Banking The Unbanked: how I taught Bitcoin to a complete stranger in Kenya

Deep in the Great Rift Valley in Kenya lies the city of Nakuru, renowned for its flamingos and prehistoric sites. Located 160 kilometers northwest of Nairobi, the name of the city is translated from Maasai, the local language, into „Dusty Place“.

This is where I decided to teach Bitcoin Profit to randomly chosen strangers, a foreign term for many people accustomed to using cash and the M-Weigh mobile payment system to make transactions.

M-Weigh is by far the largest mobile payment system for portable devices in Kenya, used by about 83% of the adult population. The COVID-19 outbreak has also reached the African country, and the Central Bank of Kenya has given citizens one more reason to use the product.

Press release: Emergency measures to facilitate money transactions from mobile devices

„Press Release: Emergency Measures to Facilitate Money Transactions from Mobile Devices“.

It would have been easy to find young people who already knew a thing or two about Bitcoin. This demographic group already has access to the Internet and can easily do research on the topic using Google.

Instead, I decided to focus on older people, those who are usually ignored by most mainstream media and educational initiatives. It didn’t take long to find the first target: a group of drivers sipping coffee waiting for their buses to fill up with passengers.

After twenty minutes, the four drivers didn’t seem to know much more about Bitcoin than when I arrived. „Kwa hivyo Bitcoin ni kama M-Pesa (Is Bitcoin like M-Pesa?)“, one of them asked me. Until now, they had understood Bitcoin as a form of stock or an alternative to M-Weight.

After a few dozen more questions, the four drivers seemed to have a rudimentary understanding of Bitcoin as a digital currency. Meanwhile, others had joined the discussion, each with questions about why they should use Bitcoin. I answered the questions over and over again. In the end, I had managed to convince three people to open a Bitcoin wallet, to which I later sent a few dollars in BTC. I also taught the new crypto students how to buy Bitcoin by themselves using peer-to-peer platforms.

Are you sure it’s not a scam?
At this point, I felt pretty confident and decided to raise the level of the challenge. I approached my next target, a group of mama mboga (greengrocers). As in the previous discussion, questions were not missed; why use Bitcoin? Does it replace M-Weight? Is it a scam? Are you sure it is not a scam?

I understood their fears. In Kenya, thousands of people have lost millions of dollars to Bitcoin-related scams. A local start-up crypto called Nurucoin recently closed its doors, and it looks like the founder has fled to California. Nurucoin, advertised as the ultimate pan-African crypto-currency, managed to subtract 2.7 billion KSh (27 million dollars). And this was not the only scam: dozens of other scams have deceived naive investors, eroding their trust in Bitcoin.

One of the sellers explained to me:

„I’ve heard of Bitcoin, but as a scam. A neighbor of mine lost 64,000 KSh ($640) in a scam known as Velox. They told her she could make a lot of money in a short time, but they closed and disappeared overnight. That’s why I don’t want anything to do with Bitcoin.“

She was referring to Velox 10 Global, a company launched in Kenya in 2017. Founded by a Brazilian citizen, it promised monthly earnings of up to 50%, but ended up disappearing, taking millions of dollars from investors.

Another constant problem, mentioned by many as a cause for concern, is Bitcoin’s speed. As a speculative asset, the need for speed for Bitcoin is minimal, but its efficiency as a currency to trade with is affected. In Kenya, M-Pesa offers a practical cashless payment method that takes three seconds. Since Bitcoin recently takes at least ten minutes, its adoption for small daily payments still seems a long way off.

Despite the obstacles, I was able to convince five greengrocers to create a Bitcoin wallet.