Strolling the aisles, it didn’t take Eugenia Alcalá long to pick out her weekly grocery items: rice, beans, bread and meat. That’s about all that’s available in Caracas, the capital of Venezuela.
Once she reached the cashier, it would be another 40 minutes before she could leave the store.
“Yesterday the account was 200 million [bolivars], but the point of sale only permitted 20 million bolivars per transaction,” Alcalá said. “So I had to pass the debit card 10 times. Each time it takes up to five minutes.”
It took five cards to complete the 10 transactions, and not because she didn’t have the money. Banks simply didn’t want to turn it over.
As the Latin American country plunges ever deeper into its long-running crisis, Venezuelans are looking for an answer, with its flailing economy set to contract by more than 10% this year, bringing the total decline to about 45% in the past four years, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., a nonprofit policy-research organization.
As Venezuelans struggle to obtain everyday needs, they are turning to a curious asset class to alleviate price pressure: cryptocurrencies.
“Crisis led us to this situation,” said José Rodríguez, owner of Nómada Food Truck in Caracas. The situation is the adoption of digital currencies, an innovation that Rodríguez said is getting his business through the economic crisis.
Digital currencies such as bitcoin
and litecoin entered the mainstream in 2017, as investors — speculators, mainly — pushed their values higher by as much as 1,000%. As a result, digital currencies in mature economies sometimes have been derided as get-rich-quick schemes with no intrinsic value.
The nascent technology that libertarian-leaning evangelists, including entrepreneurs Peter Thiel and John McAfee, tout as packing the potential to reshape the global monetary system has yet to provide a significant use case in the developed world. High transaction fees, volatility and security flaws have, to date, scared off companies and consumers.
However, in emerging and frontier nations in Latin America and Africa, cryptocurrencies are making inroads.
In Venezuela especially, cryptocurrencies are enabling local businesses to own, transact and store something of value that isn’t at the whim of an unstable government, which devalued the bolivar by 95% on Aug. 20.
In Africa, cryptocurrencies are aiding cross-border payments, helping businesses expand across the fastest-growing continent by population.
Buying and selling cryptocurrencies anywhere in the world “has universal value,” said Jill Carlson, an independent consultant in San Francisco who has worked on projects in developing countries. “It’s digital, its p2p [peer-to-peer], and it doesn’t rely on a banking system or government. You can argue that, in a place like Venezuela, in many ways it’s more valuable and more portable.”
With the bolivar plunging, Alcalá called Venezuela a “perfect storm” for cryptocurrency adoption.
“I am old enough to remember when things weren’t this bad,” said Alcalá, who is 38 years old.
You don’t have to be very old to remember when Venezuela was a dramatically different place. In 2013, as the price of oil surged above $100 a barrel, Venezuela’s economy posted its third consecutive annual expansion, growing at 1.3%, according to data from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). A year earlier, it had grown 5.6% and, despite growing debt, lofty oil prices, which make up 98% of the value of Venezuelan exports, meant the country had a steady source of income. Citgo, the oil and gas company, is majority-owned by PDVSA, which is owned by the Venezuelan government.
Fast-forward five years, and the country is in the midst of one of the worst financial crises on record. Latest figures have annual inflation running at around 48,000%, according to Steve Hanke, professor of applied economics at the Johns Hopkins University and one of the world’s leading experts on hyperinflation. And on July 24, the IMF predicted it would hit 1,000,000% by the end of 2018.
So with the bolivar increasingly worthless, Venezuelans are turning to digital transactions. Because of capital controls, Venezuelans are restricted in their ability to obtain U.S. dollars or other foreign currency.
One cryptocurrency on the rise in Venezuela is Dash, the 12th-largest cryptocurrency, with a market value of more than $1.5 billion. Users in Venezuela, both merchants and individuals, download a virtual wallet, link it to a bank account and then can begin using the digital currency to buy goods and services. From bus rides to Subway sandwich shops, there are now more than 1,000 merchants that accept Dash in Venezuela, according to Mark Mason, director of public relations and media at Dash. (Dash’s name is a portmanteau of “digital cash.”)
In September 2017, Alcalá organized a meet-up for Venezuelans to share ideas and learn more about digital currencies. They discussed how the technology could alleviate everyday worries including exchange controls, hyperinflation, a lack of cash and banking issues such as limits on transactions.
After the first meeting, Alcalá planned for 80 people, but nearly twice as many showed up. Now the monthly get-togethers attract more than 500 people.
“Cryptocurrencies, especially Dash, have helped me to have an alternative means of income that, unlike the bolivar, is stable and much safer,” said Victoria Merchán, founder of Tradición Gourmet, a Caracas restaurant specializing in homemade food. “In addition, it has opened the doors of my business to many more clients and the general public.”
Proponents of the technology in emerging and frontier economies need to tread carefully when introducing a new technology, said journalist Brett Scott, who wrote a working paper for the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development titled “How Can Cryptocurrency and Blockchain Technology Play a Role in Building Social and Solidarity Finance?”
“A lot of research is devoid of class analysis,” said Scott. “People look at these [frontier economies] as a homogeneous mass like they all need help. There needs to be some separation of thinking about the problems of someone versus this community [cryptocurrency proponents] who confidently assert that this [technology] will help save them.”
In Venezuela, from 2014 to 2017, the poverty rate has increased to 87% from 48%, and the average Venezuelan living in poverty lost 11.2 kilograms (24.7 pounds) of body weight in 2017, with a quarter of the population eating two or fewer meals a day, according to a recent study.
Johns Hopkins’ Hanke has proposed another solution to Venezuela’s problems: dollarization, in which a country abandons its own currency in favor of a more stable currency.
“It worked beautifully in Montenegro,” said Hanke, who advised that Balkan country’s government in abandoning its currency for Germany’s deutsche mark in 1999. “Inflation was solved within a matter of hours.”
While Hanke argued that a digital currency isn’t the answer to Venezuela’s problems, he said the physical landscape in Venezuela is a better test case than most African nations for combating hyperinflation. “You can live off the land in places like Zimbabwe and Kenya, so hyperinflation doesn’t affect you as much,” he said. “But if you have a massive urban population such as Caracas, poverty can hurt you.”
For some African nations, cryptocurrencies are solving a different economic issue: cross-border payments.
For small and midsize businesses, exchanging so-called fiat currencies — official government currencies — among countries is stifling growth. Hefty transaction fees and long remittance times restrict expansion in the fastest-growing continent by population.
According to the World Bank, countries in the Sub-Saharan African region are among the world’s most expensive LMICs — or low- and middle-income countries — into which to send money, costing on average 9.4% for a $200 transaction. With the help of bitcoin, companies are slashing fees and reducing remittance times when sending and receiving foreign currency.
“We are a market maker for African currencies,” said Elizabeth Rossiello, founder and CEO of BitPesa in Nairobi, Kenya. “For others, transferring between currencies requires you to go via the U.S. dollar, which can incur fees up to 15%, and it can take two weeks before funds are released.”
BitPesa facilitates currency transactions in seven African nations: Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, Tanzania, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. By using bitcoin, fees are reduced to less than 3%, according to Rossiello, and the clearing of funds takes a matter of hours.
“Customers tell us they are expanding to other markets because they are less nervous to move into a new market, as they know, if it does fail, they can get their money out,” said Rossiello. “To them, the idea of expanding to another country is scary.”
Abba Pius, CEO of Spirited Frontier Trading in Lagos, Nigeria, said reduced remittance times have decreased anxiety when businesses and customers deal with international payments.
“As you can imagine, Nigeria to New Zealand is not a very common corridor, so we searched for solutions for a long time,” said Pius, adding that remittance times are now within 24 hours since the adoption of the digital-payment method.
From virtual to real
Since 2008, when Satoshi Nakamoto, the name used by the unknown developer of bitcoin, released a white paper outlining decentralized ledger transactions, the opaque technology has graduated from Reddit chat forums to the mainstream media. And despite the early-2018 collapse that wiped more than $600 billion off the total value of all cryptocurrencies on exchanges, the use cases for digital currencies are broadening.
However, much to the frustration of entrepreneurs in the U.S. and other developed countries, most of the progress is happening far from the futures exchanges in Chicago or regulatory roundtables in Washington, D.C. In emerging and frontier nations, digital currencies are solving basic problems.
“In Tanzania, it’s currently cheaper to get Chinese tea than Kenyan tea from across the border,” said Rossiello, at BitPesa. “We’re hoping cryptocurrency can change this.”
Aaron Hankin is a reporter covering digital currencies for MarketWatch.
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