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.”


WH Smith to open at King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah

WH Smith to open at King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah
Updated 17 min 18 sec ago

WH Smith to open at King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah

WH Smith to open at King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah
  • Airport retail may rebound on travel resumption
  • Pandemic culls names across retail sector

DUBAI: British retailer WH Smith is coming to King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah.
Tihama Advertising, Public Relations and Marketing Company has agreed a deal with the General Authority of Civil Aviation to lease two units at the airport, it said in a Saudi stock exchange filing.
Tihama Education, a unit of the Tadawul-listed company, will operate two outlets under the WH Smith brand franchise, covering arrivals and departures.
Tihama has an existing partnership with WH Smith at Riyadh Airport and in the UAE.
WH smith did not respond to a request for comment.
Founded in 1792, WH Smith is one of the oldest names on the British high street and has also become one of the world’s leading travel retailers operating over 1,100 stores in 31 countries.
Retailers have suffered from the impact of more than a year of intermittent lockdowns worldwide but the transport-focused end of the retail business may stand to benefit from a resumption of international air travel.
Analysts at RBC upgraded WH Smith to ‘outperform’ from ‘sector perform’ last week and lifted their price target on the stock to 2,200p from 2,100p.


Surge in demand for companies looking to set up in KSA

Surge in demand for companies looking to set up in KSA
Updated 21 April 2021

Surge in demand for companies looking to set up in KSA

Surge in demand for companies looking to set up in KSA
  • Consultants have seen a 50 percent rise in activity in the first quarter of 2021

RIYADH: Sovereign AEI, a firm which specializes in helping companies set up operations in the Kingdom, has seen a spike in business activity.

“The beginning of this year has been very encouraging as we have seen a 40 to 50 percent increase in Saudi Arabia market-entry activity, when compared to pre-pandemic levels,” Stuart D’Souza, co-founder and CEO of Arabian Enterprise Incubators (AEI), one of the partner firms that makes up Sovereign AEI, told Arab News.

As part of the ambitious Riyadh Strategy 2030 announced by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman earlier this year, the government wants to attract up to 500 international companies to set up their regional bases in the city, create around 35,000 new jobs for Saudi locals, and double the capital’s population.

The strategy aims to invest up to SR70 billion ($18.67 billion) into the national economy by the end of the decade. The strategy is already paying dividends.

“Sovereign AEI is helping to facilitate this new strategy. Our products and services are conducive with Riyadh Strategy 2030 by helping new and existing businesses capitalize on the expected significant growth forecast for the Kingdom,” Paul Arnold, managing director of Sovereign Saudi Arabia, told Arab News.

BACKGROUND

• The government wants to attract up to 500 international companies to set up their regional bases in the city, create around 35,000 new jobs for Saudi locals, and double the capital’s population.

• The strategy aims to invest up to SR70 billion ($18.67 billion) into the national economy by the end of the decade. The strategy is already paying dividends.

“We are also encouraging businesses to look ahead and establish a physical presence in the Kingdom, while taking into consideration new criteria set to come into force by 2024, the specifics of which are yet to be formally announced,” he added.

Sovereign has been operating in Saudi Arabia for about 20 years and AEI since 2012. They formed their joint partnership in 2019.

In 2019, the company helped 600 businesses visit Saudi Arabia to investigate potential opportunities. Half were first-time visitors and over 70 percent went on to establish new business links in the Kingdom. AEI alone has helped over 1,500 foreign businesses to enter, establish or expand in Saudi Arabia since 2012.

Last year, despite the restrictions as a result of the pandemic, Sovereign AEI reported a 300 percent increase in corporate services in Saudi Arabia. The team is expecting this positive growth to continue in 2021.

“The Saudi market presents tremendous opportunities. Most companies are now aware of the potential of the market, the main pillars of Vision 2030 and the significant number of economic reforms carried out over the past 18 months. However, plotting a road map to success can be a challenge,” Arnold said.

“Our principles are to educate, de-risk and enable the client’s ability to enter, establish or expand in the Kingdom. Our robust performance in the first quarter is a testament to the attractive nature of the Saudi market and we continue to see a growing interest and increasing shift of client focus toward the Kingdom, as the country continues to unveil new strategic initiatives,” he added.


New oil price surge caps year of recovery since ‘Black Monday’

New oil price surge caps year of recovery since ‘Black Monday’
Updated 21 April 2021

New oil price surge caps year of recovery since ‘Black Monday’

New oil price surge caps year of recovery since ‘Black Monday’
  • Anniversary of US crude plunging to minus-$40 at start of pandemic recession

DUBAI: Oil prices resumed their surge on global markets on Tuesday as traders shrugged off the memory of “Black Monday” 2020, when some crude prices went into negative territory at the start of the pandemic recession.
Brent crude, the global benchmark, went above $68 a barrel for the first time in over a year, while West Texas Intermediate, which approached minus-$40 at the depth of the oil crisis exactly a year ago, leapt above $64.
The resurgence in the oil price — which has seen some experts suggesting the possibility of a “supercycle” in which crude goes back above $100 a barrel — is partly down to improved prospects as the global economy moves outs of pandemic lockdowns.
The global rollout of coronavirus vaccines has led economic experts to predict a sharp recovery in growth in 2021, with the International Monetary Fund recently forecasting a sharp rise in economic activity for the rest of the year. China last week said its economy had grown by 18.3 percent in the first quarter of the year.
But oil analysts believe the actions of OPEC+ — the producers’ alliance led by Saudi Arabia and Russia —had been the biggest factor in helping reduce the huge glut of oil that threatened to swamp the world market last spring.
Since last April, OPEC+ has taken more than 3 billion barrels of oil off the global market, through a combination of strong internal discipline and voluntary cuts by Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest exporter.
Prince Abdul Aziz bin Salman, the Saudi Energy Minister and co-chairman of OPEC+, has repeatedly urged caution on the 23-member organization as COVID-19 cases re-emerge in some parts of the world. Europe and India are the latest causes of concern.
“The reality remains that the global picture is far from even, and the recovery is far from complete,” he told the last OPEC+ meeting.
The oil price bulls are encouraged by increasing demand from China, the biggest oil consumer in the world.
Figures from the country’s customs regulator, released on Tuesday, showed that crude oil imports from Saudi Arabia — its biggest supplier — had risen by nearly 9 percent in March, with strong domestic demand bolstered by a freeing up of supplies after port congestions.
Some analysts still believe Brent crude could hit $75 this year, and reckon $100 a barrel next year is a possibility.
But nobody appears to believe the volatile market conditions of last spring, and negative oil prices, will happen again.
Robin Mills, chief executive officer of consultancy Qamar Energy, told Arab News: “That was a pretty unusual set of circumstances.”
He added: “Never say never, and traders have short memories, but I think the fixes in place would make it unlikely to go negative again.”


Egypt targets investments of $80 billion

Egypt targets investments of $80 billion
Updated 21 April 2021

Egypt targets investments of $80 billion

Egypt targets investments of $80 billion
  • Plan forecasts 125 percent increase in funding for production sector

CAIRO: Egypt is aiming to raise EGP 1.25 trillion ($80 billion) as part of its investment plan for the fiscal year 2021/2022, according to the Egyptian Minister of Planning and Economic Development Hala Al-Saeed.

The investment plan forecasts a 125 percent increase in funding for the production sector, the minister said, along with a 30 percent increase for the country’s service sector.

Al-Saeed said the plan helps address the public spending commitments related to health and education and scientific research, as well funding for the continued efforts to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

She said priority would be given to high-productivity sectors that drive sustainable economic growth in Egypt such as the manufacturing, communications, information technology and agriculture sectors.

According to the minister, the most important goals of the 2021/2022 sustainable development plan include addressing important social issues such as gender equality and public investments into green projects.


Korean envoy invites Saudi Arabia to GICC2021

Korean Ambassador Jo Byung-Wook during a meeting with Prince Saud bin Talal bin Badr and officials from Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs and Housing. (Supplied)
Korean Ambassador Jo Byung-Wook during a meeting with Prince Saud bin Talal bin Badr and officials from Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs and Housing. (Supplied)
Updated 20 April 2021

Korean envoy invites Saudi Arabia to GICC2021

Korean Ambassador Jo Byung-Wook during a meeting with Prince Saud bin Talal bin Badr and officials from Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs and Housing. (Supplied)
  • The annual conference provides an opportunity to present projects to potential Korean partners, and to hold personal consultations

RIYADH: South Korean Ambassador Jo Byung-Wook has invited Saudi Arabia to attend the Global Infrastructure Cooperation Conference (GICC2021).

The annual conference provides an opportunity to present projects to potential Korean partners, and to hold personal consultations.

The ambassador met Prince Saud bin Talal bin Badr, undersecretary at the Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs and Housing for housing subsidies, and general supervisor of the International Cooperation Department at the ministry in Riyadh.

GICC2021 is scheduled for “later this year,” the ambassador told Arab News, adding that the meeting “reviewed the close, friendly and cooperative relations” between the two countries, and “agreed to continue to expand bilateral cooperation in the housing sector.”

He said: “I commended the Saudi government’s efforts to help Saudi families own their house through the Sakani program, taking note of the signing of four agreements during the Sakani Forum held last Thursday in Riyadh.”

The Sakani program helped 70,000 families in the first quarter of 2021, surpassing its target of serving 51,000 families.

It 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 by creating new housing stock, allocating plots and homes to nationals, and financing their purchase. It has a goal of reaching 70 percent home ownership by 2030.

The program aims to serve 220,000 Saudi families this year by creating 50,000 housing units, facilitating the reservation of 30,000 residential land plots, and arranging 140,000 real estate loans. To date, Sakani has enabled more than 350,000 families to own homes.