Bitcoin: The future of currency and humanitarianism

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The Bitcoin revolution is shifting towards humanitarian efforts to improve the lives of people globally.

Bitcoin made waves among financial circles last year by peaking at $1,135 per coin in November. Web surfers and tech start-ups looking to reap the benefits of the flourishing digital currency have already begun to invest in mining software, infrastructure, and trading platforms. If you didn’t invest when the cryptocurrency sold for only $0.05 per unit, you’re not the only one. Even legendary investor Jim Rogers regrets the decision to not invest early on.

But the tides are turning for the better. Both the public and private sector are beginning to look towards the humanitarian benefits that Bitcoin could have on marginalised communities in the developing world and beyond.

Facilitating a New Generation of Women in Afghanistan

The Women’s Annex Foundation (WAF) believes that education, technology and social media are the most important factors when it comes to empowering people. The organisation, which seeks to increase women’s digital literacy in Afghanistan, is using Bitcoin to create sustainable economies for young Afghan women.

Afghan school girls accessing the internet at a media lab created by Women’s Annex Foundation (photo: Building Schools in Afghanistan)

“Recent technologies have turned the world into a global village. Physical borders are no longer a serious issue. I can be in any part of the world I want and be online in a second,” Fereshteh Forough, Co-founder and board member of WAF, told TNN.

“Thinking about Bitcoin not only as a currency but also as a technology will change the whole perspective. It is not only about having it but how to use it. I think this is a great tool for Afghan women. Bitcoin gives users the idea of creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship. By setting up your digital wallet, you are technically opening a huge door towards financing yourself, and handling your own transactions, which is an education lesson for the majority of Afghan women who don’t have a bank account.”

Fereshteh Forough, co-founder and board member of Women’s Annex Foundation (photo: Women’s Annex Foundation)

While WAF’s media labs serve as a place where young Afghan women are connecting to the internet, using social media, and blogging, Bitcoin allows them to make transactions online while fostering their digital literacy. The WAF even has an internal shopping centre where the young women can buy Amazon gift cards, Skype credit, and even mobile credit from Afghan telecommunications companies.

The WAF does face challenges though. Shipping and billing addresses sometimes impede the young Afghan women from receiving their goods in a timely manner, if at all. Also, if one of them wants to exchange Bitcoin into Afghani (the national currency), there are no agencies currently in the country.

But Forough is positive about the future’s potential.

“Here at Women’s Annex Foundation, we believe in the power of Digital Literacy and Technology to create a sustainable economic model and to create community building between cultures. It is a long process but hopefully we are on the right track. Our goal is to build a strong online community of Afghan youth using our platform as a tool for being empowered and creative. We have expanded our project in central Asia to Pakistan and Egypt, and also in Latin America to Mexico. Next we are targeting Africa. We see a community that shares information between cultures that can build a real foundation through Digital Literacy,” Forough affirms.

Helping the Homeless in America

Sean’s Outpost founder Jason King recently finished an epic 5,209 km fundraising marathon to raise awareness of Bitcoin’s potential to transform the lives of homeless people in the US. Sean’s Outpost partnered with KryptoKit for the task at hand called “Bitcoin Across America”, beginning in Miami and ending in San Francisco.

“The whole point of the run [was] to raise awareness for homelessness and bitcoin. I’m tired of the homeless situation in America, and if you do something stupid like run across the country, you might get the attention of a couple of people along the way,” King told US-based Wired magazine.

Meals donated by Reddit users for the homeless at Sean’s Outpost (photo: Sean’s Outpost)

“It’s one thing to know what the statistics are. It’s another thing to come into these areas where [homelessness] is even worse than what I consider terrible…It’s something we all need to be aware of.”

Though King only raised 200 out of his 1,000 Bitcoin goal, Sean’s Outpost has already expanded to Dallas in the US and is preparing to open in Toronto and Vancouver in Canada. Their first facility in Pensacola, Florida showcases a 9-acre forest that serves as a sanctuary for the homeless, named Satoshi Forest after the creator of Bitcoin, Satoshi Nakamoto.

The Bitcoin Homeless Outreach Center at Sean’s Outpost (photo: Sean’s Outpost)

As King has shown, Bitcoin can be used to support initiatives that help get homeless people back on their feet.

Remittances Reloaded in Kenya

As Bitcoin continues to gain popularity, its decentralised approach to currency is facilitating new ways for people to bypass traditional modes of monetary transactions bogged down by bureaucratic institutions and ill-conceived borders. One of the most interesting trajectories taken to rethink remittance services was conceived by BitPesa co-founders Duncan Goldie-Scot and Elizabeth Rossielo, who came from institutions like the International Financial Cryptography Association and Grameen Foundation, respectively.

BitPesa offers Kenyans a way to by-pass the costs of traditional remittance services like Western Union and Money Gram by using Bitcoins. The service allows funds to be transferred to and from Kenya using a mobile money wallet. When the Bitcoins are transferred through BitPesa, they convert to or from the local currency into Bitcoins at 3 per cent of the going rate.

BitPesa users in Kenya receiving funds from abroad (photo: BitPesa)

But the service has its challenges.

“One of our biggest challenges is that many Kenyan diaspora are unaware of Bitcoin as a technology, much less understand or use it already. We have increased awareness by partnering with the Bitcoin community in London to increase uptake among Kenyan diaspora living in the UK, and by organizing Bitcoin meetups here in Nairobi,” Charlene Chen, Chief Operating Officer for BitPesa, told TNN.

In the future, BitPesa plans on expanding across east Africa and other regions where mobile money is accessible. They also plan on providing additional services.

“The future of BitPesa is quite bright! In addition to our core service of cheap, fast, and secure conversions of Bitcoin into local currencies, we are expanding our product portfolio to process merchant payments for Kenyans or Kenyan companies whose customers pay them in Bitcoin. We are also updating our site to enable Bitcoin donations to non-profit organisations in Kenya,” affirmed Chen.

With over 17 million active users making use of the mobile money wallet M-Pesa, it is clear how beneficial using BitPesa can be. It’s a model that could be used globally, or wherever mobile money wallets are available. But it doesn’t stop there. As Chen notes, “who knows, we may even set up BitPesa-branded Bitcoin ATMs that allow you to deposit cash and instantly send money to Kenya.”

Challenging the Non-Believers

“With every advance in technology, a critic is borne” goes the internet-age adage. While there are some that see Bitcoin as a risky and troublesome turn in technology, others are inventing new ways to utilise the decentralised currency to promote social change, enhance monetary experiences, and create a sustainable economy governed by the people themselves.

Some critics see Bitcoin as a threat to national currencies (photo: Chinese Gadget)

Though we’re still a few years off from a cash-free world, it’s safe to say that Bitcoin is changing the way we handle money one bit at a time.