Bitcoin’s ‘quiet boom’ in Africa

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

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.”


Sakani housing program served 70,000 families in the first quarter of 2021

Sakani housing program served 70,000 families in the first quarter of 2021
Updated 56 min 42 sec ago

Sakani housing program served 70,000 families in the first quarter of 2021

Sakani housing program served 70,000 families in the first quarter of 2021
  • Sakani beat target of 51,000 familes in Q1
  • Sakani announces launch of home finance app

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia’s Sakani program helped 70,000 families in the first quarter of 2021, surpassing its target of serving 51,000 families.

Sakani was formed in 2017 by the Ministry of Housing and the Real Estate Development Fund with the aim of facilitating home ownership in the Kingdom through the creation of new housing stock, allocating plots and homes to nationals and financing their purchase. It has a goal of reaching 70% home ownership by 2030.

Sakani revealed the data at an event in Riyadh on Thursday where it announced the launch of an online home finance app, SPA reported.

The program aims to serve 220,000 Saudi families this year, through the creation of 50,000 housing units, facilitating the reservation of 30,000 residential land plots and arranging 140,000 real estate loans, said CEO Marwan Zawawi.

More than 66,000 financing contracts were signed in the first quarter of 2021, supported by SR40 billion, a 23 percent increase compared to the same period of 2020. This brings the total number of families benefiting from the subsidized mortgage since its inception in mid-2017 until the end of the first quarter of 2021, to more than 487,000 families in various regions of the Kingdom, said Mansour bin Madi, general supervisor of the Real Estate Development Fund.

Sakani has enabled more than 350 thousand families to own homes to date, Bin Madi said.

About 178 infrastructure projects covering 244 million square meters have been developed at a cost of more than SR8 billion, said National Housing Company CEO Mohammed bin Saleh Al-Bati.

“In 2017, housing options under construction were limited, but now developers are racing to obtain licenses,” said General Supervisor of Real Estate Development Deputyship at the Ministry of Housing, Sultan Al-Sheikh. “Reservation of residential units on new developments is often complete within a few days and in some cases hours.”


Oil rises above $67 in fifth day of gains on demand hopes

Oil rises above $67 in fifth day of gains on demand hopes
Updated 16 April 2021

Oil rises above $67 in fifth day of gains on demand hopes

Oil rises above $67 in fifth day of gains on demand hopes
  • Brent on track for weekly gain of about 7%
  • U.S., China economic recoveries bolster sentiment

LONDON: Oil rose above $67 a barrel on Friday, gaining for a fifth session, as a stronger demand outlook and signs of economic recovery in China and the United States offset rising COVID-19 infections in some other major economies.
China’s first-quarter gross domestic product jumped 18.3% year on year, official data showed on Friday. On Thursday figures showed a rise in US retail sales and a drop in unemployment claims.
“Given the improving outlook for the world’s two biggest economies, there is little chance of the market’s feel-good glow being extinguished any time soon,” said Stephen Brennock of oil broker PVM.
Brent crude rose 26 cents, or 0.4 percent, to $67.20 a barrel by 0950 GMT, heading for a weekly gain of about 7 percent. US West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude added 16 cents, or 0.3 percent, to $63.62.
New US sanctions imposed on Russia, one of the world’s top oil producers, over alleged election interference and hacking could also support prices.
“Though they do not affect the oil sector directly, they could lead to higher financing costs and general uncertainty in trade with Russia,” said Eugen Weinberg of Commerzbank.
Helping the rally this week, the International Energy Agency and the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) both made upward revisions to oil demand growth forecasts for 2021.
Figures on Wednesday also showed US crude inventories fell by 5.9 million barrels.
Demand hopes offset concern about rising coronavirus cases in other big economies. India’s infection rate hit a record high while Germany’s chancellor on Friday said a third wave of the virus has the country in its grip.
Oil has recovered from pandemic-induced lows last year, helped by record cuts to oil output by OPEC and its allies, a group known as OPEC+.
Some of the OPEC+ cuts will be eased from May, with the group meeting on April 28 to consider further tweaks to the supply pact.


Ramadan harvest begins in Saudi Arabia’s city of roses

Ramadan harvest begins in Saudi Arabia’s city of roses
Updated 16 April 2021

Ramadan harvest begins in Saudi Arabia’s city of roses

Ramadan harvest begins in Saudi Arabia’s city of roses
  • Smallest vials sell for SR400 ($106).
  • Harvest falls during Ramadan this year

TAIF: Every spring, roses bloom in the western Saudi city of Taif, turning pockets of the Kingdom’s vast desert landscape a vivid and fragrant pink.
In April, they are harvested for the essential oil used to cleanse the outer walls of the sacred Kaaba in Makkah.
This year, the harvest falls during Ramadan.
Workers at the Bin Salman farm tend rose bushes and pick tens of thousands of flowers each day to produce rose water and oil, also prized components in the cosmetic and culinary industries.
The perfumed oil has become popular among the millions of Muslims who visit the Kingdom every year for pilgrimages.
Patterns of plants and flowers have long been part of Islamic art.
Known as the city of roses, with approximately 300 million blooms every year, Taif has more than 800 flower farms, many of which have opened their doors to visitors.
While workers pick flowers in the fields, others labor in sheds, filling and weighing baskets by hand.
The flowers are then boiled and distilled.
“We start boiling the roses on high heat until they are almost evaporated, and this takes around 30 to 35 minutes,” Khalaf Al-Tuweiri, who owns the Bin Salman farm, told AFP.
“After that we lower the heat for around 15 to 30 minutes until the distilling process starts, which lasts for eight hours.”
Once the oil floats to the top of the glass jars, the extraction process begins.
The oil is then extracted with a large syringe to fill different-sized vials, the smallest going for SR400 ($106).


Binladin International carries out largest debt restructuring in the region

Binladin International carries out largest debt restructuring in the region
Updated 16 April 2021

Binladin International carries out largest debt restructuring in the region

Binladin International carries out largest debt restructuring in the region
  • As much as 75% of Binladin's debts are held by Saudi banks
  • Formal agreement with creditors may be reached by end June

RIYADH: Saudi Binladin International Holding is carrying out the largest debt restructuring in the Middle East, close to SR33 billion ($8.7 billion), with as much as 75 percent involving Saudi banks, said CEO Khalid Al Gwaiz on Thursday.
The company has obtained principal approvals from creditors for the debt restructuring and hopes to reach a formal agreement with them by the end of June and a final agreement by September, Al Gwaiz told Al Arabiya.
Binladin has an integrated transformation program that includes budget structuring and changes to its business model with the aim of helping it cope with recent developments in the market, he said.
The regional construction sector has been hit hard by the weakening of oil prices since 2014 and the associated decline in the real estate sector which has plunged some of the industry’s biggest names into financial distress.
Binladin has identified about SR1 trillion of opportunities in the Kingdom’s construction market linked to huge government projects that will allow it to pay creditors, Al Gwaiz said.


Ever Given insurance company says $900m compensation claim is unjustified

Ever Given insurance company says $900m compensation claim is unjustified
Updated 16 April 2021

Ever Given insurance company says $900m compensation claim is unjustified

Ever Given insurance company says $900m compensation claim is unjustified
  • Insurer says it made a generous offer on April 12
  • Crew of Ever Given remains on board ship

RIYADH: The insurance company for the Ever Given, which blocked the Suez Canal for almost a week in March, said it was disappointed by the court order to detain the vessel until $900 million compensation is paid after it had already made a generous offer to settle the claim.

The offer to the Suez Canal Authority was made in cooperation with the Japanese company that owns the ship on April 12th, Al Arabiya reported. However, the ship, its cargo and crew are being held until an agreement is reached, said the insurance company, UK Protection and Indemnity Club.

The Economic Court in Ismailia, Egypt, approved a request submitted by the Suez Canal Authority on Monday, to seize on the ship until $900 million is paid to cover the cost of freeing the ship and the disruption to traffic on the canal.

The insurer described the figure as “huge” and unjustified and said it is working with all concerned parties to ensure the release of the ship, its cargo and 25-person crew.

The Ever Given, currently in the Great Bitter Lake region, will move to Port Said for further examination, the insurance company said.