Q&A: West African Bitcoin Transfer Firm Joins Fight Against Ebola

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Written by Paul Adepoju

Bitcoin, a “decentralized virtual currency” according to the U.S. Treasury, is the first cryptocurrency to be rolled out in its entirety. In addition — when considering market value — Bitcoin is the largest cryptocurrency.

Although Bitcoin is popular in developed countries, it is still comparatively lesser known in Africa.

Nikunj Handa and his team at BeamRemit.com however believe the market for Bitcoin is evolving in Africa based on the advantages the virtual currency has over other remittance services. They launched BeamRemit.com to allow individuals in countries such as the United Kingdom to send money to their family members in Ghana using Bitcoins.

But with the Ebola virus disease ravaging some countries in Africa, it wasn’t long before the Beam team beamed the searchlight on another potential application for Bitcoin remittance as donations to help affected communities.

In an exclusive interview with AFKInsider, Handa discusses Bitcoins in Africa, the prospects and the pluripotential roles it could play in supporting the not-adequately-funded global fight against Ebola virus disease.

AFKInsider: What does Bitcoin mean to Africa?

Nikunj Handa: Bitcoin can help connect everyone in Africa with a mobile phone to the global payments network without the involvement of traditional banks. It will do so at great speeds and with minimum costs.

AFKInsider: What does Africa stand to benefit from Bitcoin payment system?

Nikunj Handa: Remittances, Merchant payments and online payments are all great use cases for Bitcoin on the continent. For remittances, the average cost of remittance today is 12 percent, plus it can take 2-3 days. (furthermore) existing remittance solutions have low integrations with local mobile money solutions. They also have a fixed fee, so people have to save large amounts of money before they can send it over. With BeamRemit, the cost is going to be just 3 percent, the transfer takes place within minutes and we pay out to a local mobile money solution in Ghana called MTN. In Sierra Leone, the cost is just 2 percent and we payout to Splash. We also don’t have a fixed fee, so people can send any amount, as low as $1, without having to save up! You can accept payments from anyone in the world without having to worry about PayPal banning you from the country or Visa taking too long to approve your applications. Also, get rid of the 2-3 percent fee that PayPal and credit cards take from merchants. Bitcoin transactions are almost fee-less. You can pay for things online without having to have a credit card or PayPal account.

AFKInsider: How would you describe the level of acceptance of Bitcoin in Africa? 

Nikunj Handa: Low but growing very fast!

AFKInsider: Which countries in Africa are more readily accepting Bitcoins and which ones are still lagging behind? 

Nikunj Handa: South Africa is leading the pack with Ghana and Kenya close behind. Sierra Leone and Nigeria are closing the gaps too.

AFKInsider: How you think Bitcoins could be made more popular in Africa? 

Nikunj Handa: Via educations and providing easy to use Bitcoin services to Africans. There is a need for more Bitcoin companies and NGOs to educate the continent on the benefits of this technology.

AFKInsider: What is BeamRemit.com all about? 

Nikunj Handa: BeamRemit.com is a remittance solution for Ghana. People in the diaspora send us bitcoins, we convert to Ghanaian Cedis and send MTN mobile money the recipient. Simple as that. It costs just 3 percent, takes just minutes and has no fixed fee … We are currently very focused on the UK market.

AFKInsider: Why and how did you decide to launch BitcoinAgainstEbola.org? 

Nikunj Handa: I was talking with the guys at Sierra Leone Liberty Group one day (they are one of the first Ebola related charities to accept Bitcoin) about how they are converting their Bitcoins to the local currency and they told me that they send the Bitcoins to their friends in the USA who then changes them to dollars on coinbase and then Western Union’s the money over. They were wasting over a tenth (of the value) in fees going over this entire process. Not to forget the slow speed on the whole ordeal. We at Beam thought that this was not acceptable and that precious donation money should not be spent on fees and decided to start BitcoinAgainstEbola. That’s when I went hunting on Linkedin for executives in Splash and started this whole thing.

AFKInsider: How much worth of Bitcoins has been donated? 

Nikunj Handa: We just launched recently so the donations are only just picking up

AFKInsider: Why should donors use your platform and not any of the popular money transfer services? 

Nikunj Handa: We are much, much cheaper. BitcoinAgainstEbola.org is a non-profit and is charging just 2 percent. If you were to send $100 with another money transfer service, only about $88 would reach the recipient. With BitcoinAgainstEbola.org $98 will reach the recipient. Thats a lot of precious donation money. Plus, we can deliver it right to the users mobile money phone.

AFKInsider: How does the platform run? 

Nikunj Handa: People send us Bitcoins, we convert to the local currency and send the local currency to the recipient via mobile money. Most of this is fully automated.

AFKInsider: You are launching it for use in Sierra Leone, why Sierra Leone? 

Nikunj Handa: Sierra Leone is just the start. We plan to serve Liberia and Guinea too. We are looking to connect with the mobile money vendors in a couple of weeks and will see where we can take it from there. Fingers crossed!

AFKInsider: What plans do you have for other affected countries? 

Nikunj Handa: We want to have a good launch in Sierra Leone and as soon as we are settled with that we are looking to connect with the mobile money vendors in Liberia and Guinea and will see where we can take it from there.