Imagine watching with despair your home being destroyed, unwillingly placing the bare necessities in a small bag and slinging it hurriedly over your shoulder leaving the place that once represented safety and security for the unknown and uncertain. You set out on a life-threatening voyage across the ocean with nothing more than hope for a brighter future for you and your loved ones and suddenly find yourself in a foreign country, facing distrust of the new system where you are desperately trying to blend in.
You want to join the local labour force but are lacking the necessary paperwork that would allow for it. Without a permanent address, no bank will permit you to open an account; without a bank account, legally signing a job contract is not an option. You are stuck in a vicious cycle of rejection, ridicule and regret.
Committed to constructively addressing this ongoing struggle of many refugees, in 2016 Balázs Némethi, an architect by profession and social entrepreneur by design, founded Taqanu, a bank for refugees and people without a fixed address. He has been dedicating his energy, passion and resources to fuelling its vision and mission since.
In his native Hungary, talking about refugees is almost a political act against the government; the country has virtually no refugee support organizations. Living and working in a more socially responsible Norway at the time he wanted to help these people whose human rights were being violated. He was also curious about how one can open a bank account when they are a refugee and realized that it is a one-way street: they don’t.
We first met in September 2016 in the beautiful historic Greek capital of Athens at the annual European gathering of World Economic Forum’s Global Shapers and I was immediately inspired by his dedication to the project. A few weeks ago, Balázs who currently resides in Berlin agreed to sacrifice one of his lunch breaks to a skype call and talk to me about Taqanu, his aspirations and motivations.
- Could you walk me through the basics of Taqanu?
Taqanu is a word that comes from Akkadian, now an extinct East Semitic language spoken by Hammurabi, the sixth king of the First Babylonian Dynasty and author of the Code of Hammurabi, one of the earliest surviving codes of law in recorded history. It means ‘to be safe.’
Taqanu’s vision is to solve financial inclusion for disenfranchised people with an initial goal to serve refugees globally, to have one solution accessible anywhere and by anyone without dealing with the problem of needing a government ID to obtain banking services.
I started working on my own. I applied for an accelerator programme in Switzerland and my project got accepted. The most important part was to research the incendiary, understand the problem and the technology that would resolve it: blockchain.
- What were you doing prior to founding Taqanu and what motivated you to leave a permanent job and move to Berlin?
I was living in Norway and working as an architect. I moved to Berlin because Germany has the most open Know Your Customer (KYC) regulation and also because of its dense intake of refugees. They of course need a bank account but unfortunately, the way regulatory entities are set up this is not possible. There has been a regulatory change but banks have been unable or unwilling to serve the newcomers. Unless a shift in willingness of banks occurs, refugees won’t have access to their own bank accounts and as a result to jobs.
Here in Berlin, I have the opportunity to work with relevant organizations on the ground, steadily building a network in refugee circles and fostering connections with organizations that are working directly with refugees to sustain Taqanu’s market growth. Taqanu is now officially endorsed by the German Development Bank and is also part of a working group within the The German Federal Financial Supervisory Authority (BaFin) as a result of the support of Deloitte in Frankfurt.
- What have been the biggest challenges in the process of managing a financial intermediary?
As I have mentioned before, regulation is challenge number one. It is a steady but slow progress towards more flexibility. The second and an even bigger issue I dare say is, understandably, fundraising. The ratio of success is somewhere around 1:60 whereby one successful investor is gained after sixty encounters.
- What is Taqanu’s greatest achievement to date?
The greatest achievement has definitely been the official endorsement from the German Development Bank (KfW). This is something that no other start-up can show for itself because it has actually never happened before. I am especially proud of this because, historically speaking, the KfW was created within the Marshall Plan to rebuild Germany after the Second World War and is today one of seven biggest development banks in the world.
- What skills and experience gained in school and previous jobs have been the most valuable in your work at Taqanu?
As strange as it may sound, having studied architecture and worked in the field for some time has been extremely useful. It helps to be able to think of the larger picture while at the same time focus on the details without getting overwhelmed by the scale of it all.
- What does leadership mean to you?
Leadership is the capacity to not just show direction but also to move in that direction and to inspire others to go there with you.
- Do you see yourself as a leader or entrepreneur?
I don’t see myself as a leader yet. I do, however, think I am an entrepreneur. I may eventually fall into a situation where I have to act as a leader but more as a role that needs to be fulfilled. I realize I have a lot to learn still but I do have a strong enough willpower and other capacities that give me confidence in achieving my goals.
- What is the best aspect of having founded Taqanu?
The fact that there is a good chance of this idea taking off, that there is a noble goal behind my work. It is empowering to be the initiator but in the end it doesn’t matter if I am the founder of something unless it succeeds and makes an impact.
- What would you say to someone who has an idea for a project or an organization but is afraid of failure, humiliation, insecurity, uncertainty, instability, or lack of followers?
Do you believe this is actually something good? If the answer is no, don’t pursued it. The truth is that the amount of obstacles and hurdles you have to go through is unbearable unless you are overcoming them with passion that can only come from the strength of your belief in the idea itself. Without conviction, you will be the first one to quit. If you believe that what you want to do is going to be awesome, make it happen! If you can make something even 70%, do it because it is a lot more than 0%; then do the fine tuning as you go.
- What is your favourite quote?
Definitely this one passage from the book “The subtle art of not giving a f..k” by Mark Manson: “It is not about giving a f..k about everything your partner gives a f..k about; it’s about giving a f..k about your partner regardless of the f…s he/she gives. That’s unconditional love, baby.”
And on a more serious note, Albert Einstein is a true inspiration: