Bitcoin start-ups in Asia take aim at remittances market

‘Bitcoin is so much better as a mechanism to send money around the world,’ said George Harrap, chief executive of Bitspark. (Reuters)
Updated 13 March 2018
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Bitcoin start-ups in Asia take aim at remittances market

HONG KONG/SEOUL: Bitcoin, battered by warnings about volatility and bubble-like appreciation, may have found a way to play a niche role in a big market: overseas money transfers.
Used as a transfer mechanism rather than a currency, bitcoin circumvents banks’ transaction fees.
Start-ups such as Bitspark in Hong Kong, and Bloom, Payphil, coins.ph and Satoshi Citadel Industries’ (SCI) remittance unit Rebit in Philippines, are trying to turn that into a business model.
Reduced liquidity on cryptocurrency exchanges and regulatory uncertainty are, for now, limiting monthly bitcoin-based remittances to millions of dollars in a multibillion-dollar market, the start-ups say. But if cryptocurrencies mature, they say, traditional businesses will be in for some serious disruption.
“Bitcoin is so much better as a mechanism to send money around the world,” said George Harrap, chief executive of Bitspark, a company that performs transfers for dozens of remittance shops in Hong Kong, Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, Pakistan, Nigeria and Ghana. “There’s a lot less overhead that you need to do.”
Many of the start-ups, such as Bitspark, do not deal directly with individual customers, but instead provide the “back end” transfer mechanism for remittance shops.
The businesses estimate how much money they will need for a day, buy bitcoin in advance and immediately sell it for the currency in the receiving country. That means they do not hold cryptocurrency for any meaningful length of time, and customers’ transactions are resolved in minutes, rather than days.
Kate Corporal, 28, a Filipino working at an international company in Incheon, South Korea, said she saved “huge” amounts sending money home using Rebit compared with traditional services.
“One thing I can guarantee is that the money I intended to send and the money that my family received was exactly the same,” Corporal said. “Using bitcoin is really helpful for many Filipinos ... as every single cent that we send can be very significant.”
Reduced demand for cryptocurrencies in smaller economies often means bitcoin prices are lower, so sending $100 to Indonesia or the Philippines via bitcoin results in the equivalent of more than $100 at the other end. Without the bank fees, the shops say they can charge their customers 25 to 75 percent less.
But the model has little to no advantage in markets with larger Filipino communities such as Hong Kong and Singapore, where competition is high and fees are low — roughly 1-2 percent, compared with 10-15 percent in South Korea.
Rebit sends money to Philippines mainly from South Korea, Japan and Canada and is looking to expand to the Middle East.
The giants Western Union and Moneygram, which dominate the current market, are testing Ripple’s XRP, a cryptocurrency smaller and more centralized than bitcoin.
But the industry’s transformation does not appear imminent.
The value of all bitcoin held globally is about $160 billion, roughly two-thirds of the Asian remittance market and a third of the global one, according to World Bank estimates. That means local cryptocurrency exchanges cannot cope with the cash flow needs of larger businesses.
“As soon as you’re doing $10-15 million a day, liquidity becomes an issue and you’re wondering, ‘how am I going to do this,’” said Prajit Nanu, chief executive and co-founder of InstaReM, which remits money to over 60 countries.
The start-ups avoid holding bitcoin for more than a few minutes because of its volatility.
Bitcoin now trades around $10,000, 10 times higher than a year ago, but half its December peak — a common swing for the emerging asset class.
“We started in 2014, when bitcoin crashed from $1,000 to $200-$300 and luckily our business model didn’t rely on speculation,” said SCI co-founder Miguel Cuneta.
“We are merely using it as a transfer mechanism,” he added. “We convert it as soon as possible.”
Cuneta says Rebit was only approved by Philippine’s central bank last year. South Korea’s backing away from banning cryptocurrency trading was encouraging, he said, but more clarity was needed in Seoul and elsewhere.
In Singapore, start-up Toast gave up using bitcoin for remittances so it could get licensed. It is now transferring money the traditional way but plans to offer loans and insurance using blockchain technology and smart contracts — a product offered by bitcoin’s main rival Ether and others.
“If you bought cryptocurrency as part of a money remittance mechanism it is very difficult to get your remittance license in Singapore or anywhere else because the regulators are still not sure how they are going to govern cryptocurrency,” said Aaron Siwoku, Toast’s founder.


More than 100 Saudi groups at Dubai’s GITEX week

Updated 22 September 2019

More than 100 Saudi groups at Dubai’s GITEX week

  • GITEX is an international platform

DUBAI: More than 100 Saudi organizations, including government entities, private companies and startups, are participating at the upcoming GITEX Technology Week in Dubai, from Oct. 6 to 10, indicating an increase in Saudi participation from last year at the annual technology gathering.

Bringing in one of the biggest contingents at the event, at 114, Saudi Arabia is also an official partner of GITEX this year, which is expecting to host more than 100,000 visitors over four days at the Dubai World Trade Centre (DWTC).

“There’s a lot of collaboration and integration in this region — there’s a lot of learning and sharing. GITEX is an international platform. This is where the Saudi contingent comes — from the big enterprise sector to the startup ecosystem — to interact with hundreds and thousands of visitors from over 140 countries,” Trixie LohMirmand, senior vice president of events management at DWTC, told reporters on Sunday.

LohMirmand also noted a spike in Saudi participation at the GITEX Future Stars, a concurrent event that focuses on the region’s startup community.

“We have a big Saudi Innovation Day. In fact, Saudis are again bringing a big contingent of startups. It’s led by the deputy minister of communications from Saudi Arabia to explore partnerships and discuss the opportunities in the region, particularly for startups,” she said, referring to the three special sessions that will focus on the Kingdom’s technology drive.

This increase in participation, LohMirmand said, is a reflection of a bigger “impetus on innovation and the getting the startup community going” in the region.

“We see a lot of new tech coming out, so there’s a lot of interest to give these companies an opportunity to connect to the rest of the world. When you come to GITEX, we connect you to the rest of the world — we host over 500 investors from all around the world, including from Silicon Valley,” she added.

Firat Aktas, DWTC’s director of brand innovation and communication, stressed: “You can see what’s happening around the world — the Saudis are showing their ambition very clearly in various industries.”

Earlier this year, the Saudi Telecom Company signed a deal with Swedish telecommunications company Ericsson to launch commercial 5G services in the Kingdom. “The roll-out continues. It’s a huge deployment in different parts of Saudi Arabia,” Wojciech Bajda, head of Gulf Council countries and global customer unit zain, told Arab News. “The focus for our customers currently is to understand how to monetize 5G, how to make sure there’s an industrial application of 5G in Saudi Arabia.”

Bajda also said they are looking at introducing 5G to different sectors in the Kingdom such as mining, and oil and gas. “We have engagements with different industries in trying to prototype together, and see if there’s something relevant for Saudi Arabia, and for our customers like the Saudi Telecom Company to pick up and do a full implementation,” he added. 

What to expect at GITEX this year 

This year’s GITEX, which has the theme “Synergizing the Mind and Technology Economy,” will highlight the region’s 5G adoption, as well as other futuristic concepts such as artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, and immersive technology.

LohMirmand said the dwelling time for GITEX visitors has increased over the years, owing to the gathering’s massive content offering.

“We are measuring more in terms of dwelling time. You can have 100,000 people come one day and do, but now the trend for us is we’re seeing them staying longer. Because there’s so much content, there’s so much knowledge, and so many companies with new technology, dwelling time is much longer, averaging 3.5 to 4 days,” she explained.

“Visitors and exhibitors are having deeper and more meaningful interactions at the show.”

The halls of DWTC will be divided into six sectors: 5G, AI, Future mobility, GITEX lifestyle tech, and Smart cities. It opens Oct. 6.