Look below at the map of public nodes on Bitcoin’s Lighting Network. Europe and the U.S. are filled with them. The rest of the world is an ocean of blankness with a few scattered islands.
Africa appears to have eight nodes total. From this map, entrepreneur and IT guru Chimezie Chuta inferred that he is the only person in Nigeria known to be running a Lightning node.
A crucial caveat is that many users might be running nodes without exposing them to the world. But, all told, Lightning activity looks sparse on the planet’s second-largest and second-most populous continent.
Chuta wants to change this. Like many Bitcoiners, he believes running a network node is one of the best ways to become truly financially independent. A Lightning node in particular, while experimental and maybe risky to use, allows Africans to earn a little cash by way of fees for relaying money across the network, he said.
To that end, BlockSpace Technologies Africa Inc., Chuta's company, has released a kit for a Bitcoin and Lightning node, including all the hardware pieces for assembly, called SpaceBox, in the hopes of expanding the technology’s use across the continent.
"I think this will help many people living in low-income regions of the world to become part of the Bitcoin ecosystem. Beyond trading and speculation, Africa seems to have zero representation," Chuta said.
Many Africans don't have access to financial services like traditional bank accounts. In 2015, the World Bank estimated that 350 million people living in Sub-Saharan Africa were "unbanked." In theory, running the pair of nodes could connect Africans to a more modern financial system – and do so in a way that gives them greater visibility and control over their funds than relying on third parties.
The SpaceBox sells for 210,000 naira, the Nigerian currency, worth roughly $541. The main component of the kit is a tiny hobbyist computer called the Raspberry Pi running the open-source Raspblitz software for Lightning nodes. It also has a solar panel component, since many Africans lack electricity.
"Our goal is to raise an army of full Bitcoin Lightning node operators to dot every nook and cranny of the continent in the next one year,” Chuta said. “We plan to sell and deploy at least 250 of these nodes … in the next six months.”
So far, over the last month the company has received seven orders, one from British Columbia, five from Nigeria, and one from Ghana.
Some readers may feel deja vu. Half a decade ago, Africa was touted as fertile ground for cryptocurrency adoption. Back then, cheaper remittances were supposedly the killer app.
Chuta’s pitch is different, emphasizing the autonomy that comes with running a full Bitcoin node, and the income from a Lightning one. It’s a way to earn and safeguard money, not just zap it to someone else.
Operating a Bitcoin full node basically means running the underlying infrastructure for the world’s largest cryptocurrency by market capitalization. Unlike mining, which requires significant investment in specialized chips, electricity and cooling, anyone can run a node on a laptop with enough space. At least 10,000 people are running nodes today – a conservative estimate since not all nodes show the world they are running.
While there’s no direct financial reward for running a Bitcoin node, it has an advantage over both custodial services (where a third party holds the private keys) and simplified payment verification wallets (which verify only their own transactions). A full node "self-validates" by retrieving every transaction recorded on the blockchain. With this information and the node rules downloaded, users can verify firsthand that transactions follow the network rules.
As the ultimate bullshit detector, it can tell if you're getting false data.
“Being financially sovereign has become a necessity and Bitcoin offers the primary tool to attain that,” Chuta said.
SpaceBox’s Lightning node component is built on top of the Bitcoin node. Lightning attempts to solve one of Bitcoin's biggest problems: increasing scalability so more people can use the network at once. If successful, it might become the main method of making everyday payments in the cryptocurrency – and generate revenue for those running nodes.
"Although operating a full Bitcoin Lightning node is more like a hobbyist engagement, some people are already making some money by positioning their nodes as [a] Lightning payment routing channel," Chuta said.
There are several options for building Lightning nodes, such as RaspiBlitz, or just purchasing them already put together from vendors like myNode.
Most node makers assume that users will have a stable electric source to plug into, which isn't a safe assumption in Sub-Saharan Africa where, according to The World Bank, more than one half of the population lacks electricity.
"With regards to infrastructure, Nigeria (and a number of other African countries) have very poor electricity supply so keeping a full node running is very difficult," Bitcoin Core contributor Tim Akinbo told CoinDesk.
Hence the solar panel that comes with the SpaceBox kit.
"This lack of regular electricity has denied most bitcoin enthusiasts in the continent the opportunity to participate in the global bitcoin multi-billion dollar industry as miners or routing node operators,” Chuta said. “By integrating [an] affordable solar power kit into bitcoin node operation, we expect that many more people across the world, especially Africans, can participate.”
Beyond electricity, Akinbo notes there are other costs to running a full node. They require a lot of storage space, for instance.
"It's just untenable for most Africans at the moment," Akinbo said, arguing that only wealthy bitcoins in Africa could afford a node.
But in Chuta’s vision, not everyone will necessarily run a node themselves. Perhaps there will be specialists that learn to run them, he said, who then pass the benefits on to their local community.
"The main point of this project … is to educate and train capable node operators across Africa, who then can help their small communities maintain 'friends and family node' in order to secure a healthy financial future for them," Chuta said.
He hopes orders will snowball after the coronavirus fades, since the pandemic has hurt BlockSpace's hardware suppliers.
"As soon as COVID-19 issues settle, we will launch a full campaign that will make a significant impact based on our vision," Chuta said.