Can Bitcoin Help Africa?
Akalanani Itirleng has been named Botswana’s first Bitcoiner. She believes that the fledgling digital currency has the potential to lift her country out of the current economic quagmire and abject poverty that plagues most sub-saharan African nations. 

While Botswana has certainly progressed over the past 50 years, it still finds itself in the ranks of some of the world’s poorest nations. Unemployment and poverty figures are around 20 percent and life expectancy sits at just 47 years while its economic inequality indicators put Botswana among some of the most notorious nations in the world such as the Dep. Republic of Congo and Niger. 

A New Hope 

Akalanani was first introduced to Bitcoin through a dubious online get-rich-quick scheme, which was to pay her in Bitcoin for clicks and referral, and while that did not bring her the money that she had hoped for, the upside was that she was introduced to the world of virtual currency. 

The liberation promised by this innovative technology made her a believer as she converted to become Botswana’s most vocal “evangelist.” Alakanani created Facebook groups, YouTube videos, and set up local workshops in a tireless effort to educate her people on the potential benefits to their economy and society as a whole. 

Currently, her aim is to raise awareness and attract the attention of the media and charitable organizations, which have the necessary resources to establish the infrastructure needed for the network to function. Alakanani explains, “There is still no platform to buy or sell,” as she can only access the Internet through her phone, although the service can be unstable to say the least. 

As far as the promise of Bitcoin is concerned, she states: 

“I believe Bitcoin is the best compared to regular banking—I mean the freedom, the feeling of ownership and control over my finances is beautiful.” 

Ironically, this resource-rich nation offers little economic opportunities for regular citizens. Moreover, government bureaucracy and the banking sector present a major hurdle for ordinary people. She goes on to explain: 

“The bank can question why I have a certain amount of money in my account, a whole lot of bureaucracy and all. Issues of charges that we incur when we transact at banks are always upsetting. They might look small to some people but our statuses are not the same. [With Bitcoin] sending money to one’s parents who live far from towns, cities, or villages is much more easy and with no fees.” 

Bitcoin to the rescue 

Of course, Alakanani did not have the means to buy her own Bitcoins. But that did not deter her in procuring her own share as she received donations from her community when her message resonated with like-minded people. “At first, I started with three people who were very keen in knowing more about bitcoins,” she said. “And I just wanted to share with them so they can feel the love I felt when I received the coins. I knew that once they could feel that, they will want to learn more and at the same time change their lives and have hope for a better future.” 

To her, Bitcoin holds the key to individual empowerment by eliminating dependency on handouts and assistance from the government and international charities. In her view, government institutions are ineffective while bureaucracy stifles any incentive to start her own business. On the other hand, Bitcoin could open up a whole window of opportunities. 

She believes that a decentralized and disintermediated banking system could stimulate financial independence, granting regular people access to funds that were previously unavailable, which would translate into more local businesses, jobs, etc. while eliminating fees and high interest rates that normal people simply cannot afford. 

Barriers and solutions 

Impoverished Africans aren’t just stuck with a bad system - most are simply outcasted from it. And with simple financial services such as the ability to send, receive, and store money being unavailable to a lot of people in Botswana, the “unbanked,” as they have been termed, have to rely on informal and unregulated methods, which are often insecure, of dubious origin, and more expensive. 

In a recent report by Accenture, “leveraging the lower cost-to-serve capabilities enabled by the technology-driven transformation of their operating and distribution models” enables banks to reach markets that were previously inaccessible like “the hundreds of millions of people who remain outside the scope of traditional banking services.” 

The incentive is certainly there as these unbanked individuals number in the hundreds of millions. This represents a huge and highly-lucrative market for forward-thinking companies, which hitherto has remained completely untapped. 

With Africa’s limited infrastructure and with only 13% of the population having access to the internet, there are certainly many roadblocks preventing a cryptocurrency revolution from taking root. Nevertheless, Alakanani remains undeterred: 

“I might not have a lot of Bitcoins but it has given me the opportunity to give people an alternative to what they are used to. I mean the government tries with its poverty eradication programs and back to school programs, but we can have independent people who will not depend on government for handouts if we can integrate Bitcoin in Botswana.”

#Bitcoin 2014 

Board director of the Bitcoin Foundation, Elizabeth T. Ploshay, recently learned that Alakanani was invited to share her story at the at #Bitcoin2014, which will be held 15-17 May in Amsterdam. Ploshay along with Bitcoin Foundation Board Chairman, Peter Vessenes, started an initiative to fund Alakanani’s trip to Amsterdam by April 16th, which requires approx. $US 4,000 to cover her airfare, visa fee, hotel, and meals:

Bitcoin donations can be made to: 18XkPm3cm1mjbb19NEdvLZq7XyPQJcLUZG 

“Her presence and participation at #Bitcoin2014 will empower her to keep growing the Bitcoin ecosystem in Africa,” said Ploshay.

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