On the 25th of August, I had the pleasure to interview BitHub Africa‘s founder John Karanja in his office in Nairobi. During our conversation, we discussed the potential and the challenges of bitcoin adoption in Kenya and Africa.
BitcoinAfrica.io: How do you see the current situation for bitcoin in Kenya and Africa in general?
John Karanja: I think bitcoin is still in the early stages, even beyond Africa. In Kenya, we see bitcoin adoption is mainly with speculators and traders who are buying and selling bitcoin to make money. Volumes have been growing over time. I think it’s about 10 million shillings weekly, which is around $100,000 traded every week on the peer-to-peer platform LocalBitcoins.com.
BitcoinAfrica.io: Is LocalBitcoins the main exchange used in Kenya?
John Karanja: Yes, it is. Bitcoin in Kenya is still are a very early stage. There are start-ups that have come and gone because it appears that bitcoin is not ready to scale amongst the average person here. Hence, it’s not going to compete with the mobile money system M-Pesa, for example, at least in the short term.
I think what we’re seeing is now more focus shifting to blockchain technology, being used in other use cases like identification systems, data storage or smart energy. We’re applying ourselves in these different areas to see which are the most viable and we will then launch our projects after doing so. In fact, we’ve produced a report on blockchain opportunities in Africa that goes into depth on that subject. The report, titled The African Blockchain Opportunity, was officially launched at the AITEC Summit in Nairobi on the 31st of August. The reason we produced the report is to provide the information about the potential opportunities that the blockchain technology is creating in Africa for entrepreneurs.
That’s where we are at the moment. We’ll probably launch our first project in early 2017 using the blockchain. So far, our work has primarily been focused on research and development here at BitHub.
BitcoinAfrica.io: To touch on the point you made about the move away from bitcoin to the blockchain. Do you think that, while the initial bitcoin in Africa story was remittance and supporting the underbanked population, there is a move away from that to a focus on the blockchain for commercial users as it very much is in the Western world now?
John Karanja: I’d say they’d go in parallel because bitcoin has a lot of inherent advantages over any other secondary blockchain platform, in that it’s the most secure, it has the largest user base, it has a lot of liquidity and there’s money going in. But in terms of the user experience, it’s not quite mature yet. However, there are a lot of people working on improving that. So I think that will eventually be resolved but the technology is so disruptive that it can be applied to so many areas, some of which are fairly simple like storage of data, for many small enterprises getting cloud systems or complying with KYC. For these types of systems, the cost is often quite prohibitive. So what the blockchain can do is streamline that and open access to everyone. Identifying a customer, then also supplying him the products and enabling payment. So the blockchain can cover that whole process from start to finish. I see both bitcoin and the blockchain moving together.
BitcoinAfrica.io: Do you think bitcoin remittances will still be a growth market in Africa? One thing that you have now is there are so many low-cost remittances services, such as World Remit, TransferWise and CurrencyFair. Do you think that because of them, bitcoin for remittances is not going to be such a big growth market anymore as the cost of exchanging bitcoin back into local African currency can be quite high at times when using peer-to-peer exchanges as Citigroup pointed out in a recent research piece?
John Karanja: Bitcoin is not the clear winner yet when it comes to remittances. However, it is very much a possibility that it will be integrated into the background. For example, WorldRemit could end up using it for settlements, rather than pushing customers to use bitcoin. And we shouldn’t forget that there is still huge risk associated with bitcoin as its infrastructure is still relatively underdeveloped.
At the end of the day, it’s a protocol, it’s not an application. I don’t think anyone can say for sure bitcoin is dying or Bitcoin will succeed. But there’s also the possibility that we’ll see better technology rising very quickly and learning from what Bitcoin has been able to achieve.
BitcoinAfrica.io: Aside from Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana and South Africa, which country do you think will be the next African country to witness a reasonable rate of bitcoin adoption and the growth of a local bitcoin ecosystem?
John Karanja: I think those are the main countries. Possibly we could also see Rwanda because Rwanda has a very aggressive education platform that is aiming to leverage technology. I think that’s one country that’s usually left out, but it’s mostly those countries that have already advanced in terms of the internet and social media adoption. You can just look at Facebook statistics and see the countries where Facebook is heavily adopted. Those will be the likely next adopters of Bitcoin.
BitcoinAfrica.io: I read about how the telecoms giant Safaricom banned Bitcoin on their mobile money platform MPESA. Do you think that the “Safaricoms” in the other African countries will also try to hinder Bitcoin innovation to prevent their mobile payments systems from disruption?
John Karanja: That’s a good question. I’d say right now, ironically, more Bitcoin is traded using M-Pesa than ever before because of LocalBitcoins. They wouldn’t really be able to stomp it out but what they’d be able to do is restrict other centralized entities from using bitcoin as a platform to scale because obviously, they would be potential competition to them.
There may be room for telecoms innovating using bitcoin, but that would be very risky because bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies seem to work best in a peer-to-peer format because the risk is distributed as much as possible. If I’m sending you Bitcoin you send me M-Pesa, it’s just me and you. The counterparty risk is between me and you. It’s not in a centralized place that can get hacked. My guess would be that peer-to-peer platforms are where Bitcoin would dominate.
I don’t know if you saw the President signed the law that caps the interest rates at 14%?
BitcoinAfrica.io: Yes. I read that.
John Karanja: That’s the kind of situation that can now allow for bitcoin to triumph because the banks will not be too interested in micro-lending and may wish to partner with fintech solution providers to provide liquidity in that market segment. Therefore, people will now move more towards peer-to-peer or social lending platforms. I think in a peer-to-peer world bitcoin could dominate. The question is how simple can the peer-to-peer applications become? Because the peer-to-peer ecosystem is not really developed enough to be a safe and secure way to transact in digital currencies.
BitcoinAfrica.io: What are your thoughts on Ethereum and what do you think about ether from an investment point of view?
John Karanja: We did a study on it. It’s in the report. I believe Ethereum will have much more challenges than Bitcoin because they’ve used a high-level computer programming language called Solidity that essentially allows you to program ‘what if’ statement. But now, as they’ve realized from the Dao attack, by doing so that they opened so many vulnerabilities for attacks. For them to plug that, as a developer, I see that being more difficult than using a low-level platform like bitcoin where the rules are fixed. There are few rules and they are fixed. On the bitcoin platform, there’s no variation on what can happen. We know what can happen on that platform.
Ethereum, I would call ambitious but the advantage they have is they are secure. They have a good amount of miners behind the network. They’ve managed to attract enough interest in terms of safeguarding and keeping the platform that if they figure out their niche, it could advance blockchain technology even further.
BitcoinAfrica.io: My last question is about The African Blockchain Opportunity report that you have published. You mentioned it briefly earlier. Could you elaborate on it, please?
John Karanja: Essentially the whole idea behind the report is to provide a manual that anyone can pick up, whether it’s a developer, a bitcoin enthusiast or an entrepreneur and read up on areas of interest. It covers the technical aspects of bitcoin and the blockchain technology within an African context.
There are also a couple of chapters on fintech and we also have linked several developer resources. A developer can go and look at the source code and then try to either contribute or fork it and develop it as an application. We’re now going to be using that for our training curriculum. Then hopefully the idea is to have a second edition maybe in one or two years from now with updates.
If you want to find out more about BitHub Africa visit their website and if you would like to purchase the report The African Blockchain Opportunity click here or on the banner on the right. If you would like to reach out to John directly, you can find him on Twitter at @BitHubAfrica.
Nigeria’s Capital Markets Regulator to Create Framework for Cryptocurrency Regulation
Nigeria’s blockchain community and cryptocurrency exchanges could get a clear stance on the classification of cryptocurrencies from the country’s Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) before the end of the year.
A Framework for Cryptocurrency Regulation Is Coming
According to a report by Pulse, the regulatory institution is set to implement the roadmap for the fintech industry as it pertains to its capital markets. According to the roadmap, between the last quarter of this year and the first quarter of 2020, the SEC is expected to:
- Decide on its preferred classification of cryptocurrencies (either as commodities, securities or currency).
- Develop a framework for the regulation of Virtual Financial Assets (VFAs) and VFA Exchanges.
- Issue guidelines and standards for whitepapers and ICOs.
- Develop a framework for KYC and due diligence for cryptocurrencies, Virtual Financial Assets, tokens, and ICOs.
- Define clear classification for tokens based on their unique properties. They could be payment tokens, asset tokens, utility tokens or others.
The Acting Director-General of the SEC, Mary Uduk, revealed at a Capital Markets Committee briefing last month that the Working Group to drive the implementation of the roadmap would be chaired by Adeolu Bajomo, the Vice-President of the Fintech Association of Nigeria.
Cryptocurrencies as Commodities or Securities But Not as Currency
One of the recommendations that stands out in the roadmap, which was prepared by a committee comprised of officials from the regulatory agencies, the private sector, and a member of the blockchain community, is for the SEC to recognise cryptocurrencies as commodities or securities, and not as a currency. This classification is expected to have tax implications for investors.
This recommendation is in line with the central bank’s directive last year, which stated that “virtual currencies” were not a legal tender.
Cryptocurrencies have lacked a single, definite identity. For example, Germany is treating them as money and means of payment while the US uses the Howey test to decide whether a cryptocurrency is a security or not.
Crypto Adoption in Nigeria
Citigroup, a US investment firm, reported in January 2018 that Nigerians were the third-largest holders of bitcoin as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP). The use has ranged from trading to making fast, low-cost cross-border transactions, saving on the high fees taken by commercial banks and traditional money-transfer services.
Nigeria has a fast-growing young population with a significant chunk below the age of 35. But there is still a small number of people with access to the financial system. Less than 50 million people with bank accounts in a population of over 180 million. Blockchain applications could be a great way to onboard millions of underserved people into the financial system.
With the SEC expected to take responsibility for the regulation of cryptocurrencies in the country soon, we can foresee more scrutiny of Nigeria’s biggest crypto companies, which could lead to a more secure crypto trading ecosystem down the road.
Poor Financial Infrastructure? Why Ghanaians Need Crypto More Than Ever
Ghanaian investors continue to face difficulties as the Bank of Ghana (BoG) continues to probe fund managers for mishandling funds. Is it time for one of the fastest-growing economies to look at cryptoassets for financial freedom?
A Three-Year-Old Banking Crisis
The Ghanaian banking crisis started on August 14, 2017. The Bank of Ghana (BoG) revoked the licenses of UT Bank Ltd and Capital Bank Ltd and approved a Purchase and Assumption (P&A) transaction with GCB Bank Ltd that transferred all deposits and selected assets of the two banks after they were found to be insolvent.
The following year, the BoG subsequently revoked the universal banking licenses of five banks, including UniBank Ghana Limited, Construction Bank, Sovereign Bank, Royal Bank, and Beige Bank. Additionally, it issued a license to a newly created bank – Consolidated Bank Ghana Limited – which is wholly owned by the Government of Ghana.
After a tough time dealing with the aftermath of the shake-up in the banking sector, the BoG then proceeded with revoking the licenses of 23 insolvent savings and loans and finance house companies just weeks ago.
These happenings in the country’s financial sector have led to several issues in the world’s fastest-growing economy in 2019.
A Time to Consider Cryptoassets?
With the current turbulences in the financial ecosystem in Ghana, one may raise the question: “Is it time for Ghanaians to consider cryptoassets as investments with real asset ownership and transparency?”
Bitcoin and other decentralised cryptocurrencies are a natural fit in situations like these. For investors and consumers to escape the uncertainty of such a disorganized space, they will have to hold assets that they directly control.
Cryptocurrencies allow users to own their assets and give them independence from regulated, mainstream and established systems. With cryptoassets, no financial institution is responsible for the safekeeping of your funds and, therefore, cannot mishandle your funds.
Unlike the current situation where thousands of Ghanaians are not sure of the future of their funds due to the changes in the financial sector over the last three years, cryptocurrency users always have control of their funds and can access them at any time.
Imagine a pregnant woman in Kumasi, Ghana who kept her money in a savings and loans institution ahead of giving birth to cater for the hospital bills but cannot access her funds and is now stuck in the hospital because the institution has been closed down.
If she held bitcoin instead, she could pay in BTC or easily exchange it to cedi, to pay her bills without any issues.
Growing Interest in Cryptoassets in Ghana
Perhaps, the point made above has already been registered in the minds of many in the country who have shown interest in cryptocurrencies, especially bitcoin.
Currently, Ghana sits at number three on the list of countries on Google Trends for the search keyword “bitcoin” and Accra sits at number two for the keyword “buy bitcoin“.
With a more deliberate effort to push education and adoption – like the BlockTech Women Conference Accra 2019 held last week – the existing interest in cryptocurrencies could translate into growing adoption that could disrupt the current financial system in the West African nation.
Is Bitcoin Really A New ‘Safe Haven’ Asset?
The launch of the Bitcoin blockchain in 2008 was a low-key affair among a fringe group of cryptography enthusiasts. Just over a decade later, the pioneer cryptocurrency is a world-famous phenomenon with a market value of about $10,000 at press time.
This is certainly a remarkable turnaround, which only the most ardent early supporters could envision. That said, bitcoin as a currency has taken a life of its own and is gaining rather sophisticated market functions. One of these is the emergence of Bitcoin as a possible ‘safe haven’ asset. How ready is bitcoin to perform this unique function? Let’s find out.
Bitcoin currently has a solid market presence. Moreover, a great number of retailers in the market, especially online, accept bitcoin payments. This means that bitcoin users can freely operate and trade which is a great leap forward.
Trading is efficient and simple because of modern exchanges where you can trade for USD, trade BTC-EURX or any major fiat and crypto trading pairs. Generally, bitcoin is now a currency and an asset you can freely own and transact with ease. At the moment, there are over 250,000 bitcoin transactions each day across the world.
Incidentally, some of bitcoin’s intrinsic factors have made it play a unique market function. For one, bitcoin is a finite currency. Unlike fiat which is freely printed by Central Banks, there will only ever be 21 million bitcoin. Whilst this has placed a ceiling on mass adoption as a currency, the finite virtue has made it an attractive proposition as an asset.
The Case for Bitcoin as A Safe Haven Asset
For a historically volatile asset, bitcoin being discussed as a potential safe haven asset is remarkable. In years gone past, equity investors would regularly purchase gold during periods of market uncertainty to distribute risk. Gold is a traditional safe haven investment due to its scarcity and value. Can bitcoin take up such a role?
In the first few days of August 2019, stock markets went wild on fears of a USA-China trade war escalation. Simultaneously, bitcoin booked impressive gains of more than seven percent as opposed to the drops in the major stock markets. This is certainly not a fool-proof case for bitcoin as a safe asset. Regardless, crypto enthusiasts took the development with glee as part of a general argument for bitcoin’s status as a safe haven asset. The major arguments include:
- Bitcoin is effectively immune to geopolitical tensions like the trade wars.
- By virtue of decentralisation, bitcoin is independent of government monetary policy. This means that bitcoin prices are entirely market dependent. Accordingly, bitcoin (though significantly volatile) is attractive because it has no direct correlation to the volatility of other asset classes.
- Bitcoin’s scarcity gives it innate value, like rare metals. Satoshi Nakamoto capped bitcoin supply at 21 million.
Is it that simple though? The fact that bitcoin has a life of its own is an impressive aspect of its position as an asset class. However, the case for bitcoin as a safe haven asset is not as straightforward as it may seem.
Traditional safe haven investments are usually boring. Gold, for all the credibility it has, has generated an average annualised return of 0.32 percent over the last five years. As a matter of fact, its value most of the time is relatively consistent. This would be fitting for the name ‘safe haven’ as it remains safe in the midst of market volatility.
However, bitcoin, even in the most generous terms, would be a ‘colorful’ safe haven. Bitcoin may have a value trajectory unique from the regular stock markets. However, this does not take away bitcoin’s volatility issues. Therefore, investors are as motivated to diversify risk in a volatile stock market as they are to cash in on potential outsize gains.
Taking prices from August 2018 to August 2019, bitcoin has appreciated more than 100 percent. This is certainly a very impressive return from an investment perspective. However, it does little to lend credence to the general idea of a ‘safe haven’ asset.
Moreover, bitcoin still has to navigate a number of regulatory challenges with global financial entities because to truly gain the status of a mainstream ‘safe-haven’, regulators like the SEC have to be on board. Additionally, the stability of the coin against hard forks and security of secondary players like exchanges can add to its credibility.
Is It a Safe Haven Asset?
From the aforementioned, you can look at it both ways. For an investor looking to distribute risk and have an asset class whose volatility does not correlate to mainstream asset volatility, bitcoin can act as a safe haven investment. However, it fails to live up to the classic role of a safe haven like gold in the market. Regardless, this debate will only intensify as bitcoin matures and grows further.
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