If bitcoin acceptance reaches a critical mass where necessities of food, shelter, and clothing can be bought with it, it could reach a tipping point where it displaces national currencies in many developing countries. In this scenario, many areas of the world may leapfrog banking infrastructure and traditional money wire transfers. Most notably, the financial landscape in developing economies such as Africa is well positioned to leapfrog traditional banking and move directly to a bitcoin-enabled financial paradigm.
Bitcoin Leapfrogging Banks
Leapfrogging is described as a theory of economic development which skips inferior or obsolete technologies in order to move directly to advanced ones. Take, for example, phone coverage in African countries. Landline grids for household use were never fully developed because, by the time Africa came into market view, mobile phones were the new paradigm of telecommunications. The entire infrastructure for household landlines was leapfrogged by cellular technology.
Similar to cellular technology, bitcoin could empower Africa to leapfrog the banking infrastructure of western economies and go directly to a new financial paradigm. The preeminent requirement on behalf of African citizens is a mobile device with internet connectivity. Yet, how mobile-savvy are Africans?
The potential to provide financial services worldwide is echoed by the adoption of mobile payment technologies such as M-Pesa, a mobile-phone based money transfer and microfinancing service for Safaricom and Vodacom. M-Pesa is estimated to have a near 70% market share in Kenya and is becoming more accepted in surrounding countries.
According to Mobile Payments Today, in 2002, only 3% of people on the entire continent of Africa had mobile phones. That number ballooned to 48% by 2010. In 2014, 70% of the continent’s population had a mobile phone as the market continues to adopt cellular devices.
Banking the Unbanked
Worldwide, approximately 2.5 billion people lack a formal account at a financial institution. Access to affordable financial services is linked to overcoming poverty, reducing income disparities, and increasing economic growth.
If one third of adults lack access to formal banking systems, a bank account stored in cyberspace may prove to be a catalyst in developing markets. Bitcoin will benefit Africa more than any other region in the world due to the massive business opportunity which presents itself as an unbanked yet mobile-friendly market. Such a leapfrogging effect would serve to pull struggling African economies out of stagnation and onto the global stage in a very big way.
The combination of ubiquitous Internet-connected mobile devices and digital currency presents a tremendous opportunity to radically expand access to financial services on a worldwide basis,
– Jeremy Allaire, Circle Internet Financial, 2013 US hearing on digital currencies.
Beyond just mobile payments and access to banking infrastructure, several African economies are the product of mismanaged currency policy. Zimbabwe’s legacy of collapsed currency, with inflation reaching a nauseating 231,000,000% in mid-2008, is a prime example of such disastrous government intervention. Because of the devastating effects of hyperinflation, Zimbabwe has since adopted the US dollar as the main currency, a position it still holds today. The hyperinflation that crippled Zimbabwe was largely caused by currency being too liberally printed, a swollen stock of money chasing a diminished supply of goods.
Bitcoin may not be the definitive answer for the masses that remain unbanked, but it is certainly a step towards a brighter future. Governments in Africa will have diminished options for instituting thoughtless policies once bitcoin is adopted by the populous. The hotspots for adoption will be most apparent in geographies which have a very unreliable currency and lack mature financial infrastructure. Out of all the nations of Earth, African countries stand to benefit the most from financial technology such as bitcoin.
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