Cardano (ADA 0.70%) has had an impressive start to 2023, already up more than 55% for the year. However, the digital token still trades at an uninspiring $0.39, and has not traded for more than $1 since April 2022, almost exactly one year ago. 

So what can Cardano possibly do to break through the $1 mark? There are two big growth areas where it might be able to build on current momentum and more than double in value.

1. Decentralized finance

The first big growth area is decentralized finance (DeFi), where Cardano has notoriously lagged behind market leaders such as Ethereum (ETH 6.06%). The primary metric used to measure DeFi prowess is total value locked (TVL), and Cardano currently ranks No. 18 among all blockchains with a TVL of $150 million. 

That might sound respectable, but Cardano is still far away from Ethereum, which ranks No. 1 with a TVL of about $30 billion. Until Cardano moves up the TVL chart, investors are going to remain lukewarm on this crypto.

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That being said, there has been some healthy growth recently in Cardano's DeFi ecosystem. According to some estimates, its TVL is up a staggering 82% in 2023. As its founder, Charles Hoskinson, recently pointed out, it might take another 12 to 18 months before DeFi is where it should be, but we are starting to see the emergence of new decentralized exchanges on Cardano, and this is a very positive development.

Moreover, the crypto finally embraced stablecoins this year, which are one of the underpinnings of decentralized finance. They serve as the link between traditional finance and crypto, and are absolutely essential for attracting large institutional investors. So keep an eye on projects such as Djed, an algorithmic stablecoin for Cardano that launched in early 2023.

2. Emerging-market growth plans

One knock on Cardano has always been that it is not growing fast enough to keep up with other blockchain competitors. It has always seemed to lag behind rivals such as Ethereum when it comes to innovations.

For example, Ethereum had smart contracts in 2015, while Cardano only added support for them in 2021. According to Cardano, it is better to be "best to market" rather than "first to market." It has always prided itself on a slow, methodical, very academic approach to blockchain development. Obviously, this has frustrated investors, to the point that some have accused it of being a "ghost chain."

The path to a breakout for Cardano, though, could be in the offing. In a recent interview, Hoskinson explained that Cardano will be placing much more of an emphasis on growth and development in emerging markets such as Africa and Latin America. These are places where traditional finance is underdeveloped, and where hundreds of millions of people are either underbanked or unbanked. Imagine the growth potential of getting all these people onto the crypto's blockchain.

Since these markets will likely grow faster than European or North American markets in coming years, being a first mover could be key for Cardano. A priority for it in 2023 will be Kenya, so keep an eye out for developments in this African nation. 

Cardano has always prided itself on being a blockchain for the underbanked and unbanked, and this emerging-market growth narrative could be the key to turbocharging Cardano's price.

How likely is a $1 price on Cardano?

The problem, from my perspective, is that Cardano has never been a major player in any segment of the crypto market that investors actually track and analyze. For example, take the recent NFT craze that swept the market. Even today, Cardano ranks only third in terms of average daily NFT trading volume. While some celebrities (such as Snoop Dogg) have minted NFTs on Cardano, investor attention remains focused on Ethereum, which has the Bored Ape Yacht Club and the CryptoPunks

If cryptos are not appearing at the top of the charts or generating buzz via marketing and sponsorships, they aren't going to attract the attention of investors. Unfortunately, that's the reality, and that largely explains why the all-time high for Cardano is just $3.10. 

As a result, a "hold but not accumulate" position seems to make sense right now for the crypto. Yes, there are reasons to be excited about it, and I still buy into its fundamental promise as a blockchain that actually cares about serving the world's underbanked. I just need to see something more from Cardano -- such as moving into the top 10 in total value locked -- before I can recommend it as a strong long-term buy.