How can for-profit companies and charities work together to promote bitcoin awareness in the developing world?
A handful of different projects launched in Africa recently could point the way forward. There are plenty of worthy causes around the world already accepting bitcoin donations, in both developed and developing economies.
What sets the following projects apart from those, however, is an equally worthy ulterior motive: to actually get bitcoin technology into the hands of recipients and those around them, and to demonstrate its utility in daily life. Each charity is doing it their own unique way.
Both the international media and government-backed regulators are always quick to paint bitcoin as a vehicle for money-laundering and drug trafficking, producing a biased first impression to those unfamiliar with its true function.
And in Africa, the number of people unfamiliar with bitcoin is high. It's up to these projects to make sure the local public's first encounter with bitcoin is a positive and hopeful one.
ICE3X is not a charity, but South Africa's predominant bitcoin exchange platform. Trading in bitcoin, litecoin and local currency (Rand) it is KYC compliant, and users are required to be South African residents with identification and a registered local bank account.
But the exchange also seeks to build community acceptance through a philanthropy program, identifying local worthy causes and introducing them to bitcoin while also raising funds.
Its first cause is fighting animal cruelty with "animal warrior" Suzette Kotze, head of the local Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) in the small town of Stilfontein.
Despite its size, Stilfontein deals with over 21 cases of extreme animal abuse per month, and the shelter Kotze operates is fast running out of funds, requiring 30,000 Rand (roughly 3.15 BTC at press time) to continue.
Knowing little about bitcoin or cryptocurrencies, Kotze approached ICE3X after hearing about its appeal for community projects and was fascinated by a system that allowed small donations from anywhere in the world at close to zero cost.
It would be difficult to hold an international campaign for such a project through traditional payment channels or established charitable organisations. Even PayPal, which often waives fees for charitable causes, does not operate equally in every country.
Bitcoin can, of course, be used to crowdfund non-charitable projects without fees as well.
ICE3X is monitoring the success of its community philanthropy program and is currently vetting five other causes for future support. It does not collect fees or commissions from the organisations.
Company representative Tristan Winters says a good first impression for bitcoin is essential, especially since its greatest disadvantage in African is not misinformation, but sheer obscurity.
“It’s not that bitcoin has a bad image in Africa. It has no image at all. In that way it is a clean slate: a real opportunity. The potential of bitcoin in Africa is often cited. But the issues to be overcome are real and often overlooked. The first step is clearly good PR."
He added: "It’s only by supporting local organisations and fostering good causes, while maintaining a ‘teach a man to fish’ attitude, that bitcoin will reach its full potential in Africa."
On a different part of the continent, and with a different bitcoin mission, is Richard Boase (a fellow CoinDesk contributor). He is heading a team of collaborators on a trip to Kenya in conjunction with charity BitcoinTablet project and Kenyan bitcoin remittance processor BitPesa.
This effort is probably more overt in its intention to get bitcoin into as many hands as possible, while also demonstrating its usefulness to local entrepreneurs. The team will distribute technology on a limited basis alongside an education campaign.
PayPal does not function at all in Kenya and banks usually charge high fees to transfer money into the country.
The ultimate aim of Slovakia-based BitcoinTablet is to get charity organisations and other locals using bitcoin for themselves, by supplying them with Android tablets with wallet software and the skills to use them.
Boase will spend six weeks with charities in four different locations across Kenya to investigate whether the technology is indeed viable or helpful and, if so, how it could overcome unique local challenges.
The initial trip to Kenya is mostly a fact-finding one. BitcoinTablet understands that simply traveling to a developing country and handing out technology is a naive idea that might create new problems of its own (eg theft or the disposal of outdated electronics).
In partnership with Tomer Kantor of iamsatoshi.com Boase has started a bitcoin meetup group in Nairobi. Tunapanda, an organisation specializing in bringing technology to remote communities, will help with classes based on materials from the Bitcoin Education Project and the Khan Academy.
Factors like infrastructure and internet availability will play a part, as will the acceptance of bitcoin's sometimes complex new concepts, ability to secure wallets, and the usefulness of existing electronic payment systems like M-Pesa.
BitPesa has pledged to help by offering free exchange on all bitcoins donated, alongside its continuing support and sponsorship of the Nairobi meetup.
Dr. Michael Meegan of ICROSS International has been working in Kenya's Rift Valley for over three decades, said bitcoin and associated network technology "could be a game changer" for organisations like his. He said:
"I think this could be a very easily measurable program that could be shown to impact on health professionals at Government District level."
He added: "There are a plethora of demonstrable indices that this resource could provide at District level to impact the latest health resources which could be shared to the various health services."
Kantor will make a follow-up visit to Kenya in March to assess the programs and document any progress.
Africa Image via Shutterstock