, a fellow SCF winner and the first digital collectibles and NFT marketplace on Stellar. This posed an opportunity to leverage Leaf users’ artistic abilities, the existing Leaf Wallet infrastructure for payments, and this Stellar-based marketplace.

Process

The first NFT sale was intended to be an experiment and a learning experience. Many Leaf users live in offline environments in East Africa and do not have smartphones. The first piece of the process was to effectively communicate to potential artists what an NFT is, how they are perceived, and the proven upside of the market. After understanding the concept, Leaf offered a contract to each artist in order to govern the process and protect the artist’s interests. The next step was to ensure that potential artists had access to the resources necessary to create digital assets. The Leaf team then had to identify potential NFT marketplaces and drive potential buyers to the NFT marketplace. Finally, we had to determine the most direct and transparent means of routing payments back to the artists’ Leaf Wallets in Rwanda, accounting for being paid in an external asset and exchanging the purchasing currency for Leaf’s semi-closed stablecoins. We look forward to exploring additional methods of overcoming these hurdles in the future to make the process as simple and transparent as possible for artists, buyers, and other interested parties.

For the pilot, we worked with two artists in Rwanda. Jean Bosco and Christian were both eager to seize the opportunity after the Leaf team explained the concept of NFTs and the recent success of artists around the world. Their digital creations reflect both their individual interests and Rwandan culture. Jean Bosco’s work is greatly influenced by animals. His first piece, Playful Kitten, shows a small black cat gently playing with a human hand. “I am a great fan of animals, such that I can’t spend any single day without thinking about them,” he said of the inspiration behind the piece.

Christian’s art has a broader scope but also strategically incorporates animals in its subject matter, though less playfully. His top selling piece in the first round was a crocodile with its jaws open, ready to snap. In Christian’s words, “Crocodiles attract tourists from all over the world, so I thought they would be appealing in digital art form too.” He also created Rwandan Drummer that shows a man in traditional attire, a reflection of the culture and the joy that music brings to the people of Rwanda.

The two artists created 13 pieces, which Leaf then listed and marketed. Leaf’s CTO, Tori Samples, announced the refugee-generated collection while presenting at the Stellar Meridian Conference, .

Results

In tandem with the collection announcement, we opened three-day auctions on each piece. All of the 13 pieces sold in 72 hours to 12 unique buyers. The average sale price per piece was 98.5 XLM (~$33.45 USD at the time of sale), for a total of 1,281 XLM (~$435.54 USD). Leaf retained a portion of the funds to cover associated listing fees and costs. The rest was deposited into each artist’s Leaf Wallet in their preferred local currency, using Leaf’s stablecoins. The inherent transparency of the blockchain lets the artists, art collectors, and the broader Stellar community ensure the funds are properly distributed to the user. All transactions are pseudo-anonymous and can be tracked here.

We look forward to refining this process as the model becomes more efficient and we can automate payments (the first round was delivered manually in batch mode after the auctions completed). Leaf’s stablecoin assets require authorization and can only be held by KYC-checked Leaf users. This NFT experiment marked the first time we have facilitated an exchange with an external asset, showing the potential of opening the system and creating new currency markets. Users continue to transact in currencies they already know and trust. Meanwhile, Leaf can open the door to other assets as feeders into the system, generating more value and adding flexibility.

After learning the results of the auction Jean Bosco told us, “I feel excited to create more pieces since I have been convinced the new project has potential to significantly impact the lives of refugees.”

Through this process, Leaf connected artists in East Africa to a global, digital marketplace and to the broader Stellar community, allowing people from around the world to support our users and their work. The purchase of all pieces resulted in direct support to African refugees. From introducing the concept to distributing payment, the process was experimental but holds great potential for the future. The reception from the community and the commitment of the artists have opened the door, showing the opportunity of impact art.

Screenshot of pieces within Leaf’s Refugee-Generated collection

Transaction flow

For the first experiment, Leaf concentrated on utility. The process below does not necessarily represent the final methodology or what we hope to continue in the future. While it was mostly manual, it was functional and got the artists paid (the most important outcome).

In the future, we would like to automate payments and increase transparency throughout the bid →buy →pay process. We would also like to provide ways for buyers to stay in touch with Leaf and connect directly to the artist if desired. Reach out if you have suggestions on either of these or ideas for how to improve the process generally!

How Leaf helps

Cryptocurrency exchanges remain inaccessible to Leaf’s user base from a legal and technical standpoint due to local regulation, low connectivity, and complex user experiences. For a population that typically requires immediately accessible funds, a lack of onramps and offramps renders profits in XLM or any cryptocurrency practically valueless. Leaf was designed to meet users in their technological context. With a simple mobile app UI and basic phone accessibility, users do not have to understand, nor be aware of, the blockchain or digital asset components of Leaf services. Wallet balances and transactions occur in local currencies (stablecoins) that are 100% fiat-backed and 1:1 fiat-pegged, allowing users to save and transact in currencies that they know and trust. In essence, Leaf allows users to tap into the upside presented by digital assets and NFT markets without having to enter into the complex experience usually associated with these technologies.

Next drop

Many more Leaf users are now interested in selling their art as a direct result of the success of the initial NFT offering. Word has spread in various communities, including refugee camps, rural areas, and urban communities. We have received new pieces of art from the original creators and new artists. Each piece is unique, created by hand, and is often made in offline environments. None of the artists have prior exposure to NFTs, leaving them to make the process their own. The community is excited to show their talents while potentially earning life changing income.

We are quickly moving to a “train-the-trainer” model and have sponsored Jean Bosco, one of the original artists, to work with nine additional artists in the Mahama Refugee Camp in Rwanda. Many of the residents of the camp are highly skilled creatives and experienced artists. Jean Bosco is introducing them to the concept of NFTs and digital art. The final collection will be a mix of digitized physical art and natively digital art to represent a breadth of styles and skills.

Our goal is to keep the process experimental. We have created a new Litemint collection for non-refugee customers on the border of Rwanda and DR Congo in order to test market demand without a dedicated impact angle (though the funds will absolutely be high-impact in these environments). Separately, Leaf is working with The JPEG DAO on a refugee collection to be distributed to its community members. With this model, artists can be paid upfront and there is a chance to create a community around the pieces. Leaf will likely still facilitate payments while greatly benefiting from the DAO’s expertise on NFT curation, marketing, and community engagement. Collaborations like this help maximize the impact and visibility of Leaf artists’ work. Be on the lookout for more Leaf pieces and for other ways to get involved. We welcome artists, collectors, devs, and general supporters to come alongside and join our efforts.

Jean Bosco training artists in a refugee camp on the NFT process

How to participate

Physical piece created by a Leaf artist that may be turned into an NFT

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The leading provider of cross-border financial services in East Africa and beyond. Built for migrants, traders, and you. No smartphone required.

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Leaf Global Fintech

The leading provider of cross-border financial services in East Africa and beyond. Built for migrants, traders, and you. No smartphone required.