By Tunde Osho (with agency reports)
In July 2016, Manasseh Egedegbe, an Abuja-based investment manager, was caught in the cross hairs of Nigeria’s dollar crunch and had some difficulties making an international payment. At the time, with Nigeria’s foreign reserves and revenues shrinking amid an economic slump, the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) put up currency controls to restrict access to dollars. For Egedegbe, and many other Nigerians, that presented a problem. In his desperation, he turned to the cryptocurrency wave of the moment: Bitcoin trading in Nigeria.
“I was able to use bitcoin to do just one transaction and then I got hooked,” Egedegbe tells Quartz.
Over the past 18 months, due to reasons ranging from needing to make international payments, like Egedegbe, or simply wanting a slice of the next big thing, bitcoin adoption in Nigeria has spiked. This year, peer-to-peer bitcoin trading in Nigeria has increased by nearly 1,500%—surpassed only by China. Data from LocalBitcoin, a popular bitcoin exchange available in around 200 countries, shows weekly bitcoin trade volume in Nigeria crossed N1 billion ($2 million) in August. “Seeing the price skyrocket” has drawn a lot of Nigerians “who want a piece of the action,” Egedegbe says.
The situation in Nigeria is not too dissimilar from Zimbabwe, whose unstable economy and depleted foreign exchange markets saw locals turn to bitcoin as a storage of value this year. At one point Zimbabwe had the highest bitcoin prices in the world.
A new crop of local bitcoin exchanges are proving central to the growing local adoption. Timi Ajiboye co-founded Bitkoin Africa in October after experiencing some difficulty trying to buy the cryptocurrency on foreign exchanges. The inability to pay with a Nigerian bank account or card drove Ajiboye’s decision to start Bitkoin Africa to make it much easier for local trading.
For his part, Tim Akinbo, co-founder of Tanjalo, also an exchange founded in October, says the potential local applications of cryptocurrencies and the enabling technology was the motivation for starting the exchange. There are also some older players in the space like NairaEX, a bitcoin exchange founded in Nov. 2015.
Despite growing adoption, skepticism largely outweighs enthusiasm but Ajiboye says local exchanges can help ensure more people understand cryptocurrencies better. An initial skeptic himself, Ajiboye cites his new-found conviction in cryptocurrencies, after gaining more understanding of their potential, as hope for a broader change in mindset.
Much like how local fintech companies are creating products and services to plug gaps in the local financial system, cryptocurrency technology has some potential across Africa given the lack of “advanced financial infrastructure,” Akinbo says. In that respect, these exchanges serve as vital cogs in the evolving infrastructure that will see cryptocurrencies achieve some of its potential in Africa. Whatever that potential is, the first step is “allowing people to buy and own the currencies,” Ajiboye says.
Both exchanges are notching up transactions in just two months of being in business. Bitcoin Africa’s trade volume is rapidly increasing: nearly half of its total trade volume since inception happened in the first ten days of December. Meanwhile, Tanjalo has done close to $1 million in trade volume with “very little marketing,” according to Akinbo.