Navigating the world of Bitcoin in Africa

Read time 4min 10sec

What is Bitcoin actually good for? "If you ask most people in crypto-currencies, they probably couldn't give you an answer."

This was the opening question from Ray Youssef, CEO and co-founder of one of the world's largest peer-to-peer Bitcoin marketplaces, Paxful.

Speaking yesterday at a media breakfast at the Table Bay Hotel, he noted it took his team four years to figure this thing out and most of their learnings were from their users. "Especially our African users."

When it comes to Bitcoin, we are currently in the speculative phase, explained Youssef. And by that he means everyone else is still trying to figure this thing out.

According to Youssef, there are a lot of people out there who are tainting what Bitcoin is all about. This is a very crooked game; many exchanges are rigged. High-volume Bitcoin-holders work together to trap the little guys, he said.

"Bitcoin is one of the most manipulated asset classes in the world right now."

But this is not the case within peer-to-peer Bitcoin networks. This is because the world is getting more and more comfortable with the sharing economy. Ten years ago no one would ever consider opening their homes up to people they do not know.

"The sharing economy is a miracle because it has opened our minds to the possibility of sharing our financial networks with people."

In emerging economies, peer-to-peer finance opens people up to the possibilities of global trade and essentially acts as a global financial passport, he noted. Something like Bitcoin makes it possible to convert any form of money into any other form of money, which is a game-changer when you are in a remote village somewhere and your access to traditional financial services is limited.

Business case for Africa

So, why Africa? Because the use cases for these marketplaces are extensive.

On a recent trip to Ghana, Youssef met a woman who sells clothing online. When he asked where the shopping cart was on her Web site, she said she did not need one. If someone likes her clothing, they send her a message on Instagram, she gives them the bank account details of her friend in New York (someone who has a merchant account) and he handles the payments and sends the money back to her.

But there are so many business owners who do not have a friend like this. What are their options? For Youssef, peer-to-peer finance allows them to make similar transactions with the same level of trust.

This is also valuable within the remittance space. Consider a business like Western Union. It has set up little shops across the globe and will give you cash in whatever currency you want. If you are a foreign worker looking to transfer money to family members in your home country, a business like Western Union makes this possible. But it does so at a sizable cost, stressed Youssef.

With peer-to-peer markets, these workers can use their R100 to buy Bitcoin and then sell that Bitcoin to a person living in the country where their family members live. The person who buys your Bitcoin can then transfer payment into the account of your chosen family member. "And just like that, you've sent money to another country without having to pay a huge fee."

Depending on the volatility of Bitcoin, and the demand for it, people can even earn money through these exchanges. If the person in the example detailed above wanted to, she could sell her Bitcoin at a slight mark-up and make a profit.

This is all being driven by a generation of "Cheetahs", said Youssef. Africa's Cheetah Generation is a new and angry generation of African graduates and professionals, who look at their local issues and problems from a totally different perspective.

This dynamic and intelligent group of young people have been trying to challenge social norms but they have not really had the resources they needed to do so. "The Cheetahs need tools to help their efforts. They've essentially been fighting barehanded until now. And they've not been winning," he noted.

For these confident and bright young people, peer-to-peer financial markets, and crypto-currencies like Bitcoin, are the tools they need, giving this generation the chance to take control of their economies and take their business ideas to the rest of their communities, and even to the rest of the world.

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