State of ZEC adoption

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views of my employer, ECC. Also, all of this is intended for education and dialogue – none of this is financial advice.

Introduction

The purpose of this post, and the ones I plan to follow-on with, are to provide my perspective on the state of the Zcash project, challenges and roadblocks, as well as thoughts on various paths forward. I intend to be forthright and candid with the perspective and opinions I express.

For those that don’t know me, I currently work as the SVP of Growth for the Electric Coin Company, creators and supporters of Zcash. I joined the company in March of 2018 and have been either directly responsible for, or led the team that included alliances, global regulatory relations, US policy, product strategy, product marketing, growth, and digital.

Prior to ECC, I was the CEO and an owner at Aspenware (exit to Aspen Skiing Company and Alterra), the SVP of Global Marketing for VC-backed K2 (exit to Francisco Partners), a global practice principle for the Interlink Group (exits to EMC and TPG), and co-founder and VP of software development for 3t Systems. I cut my teeth as a C++ and COBOL developer, building customer care and billing systems for telecom providers. My interest in privacy protections came mid-career, after building intelligence and surveillance systems for government and commercial use, and then witnessing the implications.

Based on my history at ECC and prior experience, I have unique insight into various happenings and implications that don’t always make it out into the public. Even if the opinions I express here are not shared by everyone, I hope the community finds them informative and useful. Please bear in mind that the opinions expressed here are mine alone. Any errors and oversights, are my errors and oversights.

Topics I might explore over time include the state of Zcash user adoption, development, governance, access and support, liquidity, regulation and policy, off-chain digital trends, and potential considerations as we the community determine our collective path forward.

This first post focuses on the state of adoption through the lens of on-chain activity.

State of ZEC Adoption

For many of us, the conclusions reached in this post have been intuited and often discussed. What I hope to do here, is provide data to support these intuitions and set a baseline for future discussion and measurement of progress.

ZEC has a constrained supply of 21M and an inflation schedule that mirrors Bitcoin. As such, the price of ZEC is the cleanest indicator of market adoption. If more people are using ZEC more often, the price will naturally go up as demand increases. If more people are storing ZEC for future use, the price will naturally go up as the available supply decreases.

Let’s look at the history of price as well as the underlying primary use cases (outside of speculation): store of value and medium of exchange.

The following chart shows the daily closing price of ZEC in US Dollars since the beginning of 2017.


Source: CoinMetrics

The price is somewhat correlated to the broader crypto market, where price drops during crypto bear markets, and then tends to rise with the rest of the market. No surprise there.

I believe the price relative to Bitcoin (BTC) is a better signal for ZEC market sentiment, especially given the current overlap of use cases and Zcash as a “better Bitcoin” thanks to its privacy option, encrypted memo and pace of innovation.

The following chart shows the closing price of ZEC relative to BTC since the beginning of 2017.


Source: CoinMetrics

From this graph, we clearly see that the ZEC price trend has been down since mid 2017. All of us multi-year zodlers are familiar with this trend. There are factors that play a part, such as the relative rate of inflation during the same time period and first mover advantage, but the signal is clear. To date, the Zcash ecosystem isn’t delivering sufficient value to meaningfully affect this trend. The world may wake up to the need for crypto privacy tomorrow, and there are hopeful signs that it may, but it hasn’t yet.

Or perhaps this is mostly just relative speculative interest, and not tied to any meaningful utility for either project. Let’s examine a couple other data points related to ZEC’s use cases to see if we can gain more clarity on market demand.

The case for ZEC as a private store of value might be correlated with how much ZEC is being socked away into shielded addresses. Are people really using it for that?

The following graph shows total number of ZEC stored in shielded addresses.


Source: CoinMetrics

This graph is clearly up and to the right, with ZEC holders adding to their shielded stash. It’s an important graphic, as users are increasingly comfortable stacking zats in the Zcash shielded pools. What it doesn’t tell us is how many people or organizations are shielded ZEC holders, simply that more ZEC is being shielded. It is a reasonable assumption that many ZEC holders have been moving funds from transparent to shielded addresses over time, but due to Zcash’s privacy, we can’t know. It does seem that for some, Zcash is increasingly trusted as a private store of value, and yet, this doesn’t appear to have significantly impacted new ZEC demand.

Let’s look at other on-chain activities to confirm that assumption. The number of ZEC active addresses (transparent only) might give us some information about the growth and health of the network. Metcalf’s law states that the value of a given network is proportional to the square of the connected users (n2). If we see an incremental growth in connected users, we expect to see an exponential increase in “value” as demand increases.

The following graph shows the number of active transparent ZEC addresses since 2017, smoothed with a 7 day average.


Source: CoinMetrics

Again, we see performance wane in the bear markets and increase during the bull markets, an apparent indicator of high sensitivity to short-term speculation. Note that the spike of active addresses in November of 2022 is likely correlated with the recent sand-blasting attack, demonstrating that a motivated single user can skew these metrics.

That said, if new users are consistently coming in, I would expect to see an ever increasing number of active addresses. I would also expect to see an ever increasing number of active addresses if the “medium of exchange” or payments use case for ZEC was taking off.

Let’s now look to see if the number of zodlers is increasing. Again, due to the use of shielded addresses, it’s impossible to know for sure, but I expect there would be some correlation between activities in the transparent and shielded pools.

Here is a graph of the number of active transparent addresses holding at least .01 ZEC (blue), .1 ZEC (red), 1 ZEC (green) and 10 ZEC (purple), smoothed with a 14 day average.


Source: CoinMetrics

Growth in the number of addresses with smaller balances (.01 - 1 ZEC) were growing exponentially until 2018, and then began to drop around the time when GPU mining was no longer a profitable option because ASICs miners were coming online. In my opinion, that was a tipping point as many Zcash enthusiasts around the world lost the ability to easily obtain ZEC without using an exchange.

Let’s look at larger zodlers. The following graph of the number of active transparent addresses holding at least 100 ZEC (red), 1,000 ZEC (green), 10,000 ZEC (blue), smoothed with a 14 day average.


Source: CoinMetrics

We have continued to see moderate growth in addresses with larger balances (over 100 ZEC), even during the bear markets. The larger zodlers have diamond hands and stacking more!

While I am encouraged by the increase in addresses holding over 100 ZEC, the continual decline in addresses with smaller balances is concerning to me. I suspect that new users start small and then gradually increase their holdings over time. We aren’t seeing that trend here, and so it’s no surprise to me that we aren’t seeing the exponential growth of market value.

For comparison, here is a graph of the number of active Bitcoin addresses holding at least .01 BTC (blue), .1 BTC (red), and 1 BTC (green), smoothed with a 14 day average.


Source: CoinMetrics

For Bitcoin, the number of active addresses with smaller balances (.01 - .1 BTC) are growing at a healthy clip as compared with ZEC, even through all the volatility.

Let’s now look at usage by way of transaction volume. The following graph shows the number of ZEC transactions over time. The blue line represents the total number of all transaction types including both shielded and transparent, the green is the number of fully shielded transactions, and the red represents transactions where either the sender or receiver is shielded.


Source: CoinMetrics

The 2020 bump in shielded use occurred shortly after miners were able to mine to a shielded coinbase. The July 2022 spike corresponded to the sand-blasting attack.

Here is the same graph, but for Bitcoin.


Source: CoinMetrics

As with the total transaction volume of ZEC, the Bitcoin transaction volume has been relatively flat until recently. This spike in volume can be attributed to the creation of Ordinals (Bitcoin based NFTs), which represents a new Bitcoin use case beyond store of value or medium of exchange. However, this activity did not appear to drive the growth of new active addresses, which has ranged between 800,000 to a million since October of 2021. It appeared to drive on-chain activity but not necessarily new Bitcoin users as of yet.

What can we conclude about all this?

It may be the case that there is a core group of ZEC believers that continue to add to their shielded stack, but the value of the network continues to trend in the wrong direction as compared with Bitcoin. No new active users exchanging value, no network effects. No network effects, no exponential increase in value.

While the private store of value use case is needed and sticky, it does not appear to have driven new-user adoption. In order to get to n2 value growth, it is likely peer-to-peer exchanges of value, or payments, will be the driver. This makes logical sense, as the peer-to-peer transfer of ZEC inherently leads to these desired network effects.

Of course there may be new use cases, such as ZSAs, that are able to spur net new growth. But as seen with Bitcoin Ordinals, it’s important to assess the type of activity it fuels and the net demand for the ZEC asset itself.

It’s my opinion that this kind of information should be used by the community to determine development focus and funding across two vectors: tooling and specific use case development.

As for tooling, funding p2p payments utility/adoption, payments infrastructure, wallets and cross-chain interop with world-class UX, will likely yield much better adoption growth than, say, hardware wallets (which I desperately want) or non-payments related tech. We should think full stack, as those building payments infrastructure need a protocol and SDKs that are well documented and highly functional.

As for specific use case development, that’s a topic for another day.

It seems perfectly logical to me that we should focus on, explore and fund the best means to maximize the use of ZEC for private value exchange if we want to see a near-term increase in new user adoption.

Thanks for reading.

33 Likes

Agreed! What I’ve seen across my security audits of various projects is that the current protocol isn’t easy to work with. Some specific challenges are:

  1. A lot of rewriting code and new development had to happen across all projects to support Orchard. We should avoid NUs that set projects back with a high cost to re-write code. The transition to PoS carries that risk, but I think it’s possible to do with minimal changes to the lightwalletd API so that most projects can avoid those costs.
  2. The need to scan for transactions means Zcash’s APIs don’t fit into the same “shape” as what developers are used to when working with Bitcoin/PayPal. With Bitcoin and PayPal, you can call fast APIs to get transaction data, with no need to run a background process. Most projects also need to implement scanning and re-org handling logic, on top of the logic that’s already in librustzcash. The scanning is also why wallets seem slow/unreliable, and is why it’s not possible to make a library that “just works” after you npm install zcash and require('zcash'). I think we should explore options for protocol changes that would make Zcash payment processing work more like typical Web 2.0 APIs, even if it comes at the cost of some privacy.
  3. There aren’t good high-level libraries that abstract away Zcash’s protocol details. Using librustzcash, a developer has to at least know about Zcash’s transaction types, key structure, and ZIP 307 if they’re implementing scanning. Better tooling and libraries will go a long way here.

I think a key metric the community should target is: “How long does it take a developer who’s tangentially-familiar with Zcash to build a payments app with great UX on platform X?” Optimizing that will make ZCG’s funding more efficient and opens the door for more new developers to come and build new kinds of payment use cases.

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Great post @joshs!

The insights you bring up are really interesting and illustrative.

I always supported the idea that wallets and other Zcash applications would only be as good as what you can use them for.

That being said, users peak on bull market and crypto summers. Now… it might be different.

That’s why I believe that although the user adoption is correctly pointed out as an issue, the builder adoption must be looked into deeply and addressed quickly and proactively.

It’s been my impression that bear markets, are special periods of time where cryptocurrency protocols compete not that much for users but for builders.

Besides abstract usage metrics, we should conduct qualitative analyses that help us understand why other protocols are more successful than Zcash when it comes to attracting builders.

Bitcoin, Ethereum, Solana and others have diverse builder communities that develop tools and apps that support use cases that are appealing to users and drive adoption up.

When I look and crypto-twitter today, I see a lot of very important projects working very hard to attract builders. Starkware with the launch of Cairo; Mina with zk-ignite 2 giving out funds to builders working on snarky.js and other applications; Cardano is running Catalyst Fund10 to distribute funds to builders, educators and other skilled users.

I think that we should focus on attracting builders and because is a metric that is actionable by us, where usage seems to have more levels of indirection.

That being said I can think of a few Research questions that might be of interest to this “state of ZEC” subject and that probably researchers funded by ZCG could help us answer.

  1. What can we do ourselves to generate momentum like that? Is ZCG door being open and always accepting proposals enough? Or do we need to make special events like the ones above?

2 We can technically argue that Zcash is a “superior” or “best” version of Bitcoin. There’s literature supporting that.

Thing is… why aren’t the people around crypto projects not crowding this place to the point is jam packed and thriving with activity?

  1. What do we have to offer to builders looking for a place to express and develop their ideas?

  2. If we want to compare ourselves with Bitcoin, is there a way we can make Zcash as usable as Bitcoin?

  3. What pieces of the puzzle are we missing to be “on-par” with bitcoin use cases?

Thanks for sharing your thoughts and feelings. I find them very motivating and inspiring :heart:

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Its odd how smaller balances are not growing yet we see these initiatives for Zcash in places like Africa.

Is this organic or is someone paying these people to promote Zcash?

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Nice post @joshs! Your use of the forum for this kind of comms is refreshing and feels right. I’m looking forward to reading your future contributions with my morning coffee. It’s a chill vibe. :zebra: :zebra:

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The addresses with smaller balances only includes transparent addresses. I would hope that all Zcash meetups would promote shielded ZEC and therefore wouldn’t affect the transparent pool in any way.

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Right good point. Great to see these initiatives in places like this but makes me wonder if it’s organic from locals discovering zcash themselves or was this organized in any way?

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To provide some answers to your questions
this is a fallout from an exchange program between universities , some students in Ghana came to Nigeria to do 1 month program, they attended a zcash meetup held in Nigeria and indicated interest that they will love to have a zcash community in their country to let people know how they can keep their finances safe and private.
secondly in these meetups we promote shieleded zec beacause that is what solves a tangible problem in this part of the world. we also let people know they have the options to keep it transparent if they so desire .
Also, this meetup you refrenced had some financial costs to it.
the merch, the renting of the venue, light refreshments, local marketing to let students know such event will take place and other things. zcash Nigeria provided support in varrious ways ranging from finace ( through ambassador stipends). resource, advice and guidance. etc

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That is awesome to hear. Really cool that youre promoting shielded ZEC.

What wallets are people using mostly out there for shielded transactions?
Also, who is the founder of Zcash nigeria? Are they public (on twitter) ?

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In the crypto world, it is normal to store cryptocurrencies with a hardware wallet. For 99.99% of the crypto community, a hardware wallet is more normal than privacy. So if you want network effects in the crypto world, you first need a reliable hardware wallet support. I struggle to understand the security logic of P2P payments without hardware wallet support. Does someone think that a user will spend ZEC if he doesn’t hold a significant amount of it ?
I write as a random (but nevertheless experienced) ZEC holder and (disappointed) user since day 1. The recent great work by Hanh is the only reason why I still stick with Zcash.

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Yeah, a hardware wallet is a necessity for anyone handling large amounts of funds. It looks like we’re going to have one soon (I just wrapped up my security audit and sent the report to Hanh!), so I think that’s finally going to be a solved problem!

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This meetup is a result of the work being done by the Zcash Ambassador in Nigeria to promote the adoption of financial privacy with Zcash in Africa.

He can tell us more about it. What I can tell you is that he is helping the Zcash community in Ghana to get organized.

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Please follow and support them: https://twitter.com/ZcashNigeria

You can know more about the Zcash Ambassadors work on this Twitter list: https://twitter.com/i/lists/1495588203281199108

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Zcash Nigeria Football RULZ! :grin:

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Awesome to see so many people in Africa getting interested in Zcash. There’s also a list of Zcash Ambassadors and their twitter accounts, time zones, etc. at https://zcashambassadors.com/

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Great post full of data. I feel like I’m in a unique position to respond - I’ve been with Zcash since 2016 and decided to try to actually build something in Free2Z to help foster adoption. I’ve been sending shielded Zcash every day for over a year and have helped get at least a few dozen people started.

I think I see a way forward that is simple yet largely overlooked.

Global remote outsourcing is currently around $250 billion annually and expected to reach $1 trillion by 2027 (according to a brief internet search). I think a lot about global income disparities and how there is a lot of value on both sides to more free exchange and business connections across borders. I don’t think people quite realize the magnitude of the problem. Doctors, professors, educated, literate and talented people may make as little as $600/year in some countries! Please meditate on that fact for a moment.

Free2Z has been a little quixotic - I build some stuff, get feedback, improve things, get feedback, try something new, get feedback. I’m very much into “eXtreme Programming” - release early and often and see where it goes. Listen to the users. Do the most obvious thing that people want the most and continue. Try experiments and see if people like them. Feel free to remove things and move on. One of the most obvious drivers in this first year has been income disparity. This has got me to thinking more and more about it. Let me show you a quick napkin math with some round numbers.

1,000 people might make $55,000 / year in some countries - $55 million. People in other countries might be happy to do the same work for $5,000 a year. Without the foreign exchange, they might only be able to make $500 / year. Minimum wage in some countries is as low as $2/month! So, at $5,000/year, someone may be making 10X what they would otherwise make. But, the “employer” is saving $50,000 per person in this scenario. With only 1,000 people participating, $5,000,000 is going to wages and the senders are saving $50,000,000. Of course, adding zeros to these numbers make them even more notable.

10,000 people → $50,000,000 in foreign exchange, $500,000,000 in “savings”

I can hear people worrying about "The American Worker"™ and a “race to the bottom.” I have a very different perspective. I think borders are the single biggest source of oppression in the world today. There are many parts of the planet where a 3 hour drive can change the wage 5X and a short flight can change the wage 100X. This is unacceptable. Governments and multinational companies are exploiting these disparities and are happy to continue them. Simple-minded populism reinforces these mechanisms.

I have my own simple-minded view of the world - free, voluntary trade between individuals benefits both parties. As both parties benefit, productivity goes up, living standards go up, increased prosperity creates a virtuous feedback and gaps close - not because workers in “rich” countries standards are lowered but because everyone becomes more prosperous. I’d be happy to discuss this further if anyone has thoughts or concerns.

In this view of the world, what is needed from Zcash is pretty simple. Zcash is already functional for this purpose but there are things that can be strengthened and improved:

  • A super slick, easy, reliable wallet.
    • Zingo! and Ywallet are great and I fully support these efforts. There is room for improvement to make it dead simple for average people and to blow new user’s hair back about how slick and awesome it is. Maybe we can discuss this further
  • Regulatory and Exchange Support

Zcash is already functional in these two pillars but can be improved further and made easier and strengthened. Regulatory and exchange stuff is a moving target.

As far as exchange support, I want to make a note about how I think a lot of people put the cart before the horse in regards to Zcash adoption. I think a lot of people want to convince their local businesses to accept Zcash and envision some sort of organic chain reaction of people convincing other people that eventually leads to Zcash becoming a widely accepted medium of exchange. I think this approach is backwards. Allow me to expand.

The café I’m sitting at now has bills in fiat. They have electricity, water, internet, mortgage, food suppliers, wages and taxes to pay. Almost all of the bills are basically fixed by governments. The idea that this cafe is going to convince the water company, the ISP, the food supplier, the bank, the government, their employees, etc to accept Zcash is absurd. They don’t need Zcash, they can’t really use Zcash and no one is coming through the door wanting to pay in Zcash. Zcash may help them morally and spiritually, but it won’t do anything for them economically right now. Similarly, most people willing to work for Zcash need basics - food, shelter, clothing, water, internet, electricity. Zcash right now can be a tool and a vehicle but it’s not an ends in itself. So, I think it’s completely fine that the recipients liquidate most/all of their Zcash right away - they have bills to pay to people who won’t be convinced to accept Zcash. But this is OKAY.

Why is it OK? Because as the volume of Zcash bought, sent and sold increases and prosperity increases, people are able to save in Zcash. Why save in Zcash? Because it’s the best way to buy services privately across borders. “We have a big project coming up, we should go ahead and buy some more Zcash so we can pay our people.”

With just 10,000 people willing to work for Zcash, it can create hundreds of millions of dollars of demand for Zcash. Sure, most of that Zcash will be sold for necessities on the other end - but not all of it. As this activity grows, Zcash becomes more widely held and accepted and more tools are built to facilitate its use. I think global remote freelancing is the best way to create traction and begin the virtuous cycle that eventually makes it easy to pay your local café and your electricity bill in Zcash.

And please don’t tell me about spedn because that’s not businesses accepting Zcash, that’s a 3rd party service not available to everyone that allows you to sell your Zcash to pay merchants in fiat.

Final takeaway - if you have Zcash and need services, PLEASE post a “hiring” page on Free2Z and connect with someone willing to accept Zcash. If you are willing to work for Zcash, please tell us about what services you offer with a “for hire” page. I truly believe that this is the best way to create traction for Zcash adoption:

  • If you want to pay for services in Zcash, you can find someone who will do a great job for less than you would have to pay otherwise
  • If you want to work for Zcash, you can find someone willing to pay a fair wage over what you would be able to make otherwise

These connections will also grow small businesses in the ecosystem and make businesses who use Zcash more competitive and productive, furthering the potential for positive feedback.

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Why/How would paying to support the adoption of zcash be “inorganic”? What does that mean?

I agree with all of this.

I don’t even think @skyl and I disagree where he thinks we do (if he does).

I think that wherever I am, the value of zcash goes up, as more of the things I need are exchanged for it.

I am super excited about new forms of collaboration that are enabled by zcash-style value transfer. I work with extremely talented and diligent folks from all over the planet. My counterparties are working to improve the utility of zcash, just like I am. Just like me they benefit when they can spend their zcash on more things.

I ask merchants in my community to accept zcash. Some of them do.

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This is so real. We were having a chat recently and we were talking about promotion, and about bringing users to the ecosystem. And my partner and I do it every time we can. But it’s not that easy.

And I know it might sound boring that I always state “in my country”, but, well, when the economics of your country defines 90% of how you live and work, it’s impossible not to mention it.

The truth is that, in my country, with such a high inflation and low levels of income. People use crypto as an alternative but, on the other hand, authorities are always trying to impose their agenda. In this country you need Petros to issue your passport, a digital currency (not really crypto) that no one uses ANYWHERE, but the government stablishes so.

And for everything else, Bolivar Digital is what you have to use. And is even worse in small towns like mine. I’ve only seen, in the last two years, only like 4 or 5 businesses in my city that receives some sort of crypto currency. And there’s this BIG national franchise that even has a Zelle account! which shouldn’t be used in Venezuela or in P2B transactions, but doesn’t support crypto.

I have only been able to convince 2 of out of 15 small businesses I spoke to about using Zcash, and they received my ZEC, but inmediatly said: “now tell me how to turn that into bolivares using Binance”.

And I think that’s good! Because they still pay for services in bolivares, they can’t pay taxes in ZEC, but they have a new alternative to protect their money from devaluation and offer more opportunities to people like me to gain access to their products and services.

I can’t have that chat with institutions or big stores, they will just not hear me. Government will say “that’s imperialist, we have the Petro”, and big stores will say “I can’t pay services or taxes with it, so no thanks”.

So I guess overseas hiring (maybe similar to that fiat "gig economy promoted by Fivrr and stuff) is a good thing, and maybe we should stop demonizing people trading their 2 ZEC for FIAT currency and start talking to employeers and everyone who CAN listen how they can save money and hire well talented people with Zcash.

That’s another reason why I think real descentralization might work. If the brand could have official representatives with the right resources in other countries speaking to the right people about Zcash, and not only a couple of John Does and Mary Janes like me, no matter how much love we put into it, we won’t have the same outreach because we don’t have the right resources, and are not the right “persona” to do that job.

Anyways, maybe I digress… But still I get your point, and working and living, and even promoting Zcash, in a country like Venezuela, I know exactly what you mean.

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This is exactly right! That’s how it will work in real world for as far as we can see. Very unlikely it will work any other way. zcash needs to refocus, reorganize, reenergize to deliver what people want and need. In most emerging market countries i have visited, they want USD and i would bet venezuans do also. People should be able to choose the currency of choice. zcash is fighting an uphill battle if all they have is privacy with no price stability

zcash should be like a digital wrapper that can add value to any currency. it’s about choice, giving people the freedom to choose any currency with privacy

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