Bitcoin in the Philippines, By the Numbers
Luis Buenaventura is the Head of Product at Satoshi Citadel Industries, and “dreams of a world where everyone has access to everything”.
Satoshi Citadel Industries calls itself a “provider of bitcoin solutions” and manages a range of different digital currency services and sites, including Bitmarket, in-beta exchange Coinage, photo-sharing site Bitstars.ph, and remittance service ReBit. SCI is also rolling out pre-loaded bitcoin cards as another fast way to get bitcoin into newcomers’ wallets.
In many ways, the Philippines is probably the perfect environment for the kind of decentralised revolution that bitcoin has the potential to enable.
It has some of the warmest, kindest, most open people in the world, surrounded with all the hallmarks of the developing world – suffocating pollution, tremendous traffic jams, institutional corruption on all levels, poverty on an unreal scale.
Poverty and remittance
About 90% of our population lives on $10 or less per household per day, a statistic which is most staggering when you consider that the international definition of ‘extreme poverty’ is $2 a day per person.
Not surprisingly, there are about 10 million Filipinos living and working outside the Philippines – so many in the fact that their collective cash remittances account for about 10% ($30bn) of the country’s GDP.
The average Filipino will send $200 home every month, from which international remitters will charge anywhere from 4% to 10% per transaction.
One could say that the bitcoin solution practically writes itself here. Indeed, a handful of young crypto-based services are currently working to drive that figure down to just 1%, potentially upending an industry that has been gouging the market for decades.
E-commerce has only just started to make inroads here over the past five years, as the number of Internet-connected devices has increased. Smartphone penetration is now at 40%, far outstripping desktops and laptops, which have long languished at about 10%.
The problem is, the majority of online sales in the Philippines are decidedly still offline in their fulfillment. Buyers either agree to meet the sellers at a physical location (a food court, maybe, or a train station), or they make a cash deposit at the seller’s bank and then wait for next-day delivery. This is because only 5% of Filipinos have access to credit cards.
Applying for your average Visa or MasterCard requires background checks and plenty of paperwork, and even then the incidence of fraud and chargebacks are still inordinately high. Again, the alternative that bitcoin presents here is a no-brainer – it’s trustless, irreversible and has close to zero setup time. Furthermore, and importantly, no one needs permission or ID checks to use it.
Digital money is still money
Via our company Bitstars, we created a bitcoin-powered daily selfie contest with small daily cash prizes. Initially, due to budgetary restrictions, they were $5-$10 in BTC for each day’s most popular selfie, but as time went on, that limitation became a very strong audience filter.
To put it bluntly, the only users who competed for $5 were those who could really use $5. They weren’t taking part because they believed in bitcoin as a technology or revolutionary movement – to them, it’s not that bitcoin is better money, it’s that it is money, full stop.
There were never any philosophical arguments with our users about whether bitcoin was a valid currency or why decentralised systems are better. All that mattered was that it looked like money, and we were letting them have some of it.
The bottom line is that bitcoin represents money that 90 million low-income Filipinos could use in areas and situations where the traditional systems have otherwise failed them. They could start sending and accepting bitcoin immediately with just their mobile phones, with no upfront costs, and without having to ask for permission from anyone.
Bitcoin turbocharges a set of financial enablers that these socio-economic tiers have never had access to.
Imagine 150 people from all over the world chipping in a dollar each to put an underprivileged child through school for a year. Or 50 people putting together $20 to help an aspiring street vendor buy enough goods to start an ad hoc business.
Micro-lending on this scale has never been possible before due to transmission costs, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
The Philippines is one of the few places in the world where you can buy eight individual sheets of paper, four teaspoons of vinegar, or a single cigarette (in USD, those would all cost less than 10 cents).
Fiat currencies often have a hard time supporting the granularity that entrepreneurship at this level requires, but bitcoin is divisible to an almost infinite degree.
It’s difficult to speculate what kind of effect cryptocurrency will eventually have on the population of the Philippines over the next few years. What’s certain is that it already provides us with the tools necessary to make some big changes on all levels of the socio-economic strata.
It will all start with education and distribution. We need to get bitcoin into the hands of as many people as possible, and then support the ideas that naturally come about as a result of diverse adoption. In that respect, at least, bitcoin is exactly like any other nascent technology: it’s all about the numbers.
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