How African refugees used bitcoin to build their own grassroots economy – TechCrunch

When hundreds of thousands of people in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) fled their homes after the eruption of the Mount Nyiragongo volcano on May 22, a blogger and a fledgling restaurant worker teamed up in the city of Goma and used bitcoin to help displaced families.

Chainglob crypto news founder Gloire Wanzavalere went to the makeshift refugee camp that sprang up nearly overnight, offering to give away bitcoin to displaced families.

He recruited by word-of-mouth, asking people if they knew someone who lost their home. But he quickly found that most of the families had already traded their phones for food. They also left most of their belongings behind, so didn’t have the paperwork needed to open new bank accounts or acquire new devices.

“These people lost everything. I understood it was rational for them to sell what they had left in order to buy food,” Wanzavalere said. “So we bought phones for eight people…12 people benefited from our initiative, four among them already had their own smartphones.”

Wanzavalere was inspired by online news of the bitcoin Beach project in El Salvador, which he said proved poor people can still use bitcoin despite the technical challenges and volatility.

“Coming to their aid with bitcoin was a more powerful act than any marketing campaign could be. That’s when we told ourselves, OK, we’re going to do this in Congo,” the crypto-focused blogger said.

They started with a small, circular workflow. Wanzavalere’s mother owns a small shop in town that sells basic hygiene supplies and nonperishable goods. She agreed to accept bitcoin using her mobile phone, relying on apps like Wallet of Satoshi and Phoenix Wallet.

“Because she is very excited about the idea of helping people with bitcoin, she is considering the option of bringing a few essential goods closer to the refugees, so they can buy what they need without going too far into town. But it’s a complex question in part because of security concerns,” Wanzavalere said.

Meanwhile, Juvin Kombi, who works at Jikofood Restaurant, was busy this past summer setting up his company’s first Lightning Network node. This allowed the restaurant to accept bitcoin payments without high transaction fees or long confirmation times. By September they were up and running, using the restaurant’s PC and sometimes their own personal smartphones when needed. Their preferred mobile wallet apps are Muun Wallet and Blue Wallet.

“The learning process was very long, but the minimum research we have done has helped us understand bitcoin without any support,” Kombi said. “We realized that it was easy to set up. A simple wallet and an internet connection are sufficient. In addition, we are studying the possibility of setting up BTCPay Server in the near future.”

So far just a few of the restaurant’s clients use bitcoin, Kombi added, including the displaced people Wanzavalere hired. However, they hope that as more people in the community learn about bitcoin that this payment option will set the small restaurant apart from local competition. The restaurant often hosts educational workshops for customers who want to learn more about using bitcoin.

Wanzavalere said he can relate to Kombi’s statement that bitcoin education takes a long time. Wanzavalere first discovered bitcoin after falling prey to an online scam in 2017. That inspired him to do more research into digital assets, and eventually start his own local crypto news blog. Hiring locally and paying in bitcoin makes sense as an altruistic marketing strategy.

“The Congolese population is suffering greatly; it never had any stable currency except the U.S. dollar,” Wanzavalere said. “I am not a journalist. However, I started to write about bitcoin issues in Africa because there was a lack of information on the subject in French.”

In the meantime, he fundraised for this grassroots program by inviting international bitcoin fans to participate in a “Lightning Torch.” First, he tweeted that anyone could join the torch, a chain of Lightning Network transactions created by strangers sharing an invoice and sending small amounts of bitcoin to pay it forward to the next invoice holder, like passing a baton in a relay race. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey was among the participants.

“In total, 18 people contributed. Then the entirety of the funds were sent to me to be distributed to the beneficiaries,” Wanzavalere said. “In less than three hours, all the beneficiaries mastered it, learning how to receive and send money using a bitcoin wallet, which shows that in practice the Lightning Network isn’t that complicated to use.”

Next, Wanzavalere added, he plans to teach beneficiaries how to run a node, like Jikofood Restaurant does, in case they want to help expand the local bitcoin economy to include more small businesses that fully control their own funds. He may also hire some of the beneficiaries to work for his crypto blog.

“We plan to raise more money to help an even larger part of the suffering population,” Wanzavalere concluded. “The money collected by the torch event was meant to be distributed without anything in return. However, this is a long-term idea. Paying the refugees in bitcoin for freelance work could be a source of more community engagement.”

Editor’s note: French translation by @vallard14 


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