The Truth Behind Cuba’s Bitcoin Revolution: An on-the-ground report

In Cuba’s capital, Havana, a Bitcoin community has emerged from an economically antagonistic environment.

“Satoshi didn’t create Bitcoin for Cubans, but it really comes in handy for us,” Forte, co-founder of the aptly named local Bitcoin organization Cuba Bitcoin, tells Magazine.

Cubans are turning to Bitcoin because their money is increasingly worthless. Zimbabwe, Venezuela and Lebanon often compete for media coverage about runaway inflation levels, but the Cuban peso is not far behind.

The Cuban peso has devalued so much over the last few years that carrying bags of cash is increasingly common among the rich and the poor.
In practice, even if someone bought Bitcoin at the top of the 2021 bull run at $69,000, their money is worth much less in Cuban pesos. Whereas Bitcoin dropped 80% to its bear market low, it has since recovered 100%, and the peso has devalued by 90%.

The realization that someone should swap local currency for the Bitcoin top, knowing that it will crash and they’ll still retain more purchasing power, is one of the many financial wake-up calls received while working on Cointelegraph’s new documentary, The Truth Behind Cuba’s Bitcoin Revolution

In 2021, I came across the article “Inside Cuba’s Bitcoin Revolution” by Human Rights Foundation chief strategy officer Alex Gladstein, in which he explains how and why Cubans were utilizing Bitcoin’s stateless and low-fee properties to save money and escape financial oppression. 
In line with the Bitcoin mantra of Don’t trust, Verify, I went to see with my own eyes what Gladstein described.

Camera in hand with my trusty travel partner Paco de la India by my side, I network my way into the Cuba Bitcoin community, which now counts thousands of enthusiasts and advocates.

La Cultura Cubana

Following one of the largest financial conferences in the world, Bitcoin Miami, in arguably the world’s most capitalist arena, the United States of America, I hop across the Caribbean to Cuba, one of the few extant socialist states. The contrast hits me harder than the Cuban tropical heat. 

From the moment I landed at Havana Jose Marti International Airport, I noticed some funny quirks: doors open manually (forget automatic sensors), check-in and immigration are done on pen and paper, and the taxis are 1950s Chevrolets. 

A retro car in Havana’s city center. (Cointelegraph)

It’s common to describe visiting Cuba as a time warp. It’s not hyperbole; Cuba cannot access world markets, financial institutions or trade. The United States has subjected Cuba to a trade embargo — the longest in modern history — since the island nation nationalized U.S. oil refineries in 1960.

As a result, Cuban industry, economic output and commerce lag far behind the modern world.

The embargo, coupled with more than half a century of communism, has resulted in a highly educated, extraordinarily literate but desperately poor and hungry population, many of whom possess a heartbreaking desire to leave the island, or in Spanish, to find a “salida” — an exit. 

Why stay in a country where a taxi driver earns more than an atomic engineer — and the emaciated engineer struggles to feed their family? 

Adopting Bitcoin

In such an environment, it’s a wonder why Cubas don’t flock to Bitcoin as money that exists outside of state control. However, many Cubans are learning about and slowly turning to Bitcoin. 

Catrya, one of the main characters in Cointelegraph’s new documentary and one of the founders of Cuba Bitcoin, explains that there could be around 5,000 Bitcoiners in Cuba, and if you include crypto enthusiasts generally, the number is higher still. 

Cubans do not have easy on-ramps into crypto. Firstly, those with internet connections cannot sign up for Binance, Coinbase or Gemini due to their nationality. For Cuban Americans on the island, Cuba’s government restricts access to American websites. Cubans buy Bitcoin peer-to-peer through Telegram or WhatsApp groups and at in-person meetups. 

What amazes me is the tiny amounts of money Cubans put aside to save money or “stack sats.” Saving 1,000 satoshis (less than $1 a week) is meaningful to a Cuban on $40 monthly. The Cuban peso may not be here in 10 years, but Bitcoin certainly will be.
The peer-to-peer process is straightforward, but it’s not beginner-friendly, and these hurdles can hamper adoption — although they do have a silver lining, as Catrya explains:

“Since we’re denied [access to exchanges] by default for being Cuban, we can never do KYC [Know Your Customer], so that’s a good thing for us, at least in terms of privacy.”

Buying Bitcoin peer-to-peer and storing Bitcoin by taking ownership of the private keys is safer. Customers who trusted custodians such as FTX, BlockFi, Celsius and Vauld with their crypto were wiped out. Cubans don’t have that option, and while it takes longer, it’s more secure. 

Erich Garcia Cruz, the founder of QvaPay and BitRemesas — a currency remitter using Bitcoin that boasts tens of thousands of Cuban users — says that the small but growing number of Bitcoin customers somewhat represents Cuba’s fledgling internet culture.

Connectivity and freedom of information

Cubans could get online in earnest from 2013. So, while the rest of the world was enjoying the iPhone 5C and 4G, a few lucky Cubans fortunate to access a computer could get online that year, albeit with an awful internet connection. 

Now, Cubans can access 3G and sometimes 4G connectivity on their phones. The tech-savvy and younger Cubans use VPNs to circumnavigate online restrictions.

Generally, the lag in internet infrastructure combined with the cost and difficulty of buying a smartphone on a frighteningly low salary means Cuba is way behind in IT. 

In 2021, the World Bank reported that three-quarters of Cuba has access to the internet. But while the issue is improving, internet censorship is rife, and Cubans are repeatedly told to trust the government through state-sponsored TV, newspapers and media.

Independent media publications are classified as “enemy propaganda,” which is something I was made aware of a few times during my investigation. I won’t share those stories here, but it’s safe to say reciting such stories would’ve landed me in trouble had I stayed in Cuba. 

Two exiled Cuban journalists have since advised me to avoid returning to the island for some time, especially if the Cointelegraph documentary gets a lot of attention. 

A funny caveat to the state-run media is that some Cubans were orange-pilled by Bitcoin proponent Max Keiser. His appearances on the Russia Today news channel were approved for broadcast in Cuba. Some of Catrya’s peers watched the show where Keiser bashes fiat currencies and promotes Bitcoin. 

And yet, Bitcoin is magic internet money; it lives on the web. If Cubans aren’t online — or watching Russia Today — how can they know about it? 

Orange pill Cuba

Bitalion, one of the Cuba Bitcoin founders, works in telecommunications for the government. He explains that as a privileged public sector worker, he benefits from better internet connection speeds and lower online censorship levels. 

Bitalion speaks to Paco before dinner

Bitalion stumbled across the Bitcoin white paper in 2014 and became infatuated with the idea of an independent, borderless currency. He rhetorically poses the question: For those fortunate Cubans who are able to travel abroad, what can they bring to the new country? The peso in their pocket, or Bitcoin in a mobile wallet? 

As with the other Bitcoin advocates on the island, Bitalion volunteers his time to educate people and support Bitcoin adoption. He’s also one of the handful of Cubans running a Bitcoin node. At Cuba’s first-ever Bitcoin-only meetup, he demonstrates to dozens of Cubans how to pay for goods and services directly to his Lightning Network node.

Cruz, Forte and countless business owners explain that Bitcoin is an easy “orange pill” to swallow, particularly for the digitally capable Cubans. You merely explain to them that nobody controls it; it’s stateless money. 

Interviewing Forte

At face value, Bitcoin is a useful tool for a country that has been financially and economically handicapped for generations. But for Forte, Catrya and Bitalion, the ideology of Bitcoin resonates strongly.

Forte jokes, “Satoshi didn’t create Bitcoin for Cubans, but it really comes in handy for us.”

In the hope of encouraging more Cubans to explore Bitcoin, the trio and the Cuba Bitcoin community host monthly educational meetups in which they explain the principles of Bitcoin and delve into its philosophy.

They recently introduced the popular Mi Primer Bitcoin (My First Bitcoin) program in the country, which is already picking up speed in El Salvador and will soon be instructed in schools nationwide

Por qué aceptas Bitcoin? Why do you accept Bitcoin?

QvaPay’s Cruz explains that Bitcoin is the financial tool that allows the small but growing number of Cuban business owners to access foreign products.

Recent U.S. presidential administrations had fluctuating policies on the Cuban embargo, relaxing and tightening different aspects based on political expediency.

Cruz orange-pills suppliers in an attempt to open up the Cuban economy to international markets where possible:

“You are accepting Bitcoin because you’re dealing with a private [independent] coin. The government doesn’t have access to the transactions you and you have the freedom to do whatever you want.”

The term “freedom,” or “libertad,” popped up frequently as I mingled and met with Cuban Bitcoiners, crypto enthusiasts and entrepreneurs. The fact that citizens can hold money in a wallet, outside of government overreach, appealed to many Cubans whom the government has consistently let down.

The ability to store wealth on a mobile phone in a Bitcoin Lightning wallet instead of in pesos at a bank is also an efficiency gain. It means no more queues at banks to cash in money that could devalue by a few pesos over a bank holiday weekend. 

Speaking with Erich Garcia Cruz. Yes, the V from Vendetta poster was intentional.

Cruz and three other business owners also share that accepting Bitcoin benefits holidaymakers. Adan, a nightclub, bar and restaurant owner, explains that tourists bring a lot of cash to Cuba for vacation — and that’s risky. 

Having Bitcoin on a mobile phone in a wallet is a safer way to travel than flashing wads of dollar bills that end up on the black market in Cuba, inadvertently supporting the illicit and sometimes dangerous black market activity of exchanging notes in public. 

Adan accepts Bitcoin because of the international branding the Bitcoin logo brings. It opens up his bars’ doors to another potential market. Similar to El Salvador, where Bitcoin tourism has become a trend, bars and restaurants in Cuba could also attract holidaymakers to spend satoshis instead of pesos at the till. 

Finally, there are myriad ways in which adopting Bitcoin can lead to positive and unexpected outcomes. Mister Navi’s bar and restaurant, run by Mr. Navi and his son Julian, recently began accepting Bitcoin. Following a conversation with Forte, Catrya and Bitalion, the Cuba Bitcoin group now hosts educational Bitcoin meetups at the venue.

From right: Mr. Navi, Julian, Paco and me at Mr. Navi’s

I tipped one of the service staff in Bitcoin at Mr. Navi’s the first day we visited. Five days later, I saw her again when we went out for dinner with Mr. Navi and Julian. She seems different — I ask her if she is OK. She confesses that she was mugged a few days ago, and the attacker stole her purse, cash and phone. 

To her surprise, when she downloaded the Bitcoin Lightning app where I’d tipped her, the funds magically reappeared on her new phone. On seeing her wide-eyed reaction, I tipped her again.

It’s clear that, for Cubans, Bitcoin could represent a critical instrument for securing their financial future in the face of runaway inflation and government interference, or as a way of opening up to embargoed markets and the international financial world.  

Disclaimer: The views, opinions and perspectives expressed in this article are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Cointelegraph.

The post The Truth Behind Cuba’s Bitcoin Revolution: An on-the-ground report appeared first on Cointelegraph Magazine.

Peter McCormack’s Real Bedford Football Club puts Bitcoin on the map

Buying a small-town soccer club with the aim to propel it into the Premier League — the world’s most popular football league — is a script suitable for a Netflix series.

In fact, actor Ryan Reynold’s bid to revitalize lower-league Welsh soccer team Wrexham FC has already caught the attention of Disney+ writers. 

It’s a quaint, quintessentially British underdog story of how an ultra-rich Hollywood actor can do something different with his wealth. However, Reynolds has no connection to Wrexham; he flies in for most games, and he’s unlikely to live out the rest of his days building out the deprived historic mining town.

The story has netted mainstream media attention from the likes of the BBC, the Guardian and Sky News.

In the Bitcoin world, a similar story is unraveling. However, it’s spearheaded by a local boy who’s using Bitcoin not only to boost the Real Bedford Football Club but his hometown as well.

McCormack holding a trophy.

In the Bitcoin world, Peter McCormack is a familiar face, hosting the most popular podcast What Bitcoin Did. According to the Guardian and the BBC, he is a blogger and “crypto guru” invariably betting on Bitcoin 

Over the past two years, he has strived to turn around the beleaguered Bedford FC by using Bitcoin. Real Bedford reached promotion in May, buoyed by new uniforms, new logos and, crucially, a new legion of fans. 

However, Real Bedford is also what McCormack calls the “Bitcoin football team.” Not only does he achieve his boyhood dream of running a successful football team, but it also seeks to discretely encourage fans and onlookers to engage with the world’s largest digital currency, Bitcoin. 

But does the club have the legs to make it into the Premier League? And what’s the point of putting the Bitcoin logo on the shirt, hosting Bitcoin meet-ups before every game, and inviting key opinion leaders of the Bitcoin world to games? And what on earth must the locals think of the “orange-pilled” takeover?

McCormack bought Bedford FC in 2021 during the heady highs of the bull run when BTC was comfortably above $40,00 and talk of the Bitcoin price hitting six figures dominated Cointelegraph headlines. Propelled by the high Bitcoin prices, the club secured half a million dollars in sponsorship for the first year. 

Media treatment

Despite buying the club being a boyhood dream, most people thought McCormack was mad to take on the running of a football club with the fanbase garnered from a volatile digital currency: 

“I think this is one of these projects whereby I don’t think anyone really understood at the start. They’re like, ‘Whatever doesn’t make any sense.’”

Local media thought McCormack was crazier still. The BBC and other British mainstream media caught wind of the story, characterizing it as the latest crypto bro to splash out on a self-indulgent purchase.

Jeff Booth, the author of the Bitcoin book The Price of Tomorrow, tells Magazine that even if it is a wealthy Bitcoin investor splurging on a passion, it’s a non-issue — particularly as Bitcoin is part of the project: 

“Through his interests, he infects others through so other people that like football. Other people that want to follow his interests to take this to a championship, Premier League and everything else, now have an impression that they can join the ride and be part of it.”

Ultimately, Booth explains, “I couldn’t care less what he wants to do […] He’s using this vehicle to be able to advance a whole bunch of other stuff, which is really cool.”

Despite the critical treatment in the media, two years on, McCormack and his team are still wiping down tables in the clubhouse bar, traveling to away games, hosting Bitcoin meet-ups and even washing the Real Bedford’s uniforms in his home — all while the price per BTC has crashed and Bitcoin continues to take a beating in popular media. Plus, the club will sport a women’s team with plans to expand into disabled and youth teams.

Real Bedford commentator Will Roberts compares McCormack to a “pantomime villain […] who sort of comes in and radicalizes everything, changes everything, and everyone automatically goes against it.” It’s only natural that it ruffles a few feathers: 

“But the closer you get, the more you understand what a good person he is and what a good organization he’s running because it is an organization — not just a football club.” 

Bitcoin branding

The club’s Bitcoin branding isn’t very subtle. The strips are bright orange with the Bitcoin logo on the abdomen. The club was established during a block height as opposed to a date, and almost everything can be bought or paid for in satoshis (small amounts of Bitcoin). Why bother? Why go to great lengths to advertise a volatile digital currency that’s understood by a select group of Brits? 

McCormack is a marketer by profession, and Bitcoin is one of the most recognizable brands worldwide. There are now Real Bedford supporters clubs in Ghana, Tanzania and even Malaysia. The supporter base for Real Bedford rivals teams five divisions higher, and matches are live-streamed and enjoyed by Bitcoin advocates worldwide.

Satoshi’s name and a nod to the maximum number of Bitcoin, 21 million, on the team’s kit.

Gandalf (not his real name), who is part of the marketing team at Bitcoin mining company Braiins, tells Magazine:

“If you just bought Bedford and called it Bedford and it was just the local team, we wouldn’t all be here. Like, he’s been very clever about making it a Bitcoin thing and then that gets new support and new attention into the club.”

A local elected councilor for the Liberal Democrats, Jake Simpson attends the last game of the season. He explains to Magazine that, thanks to the Bitcoin takeover, Bedford is gaining “international attention, which is bringing international money. And you know, when your business and you accept cryptocurrencies, your customer base expands massively.” 

“You know, you’re attracting more people, which is why there’s so many international people here already because they’re interested in cryptocurrency — they’re interested in Bitcoin, which is bringing them here to Bedford.” 

Bitcoin puts places on the world map — from Bitcoin Beach in El Zonte to Bitcoin Lake in Guatemala or Bitcoin Jungle in Costa Rica. In doing so, it can raise up less economically advantaged communities and regions around the world. That’s the second part of the Real Bedford story, as McCormack says he wants to “raise up his town.”

What do the locals think?

Over the course of 30 street interviews conducted in Bedford, the overarching sentiment toward Bitcoin is negative. One Christian preacher says that the surveillance element to digital currencies was unnerving — before realizing that he might be confusing CBDCs, or central bank digital currencies, and Bitcoin. 

There’s a huge sentiment gap between the Bitcoin believers and the Bedford locals. One Bedfordian simply says, “Avoid”; others call it an outright scam and that they wouldn’t want to lose their money in such a scheme. Some locals have heard of the Real Bedford takeover; others knew of McCormack’s story. 

Few locals can accurately explain what Bitcoin is or what it does — highlighting that some of the criticism could come from a position of ignorance or an unwillingness to engage with the currency frequently labeled a threat to the environment or a “dark tool” by mainstream media. 

McCormack is aware of the negative views that cloak Bitcoin. There is no desire to “force Bitcoin” onto the people of the town — it’s about using the team as a Trojan horse for greater levels of Bitcoin adoption:

“I don’t want people buying it and losing money and don’t force it on people who come to the ground. They can see it, they can come to our meetups, but it’s a soft touch.”

The Real Bedford website, for example, shows a statement saying, “Why you shouldn’t buy Bitcoin.”

Real Bedford’s reasons not to buy Bitcoin.

Some of the locals are converts, however. Sampson says, “It’s great to see Bitcoin come into my town […] It’s massive, and it just makes me feel really proud to be from Bedford and makes me really excited, to be honest.”

“I think they’ve still got to be a lot of education around it. On how, you know, my mom or my dad can go to a coffee shop and buy Bitcoin. They wouldn’t feel comfortable about doing that yet. But that sort of thing happening in the town can only boost an economy in a way.”

What’s the score so far? 

As opposed to bleating about Bitcoin to Bedfordians, McCormack has firmly stuck a flag in the ground and called Bitcoin advocates around the world to visit: 

“I don’t talk about Bitcoin much here because Bedford’s a deprived town, and I don’t want people thinking, ‘Oh my God, there’s that guy who’s made some money on Bitcoin.’”

However, that hasn’t stopped fans — of Bitcoin or the team — from taking Bitcoin adoption into their own hands.

From the trunk of a car in the Real Bedford parking lot, Chris Gordon of Bitcoin payments service Bridge 2 Bitcoin shows a local Bedfordian how to accept Bitcoin. He tells Magazine:

“So, it was a business owner who’s interested in accepting Bitcoin payments, and it’s a completely new concept to him. So, it so happens that I happen to have a point-of-sale device in the back of the car.”

Gordon talks the local fan through the options in the hope that a “few businesses in Bedfordshire start to accept Bitcoin soon.” Bitcoin is already the payment of choice in the clubhouse, and for Real Bedford merchandise — and given that paying in Bitcoin looks different from paying with Visa or cash — it can raise some eyebrows. 

Moreover, the mingling of both Bitcoin and soccer fans in a relaxed, pitchside environment is an opportunity for those unfamiliar with the cryptocurrency to ask questions. Matches can be long, drawn-out affairs of 0-0 draws lasting 90 minutes with a 15-minute break. Asking about the giant B on the players’ shirts or the fact that the club was founded at a block height — not on a date — could pass the time.

Crypto own goal?

Bitcoin’s market cap is roughly half a trillion dollars. Crypto, however, has a far greater fanbase and is worth over $1 trillion.

Real Bedford, however, is a Bitcoin-only club. Its Twitter page is against fan tokens, NFTs and DAOs — the entirety of the crypto world outside Bitcoin.

Commentator Roberts, who knew “nothing” about Bitcoin prior to working at Real Bedford, explains that the people of Bedford are “getting there.”

“A lot of people are made further aware of potentially the differences between not just grouping cryptocurrencies tougher — and that Bitcoin is definitely a separate entity to that.”

The crypto distractions at the club are sponsors. Gemini, Casa and other crypto company logos are displayed on billboards around the stadium, which McCormack hopes to expand and renovate through Bitcoin sponsorship. Despite his devotion to Bitcoin, he’s aware that taking advantage of the speculation in crypto could benefit the club:

“If I did a shitcoin, I could raise a billion, and I would get this club in the Premier League in nine years because you have the money to do it. I could build a 200-million-pound stadium if I did a shitcoin. It’s really tempting.”

Ultimately, Real Bedford is a Bitcoin-only club. McCormack only holds Bitcoin and is focused on building Bedford with Bitcoin in mind. However, getting Real Bedford into the Premier League is a long-term, perhaps lifelong commitment. With the first promotion out of the way, it’ll be the 2030s before Bedford has a team in the most prestigious football league.

McCormack shares. a joke with Cointelegraph.

McCormack’s undeterred, however. “I’m going to be here for the rest of my life here in Bedford at every game I can possibly be at trying to lift up my town.” And the way to get this lower-league team into the Premier League? 

“It requires hard work, a bit of luck and for Bitcoiners to get behind it.” 

The post Peter McCormack’s Real Bedford Football Club puts Bitcoin on the map appeared first on Cointelegraph Magazine.

Bitcoin in Senegal: Why is this African country using BTC?

Dakar, the capital of the West African nation of Senegal, now boasts an annual Pan-African Bitcoin conference, over 10 merchants accepting Bitcoin, a local peer-to-peer BTC exchange and a budding Bitcoin community.

What’s more, the speed at which Bitcoin’s progress is unwinding is staggering. The city hosted the DakarBTC Days conference just 10 months after the country’s first “in real life” Bitcoin meetup. All of this is despite a brutal bear market that has put a big dent in Bitcoin adoption.

Why is Bitcoin bubbling in Senegal? Is this country on the path to “hyperbitcoinization,” or at least more entrenched Bitcoin adoption and use? Could Senegal be the next country to follow in El Salvador’s footsteps?

I wanted to find out. I had missed out on the inception of Bitcoin Beach in El Salvador in 2019, so I wanted to explore what a bottom-up, Bitcoin-circular economy might look like in West Africa. This is that story so far.

A colonial currency

The West African Economic and Monetary Union CFA franc is an awful currency. The French created it; they control its conversion rate; they even design and print the notes for use in Africa. A Frenchman sitting in the historic university town of Clermond-Ferrand conjures up the designs in use on CFA notes used by millions of Africans across 13 countries — despite the fact that they might never have set foot in Africa.

The CFA is currently pegged to the euro at a fixed rate of 655.957 to one. In 1994, the peg with the former French franc was slashed from 1:505 to 1:100. The currency devaluation, instigated by France and in collaboration with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, wiped out the savings of the Senegalese people. To cap it all off, French officials sit on regional central bank boards across French-speaking Africa and still hold substantial powers, including veto rights.

Alex Gladstein of the Human Rights Foundation once explained, “Unlike a typical fiat currency, the system was far more insidious. It was monetary colonialism.”

From Cuba to Turkey, South Africa to Serbia, I have never seen a greater demand or need for monetary emancipation than in Central or West Africa, and the most likely candidate for West Africa’s economic and monetary freedom is Bitcoin.

Making lightning connections

On Twitter in January 2022, I noticed that a few bars in the ex-pat area of Dakar have begun accepting Bitcoin. You can pay for a crêpe or a bissap (a refreshing local drink made with hibiscus flower) over the Lightning Network, at a spitting distance from the beach. 

My thoughts immediately go to El Salvador’s grassroots adoption initiative, Bitcoin Beach, the efforts of which culminated in Bitcoin becoming legal tender in El Salvador. I know at once that I must speak to the person behind these efforts. 

A tall, softly-spoken Senegalese man who spent a chunk of his professional life working in France, Nourou (not his real name), is a Bitcoin advocate like no other

Nourou points to the wings of Africa during an interview
Nourou points to the wings of Africa during an interview.

He returned to Senegal in 2021 and was disappointed to see that his friends and even family members had lost money to “Ponzi schemes like Petronpay — things like that — or limo” and other popular crypto scams in Africa. “So, we set up the Bitcoin in Senegal community,” he tells Cointelegraph.

“I was the first one in our first e-meet on Clubhouse. We were maybe three or four, but I kept going with two sessions per week, then one session per week because we used to have 10, 20 […] sometimes hundreds of people listening in.”

He arrived in Senegal at the onset of COVID-19. However, the pandemic chaos did not dash his dreams of making Bitcoin the go-to currency in his homeland.

Peer to peer

While traveling in Senegal in February 2022, I attended the country’s first-ever Bitcoin meetup. Not only was this a milestone event in of itself — as previously meetups were conducted online or on the application Clubhouse — but the caliber of the guests in attendance is jawdropping. 

The room is brimming with nonfungible token promoters, Bitcoin maximalists, entrepreneurs, central bankers and even professors from Dakar’s most prestigious universities. The atmosphere is a stark contrast with the Bitcoin meetups I usually attend in Europe or America, where, to be frank, it’s a bunch of white Millennial males preaching the fall of fiat currencies.

Senegal's first in person BTC meetup in February 2022
Senegal’s first in-person BTC meetup in February 2022. Nourou is second from right, while I am fifth from left (back row).

I also see Nourou onboard three more restaurants onto the Bitcoin network. Interestingly, a lot of these merchants use Bitcoin in its purest form: a peer-to-peer cash system. 

They accept Bitcoin-based or Lightning transactions, and they hold onto it with the intent of using Bitcoin as money in a circular economy. Nourou is building an app that allows merchants to cash out into local currency and offers a personalized service where they can get their hands on cash if need be. 

I left Senegal in March 2022 with a spring in my step. I felt inspired by the fact that, in the places that need it most, there are enthusiastic Bitcoin people devoting their time and efforts to educating others about money and, ultimately, Bitcoin. 

Now, fast-forward to August 2022, and I couldn’t quite believe that Nourou is texting me, saying he had plans to host a Bitcoin forum in Senegal. It will be the first time that Bitcoiners from all over the world would assemble on the African continent to share their passion for Bitcoin and strategize how best to adopt the currency. 

I vowed to myself that I absolutely must attend. Not only is this a country that I’m increasingly attached to but I fully want to observe, participate and report on the Bitcoin movements in Senegal and greater West Africa. 

Dakar Bitcoin Days 

Dakar Bitcoin Days gathered enthusiasts and economists from across Africa, in a pan-African celebration of magic internet money. From Cameroon to the Congo, Mali to the Ivory Coast and the Central African Republic, there were interested parties from all over the continent. As Nourou says in an interview while pointing at the continent of Africa, “Africa will fly if we all go together.”

With Nourou backstage ahead of the start of the conference
With Nourou backstage ahead of the start of the conference.

France is the official language in Senegal, while Wolof is by far the most widely spoken. One of the unique and well-thought-out aspects of this conference is that there are Dakar Bitcoin Days talks in three languages — English, French and Wolof — with events in the latter attracting the highest attendance. 

The conference features beginner-friendly seminars that touch on the economy, finance, security and Bitcoin fundamentals. For experts, panels on cryptography take place, while debates such as “Is Bitcoin Halal?” provide cultural insights into using Bitcoin in Senegal, a 97% Muslim country. Plus, the demographics skew incredibly young: The average age in the country is roughly 19 and the conference is brimming with students and young people.

During the conference and in conversations, Nourou shares his vision for Senegal with me. Senegal will lead West Africa out of the darkness of currency colonization, he explains. However, there needs to be a level of decentralization in the messaging regarding Africa:

“I want the message to switch. Africa is not a country — it is a continent. That’s why we call it Dakar Bitcoin Days: If you come to Senegal, you will meet Senegalese; if you go to Mali, you meet Mali people.”

There might be some similarities, such as some shared histories and overlapping cultures in Africa, but he explains that Africa is just as varied or more than Europe. Much like Bitcoin, the movement is decentralized. Each region and area of Africa will eventually run with and adopt Bitcoin.

That’s not to take away from the tremendous sense of Pan-Africanism that Africa benefits from. It’s something that that Europeans or Americans as a continent may not relate to. I am British and European, but I do not relate with a Serbian the way that a Senegalese may relate to a Zimbabwean, despite being thousands of miles apart.

Bitcoin in Senegal

During the conference, I also set out to interview merchants who accept Bitcoin. I speak to the owner of a French ex-pat bar that has recently begun accepting Bitcoin. Despite being completely new to decentralized currency, the proprietor, Gary, is happy to see new customers coming to his bar thanks to Bitcoin. While we were there, we managed to convince him to accept Bitcoin at his brand-new tattoo parlor.

Tattoo parlour now accepting BTC
A tattoo parlor now accepting BTC.

Senegalese surf team coach Renée Laraise managed Praïnha, the first restaurant to accept Bitcoin. As one of Senegal’s best sporting exports after football (Senegal won the African cup of Nations in 2022), he’s a leader and a trusted voice in the community. 

I also interview Mama Bitcoin, who has been trading Bitcoin for fish on the Atlantic coast for the past three years. It’s a visionary move in a country where cash reigns king and banking services are generally for the financially privileged. Banks in West Africa charge high fees and incur strict user requirements: Withdrawing cash, for example, can cost a few dollars. 

Throughout my second trip to Senegal, I give out Bitcoin to more than 70 people. The process is simple: I ask them to download a Lightning wallet, usually Wallet of Satoshi, and they tap receive.

The wallet is custodial, meaning they don’t actually hold the keys to their Bitcoin. As a result, they are trusting that Wallet of Satoshi will not perform a Sam Bankman-Fried and run off with the funds, but for newbies, I think it’s a great place to start. 

I send them a few thousand satoshis, which is maybe a dollar or two in Bitcoin. I find it easy to hand out sats in Senegal in comparison with other countries to which I travel. People are eager to get hold of money, and they are eager to learn, trade or simply save with a currency that cannot be debased or stolen in the way that the CFA can.

I give away free Bitcoin to conference-goers. As you can see from onlookers smiling away, it became part of the conference's entertainment
I give away free Bitcoin to conference-goers. As you can see from onlookers smiling away, it became part of the conference’s entertainment.

I gave away sats on the beaches, on the sidewalk, during the conference, in restaurants and bars, to taxi drivers, and in tips to the hotel staff. 

For the most part, I give Bitcoin to young people, boys and girls aged anything from 16 upward and young men. Whereas the average age in the United States is about 40, Senegal is a very young population. It’s no surprise that a mobile native, internet-based currency would fly if it was given the right to take off in Africa. 

It makes me wonder, Why are people so keen to get hold of Bitcoin here? Well, it’s because, in the West, we buy Bitcoin through exchanges; a select few individuals buy peer-to-peer, and a tiny slither of Bitcoin enthusiasts actually earn Bitcoin. In West Africa, it’s very hard to get your hands on the coin. 

Worse still, it’s very hard to secure Bitcoin. None of the established hardware wallets like Ledger, Trezor or ColdCard ship to Senegal. Ledger sponsored the conference and may start shipping to West Africa, but it’s currently a serious pain point.

In light of these barriers and opportunities, it gives greater credence to the idea that a Bitcoin-circular economy could take off in Senegal. People want Bitcoin; there are no exchanges to buy from, and international tourists coming to Senegal can spend Bitcoin. Bitcoin could, therefore, tread a path to becoming peer-to-peer money, as its white paper intended, in the country.

Mobile money meets Lightning

Plus, mobile money networks have taken root and flourished across Africa. First rising to fame in Kenya, where the globally recognized mobile money company M-Pesa was founded, mobile money companies have popped up across Africa like Apple Stores in European cities. Most Africans nowadays have a smartphone — they might not have regular electricity or access to free drinking water — but they can get online.

Failing that, it is highly likely that individuals possess an SMS mobile phone: an old-style phone that can send and receive texts. Thanks to mobile money, users can send and receive payments much like a bank transfer. You can simply text your friend’s phone with credit. In Senegal, the biggest mobile payments company is called Wave.

The Wave logo is found in taxi companies, restaurants, bars and cafés. It’s a bit like the Lightning Network, but it’s slower, a lot more expensive, and it uses local currency.

I try to track down an employee at Wave to orange-pill them — and introduce them to the Bitcoin network — and as luck would have it, I bump into one in a bar while watching the World Cup. I immediately ask him to download a wallet and sent him some Bitcoin. The internet connectivity was very patchy where we sat, so it wasn’t the best, and it took a few seconds, cue “Network Error.”

I connect to the bar’s WiFi and send him the Bitcoin. He was impressed and said he’d come along to the conference the following day, but I didn’t see him again. 

There was a funny moment during the interview with the marketing director from Wave. He shared that he met and hung out with Satoshi in Senegal. Apparently, he was a VC kind of guy who went around, drunk as a skunk, partying and investing in companies. 

The face you make when someone says they know Satoshi
The face you make when someone says they know Satoshi.

However, it gets me thinking — you have a country that is accustomed to transacting via mobile phone, using nothing but a mobile number. That’s despite the fact that the UX for mobile money is quite clunky. Yet everyone and their goat (yes, I try to interview a goat about Bitcoin — see our documentary), knows how to use it. 

Senegal has a power-sapping currency, a young, digitally native population, Bitcoin leaders and mentors in respected positions in society, an annual conference, an increasing number of merchants accepting Bitcoin, and as evinced: It is culturally acceptable to send money via mobile phones. 

It’s another instrument in Africa’s Bitcoin toolbelt and a way in which the continent could effectively leapfrog the developed world. Why can’t we leapfrog mobile money with the Lightning Network?

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