Lorien Gamaroff: How Bitcoin can help fix things in Africa

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“We think of ourselves as an ecosystem company,” says Lorien Gamaroff, founder and CEO of Centbee, the Johannesburg-based Bitcoin wallet business. “We’ve decided to think holistically and try to tackle the end to end journey of a user where they would actually be able to acquire Bitcoin very easily and then hold it, and then, most importantly, use it.”

Centbee’s first, and most visible product, was its wallet. Then it produced a voucher system which lets people buy Bitcoin from a network of 50,000 retail outlets across South Africa. That also allows Centbee users to issue invoices and be paid by customers who visit any of those outlets — as demonstrated in a case study they filmed. Coming next will be a cross-border remittance solution, to let people send money from one country to another faster and more cheaply than with conventional methods.

Lorien says that Centbee isn’t focused on existing Bitcoin enthusiasts, especially currency speculators, but instead, “We are very interested in trying to get the world to adopt Bitcoin.” And he predicts that more and more people will recognise the efficiency of using Bitcoin — especially its speed of transaction.

“I always feel very lucky [being born in Africa] and having this wonderful opportunity to take this novel new technology and to fix the way things are.” Lorien thinks that the success of Bitcoin in Africa will act as an example to the rest of the world, which will “take note.” In Africa “I have unique opportunity,” says Lorien, “That’s why I’m so excited about Bitcoin, and always have been.”

Being brought up in Zimbabwe, with its hyper-inflation, was “what got me thinking about money in general,” Lorien says, “where it comes from and what gives it value.” And then “this idea of Bitcoin just landed in front of me, and it seemed like such a wonderful solution for a country like Zimbabwe — the idea of a sound digital money.” In comparison to the volatility of the Zimbabwe dollar, Bitcoin’s occasional ten per cent up or down in a day is nothing, Lorien jokes.

The development of Bitcoin reminds Lorien of the early days of the Internet, when he was a computer science student. Now with Bitcoin, “We have another technology; it’s in its infancy; it’s confusing to most …if it unfolds in the same way as the Internet, then there must be the possibility that it will change the world.” In relation to Africa in particular, “I don’t know how anyone can not see the opportunity there to help a huge number of people with Bitcoin.”

Although Lorien sees opportunities for Bitcoin in situations where the local currency is unstable or untrusted, it’s not the case that Bitcoin would take an anti-government or anti-state role: for one thing, its ability to integrate taxation offers capabilities that traditional currencies can’t offer. “Taxation on Bitcoin is extremely easy. If you think about a smart contract that could pay a tax, collected directly on the transaction for that good, as a sales tax, that’s a very efficient mechanism of tax collecting.” Maybe one day, tax authorities will actually require businesses and individuals to pay tax using smart contracts, Lorien suggests.

It’s Lorien’s perspective as an African entrepreneur that gives Centbee its distinctive culture, with ambitions to build from its current staff of ten to becoming a big player in the future, combined with an awareness of a bigger social mission:

“In Africa, poverty is everywhere, it’s all around you. It’s impossible to ignore it. It makes you a lot more grateful for what you have.” Lorien hopes that Centbee will, in its own way, both change Africa and change ideas about Bitcoin: “I don’t want people to look at this as something that is only for speculating on or money-laundering. I want people to see how good it is — and that’s what’s driven me for years.”

Hear the full interview with Lorien Gamaroff on this week’s CoinGeek Conversations podcast:

You can also watch the podcast video on YouTube.

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