In this episode you will get to know a young man from Zimbabwe, Tongayi Choto, who is a software developer, entrepreneur and a bitcoin maximalist. He has founded Afriblocks, a Global Pan-African Freelance platform that connects professionals across the world. We talk about the problems young Zimbabweans are facing and his approach to make lives better. In the second part of this episode, I will answer listeners questions about the current use of bitcoin and other methods of payment in Zimbabwe. If you have a question, feel free to scroll down, press the appropriate button and record your question.
We talk about:
After the interview I answer these questions from my listeners:
This podcast special and my trip to Africa would not have been possible without my sponsors and supporters.
I want to thank my sponsors first: Thank you: LocalBitcoins.com a person-to-person bitcoin trading site, Peter McCormack and the whatbitcoindid podcast, Coinfinity and the Card Wallet, SHIFT Cryptosecurity, manufacturer of the hardware wallet BitBox02 and many thanks to several unknown private donors, who sent me Satoshis over the Lightning Network.
This special is edited by CoinDesk’s Podcasts Editor Adam B. Levine and published first on the CoinDesk Podcast Network. Thank you very much for supporting the Bitcoin in Africa series with your work.
Thanks goes also out to stakwork.com – stakwork is a great project that brings bitcoin into the world through earning. One can do microjobs on stakwork, earning Satoshis and cash them out without even having an understanding about the lightning network or bitcoin. I think we need more projects like that to spread the usage of bitcoin around the world.
Thank you also to GoTenna, for donating several GoTenna devices to set up a mesh network in Zimbabwe and to Team Satoshi, the decentralized sports team for supporting my work.
Hello Anita, and thank you for having me.
Yeah, thanks for taking the time to do this interview with me. At first, please introduce yourself to our listeners. Who are you? What are you doing? What’s your education?
Okay, well my name is Tongayi Choto. I am from Zimbabwe. That’s where I am right now in Harare.
I’m a software developer and an entrepreneur. I graduated 2015 from the University of Zimbabwe, and I was doing computer science and maths. So since then that’s when I just found a found out about blockchain, Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies. And I was in a stage where I was trying to figure out what do I do next with my career with my education then I found out about Bitcoin and it just made sense for me to work, to use this technology. It was so amazing. I remember that night I didn’t go to bed and read and read and read and it was so amazing to me. And since then, that’s the space I’ve been working developing different projects, different use cases for cryptocurrency. So right now, my latest startup is called Afriblocks. Afriblocks is a global pan African freelance network. And it’s one of the projects that I’m doing to try to use technology, emerging technologies to use blockchain and cryptocurrency to solve problems that we see every single day.
Okay, let’s talk about these problems you see every day. Can you tell us a little bit about it? And how could blockchain or Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies solve that?
I would like to talk about the problem that I’m trying to solve at the moment. In Zimbabwe, basically, we have a population of about 16 million people and in Africa is all about 1.3 billion people. And from that 1.3 billion about 60% is under the age of 25. And Africa is seen as the youngest continent in the world. When I look at this, I see so much potential that is not being given enough opportunities, enough resources, enough jobs, because, for example, in Zimbabwe have about in 98, 95 to 98% literacy rate, and where people work hard with people who have skills, graphics designers, software developers, and all that, but we do not have enough opportunities and that the formal job, jobs are not available. So a lot of people are an unemployed formely. So I say to myself, why can we not create a global pan African freelance network, and that the goal of this platform is to, to, to firstly, we, we vet people, we look for freelancers, we read them, we train them, how to communicate internationally, meeting deadlines, all that. And we place them on our platform. The idea being if you Anita need a website done, we can get you someone to do it if you need graphics, design, all that we can give you people who can do that. And people actually paid for services. So we’re not saying just give us money for no reason at all. We’re seeing where people are qualified, skilled and talented. And all we need is these jobs or we need opportunities, and we get on with it. So yeah, that’s the major problem I was trying to solve because what it does, is it gives people jobs gives people foreign currency and if we look at the world right now, there are a lot of different platforms, freelance platforms. And if we look at the world like people are actually moving from day jobs, to actually working from home. I see I mean, we’re seeing right now it’s crazy, but the the Coronavirus has got all of us working from home. So I saw this as an opportunity to create a global platform for Africans for people who live and work outside Africa, the African diaspora, even African Americans, because most of our clients we’ve been having are out from America, they were saying, you know, this is amazing. We want to support this and we get the job done for them. So that’s, that’s the problem that I was trying to solve. And basically, because I’ve been in the cryptocurrency space, in the blockchain space, we are looking to use the blockchain as well. Things like smart contracts, payment systems to make this is true global success.
So you’ve built a marketplace in a way where people from abroad can work together with African freelancers. People who do like programming or writing or graphic design and is the connection to Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies, the one that people from abroad then can pay people in Africa with cryptocurrencies?
What was going on is we had issues with payments, because locally for example, in Zimbabwe and actually I checked Russia as well, a lot of countries that PayPal is not available in and most clients in the US would pay using PayPal. So it will bring a challenge for me to be able to pay people here on this site. Cryptocurrency is one of the ways that our clients would say I have cryptocurrency can I pay you using that. And because I’ve been in this place, I would say not. It’s okay. Since the money is on the US side, for example, and in Zimbabwe again, just to pay people in US dollars, because that’s what’s legal in Zimbabwe. We do not we, as a as a platform with we try to follow rules and regulations in each and every country. Because right now we have about seven countries, African countries, people raised as freelancers on our platform. So for example, in Namibia, or South Africa, Botswana, Uganda, we use the regulations that are stated in that country. So yeah, payments, were one of the things that we still are solving, to make sure that everything makes sense.
You started to talk about smart contracts before. What, in which context do smart contracts stand with Afriblocks.
With Afriblocks, right now we did a pilot for a one year period to try to prove the business model like to see does this work and to try to identify issues that we might need to solve and all that. And one of the things – that’s the lowest hanging fruit everyone understands a freelancer, everyone understands a client in the job everyone is clear what they’re paying for and what they are being paid for. – the bigger vision that I have, the bigger vision that I have is to create to eventually start to decentralize bit by bit. This will take time because I’ve been in this space for a while. I don’t want to create hype. I want to build the product first, then start to add on components being Artificial intelligence to make this platform may work more efficiently. So smart contracts is something that I’ve been personally interested in. And if you look at it this model is a client, there’s a freelancer, they agree on the job that’s being done. They agree on the time is going to take, they agree on the payments that need to be made. So it’s one of the things that we’re looking into, not now. But we have an r&d research department that’s looking into it to see how can we integrate all these components to make the platform more efficient. And if it’s the contract that says the job is done, then the funds are released funds are in in escrow. First if the client is not happy funds may return to them. All of those issues by smart contracts do take time to make sure that you you have solved digital If he issue because, you know, once a contract is done, it’s done. Yeah. So those are some of the things that we’re thinking about.
So you’re basically in the research phase at the moment for these things. But clients could already engage freelancers to work with them. That’s a great opportunity for people and companies from abroad to, like support African entrepreneurs, Zimbabwean entrepreneurs to earn some money. What are the obstacles you see for cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin in Zimbabwe, because I have heard that the government has outlawed the use of Bitcoin. What’s your opinion on that?
I do understand how it happened. Because one of the things that people need to realize is, we are a country with actual rules and regulations. We have an RBZ just like the United States. They have the SEC, the Federal Reserve and all that. So for me what happened was there was this scam was going on are calling it triple M. And a lot of people are losing money. And of course when you lose money, that’s when you reach out to the regulator to say to the police, I’ve lost my money. So the regulator kept having these complaints, and also as Bitcoin was new at that time, right now it’s too new. It’s fairly new as a technology. It’s something that you really need to understand before you see everyone can use it. So as a regulator, in my opinion, I saw them as trying to protect people because I was, I’m a techie person. I know how Bitcoin works. I’m actually a software developer, I know how blockchain all that works. But for someone to just start to use it today, and mistakes to happen. Like for example, if you just lose your seed words, you lose all your money, and there’s the volatility issue. So those things are only because the technology is too young. And it needs to be learned, it needs to be developed in such a way that it becomes scalable. It becomes a technology that everyone can use without the worry of, of the fact that they don’t know. So one of the things that we are doing right now is we’re creating our recording a freelancer training series, which includes this content training people on how to use cryptocurrencies, besides them just learning how to become a freelancer and handle international jobs. We are working on a Hub here in Harare. It’s almost done. We are opening I think, if this after this COVID crisis if it goes away, we’ll be opening to teach people on how to use these technologies.
Would you say maybe that, if people have enough education and so that they can decide for themselves or estimate, you know, like say, okay, now I understand that this Bitcoin, it’s unforgeable and it’s not a scheme and I can differentiate it from like triple M or Onecoin, that then it would be a good possibility for people in Zimbabwe and other countries to really own their, their money and it can’t be censored or taken away. Do you see that as a positive?
Yeah, it’s definitely a positive. Like what I was seeing blockchain and cryptocurrencies, is they’ve gone through a bad phase. I remember there was the time with a lot of ICO’s there was a time there were a lot of Bitclub Bitcoin Club this then there was a time where people creating a lot of currencies. A lot of other currencies and people were trading, mining farms and people we were told to pay this and that so that you become part of the mining. So, then the volatility itself I mean, we’ve seen it go up to 20.000 to 18.000 or so then back down to three they now recently it’s going back up. So for someone who has say $100 a month, you cannot afford to place money in Bitcoin because you can wake up and do have lost 50% of its value. So that alone makes it difficult in the sense of Zimbabwe unless you’re able to say you receive it and it’s logged into USD and it’s logged into, into another currency. So there’s a learning curve. And I do think people need to learn about it to know exactly what’s going on if someone decides to use it. I mean, it’s all online,if you get the best wallets and if you understand that you need to keep your seed, does give a bit of a bit of freedom on your money, which is which is something that’s needed but they have to be aware of all the risks that are included in this is as regulators have seen about in January RBZ released a statement that they are learning about blockchain and want to see how they can use it? So, again, these are institutions, things take time, they don’t just move in, allow everyone to, to use something that they know will come back to them because now people are losing money which, which they do not have. So those are some of the issues that I think.
And now a short word from my sponsors:
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Do you think that the lightning network could be a solution in a way because then you could have smaller payments like micro payments, that also could be used by people who earn only like 10 USD or 20 USD per month?
Lightning is really interesting. I experimented with a node here in Zimbabwe connected with one in Nigeria. The whole goal was to learn to see how lightning works, I think I was one of the first people use it like very early stages. In some of them, it was only $2. But it was lost in one of the hops. And it was to those to developing a but it is really a technology that you can start to use for example, um, sometimes we have freelancers in Nigeria, and freelancers in South Africa, and if you can use that, that lightning network to just send payments, that will be really helpful as well. Again, all of it is really new technology and part of we’re really trying to, to make sure it’s airtight before recommended to our freelancers because you gotta know that. Like what I was saying people here, probably website is about $150 and if you send that to them and it wakes up tomorrow is $140. That’s not a good picture, even if everyone understands that Bitcoin is volatile. So all of those issues, some of the things that we try to protect both our freelancers and our clients, but lightning network is really something that I think especially in terms of payments within Africa, because if we want to make it transfer to say Mozambique or Namibia, Botswana, all countries next to Zimbabwe. You do a wire transfer. And this wire transfer goes through what they call the swift system. I’m sure everyone knows the swift international swift system. And the funny thing that I realized as those transactions get approved, in USA, and then that transaction goes to to the country next to Zimbabwe, which to me is like in this day in 2020 we still get transactions approved all the way in the United States you know so some of those things that’s why I am a Bitcoin maximalist I’m pro blockchain because I think eventually this is the future especially for situations like this where we still have the legacy monetary systems that are really old and problematic.
Did you say before that you set up a lightning node?
Oh yeah, in the beginning of last year, I set up a lightning node. It was just an experiment to see how it works got some funds sent from, from Nigeria they went through and it was really a learning curve you know to setup one in that time it really wasn’t that easy, right now it’s easier because there are now preset nodes. nodes are already set up. But there’s a way to do it from scratch. Like it’s set up, you download the blockchain you, you sync, you connect to an API and all that. But now it’s, it’s a bit easier. I think I’ll actually try to do it again. Then there was the time then people will purchase passing the torch. That was also something interesting.
Did you also get the torch?
I did not. I did not, I was too slow so it passed.
I was also too slow. So you said before it’s important for people also to exchange money to US dollar to have currency to buy stuff and to pay your rent and to pay food. Do you know Bitrefill? Because with Bitrefill, you can take your lightning Bitcoin and pay for airtime in Zimbabwe with it. Do you know that?
Yes, I do. Bitrefill is one of the oldest blockchain Bitcoin startups and use cases. Like I’ve used it before to buy airtime. Localbitcoins, is another platform that has been there for a while yeah because we’ve seen a lot of blockchain Bitcoin cryptocurrency startups come and go. But yeah, Bitrefill has been here for a while.
What I have observed or I learned when I was in Zimbabwe is that people exchange Bitcoin to US dollars in WhatsApp groups and Facebook groups. Is this a thing? I mean, is this a way to cash out money?
Yeah, I’ve seen people do that in groups, peer to peer WhatsApp groups, but I cannot say I’m an expert or know much about that.
Another question I have, you seem to have a good internet connection because otherwise I think you couldn’t download the initial blockchain. I think internet connections and packages are very expensive in your country. Is that true?
Yes, they are expensive like they are more expensive as compared to other countries. I think it’s something as a country that we need to fix, because I don’t think data should be that expensive. The thing I mentioned about blockchain or the blockchain was about 15 gig 15 gigabytes in that time and, you know, to wait and wait until end up While connection is, is a bit expensive, so Yeah, that’s true. So people tend to use data bundles. That’s why WhatsApp is really popular. A bit of Facebook, because it’s a bit cheaper than say for example going on YouTube and watching Netflix that becomes more expensive.
You said it before you also are in lockdown now because of the coronavirus. Is that true?
Yes. Correct. The President gave us a 21 day period to just stay indoors, to try to not get the virus, because although we have about nine announced or recorded cases in Zimbabwe, it’s it’s precautions that the government took to say, you know what, just stay home. Let’s be safe. I will be indoors until the 16th of April. So yeah, this is the second week now that we’ve been. We’ve been home, we are trying to stay home.
And how is it affecting people? I mean, most of the people are living hand to mouth, they have to work, they have to earn money for everyday. Can you say anything about the situation at the moment.
It’s really difficult if you are someone who works..I mean, most people are in the informal sector. So you wake up, you’re still really close. So it’s really difficult that you have to stay home. Because two weeks, two weeks is just half a month. I mean, it’s a long time for you to not do business and this is affecting the entire world in Zimbabwe is not an exception, and I really do hope this whole situation calms down because yeah, If you if you if you’re someone with day in day out, it’s so close to daily sell food today and as the money that you’re using to buy things next week or next day, yeah, it’s extremely difficult.
Let’s get back to our topic, blockchains and Bitcoin. What are your plans for Afriblocks in the next months?
We are planning to open a hub here in Harare, this hub is dedicated to giving freelancers space to work from. It’s also dedicated to helping because we’ve had local clients as well can meet up to having workshops to have basically to create a community of people that were saying let’s help each other professionally and grow this global network. If this works locally, we grow into at least one more country this year. But the major thing that we need right now in the short term is jobs. It’s people who want to get things done. And can recommend our platform to reach out to more clients. As I was saying graphics design, software development, web development, marketing, digital marketing, social media, and all those skills, are all on the platform.
Please tell us where people can find your website.
The website is www.afriblocks.com. So that’s afriblocks with an s dot com and our email if you want to reach out to us it’s: info at afriblocks.com
Super, thank you, Tongayi. Thank you very much for your time and for this interview and I wish you all the best and stay safe.
Thank you Anita.
Shortly after I was talking with Tongayi about Bitcoin in Zimbabwe and the regulations by the Reserve Bank, the government published a new plan to set up a cryptocurrency, that should be gold and US dollar backed to stabilize their own RTGS local currency. They engaged with the private American company Apollo to build this infrastructure. Important to know is that this is a private, permissioned project. That means, it is not open, uncensorable and permissionless like Bitcoin is. I guess the money supply is also not capped as it is in bitcoin. This will not prevent the money printing of the Reserve Bank. Basically this is just old wine in new bottles.
The local currency is called RTGS – real time gross settlement. It is already digital. The project by Apollo and the government is just a move to show – we the Zimbabwean government are on the forefront of technology – and to keep on extorting the country and the people of Zimbabwe.
In the 2nd part of the episode I will answer questions from my Twitter followers about the usage of bitcoin in Africa.
Before that, a short word from my sponsors:
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So here we go, here come the questions from my listeners:
It’s a mix of everything. As mentioned in part 4 by my guest Zimbabwe is lagging behind in terms of tech and digitalization. The affiliate marketer in part 3 told me he has to work for companies abroad, because Zimbabwean companies do not have the tools for affiliate marketing, so as much as he would like to work for Zimbabwean businesses, he can’t.
The other obstacle thing is internet availability. Although I have seen more people with smartphones than I expected, which would allow for using bitcoin wallets, most of the people do not have access to the World Wide Web. They buy cheaper internet bundles like a social media bundle, so they can only use WhatsApp and / or Facebook. So they can not download a wallet. Also the cost of a full internet bundle is higher than in Austria for instance, with an average income of 300 USD per month, you cannot afford a bundle for 80 USD per month. And here I am not even speaking of all the people who have to live on 10 USD per month or less. EcoCash is so successful and widely used, because it is free to use with no fees or subscriptions upfront. Accepting mobile money with EcoCash is frictionless, you only need a SIM card. No monthly fees, just the transaction fees. When EcoCash is down, which happens time and time again, everybody suffers. There are 2 other mobile money providers but they are tiny compared to EcoCash. Not only EcoCash is down sometimes, also swiping your bank card is not always working. At the toll station we could not pay our toll per swipe, because the bank was offline. So nothing is really reliable.
For the biggest part of the population the fees on the bitcoin baselayer would be too high, too. They will never be able to pay current transaction fees, even more assuming that these will increase in the coming years. The Lightning Network is crucial for the usage of bitcoin for the impoverished.
Awareness: yes, this is a problem, too. On the one hand many people have never heard of bitcoin and the other big part of the population heard that it is bad and dangerous, because many people have been scammed by MMM, Onecoin – I even heard about bitclub being active here. So bitcoin has a massive branding problem. Also somebody told me the internet is a “white thing” – which is true, if we think of it from the perspective of Africans. Owning or using bitcoin seems like a luxury, I was also told. It is too expensive and through it’s volatility still too risky for most. Using it as a store of value is also a thing that only better off people can do. The others live from hand to mouth, from day to day, they cannot afford saving.
I also have no solution to the topic of key management. Although one could memorize 24 english words, I personally would not want to rely on that. Hardware wallets are too expensive, storing a sheet of paper in a high-density living area or a mud hut seems also difficult to me.
Much educational effort is needed, to show the good sides of bitcoin and also for people to be able to distinguish between scams and legit ways of using cryptocurrencies.
I can imagine that also the outlawing of cryptocurrency use by the government is a reason to not use it. On the other hand everybody wants to get hold of USD, although the use was outlawed in the last years, too.
I am not sure, what the definition of a Bitcoin OG really is, but if it is someone who educates a broader community since before 2015, then I would say yes in Botswana Alakanani Itireleng is definitely an OG. She founded the Satoshicentre in 2014 and is organizing meetups since then. She is the center of Botswanas peer to peer exchange. When someone wants to change Botswana Pula or USD to Bitcoin, they call her. When I was there and we did a bitcoin meetup together, we installed wallets on peoples phones and she sent bitcoin to the new users. Her twitter handle is “bitcoinlady”, feel free to donate bitcoin to her, she is doing good things with it.
In Zimbabwe I talked to an early adopter. It seems to be a thing to have a mentor and being a mentee, there. So he is supporting his mentees, too. But I am not sure, how engaged he is in building a community.
Good question. M-Pesa is not available there. Zimbabwe and Botswana have their own solutions. Not sure about Botswana, but for Zimbabwe I know that EcoCash is a real big thing. A private company called Econet is the provider. They do 99.8% of all digital transactions in Zimbabwe. In general – for payments inside the country – you would not use bitcoin instead of EcoCash today. Only very few people accept bitcoin and as I said before: EcoCash works frictionless.
Use-cases I see: being paid for work from abroad, remittances, permissionless transactions – for instance for imported goods – sending and exchanging money outside the country with the bank takes days, is a big hustle, very expensive and due to currency controls every transaction needs to be approved by the government. More privacy, although if you are poor you do not have time to care about privacy.
Yes, I heard about “beforward” the online marketplace for used japanese cars, too. I was told that leaders of pyramid schemes used their stolen bitcoins to buy cars there. Or they exchanged it through Golix. Golix even had a bitcoin ATM in Harare, where you could exchange bitcoin in USD cash. When people, who got scammed, reported that to the government, the government shut down Golix. I saw that beforward is still accepting bitcoin payments, but I do not know if buying cars with bitcoin there is still a big thing.
People have seen many currencies come and go since 1980. They have been stripped of their money several times in the last say 20 years. They lived through hyper-inflation. New currencies have been introduced and bank accounts have been frozen or changed from USD to Zimdollar without a possibility to dispute. So everybody knows that USD are hard-currency and everybody wants to get USD. People do not trust their own currency. I of course do not know, what the majority of people think, but the ones I spoke with and explained the properties of bitcoin to, were all interested and they even knew about bitcoin before. I – and this is just a guess, the majority of people know that the elites are ripping them off, at least one vegetable seller told me that.
From the people I talked with, nobody said something about remittances. But I am sure that this is a use-case, too. I talked with some people about them using bitcoin for being paid for their digital services. They get bitcoin sent directly into their wallets. Then if they want to exchange it to USD or RTGS the local currency, there are several possibilities: either and that is the complex and expensive way, they send their bitcoin to a Skrill account, from there into their FCA accounts at the bank. Or and that is the preferred way, because it is cheaper and easier, they exchange it peer-to-peer in WhatsApp or Facebook groups.
So, that’s it for today. I hope you’ll join me again next week.
If you like my show please write a recommendation in your favourite podcast player.
If you are a german speaker and want to start using bitcoin, then I recommend my book to you – it gives you a comprehensive jump start into becoming a bitcoin user, with recommendations and safety tips. You can buy it on Amazon or if you prefer to pay with bitcoin and lightning drop me a message at hello (at) anitaposch.com.
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For new updates please follow me on Twitter @anitaposch and subscribe to my newsletter at anitaposch.com/newsletter – posch with a c.
Thanks for listening.
Image by: Martina Gruber Photography
Edited by CoinDesk’s Podcasts Editor: Adam B. Levine
Idea, content and production: Anita Posch
Music: “Start with yes” by Delicate beats
Part 1 Zimbabwe: Ideal Conditions for Bitcoin?
Part 2 Zimbabwe: Living in a Multi-Currency World
Part 3 Using Bitcoin in Zimbabwe
Part 4 If Bitcoin Works in Zimbabwe, It Works Everywhere
Part 5 Afriblocks a Pan-African Network for Remote Jobs & Answering Questions
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