An alliance of local African free-market pioneers that formed to promote bitcoin's economic benefits has put its campaign on hold to join the fight against Ebola, the virus currently ravaging parts of West Africa.
The Sierra Leone Liberty Group (SLLG) is seeking to raise donations via bitcoin as a demonstration of the digital currency's efficiency. In doing so, the group hopes to show how a grassroots organization can start to build a bitcoin ecosystem with limited resources.
The world's worst-ever outbreak of Ebola began to spread through Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia in March of this year, and has since caused over 1,400 deaths, according to The Guardian.
All three countries are currently under a state of emergency with closed borders, major events canceled and whole regions quarantined. Treatments for Ebola are still experimental and none are in widespread use, so prevention is the only option available.
The situation highlights the very real problems Africa must confront before it can be concerned with issues like new forms of currency and even economic policy.
Local struggle, global appeal
In the face of the outbreak, the SLLG and its friends have turned their immediate attention to containing Ebola's spread.
The group is asking for bitcoin donations from around the world to get funds directly to workers on the ground who need to buy supplies that include chlorine, cleaning equipment and protective gear such as rubber gloves, goggles and masks.
SLLG's founder, Mustapha Cole, told CoinDesk of the difficulties confronting him and his fellow Sierra Leoneans:
"It is very hard to live in a society that [has] such a deadly virus [...] especially when many of the renowned doctors in the country are also victims of the virus."
Another SLLG spokesperson added that the sheer number of people who have died so far has led to extreme measures. Once an Ebola case is identified in a certain area, the entire area may be quarantined from two to 20 days. No-one may enter or leave, with locals depending on the government to provide food supplies.
Therefore it is imperative to contain Ebola's spread by educating local townspeople on proper preventative methods and provide the necessary supplies to do so. This is SLLG's key task.
Current bitcoin mission
The organization's Facebook page shows pictures of the group distributing soap, disinfectant, and engaging in educational campaigns to teach people in small villages how to prevent infection.
However, Sierra Leone's current means of converting bitcoin into local currency and physical goods remain limited. SLLG's American mentor, the writer and economist Dan McLaughlin, will receive and convert the bitcoins before wiring the funds to Sierra Leone via bank transfer.
"The big story is how [bitcoin] is developing from nothing, rather than how it is already a booming success," McLaughlin told CoinDesk.
McLaughlin first met the Sierra Leoneans on one of his several trips to Ghana as an instructor at the Youth Liberty and Entrepreneurship Camp, and was impressed at how interested they were in economic liberty principles. From there, they founded the SLLG to spread the message in Sierra Leone, and the group is currently in the process of registering itself there as an officially recognized NGO.
Building a bitcoin ecosystem from scratch
Cole said the SLLG aims to promote "entrepreneurship, free markets, and sound principles that are the basis of any prosperous society", adding:
"The Sierra Leone Liberty Group is a made up of men and women just like you, who intend to make Sierra Leone a better place to live. We believe that progress comes from personal productivity of individuals, but you can't get different results by doing the same things."
Cole says his wish is to learn more about bitcoin and help build his local community through its use, and has joined with other bitcoin enthusiasts in Africa such as 'Bitcoin Lady' Alakanani Itireleng of Bitcoin Botswana fame, and Philip Agyei Asare from Ghana.
Asare is assisting the SLLG to develop capacity using mobile technology, building the infrastructure from scratch. He also recently authored an article on the libertarian social network Liberty.me about bitcoin as a decentralized alternative to other 'mobile money' systems used in Ghana, like MTN Mobile Money, Airtel Money or Tigocash.
The ability to transfer money across national borders, avoid maximum fund limits and disconnect users from reliance on telcos and high-fee banks are bitcoin's main promises, he said.
No silver bullet
From its beginnings, bitcoin has often been regarded by libertarian and free-market thinkers as a mechanism to liberate populations in the developing world from unstable local currencies, and provide a much-needed electronic payments network to millions with no access to mainstream banking services.
Others with direct experience in the region, however, have pointed out there are still many more pressing issues to overcome first, and it will be a while before bitcoin's true impact can be felt.
Sierra Leone, on Africa's west coast, is rich in natural and agricultural resources, but its economy has been hampered by fluctuations in commodity prices, corruption, and a decade-long civil war that lasted until 2002. It currently ranks 183rd on the United Nations' Human Development index.
Disclaimer: Use your discretion when donating bitcoin to groups not directly connected to internationally recognized aid organizations. Ensure you send to the correct address and be confident the recipient group is using the funds for its stated purpose.
Images via Sierra Leone Liberty Group