NFTs Could Benefit Developing Nations the Most | Opinion

Non-fungible tokens (NFTs) appear to be the Western world's most ridiculous new plaything. When some are paying millions of dollars for pieces of digital art by previously unknown creators, we're right to be skeptical.

NFTs may be a money waster for some in the West, but they're a legitimate moneymaker for others everywhere else. They are opening up whole new revenue streams for anyone with an internet connection. In doing so, NFTs are giving millions a chance to finally compete fairly in an ever-evolving global economy.

NFT businesses don't rely on any raw material, manufacturing relationships, or international supply chains. With a computer, internet connection and some creativity, individuals can finally get paid fairly for their work. That's why NFTs have the power to radically transform labor markets and redistribute wealth fairly across the globe.

How NFTs could be used to improve the world and how they are being used today are two very different things. The cash-rich, stimulus-checked Western economy has been fueling some speculative bubbles over the past year, from the rise of the cryptocurrency Dogecoin to the Gamestop debacle. Christie's $69 million sale of an NFT by Beeple—a relatively unrecognized digital artist—appeared to follow this trend.

We must see the substance among the headlines. When excitement about a revolutionary technology meets unjustifiable prices, we can find the perfect breeding ground for a financial bubble. Yet we must remember, bubbles follow a trend; the importance of technological innovations becomes clearer when the intoxicating hype dies down. Those who dismissed internet companies in the late 1990s, and others who dismissed Bitcoin in 2017, have learned this lesson the hard way.

In the emerging markets of the global south, NFTs are shaking up labor markets and creating big business. Up until now the biggest barrier for entrepreneurs was cost—you might have invented the wheel but you still needed a factory to build it and someone to do the shipping. NFTs bypass this need; all you need to sell goods is an internet connection and a good idea.

One such example is Osinachi, who grew up in Nigeria with limited access to computers. Through sheer effort and creativity, he manipulated Microsoft Word in order to create original digital art. His work sold for more than $68,000 at a Christie's auction in October.

NFTs are facilitating wealth transfer to the masses, through play to earn models, where playing video games allows players to share revenues. One of the most popular games is Axie Infinity; it's telling that players from the Philippines and Venezuela make up 50 percent of the game's player base. Some players report earning $2,000 an hour, which is far above the average wage in Manilla or Caracas.

Crucially, those players are paid the same as someone logging in from New York or Paris—a leap forward for global equality and economic growth.

The last internet explosion saw places like India, Bangladesh and the Philippines become digital skills hotspots. Yet their location was exploited; many companies would simply outsource to countries like India because they're cheaper and not pay livable wages.

A mural is painted on a wall
A mural is painted on a wall during the North American Bitcoin Conference held at the James L Knight Center on Jan. 19, 2022, in Miami, Fla. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

NFTs on the other hand, are nation anonymous, using them allows one to get paid for participation, regardless of locale. Much like internet 2.0, NFTs could trigger a real redistribution of value and labor across the world, as geographical location fades further into irrelevance. This is particularly the case for simple, repeatable labor-driven tasks.

To achieve this, NFTs should be allowed to mature in the same way as e-commerce. When the first e-commerce transactions appeared, they emerged in shadier corners online, like adult entertainment. As e-commerce blossomed, it made spending money online easy and more trustworthy, causing the opportunities surrounding it to explode. NFTs and cryptocurrency seem to be following that same pattern. Those who survived the dot-com crash should look at where Amazon is now.

Just as India, Bangladesh and the Philippines embraced e-commerce, NFT related jobs in entertainment, policy, development and application could become a global leveler that changes labor markets around the world. No such shortage of jobs exist on LinkedIn for some South American, African and South Asian companies.

NFT technology could fundamentally change how cultural and financial value is exchanged across the world and in labor markets. When the noise from the NFT X-rays of William Shatner's teeth finally quietens down, the true value of NFT technology will make itself felt across the globe.

Nobody knows exactly how the future of NFTs will play out. Whatever the final direction, one thing is clear, they will change the relationship between customer and manufacturer and put many professional middlemen out of business. In the end, they will create new industries, not just new headlines.

While some may lose capital buying NFTs, those who are creating, selling and earning them across the globe have nothing to lose from their blockchains.

Joshua Jahani is a lecturer at Cornell University and New York University and an investment banker at Jahani & Associates. He has written for or contributed to Newsweek, BBC World News and The Independent.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.