However, there is no single “African” crypto narrative because users in jurisdictions across the continent use the technology for vastly different circumstances.
Starting Friday, Amazon Prime will offer the documentary “Banking on Africa: The Bitcoin Revolution,” made by South African filmmaker Tamarin Gerriety with sponsorship from the crypto exchange Luno. It features industry heavyweights including SatoshiCentre founder Alakanani Itireleng in Botswana and South African monero developer Riccardo Spagni. The film shows how vastly different their lives are, from a Botswanian goat farm to Spagni’s urban rooftop and drone.
So far, it appears Nigeria, South Africa, Kenya and Ghana are home to the fastest-growing communities of bitcoin users on the continent.
A January 2020 report by the market research firm DataReportal estimated 11% of Nigerians and 13% of South Africans under the age of 64 with internet access own cryptocurrency, compared to the 7% global average.
One such bitcoiner, Nigerian entrepreneur Keith Mali, bought his first bitcoin in 2016, dropped out of university in 2018 and has been giving lectures at schools across the region about bitcoin ever since. He’s also the founder of the social media startup Swirge.
“Cryptos have a higher chance of growth [in Nigeria] compared to the West … especially for cross-border remittances,” Mali said. “We just launched our public beta during this pandemic and we’ve grown beyond 20,000 users, with no initial coin offering.”
“People are looking at ways to diversify their incomes,” he added.
Likewise, a Nigerian BuyCoins user named Nnanna Ijezie said he and many of his friends use multiple accounts, including Luno, Coinbase and BuyCoins, to convert a portion of their salaries into bitcoin for savings. Nigerians who travel or have family abroad also use bitcoin for remittances, he said. Exchanges are predominately used for buying, while social media groups for traders are used for liquidation.
“Anyone in Nigeria for the past five years has experienced devaluation at least twice … so [bitcoin’s] volatility is a trade-off people are willing to make,” Ijezie said. “But most of the trading is happening offline. … In Nigeria, the market is also tied to the strength of the diaspora population.”
BuyCoins, Binance and Luno all see lucrative traction in Nigeria. This week Luno’s research partner, Arcane Research, issued a report to complement the “Banking on Africa” film. The report said Luno’s four million users, primarily in South Africa but also including many Nigerians, are inspired by inflation concerns, political instability and scant access to affordable financial services. They transact $4.5 million worth of cryptocurrency every day.
Data from both Arcane Research and peer-to-peer exchanges indicate traction in Ghana and Kenya is also surging.
Entrepreneurial bitcoin educator Michael Kimani in Kenya said he is running a class of 25 people, paying $200 each for 2.5 hours for five weeks. It’s his third class since last November.
“The classes are mostly equally representative, roughly half of them are women,” Kimani said, describing his educational project Crypto Baraza. “What’s driving their interest is the fact that our economy could be heading south. The students coming to my class are looking to escape the economy, they are looking for alternatives. Bitcoin is that.”
Like so many African bitcoiners, Kimani is a freelancer juggling several jobs. In addition to research and technical services, he runs the Blockchain Association of Kenya, a nonprofit think-tank comparable to the Coin Center in Washington, D.C. He prefers using over-the-counter groups on WhatsApp rather than exchanges like Luno.
“The groups I’m on are like 120 or 150 people in each. I didn’t start getting paid in it [bitcoin] until recently. I’ve never paid for anything in it,” Kimani said, describing how he uses bitcoin.
He added his students generally aren’t attracted to bitcoin for philosophical reasons, nor any aversion to central banks. Instead, they want to use it.
“Many of the students in my class will tell you their first experience with crypto was a scam or a bitcoin mining scheme,” Kimani said. “I’ve seen schemes like this as far back as 2014. Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana, we’ve gone through the scam cycles and came out with higher volumes.”