“In essence, BitPesa is a company solving the problem of FX [foreign exchange] in Africa,” Rossiello told me. “It is not a glamorous topic, but FX availability and pricing is at the core of every company doing payments, lending, or financial transactions in more than one country.”
For example, it’s very expensive for a Kenyan furniture dealer to purchase a bulk order of silk lamp shades from Dubai, given the high bank transfer fees and currency exchanges at both ends of the deal. BitPesa offers a way to engage in same-day international purchases of this kind for a predictable, flat percentage fee. Rossiello says BitPesa could help foster business models like Andela, which sources high-quality software development in Nigeria for Fortune 500 companies like Microsoft. These use cases don’t warm the heart the way the story of our theoretical farmer does, but they point to a more realistic near-future for Bitcoin in the developing world—as a powerful tool for early adopters, who are likely to be upper-middle-class entrepreneurs, building international businesses through trade and online commerce. “Saying that remittances are the only financial product for the entire continent of Africa that is interesting is a major underestimation of the size of these markets and the huge amounts of international trade in the region and beyond,” Rossiello said.
This doesn’t mean Bitcoin can’t serve individuals in need. Bitcoin has the potential to push forward the conversation about financial inclusion in really interesting ways, just not in the way it’s currently being discussed.
Instead, Bitcoin is first pushing people to rethink the way financial transactions should and can work. For example, BitPesa recently sued the mobile network operator Safaricom after Safaricom shut off access to its mPesa, Kenya’s largest mobile money platform, without the notice required by its service agreement. While Safaricom was instrumental in the launching of mPesa, it’s also the main reason for its limited impact as a platform for broader financial inclusion.
In the Kenyan startup scene, Safaricom is known for its cutthroat business practices, which make it difficult for smaller companies to offer a diverse set of services and products on top of the mobile money platform. In the case of BitPesa, Safaricom shut off access to its mPesa gateway without notice. This was significant because most Kenyan businesses offer mPesa acceptance as a mode of payment. Blocking access to mPesa was a public statement by Safaricom that they would not support Bitcoin companies. (Bitcoin is not illegal in Kenya, and recent Central Bank notices for consumers alerting them of investment risk in the digital good stop short of banning the use of it.)
Struggles like this point to major shifts in the ways money works today. Researchers like Rachel O’Dwyer urge us to dig into the ways mobile money is embedded in new, networked systems of control and value enclosure, as opposed to being a purely grassroots phenomenon for social inclusion. When framed this way, it’s interesting to think of Bitcoin (and other cryptocurrencies) as playing a role in constructing new infrastructure for payments—on top of which services like BitPesa can be built.