Bitcoin’s ‘quiet boom’ in Africa

A bitcoin user checks receipts after buying the cryptocurrency in Lagos. A weaker Nigerian naira is pushing US dollars out of reach for many. (Reuters)
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Updated 09 September 2020

Bitcoin’s ‘quiet boom’ in Africa

  • Migrant worker remittances and young, tech-savvy users help drive cryptocurrency’s rising fortunes on the continent

LAGOS: Four months ago, Abolaji Odunjo made a fundamental change to his business selling mobile phones in a bustling street market in Lagos: He started paying his suppliers in bitcoin.

Odunjo sources handsets and accessories from China and the UAE. His Chinese suppliers asked to be paid in the cryptocurrency, he said, for speed and convenience.

The shift has boosted his profits, as he no longer has to buy dollars using the Nigerian naira or shell out fees to money-transfer firms. It is also one example of how, in Africa, bitcoin — the original and biggest cryptocurrency — is finding the practical use that it has largely failed to elsewhere.

“Bitcoin helped to protect my business against the currency devaluation, and enabled me to grow at the same time,” Odunjo said. “You don’t have to pay charges, you don’t have to buy dollars.” 

Odunjo is one of many people at the heart of a quiet bitcoin boom in Africa, driven by payments from small businesses as well as remittances sent home from migrant workers, according to data shared exclusively with Reuters and interviews with around 20 bitcoin users and five cryptocurrency exchanges.

Monthly cryptocurrency transfers to and from Africa of under $10,000 — typically made by individuals and small businesses — jumped more than 55 percent in a year to reach $316 million in June, the data from US blockchain research firm Chainalysis shows.

The number of monthly transfers also rose by almost half, surpassing 600,700, according to Chainalysis, which says the research is the most comprehensive effort yet to map out global crypto use. Much of the activity took place in Nigeria, the continent’s biggest economy, along with South Africa and Kenya.

This represents a reversal for bitcoin which, despite its birth as a payments tool over a decade ago, has mainly been used for speculation by financial traders rather than for commerce.

Why a boom in Africa? Young, tech-savvy populations that have adapted quickly to bitcoin; weaker local currencies that make it harder to get dollars, the de facto currency of global trade; and complex bureaucracy that complicates money transfers.

The bitcoin users interviewed by Reuters, based in five countries from Nigeria to Botswana, said the cryptocurrency was helping people make their businesses nimbler and more profitable, and helping those working in places like Europe and North America hang on to more of the earnings they send home.

Yet risks abound.

Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are unregulated in many countries meaning there is no safety net. For many, converting local currencies to and from bitcoin relies on informal brokers. Prices are volatile, and buying and selling is a complex process. In 2018, the Nigerian central bank warned cryptocurrencies were not legal tender.

A steady stream of customers comes and goes from Odunjo’s shop in a market known as Computer Village. Odunjo makes two or three transfers a month of around 0.5-0.7 bitcoin ($5,900-$8,300) each, to suppliers in Shanghai and Zhangzhou. East Asia, Chainalysis found, is one of the top partners for bitcoin trading with Africa.

Odunjo’s trades offer a microcosm of the wider trends at play in Nigeria and across the continent.

In Nigeria, small cryptocurrency transfers totalled nearly $56 million in June, nearly 50 percent more than a year before. The number of transactions jumped over 55 percent to 120,000.

Gauging how cryptocurrencies are used in particular locations is tough, though. Digital coins offer a high degree of anonymity, and though the value of transactions can be tracked on the blockchain, the identity or location of a user cannot.

Chainalysis, which tracks crypto flows for financial firms and US law enforcement, gathered the data studying web traffic and trading patterns, separating transfers of under $10,000 from larger sums common among professional traders. With Nigeria’s oil-dependent economy rocked by low crude prices, the central bank has twice devalued the naira this year. 

The naira’s fall has pushed many Nigerians toward bitcoin as they seek methods of buying goods from overseas without having to buy dollars.

Sylvester Kalu, who runs a clothing operating in Uyo, eastern Nigeria, uses bitcoin to buy supplies from Istanbul and Shenzhen. “Everything is oil. When the price of oil dropped, forex became scarce,” he said. 

The 30-year-old said his transactions totalled around 2 bitcoin ($20,000) a time, adding: “I don’t need anyone in the banks, I don’t need a person to use the back door to get dollars.”

Timi Ajiboye, who runs Lagos exchange BuyCoins, said its monthly cryptocurrency volumes jumped over three-fold to $21 million in June after the naira was devalued in March.

Exchanges across Africa spoke of a similar boom. Yellow Card, which operates in five countries, said its monthly crypto volumes had jumped five-fold in 2020 to $25 million in August. A big driver was workers using bitcoin for remittances, it added.

The combined monthly bitcoin trading volumes of all market participants in South Africa and Nigeria jumped by half this year to more than $536 million in August.

For some people working abroad, sending money home via bitcoin can be quicker and cheaper.

A Nigerian worker in London sending £100 ($132) in cash to Lagos via a big traditional money-transfer firm, for example, would pay fees of around 5 percent.

Bitcoin fees vary depending on the exchange or broker, but would typically total about 2-2.5 percent for sending the same amount.

However both exchanges and over-the-counter (OTC) brokers carry risks, from hacks to scams.

And bitcoin, while handy for transfers, isn’t much use on the ground — shops and landlords rarely accept it, for instance. This means friends or family sent funds by workers must convert it back to traditional currency, often via a broker at their end, introducing additional risk.

But for a growing number of people, the potential rewards outweigh the pitfalls.

“People are very adoptive of any technology that will make their life easier,” said Frankline Kihiu, a crypto broker in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi.

“In most African countries, there are lots of government restrictions that bitcoin takes away.”


Egyptian transport start-up Swvl to list on Nasdaq after $1.5bn SPAC merger

Updated 5 min 12 sec ago

Egyptian transport start-up Swvl to list on Nasdaq after $1.5bn SPAC merger

  • Investors including Zain, Agility, Luxor Capital inject $100 million
  • Proceeds to be used to expand to 20 countries by 2025

CAIRO: Egyptian mass transit start-up Swvl said it plans to list of the Nasdaq stock exchange through a merger with US special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) Queen’s Gambit Growth Capital.

Swvl will be valued at $1.5 billion in the deal, which will generate proceeds of as much as $445 million, including $100 million from investors including Kuwaiti logistics company Agility, Saudi telecoms company Zain and Luxor Capital Group, it said in a statement.

The proceeds will be used to fund expansion of the company’s business to 20 countries by 2025, it said. Swvl operates buses along fixed routes and allows customers to reserve and pay for them using an app in 10 countries including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Jordan, Kenya, and Pakistan.

More than 1.4 million riders have booked more than 46 million rides to date, it said.

“We have succeeded in executing our business plan in some of the most challenging emerging markets, where inefficiencies in infrastructure and related mass transit systems represent a universal problem, and have now reached a critical inflection point where we are ready to share our expertise and technology with the rest of the world,” said Mostafa Kandil, Swvl founder and CEO.


Saudi Arabia Plans $15bn technology fund with private investors

Updated 31 min 31 sec ago

Saudi Arabia Plans $15bn technology fund with private investors

  • Investments in the fourth industrial technology expected to reach $200 billion in the Kingdom
  • Fund to invest in robotics, artificial intelligence, and wireless technology

RIYADH: A Saudi public-private partnership will launch a $15 billion technology fund to advance the digital infrastructure in the Kingdom, Haytham AlOhali, vice minister of the Ministry of Communications & Information Technology (MCIT) announced on Wednesday, during the Saudi 4th Industrial Revolution conference held in Riyadh.

Telecom and technology operators invest between $3 billion and $4 billion annually in digital infrastructure, fiber infrastructure, Internet networks and 5G services, and this is not enough for the Kingdom to take a lead, said AlOhali.

"We will transform in Saudi Arabia into an economy based on technology, information, capabilities and skills, and it will bear fruit for the future with huge investments from more than 10,000 industrial facilities worth $25 billion," he said, during the two-day-conference.

The investments in the fourth industrial technology are expected to reach $200 billion in the Kingdom, with value creation coming from improved efficiency and reduction in cost over a 10 year period, said AlOhali.

There are 13,000 solar energy centers that rely on 5G to implement their services, with 10 million smart meters in the Kingdom, while 60 percent of cities are covered by 5G and 45 percent of the Kingdom's populated areas receive 5G, he said.

Saudi Arabia has invested in the mobile infrastructure leading the Kingdom from rank 105 in terms of speed to the 4th in the world, he said.

Advanced technology from the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) is expected to generate around $1 trillion for the Saudi economy in new revenue streams, a senior Saudi official said on Wednesday.

The Kingdom will enjoy economic boosts from robotics, artificial intelligence, and wireless production models as it pushes for more smarter cities and infrastructure.

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Updated 29 July 2021

Saudi Arabia suspended world’s largest desalination and power plant privatization due to pandemic — official

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  • National Center for Privatization & PPP CEO Rayyan Nagadi spoke

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia has suspended the privatization of Ras Al Khair Desalination and Power Plant due to the repercussions of the coronavirus pandemic, which slowed the responses it got from bidders, National Center for Privatization & PPP CEO Rayyan Nagadi said.

“It is clear that the pandemic repercussions affected the response of companies in the world to a project of the size of the Ras Al-Khair plant,” he said.

Suspension of the world’s biggest desalination and power plant privatization was announced by the Privatization Supervisory Committee for the Environment, Water and Agriculture on Monday.

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Reaching the decision to cancel the project had passed through stages that took into account that the desalination assets had developed their own strategies for a long time, and the tender process began in the summer of 2020 through the development of studies, with the interest of local and international developers, he told Al Arabiya on Wednesday.

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Volkswagen lifts margin outlook again after record profit

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Volkswagen lifts margin outlook again after record profit

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  • Lowers outlook for deliveries on chip shortage

FRANKFURT: Europe’s largest carmaker Volkswagen on Thursday raised its profit margin target for the second time in less than three months, pointing to record earnings in the first half of 2021 that even blew past pre-pandemic levels.
The company said it now expected an operating return on sales of 6.0-7.5 percent, having previously guided for 5.5-7 percent and nudged up its forecast for net cash flow at its automotive division, now expected to be much stronger in 2021.
First-half operating profit before special items reached 11.4 billion euros ($13.5 billion), above the previous record of 10 billion euros achieved in 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic wreaked havoc in the global economy.
The strong increase was in part driven by high demand for high-margin luxury Porsches and Audis.
“We’re keeping up our high pace, both operationally and strategically,” Chief Executive Herbert Diess said in a statement, published only hours after the carmaker, along with partners, launched a bid for French-listed Europcar.
“Our electric offensive is picking up momentum and we will keep on increasing its pace in the months to come,” said Diess, who aims for Volkswagen to overtake Tesla as the world’s largest electric vehicle player by 2025.
Porsche SE, Volkswagen’s largest shareholder, also raised it outlook following the carmaker’s result, now forecasting profit after tax of 3.4 billion to 4.9 billion euros in 2021.
Shares in Volkswagen were indicated to open 0.7 percent higher in pre-market trade.
The global car sector has been hit by a shortage of crucial semiconductors, with numerous rivals, including Daimler , BMW and GM, adjusting or halting production, and Volkswagen accounted for that in its deliveries forecast.
“The risk of bottlenecks and disruption in the supply of semiconductor components has intensified throughout the industry,” the company said, lowering the outlook for deliveries to customers.
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Shell profit soars to two-year high as oil and gas prices rebound

Updated 29 July 2021

Shell profit soars to two-year high as oil and gas prices rebound

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  • Shell boosts dividend by 38 percent

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As profits across the industry recovered from last year’s pandemic-led collapse in energy demand, peers TotalEnergies and Norway’s Equinor also announced share buybacks.
The Anglo-Dutch company saw a surge in cash generation, boosted by higher commodity prices and a recovery in global energy demand, which also helped it to cut debt.
“We are stepping up our shareholder distributions today, increasing dividends and starting share buybacks, while we continue to invest for the future of energy,” Shell Chief Executive Ben van Beurden said in a statement.
Adjusted earnings rose to $5.53 billion, the highest since the fourth quarter of 2018, exceeding an average analyst forecast provided by the company for a $5.07 billion profit.
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