Johannesburg energy management company Invirohub is giving consumers new a way to buy prepaid electricity: bitcoin.
Smart meters manufactured by the company will integrate wallet addresses, 3G SIMs and a server connection to compute an up-to-the-minute bitcoin price. Customers simply send their bitcoin to their meter's wallet address and Invirohub will credit them with a commensurate amount of electricity.
"All this came together in my mind a few weeks ago where I realised that it wouldn't take much effort at all to integrate bitcoin into our current software," said Technical Director Lorien Gamaroff. "I set to work and quickly put it all together."
Warming up to bitcoin
Invirohub currently has pilot schemes operating in and around the Johannesburg area; several of which will have established an online presence in the coming months.
Demand for bitcoin payments among his existing clients - municipalities and property companies - is low, Gamaroff said. Few of them comprehend either the concept or the advantages of the digital currency to the extent of actually using it, and therefore haven't offered a bitcoin payment option to their clients.
However, he is confident that that apathy will change with greater bitcoin awareness and education:
"The fact is that bitcoin is now built into the software and if any of their clients choose to pay with bitcoin then they may do so. Also, as the cost benefits become clear to them - negligible costs as compared to the several percent that banks charge - they will warm to the idea."
Business has been especially successful with municipalities in rural areas where residents find it difficult, if not impossible, to recoup the expenses of unmetered electricity use.
Gamaroff said that occupants in one such town could only afford to spend a few South African rands at a time, with many purchasing US$2 of electricity every few days. For such customers, a technology like bitcoin would be comprehensible since most, he asserted, are aware of payment methods like M-Pesa, the Kenya-based mobile payments system with at least 14 million active users.
Growing presence in Africa
Interest in the digital currency is building in South Africa and the continent as a whole.
Two weeks ago ZAbitcoinATM announced a forthcoming Lamassu bitcoin ATM in Johannesburg, the first ever in Africa. Another in Cape Town is on the horizon.
Broadening the ATM presence is a step to getting non-experts acquainted with the digital currency. Many regions of Africa are unbanked, and thereby without access to payments services like Visa or PayPal. Now, however, services allowing consumers to pay bitcoin for everything from basic utilities to taxes have taken off worldwide.
Electricity image via Shutterstock