Centbee chief executive Lorien Gamaroff has a bold vision for Bitcoin – a vision that he’s leveraging both his growing business and Bitcoin Association ambassadorship, in order to help make it a reality across the African continent.
‘It’s been a long-term vision of mine to bring Bitcoin to Africa. I was born in Zimbabwe and the experience that I had there when the currency collapsed gave me a real sense that there is something wrong with the types of financial systems that we have around the world,’ says Gamaroff.
‘Bitcoin struck me as an idea of a sound system of money that could be relied on. A lot of people in Zimbabwe – and on the continent for that matter – have lost faith in central bank currencies. The opportunity was always there for a peer-to-peer digital cash that was accessible, convenient and cheap, but also based on sound monetary principles.’
Seeing the potential of Bitcoin as a remedy to failing financial systems across the continent, as well as a business opportunity in driving uptake and adoption, Gamaroff made early overtures towards finding ways to integrate Bitcoin into existing businesses he was working with. One such initiative involved improving accessibility to electricity. In many parts of Africa, prepaid electricity systems are common and Gamaroff’s team at the time was working to provide payment systems for its purchase.
‘One of the issues that we saw quite frequently was how difficult it can be to purchase energy if you don’t have access to a digital payment method,’ says Gamaroff.
‘I saw Bitcoin as an accessible digital payment method that could be easily integrated into the payment systems that we were building at the time, making it very accessible to the customers in the markets we were serving.’
Banking the Unbanked
Garnering most of Gamaroff’s attention these days is Centbee, a business built on allowing people across Africa to transact using a Bitcoin SV-based payments rail.
‘Centbee is a payment ecosystem company that covers the entire journey from acquiring Bitcoin, holding it and then finally, spending it,’ explains Gamaroff.
‘When it comes to Bitcoin as a payments system, it’s very important to allow people to easily get into that system and then to hold their Bitcoin in a wallet – as this makes it something that is very easy to understand. Then of course they need to be able to use it, which is of course, for most people, the most important aspect.’
Within the Centbee payments ecosystem, Gamaroff and his team have developed a number of products which encompass the entire process from acquiring, holding and using Bitcoin. Unique to the Centbee value proposition is the easy method of acquisition they have devised, using a voucher system with local retailers to facilitate buying BSV with cash – a system that has been successfully rolled out across South Africa, with further geographies on the radar.
‘I think so far, the biggest achievement for us is the size of the footprint that Centbee has built across South Africa – there’s barely a corner of the country now that you can’t get Bitcoin. We’ve really managed to make it extremely accessible,’ he says.
‘It can be quite complex and difficult to get hold of Bitcoin for many people, so we feel that with Centbee, we’ve managed to crack that onboarding process.’
If the sheer number of locations that have already onboarded Centbee is Gamaroff’s biggest achievement to date, the one he’s most proud of relates to solving issues concerning cross-border remittance – one that he says can have a marked impact on the day-to-day lives of millions.
‘A lot of people on the African continent come down to South Africa to work, as it’s the largest economy,’ Gamaroff explains.
‘They remit small amounts of money back to their relatives and family back home in other countries at great cost and inconvenience. Remittance services are so expensive that at least 60% of the money sent across the continent is done so informally – in envelopes and suitcases – at great risk.’
Using the Centbee suite of products, customers are able to purchase Bitcoin SV at physical retail locations then send it internationally for a fraction of a cent, which can then be withdrawn in the local currency of the destination – shifting the paradigm for those making small payments across the continent.
‘The cliché has always been that Bitcoin will be able to make cross-bored money remittance much cheaper and easier. With our retail product, we’re leveraging Bitcoin for our customers so that they are able to go into these retail outlets, send the money to the country which they need to and then have it easily withdrawable there,’ says Gamaroff.
‘What we’re doing is using Bitcoin as a payments rail – the customers don’t even need to know that they’re using it – and by doing so, we’re reducing the cost and increasing the speed of moving money around the continent. We think it’s going to be both a competitive and successful product – and one that will really bring a lot of benefit and value to Africans.’
Building with Bitcoin
Given his early entry into the world of Bitcoin, Gamaroff has both seen, and been involved with, a number of different blockchain and digital currency initiatives. His Centbee project was initially built with Bitcoin Cash, but a deviation away from Bitcoin’s first principles spurred a shift to Bitcoin SV.
‘The promise of a peer-to-peer cash system, one that was really cheap, really fast and really convenient, that is what Bitcoin was always meant to be and that is always what really resonated with me,’ explains Gamaroff.
‘When the projects started becoming something other than that, something more about investing or a way to keep your wealth out of the system, that was very different from its original vision.’
Changes to the underlying protocol was what initially moved Gamaroff and his businesses from Bitcoin Core to Bitcoin Cash, before seeking out another alternative when he saw the same issues that prompted the first switch beginning to arise once again.
‘With Bitcoin SV, what was really attractive was the promise that it would revert back to the original frameworks for Bitcoin – but more importantly – would set the design for Bitcoin in stone,’ says Gamaroff.
‘As both a business owner and a technologist, it’s clear to me that you can only build a business on top of a technology that remains stable and sound. That made Bitcoin SV the obvious choice in itself, but the regulation friendly ecosystem was what really brought it home.’
Building a platform that would work within regulations – both existing and those to come in future – has been a founding principle of the Bitcoin SV Node team and has shaped the direction of the project from day one.
‘My vision for Bitcoin was a system that was legal and could be regulated, because I was working to build businesses using Bitcoin,’ says Gamaroff.
‘It was always very important for me as a business to have a system that I could make available to a large market. But in order to do that, I need to be able to convince the regulator that this is not a technology that was meant for hiding funds or other illegal activities.’
Bitcoin Association Ambassador: South Africa
A proud Bitcoin evangelist, Gamaroff – both through his businesses and his ambassadorship – has made educating the public about Bitcoin and its benefits a personal priority. He says that correcting common misunderstandings about the digital currency and its blockchain is a common refrain for him in this endeavour.
‘Something that I think needs to be better understood is the difference between transparency and privacy,’ says Gamaroff.
‘It’s possible to have transactions that are private, but can still be analysed for money laundering and illegal activities. The idea of a transparent ledger that not only works within the rules, but is actively seeking the same sorts of licensing that typical financial service companies have, really does resonate with regulators.’
Gamaroff has sought to meet with regulators across the continent in an effort to educate them on the realities of digital assets, while promoting a common-sense approach to regulatory development.
‘As an Ambassador, one of the things that I work to do is to put across the message that Bitcoin SV is, in fact, a transparent ledger – but also one that has the right kind of regulatory controls in place,’ says Gamaroff.
‘I think getting that message across will take some time, because it’s still counter to what the dominant message is at the moment. But I think that the idealists who think that they can build a system outside of the purview of the regulator are misguided and eventually, only a system that is honest can prevail.’
Getting the infrastructure in place early for that moment is exactly what the Centbee team hope to achieve across Africa, with Gamaroff already seeing strong interest and uptake in the digital asset space – with further growth anticipated.
‘In South Africa, there are a lot of people who are aware of and have an interest in digital currencies. There are a lot of different blockchain projects that have drawn interest here. The direction that many are going probably isn’t going to work out particularly well, but it does show that the continent is very receptive to something like this,’ says Gamaroff.
‘We have made a tremendous amount of progress in southern African and we continue to make progress reaching out across the continent – and I think that Centbee and Bitcoin SV are shining examples of what this technology can be. We’re excited to keep innovating in the Bitcoin space, making it more accessible and easy to understand, while also raising awareness.’