The bitcoin space in Kenya is among the most vibrant in Africa with the capital Nairobi being home to a number of innovative bitcoin startups. This is partly due to a growing bitcoin community, the rise of a local fintech industry, and upgrades to the country’s infrastructure. However, bitcoin adoption in Kenya is being hampered by the regulatory climate in the country that is being negatively influenced by a bitcoin-unfriendly central bank.
The Central Bank Issued a Warning about Digital Currencies
Back in 2015, the Central Bank of Kenya (CBK) issued a statement that warned against the use of bitcoin saying it was not a legal tender and could be used as a conduit for money laundering and terrorism financing.
A number of people in the Kenyan bitcoin space voiced their dissatisfaction with the announcement. Speaking to CoinTelegraph, Kenyan bitcoin thought leader and CEO of Umati Blockchain Ltd, Mic Kimani, stated,
“The accusations are a bit over the top. The Central Bank got some things wrong in its notice, like casting a wide blanket warning against virtual currencies, yet here in Kenya, we already have a lot of virtual currencies in use like Bonga points, and electricity tokens.”
The CBK further instructed local banks not to provide bank accounts to bitcoin startups. One such company was bitcoin payment processor, BitPesa which had its bank accounts shut down. The bitcoin startup that is headquartered in Nairobi has found it difficult to operate in the country due to the position taken by the CBK.
Bitcoin Startups Face Challenges in Kenya
Recently, BitPesa announced that it has been forced to retreat from the Kenyan market. Due to the CBK directive, bitcoin-related businesses are unable to open or maintain accounts with local banks. As a result processing payments in Kenyan shillings has become impossible for the startup and it has opted to halt the verification of new users.
South African bitcoin exchange and wallet provider Luno, has also stopped offering its bitcoin exchange service in the country and can currently only be used as a bitcoin wallet in Kenya.
BitPesa CEO, Elizabeth Rossiello stated in Disrupt Africa,
“While BitPesa is still a tax-paying, registered Kenyan company with a large office for its finance, trading, customer support and sales functions for the region, it is blocked from servicing Kenyan customers. This is a total shame, given that the company and the African bitcoin boom it started when it launched, began in Kenya.”
According to Rossiello, the CBK made the move to restrict BitPesa and other similar startups without consulting relevant stakeholders and without any type of in-depth research. She also maintained the position taken by CBK is in stark contrast to local bitcoin users and investors, who are largely infatuated with bitcoin startups. The actions of the regulator have impeded the growth of the company locally at a time when it was experiencing a significant bump in trading volumes across its other six African markets.
Little Progress by Way of Dialogue
A recent report by Disrupt Africa titled Finnovating for Africa showed how attractive cryptocurrency startups and blockchain technology are to investors, especially since they can develop cheap, efficient and secure products for customers who need them. These technologies have the potential to solve many challenges in financial services, record keeping, and identity management just to name a few.
Therefore, it is important for bitcoin and blockchain startups to actively engage regulators and local financial players. In the case of BitPesa, conversations with the CBK, however, are yet to yield any positive results.
“We have been working closely with the Nigerian Central Bank and have a great dialogue with other Central Banks in East, Central and West Africa, but we have still made little progress in Kenya, which remains the strictest jurisdiction in Africa, having gone out of its way to ban any bank from banking or partnering with companies using this technology,” Rossiello said.
It is worth noting that major global institutions such as the World Bank and IMF, and central banks of leading economies are publishing white papers on bitcoin and are softening their regulations to allow bitcoin startups to grow compliantly. It would be wise for the CBK to reconsider its stance since it impedes local companies from entering the bitcoin space and competing against international players. It remains to be seen if the CBK will adopt a more open approach towards cryptocurrency innovation but, for now, the situation looks rather unfavourable for Kenyan bitcoin startups.