How the Young Somali Hawaladars of Little Mogadishu are Shaping the Future of Bitcoin in Africa (Part 1 of 2)

Youthful Somali hawadalars from East Africa are complementing an age old informal financial practice with an odd piece of a new digital resilient tool – bitcoin.

This article is Part 1 of a 2 Part Series

The importance of informal finance arrangements is a reverberating theme across Africa. Informal doesn’t necessarily mean bad or evil or dirty, it’s just that rather than rely on the heavy hand of the law, some communities prefer to place their trust in reputation and social networks for all trade commerce and financial relationships whether offline or online.

Others, will turn to informal institutions of trade and finance when faced by adversity in an immediate harsh environment such as war, political instability, structural programs or lack of reliable services.

For example, the Igbo traders in Nigeria pulling on social networks to scale resilient informal enterprise in the face of political instability in Nigeria. 

The early airtime currency traders of Africa who gave birth to mobile money like Mpesa tapped into the power of networks to fill a money remittance gap using an odd piece of technology.

Today, the peer to peer Bitcoin traders of Kenya are bypassing an embargo by banks to meet demand for bitcoin by leveraging informal bitcoin trading networks based on trust and reputation.

It is all there.

One of the best case studies is of the Somali people, during post black hawk down cold war of Somali in the 90s by Peter D. Little. 

Set in the early 2000s post war Somalia, his stories tells of the resilience of trade of livestock across the whole of East Africa despite the collapse of central government and no functional system. 

The Ethiopia Somali Kenya cattle trade flourished in spite of the failed state conditions, on the back of trust network built on kinship. Through informal financial instruments and contracts of exchange and trade, they were able to sustain demand in Nairobi, forming a key trading corridor network in the Horn of Africa

In the post digital, post mobile world of 2019, the Somali people of little Mogadishu are under a different kind of threat on their digital financial lives.

Digital financial surveillance is underway in Kenya as part of tax reforms by revenue authorities including mandatory monitoring of electronic transactions and taxes on the digital economy.

Kenya is under pressure to reform after taking on too much debt to fund infrastructure projects that haven’t quit materialized as planned. An economic slow down, high youth unemployment rates and the weight of repayments on sovereign debts are some of the symptoms of the times. Some commentators have likened the impending state of the times to the Structural Adjustment Programs of the late 80s to 90s which shaped much of what is today’s informal economy.

As we shall see, the Somali people are some of the most sensitive to threats of erosion capital. It is in their blood, a natural instinct to respond to invasive threats to wealth such as hawala networks to bypass strict capital controls.

This got me thinking, how will the Somali people weather a period of heavy monitoring, high scrutiny and low trust?

The the answer lies in Eastleigh, a bustling business district in one of East Africa’s capitals, Nairobi. Here, youthful Somali hawadalars are complementing the old informal financial practices with an odd piece of a new digital resilient tool – bitcoin.

While there is no war today, times are similarly tough, the only difference is that is all mostly digital.

This is Part 1 of a 2 Part Series on how the young Somali Hawaladars of little Mogadishu are shaping the future of bitcoin in Africa

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Why the Legacy of Uber’s App and Business Model in Africa will outlive the company

The legacy that Uber will leave behind in Africa’s mobile first decentralized digital economic ecosystem is the ability of a simple algorithm to collate disparate sources of demand for goods or services, and then redistribute them in the most efficient and productive manner among suppliers.

By Niti Bhan, 

As news of Uber’s possible decline and fall filters in, it behooves me to take a moment to ponder the implications for sub Saharan Africa’s digital economic ecosystem, particularly, the decentralized hybrid one emerging among the erstwhile informal sectors of the economy, such as motorcycle taxis like Safeboda and other on demand services.

While Uber itself has made waves in all the major urban metros across the African continent – Lagos, Nairobi, Johannesburg, etc – its inevitable end will leave a greater legacy than simply copycat taxi hailing services.

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Why Africa’s Policy Makers Should be Worried About Virtual Platforms and Virtual Currencies

In a lot of ways, Facebook is more like a government than a traditional company. What does this mean for Africa’s Governments, fintech industry and policy makers?

“In a lot of ways, Facebook is more like a government than a traditional company” – Mark Zuckerburg

The rise of virtual internet platforms such as Facebook, Whatsapp, Telegram, Kakao is challenging established regimes of state and sovereignty, monetary policy and issuance of currency, control, ownership and governance of virtual resources in developing countries in Africa.

Billions of users, including Africans are spending more time on virtual networked platforms that command the attention of far greater audiences than the populations of individual nation states. WhatsApp has 1 billion, Telegram 200 million users and Facebook has 2.3 billion users worldwide.

Now, these virtual platforms are all getting into the business of  issuing currencies using ‘blockchains’ or shared ledgers to monetize all the possibilities of economic activity within the confines of their platforms. 

Out of all of them, Facebook’s Libra coin drew the most attention. No surprise at all considering the sheer size of its 2.3 billion people user base.

What does this mean for Africa’s fintech industry and policies, that tech giants from overseas can monetize the digital economy of Africa through non-sovereign means including issuance of digital currencies?

What follows is a transcript of conversations between Michael Kimani  and Andile Masuku, about the current shift to internet virtual platforms, and currencies, and what lies ahead for Africa’s Fintech policy.

Michael Kimani is Head of Business Development East Africa at Zippie, a mobile blockchain platform, a Fintech Innovation Advisor for Visa and Secretary General of the Blockchain Association of Kenya. He is one of East Africa’s renowned digital money analysts.

Andile Masaku is a Co-founder and Executive Producer at Africa Tech RoundUp.

Some parts of this Q&A were pulled from a podcast with Andile, while some of it are from phone discussions with Malak Gharib of NPR and Ronit Ghose of Citi Bank.

The structure is presented in the format of a Question and Answer. Enjoy!

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Why Facebook’s New Cryptocurrency Is a threat to Mpesa and Safaricom

Using blockchain and cryptocurrencies, popular internet platforms, are about to disrupt Mpesa in East Africa, the same way Mpesa disrupted banks.

According to sources, Facebook Is Developing a Cryptocurrency for WhatsApp Transfers known a Facebookcoin. If true, this spells doom for Mpesa and Safaricom as they will soon end up as a commodified dumb pipe, like a utility company resigned to a passive role in the medium to long term future.

Popular internet platforms in East Africa have grown beyond social, and now support value exchange within their closed environments – for example Facebook  and whatsapp, both social platforms where people engage in online trade and biashara.

By adding a US dollar pegged coin known as a stablecoin within its virtual network, more value can be captured and retained within the network until it is absolutely necessary to cash out into local currency.

Facebookcoin, platform based currencies and network cryptocurrencies pose a threat to Mpesa just because of the sheer size of the networks they command and everything that goes on within them. This is great news for Fintech startups and banks in East Africa who can reinvent themselves in a post Mpesa world.

Here is how I see it.

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How Digital Platforms are Shaping Africa’s Informal Economy

A new digital generation of informal African entrepreneurs have adopted and adapted gig economy tools and digital platforms to meet their needs for a flexible and negotiable digital marketplace. Apps that can drive demand and scale reach affordably are transforming African markets, opening up new opportunities for young Africans.

With contribution from Niti Bhan

When people think about the informal economy, this is the picture that often comes to mind.

What is often forgotten, is that the next generation of informal economy actors – mama mbogas, boda boda okada riders, wakulima farmers, traders, taxi drivers, matatu touts, drivers et cetera in Kenya and East Africa will be vastly different from the women depicted here.

The coming generation of Africa’s informal economy are today’s millennial digital natives – hungry, educated, exposed to global trends, with all the tools available to them like everyone else anywhere in the world. Only with no prospects of formal employment on the horizon.

‘Informal’ is no longer synonymous to the streets, associated with the roadside, automatically defaulting to the marginalized or vulnerable – it is not a disease to recover from. The informal economy is an equal opportunity, organized and commercial operating environment offering Africans the chance to achieve their aspirations.

Africa’s prosperous future will only be realized by embracing the informal. This is not a choice.

While my thoughts are presented in the context of East Africa, I believe it resonates with the broader, global ‘gig’ economy. So perhaps my 60,000 ft view from Nairobi, East Africa rings true for the rest of the world.

Allow me to paint a picture for you using one of the sectors of the informal economy – trade.

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How Africa’s Airtime Currency Traders Birthed A Fintech Innovation Playbook

This is a story of how informal airtime currency resellers of Africa birthed mPesa, mobile money, and an innovation playbook for Africa’s emerging economy.

Not everyone can see it.

If you are keen though, you’ll realize Africa’s informal economy is an open playbook on how to innovate, build and scale successful products and services for the emerging African consumers. Ask me how I know, and I’ll point you to the little known story of prepaid airtime currency re-sellers in Africa who, by cobbling up a rudimentary hack, were able to model a country-wide money transfer network, that would later be adopted by Africa’s telecommunication companies (Telco), spun off into a massive revenue generating business to eventually dethrone the monopoly of banks in East Africa.

But the real story is neither about airtime, nor Telcos. What it is really about are the lessons we can draw upon Africa’s informal economy on how to approach innovation in Africa.

This is a story of how the prepaid airtime re-sellers of Africa not only birthed mPesa, and mobile money, but an innovation playbook for Africa’s emerging economy.

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Why African Fintech Wants To Digitize Chamas, But Can’t Seem To Get It Right

Why is the digitization of Chama groups so valuable for Fintechs and Telcos and Banks? And more interestingly, why is it such a tough nut to crack?

 

A group of high profile organizations including Facebook, Mastercard, FSD Kenya, Safaricom, Fintech startups,  and even the World Bank have convened in Nairobi for a one day workshop to try figure out how to digitize the chama groups of East Africa. While it has been over a decade of digital financial inclusion estimated at 80%, none of them have figured out how to successfully digitize chama groups.

Just so we’re on the same page, I use chamas as a catchall for any group of people who come together with a shared goal, agree on a self governing mechanism and pool together resources such as time, labour or capital to achieve their shared aspirations. This simple form of self organization, self governance and chama identity makes it a highly flexible people-structure and why it exists in different forms across the world and Africa as Paare in Chad, Asusu in Nigeria or Chilemba in Zambia.

So why is the digitization of Chama groups so valuable for Fintechs and Telcos and Banks? And more interestingly, why is it such a tough nut to crack?

I found the answers to these questions from Toffene Karma, the one person who successfully digitized the social savings group of Chad West Africa known as Paare using a mobile product known as TigoPaare.

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