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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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.

Continue reading “How Digital Platforms are Shaping Africa’s Informal Economy”

Blockchain, Identity, Chamas and Africa: A Q & A with Ian Grigg

Way before bitcoin and the blockchain, Ian Grigg was part of a vibrant group of pioneers that pursued the vision of digital cash and financial cryptography in the 90s – what is now call blockchain. It is an understatement to say he has seen it all.

By God! There is too much noise in the blockchain industry. I know because I live it everyday; have been living it for the past 5 years.

Over time, I have devised a method to navigate and filter out the practical and realistic from the bold, utopian-dream proclamations. The trick is to seek out and follow the more sober-headed minds in the industry; these are the older wiser tech heads and the level-headed critics in the industry.

Ian grigg is one of them.

Ian Grigg is an architect and financial cryptographer who has been building, auditing and consulting for cryptographic ledger platforms for over 20 years. Way before bitcoin and the blockchain, he was part of a vibrant group of pioneers that pursued the vision of digital cash and financial cryptography in the 90s – what is now call blockchain. It is an understatement to say he has seen it all.

He is mostly known for 3 accomplishments (amongst others)

Co-inventor of the Triple Entry Accounting Ledger, a concept that sparked the explosion of a $400 billion Bitcoin, cryptocurrency and blockchain industry – bitcoin is the world’s first triple ledger entry system at scale.

The inventor of the Ricardian contract, a canonical design pattern for tying legal contracts into digital assets issued over the internet. His work on Ricardian Contracts foreshadowed today’s blockchain smart contracts.

Confirming the identity of 2 of the members of the team Satoshi Nakamoto that birthed Bitcoin – Craig Wright and Dave Kleiman

More recently, Ian was an architect consultant for one of the world’s largest consortium based distributed ledger protocol, R3 Corda, formed by 43 of the world’s largest banks, a partner at the $4 billion EOS blockchain for business and commercial scale and an audit consultant for Senegal’s Digital Currency roll out masterplan for Francophone Africa, serving under eCurrencyMint on behalf of Omidyar Network.

Today, Ian is a cofounder and Chief Technology officer at Chamapesa, a project using blockchain elements to digitize the indigenous culture of social savings and investments that is prevalent across Africa and the developing world. Ian believes the Chama groups of Kenya and savings groups communities in Africa and Latin America hold the key to designing identity systems for a blockchain powered internet economy.

So when Ian speaks, you listen and pay attention.

I managed to lock him down for a question and answer session, probing his mind on Blockchain, Identity, Chamas and Africa.

Whatever your opinions, what follows is one of the best bits of wisdom  you will come across on the interwebs.

Enjoy!

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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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How Nairobi’s Matatus Defied the Will of Kenya’s Cashless Policy Makers

Nairobi’s failed cashless experiment, an attempt to digitize all commuter payments in Kenya is a poster child on the pattern of thinking that’s left a trail of struggling Fintech experiments in the name of Silicon Savannah.

 

We often fall into the trap of making broad sweeping assumptions about people and places based on our preconceived notions of an what we consider is an ideal world. In the context of East Africa and its bulging informal economy, countless technology entrepreneurs, policy makers, donor agencies and wazungu NGOs have fallen victim to throwing resources at reality hoping to turn it into their Utopian dream. Pick a sector, any sector – be it agriculture, transport, banking, ecommerce. Everything but the kitchen sink has been tried at perceived problems. I say perceived because the definition of the problem depends on who you ask.

Kenya’s short innovation history is littered with such experiments, typically ambitious, well funded but not lasting long before packing up.

Nairobi’s failed cashless experiment, an attempt to digitize all commuter payments in Kenya is a poster child on the pattern of thinking that’s left a trail of struggling Fintech experiments in the name of Silicon Savannah.

Continue reading “How Nairobi’s Matatus Defied the Will of Kenya’s Cashless Policy Makers”