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 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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How PayPal & the UK Government are nudging Kenyan Online Workers to Bitcoin

Kenyan online workers, PayPal and the UK Government are entangled in a mess that is paving way for Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies

A spat between the UK government, PayPal and Kenya freelancers has got everyone mixing up issues.

“Thousands of jobless graduates from Kenya who help lazy university students in developed countries to cheat academically could soon be forced to find something else to do after the UK government started clamping down on essay mills.

On Thursday, international digital money transfer service, PayPal, announced it was withdrawing its services to essay-writing firms selling to university students. This was after weeks of pressure from the UK government, which insists stopping payments for essay mills would go a long way in beating academic cheating.’ Daily Nation

There are 3 parts to this story.

First, the British Education Secretary, Damian Hinds, says when UK students tap cheap labor in Kenya for their assignments, it is unethical and cheating. 46 university vice chancellors last year wrote to Hinds, calling for the banning of cheating websites.

Secondly, PayPal is caught up in the wrangles for facilitating online payments between UK students and Kenyan freelancers. PayPal has come under pressure to stop processing these payments and declared it will not support unethical academic behaviour by UK graduates. Some people have suggested, cryptocurrency may serve well as an alternative for Kenyan freelancers.

Finally, in Kenya, we are all caught up debating whether it is cheating or job creation, as thousands of graduates are dependent on the thriving business for wages and employment.

This case is a glimpse of tectonic shifts at play on the future of Africa, its youth population and the web economy. It is easy to miss the forest for the trees.

To get at the heart of the matter, we need to go back to 2009 when it all began.

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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.

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How The Chinese, Africa’s Most Popular Browser , And A Bitcoin Mining Company Are About To Change African Payments

Africa’s most popular mobile browser, Opera is about to radically change the payments landscape in Africa.

China Loves Africa 2 by Michael Soi
Michael Soi’s China Loves Africa Collection

I think before this blog and thread, the global cryptocurrency community will not appreciate the strategic relevance of Bitmain’s $50 million investment round into one of Africa’s most popular Chinese owned mobile browser, Opera. What they will not see is the Fintech connection at play in East Africa, where the wildly successful mobile browser is creeping into digital financial services like mobile payments. For the payment professionals of East Africa, the pertinence of this investment on the future of their industry will not dawn on them perhaps until it is too late.

Last week’s SEC’s disclosure on Opera’s newest investor for their $115 million IPO, was the best strategic news on cryptocurrency ‘adoption’ in Africa I have seen in the last 5 years with far reaching implications on e-commerce, trade and payments for the region than appears at first glance.

My choice of a header image above accurately captures increasing Chinese influence on Kenya and Africa, at both state and commercial level.

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How the Central Bank Of Kenya Plans To Regulate Bitcoin and Cryptocurrencies

Rather than fight change, the Central Bank of Kenya now seems to be reconsidering its stance on cryptocurrencies as a radically new way of high-speed, low-cost value transfer independent of traditional financial intermediaries.

Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies are a puzzle especially for regulators. Over the last 4 years our dear Central Bank Governor, Dr. Patrick Njoroge has consistently been opposed to the idea of cryptocurrencies. He issued 2 damning public notices warning the public to stay away and another circular expressly requesting banks to choke any value transfer activity related to cryptocurrencies.

As per the Central Bank of Kenya Act, he is well within his right. A bank is a regulated private business. You cannot compel a bank to take you as a customer or take your business. Thus, every once in a while, the governor pulls out his trump card to remind us who is boss.

But mounting pressure has pinned the old man against the wall, forcing him to revisit his dogmatism. An article from the Standard dated May 23rd titled “CBK Warms Up to Cryptocurrencies”  read

“CBK Governor Patrick Njoroge said the regulator was open to introducing cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin as alternative payment vehicles with the opportunity to reduce fraud.”

While in the past, all the the financial instruments that intermediary companies use for fund transfers were based on fiat currencies, in the forms of cash, bank deposits and electronic money – it is no longer the case with the advent of Bitcoin.

Rather than fight change, the Central Bank of Kenya now seems to be reconsidering its stance on cryptocurrencies as a radically new way of high-speed, low-cost value transfer independent of traditional financial intermediaries.

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5 Types of Pesa We Use in Kenya Today

Pesa is dynamic. We need look no further than Nairobi for 5 types of pesa in Kenya you’re likely to have come across.

Pesa is dynamic.

One of my favorite projects in Kenya is Bangla Pesa. Besides being greatly underappreciated as an example of how to empower rural and informal communities, its perception is a great example of the miseducation of pesa. Back in 2013 the members of this community currency project were arrested and paraded in the media as secessionists out to overthrow the national government.

Of course it was but a clear case of misunderstanding, like so many out-of-the-box ideas in Kenya.

When thinking about pesa, you gotta loosen up. We need look no further than Nairobi for 5 types of pesa in Kenya you’re likely to have come across.

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How to think about pesa in Kenya

How many of us think deeply about the pesa we use everyday? Here are 9 lenses we can look through to analyze all the pesa we use in Kenya today.

How many of us think deeply about the pesa we use everyday? In my experience, only a handful of us are conscious of the nuances of our day to day pesa. Yet, Kenya has one of the most colourful pesa diversity in the world. Bangla pesa, bonga points, Mpesa, Chama Pesa, Bitcoin, Cash and airtime are all part of Kenya’s money montage.

Here are 9 lenses we can look through to analyze all the pesa we use in Kenya today.

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