Bitcoin isn’t just a pastime for restless tech nerds: it’s a game-changing technology that is creating a global payment network for all individuals, regardless of race, gender, or socio-economic status. With More than 2.5 billion people still lacking sufficient banking access, Bitcoin presents an opportunity to empower the world’s poorest and most marginalized—many of them women.
Imagine that your young son is diagnosed with a rare heart condition. What immediately goes through your head? Now imagine that your local hospital doesn’t know much about this acute condition, and you don’t have the funds to move your child to a more advanced medical center the next country over.
In early 2012, Alakanani Itireleng’s son, Pako Junior, was dying of Noonan Syndrome. Unable to find adequate care in their native Botswana, she did what any parent would do—she took to the internet. As she desperately researched avenues of additional funding for Pako Junior’s treatment, she fell prey to a number of scams. But she also discovered Bitcoin.
Pako Junior tragically did not survive to get care in neighboring South Africa. After his passing, Itireleng started to learn more about the technology that had given her family a glimmer of hope during a time of crisis. Itireleng, now known as “Bitcoin Lady,” leads the Botswana fintech hub Satoshi Centre and hosted the first Botswana Blockchain Summit. Her mission is to connect the people of Botswana to Bitcoin and the blockchain, technology that has the potential to revolutionize the way people, especially those in poorer countries, access the financial system.
So what is Bitcoin? The term first appeared in an October 2008 white paper written by an anonymous founder who called himself Satoshi Nakamoto. “Nakamoto” referred to Bitcoin as “a Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System.” In simple terms, Bitcoin is a digital, decentralized cryptocurrency. All Bitcoin transactions take place online. There is no single point of control of Bitcoin. As a peer-to-peer software movement, Bitcoins are added to the system through “mining,” a process by which a software solves a math problem. Any individual can become a Bitcoin miner.
Bitcoin and gold share similar properties as both are not subject to inflation and can be considered a store of value. Unlike gold, Bitcoin has no value as a physical commodity; however, as there are only a fixed number of Bitcoin that will ever enter into the ecosystem, the price of Bitcoin will only increase if the movement continues to grow. It thus provides an opportunity as an investment with the potential that is as liquid as cash.
Beyond Bitcoin’s key feature of decentralization and pseudo-anonymity lies its technological platform, the blockchain. Once a new Bitcoin is mined, it’s added to the Bitcoin blockchain, a public ledger in which transactions are visible to anyone. All transactions are irreversible, protecting the sender and the recipient of funds. The blockchain ensures that there are no double spends and protects individuals from the security risks associated with credit and debit cards.
Unlike buying something online with a debit or credit card, when I make a purchase in Bitcoin, I am able to send funds directly from my Bitcoin wallet to another Bitcoin wallet with no middleman compromising the transaction—and no risk of the recipient accessing my account and funds. When I swipe my credit card at a store or enter my credit card information online, I’m putting my trust in the payment processor and the individual on the other end not to take additional funds out of my account or hold onto my confidential financial information. In a day and age where more than 16 billion dollars are lost in credit, debit, and prepaid card fraud annually, Bitcoin can provide a unique alternative to not just traditional online shopping, but basic monetary services in countries that lack easy access to plastic.
Beyond Bitcoin’s unique infrastructure is a message of financial inclusion and freedom. In the United States, most of us have never experienced life without a bank account or credit and debit cards. But there are more than 2.5 billion people in the world who are either unbanked or underbanked. Whether this is due to lack of adequate capital for opening an account, a person’s location in a rural or war-torn area, or race- or gender-based discrimination, too many individuals do not have access to the financial system many of us take for granted. In predominantly cash-based societies, people face roadblocks to transacting internationally and are at the whims of central banks and devalued currency. Imagine if you lived cash-payment- to-cash-payment and had no easy and secure way to save money or send it to family members across your borders. Or being told that because you’re a woman, you can’t have your own bank account. This is a reality for millions of women around the world. Globally, the majority of the world’s financially excluded are women: according to the World Economic Forum, 55 percent. In some countries, the imbalance is far more striking. In Saudi Arabia, for example, where women are restricted from the basic freedoms of driving a car, buying property, and opening a bank account without the presence of a man, the disparity in financial access between the genders is 10 percent.
How does Bitcoin fit into this scenario? Anyone with an internet connection can access Bitcoin—no matter what financial freedoms or access they do or do not enjoy in their country. Bitcoin is pseudo-anonymous technology, meaning one can create a Bitcoin address to send and receive Bitcoin without having his or her name associated with that address (similar to transactions being associated to an account number).
For emerging markets, Bitcoin and the blockchain are already beginning to be used as currency, a mechanism to transfer funds for inbound and outbound remittance and, most importantly, as a catalyst for financial inclusion. Bitcoin adoption is surging globally, but one country in particular, India, is seeing an increase in users and volume. I currently handle Global Business Development for Coinsecure, India’s largest Bitcoin exchange. Coinsecure was founded in the summer of 2014 with the mission of connecting India to Bitcoin. As the world’s second largest country by population, the home to one-fifth of the global underbanked population, and the number one remittance receiving country by volume, India is ripe for Bitcoin adoption. As Bitcoin is a new technology and has faced ups and downs since the first Bitcoin was mined in January of 2009, it has taken some time for Indian citizens to feel comfortable with the technology. The Indian government has additionally not issued formalized regulatory guidelines around digital currency. But following Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s crackdown on counterfeit paper notes and his start to demonetization, Indian citizens have landed on Bitcoin as a top plan B. In November 2016, following the cancellation of larger currency notes, Indian citizens who did not have a credit or debit card and who lived predominantly on paper currency were in a bind. Citizens began turning to exchanges like Coinsecure to trade in INR, Indian Rupees, for Bitcoin, in order to have a store of value as well as make purchases both in India and internationally.
To be certain, the Bitcoin community has some maturing to do. The issue of how to manage the technology and develop more user-friendly services for transacting with Bitcoin are both works in progress. But the Bitcoin and blockchain revolutions have already begun. As Itireling told me in a 2014 interview, Bitcoin technology “is a tool that can be used to liberate an ordinary African and give the unbanked an opportunity to have something they can use to manage their finances without having to go through a lot of paperwork and be dismissed for not having a bank account.” With inflation on the rise and capital controls becoming more common, Bitcoin provides the perfect avenue for an individual to send funds anywhere around the world with internet connection (just consider the fact that more people have access to a mobile phone than to a toilet, according to the World Bank).
Bitcoin is just one application of the blockchain; in the next few years, we’ll see an increasing number of international governments looking to leverage its immutable ledger for areas where there is still rampant corruption, such as disaster relief, voting and foreign aid. Even traditional banks and remittance companies are looking to Bitcoin and the blockchain as a gateway to send funds around the world for a fraction of a cost, as well as presenting opportunities for secure fund clearance, recordkeeping and even for storing identities, land titles, and deeds. With transactions taking place within a matter of seconds to minutes, funds are guaranteed to be delivered in a timely fashion with no middlemen taking a cut. The technology is thus poised to disrupt the traditional economic system at large.
As a decentralized peer-to-peer network, Bitcoin puts power directly into the hands of the people, taking it out of those of a specific government or central bank that may be corrupt or unstable. Bitcoin provides an opportunity, mostly still untapped, for those ready to take ownership of their finances and be their own bank. In doing so, it is changing the financial trajectory for women around the world.
This feature originally appeared in the Money issue. Find more inspiring stories from the Money issue here or read the Editorial Note from our Money issue.