Bitcoin in the Philippines: Lessons for Emerging Nations

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I was recently invited to join a panel at Geeks on a Beach, a tech startup conference on the holiday island of Cebu, speaking to a tech-savvy audience eager to learn more about one of my favourite topics: Bitcoin and Remittances.

My Bitcoin panel included Nick Sullivan, founder of ChangeTip, a service making it easy to send Bitcoin to people who write things you like on the internet, and Sam Kaddoura, founder of buybitcoin.ph, a place to buy Bitcoins in the Philippines. The panel was moderated by Ron Hose, founder of coins.ph and my co-panelist at Inside Bitcoins Hong Kong and Echelon 2014 Singapore.

While wealthy nations are funding apps that say "Yo", grassroots tech incubators in emerging countries are quietly figuring out how to solve issues that increase their quality of life. Real solutions to real problems - this is was the essence of the Geeks on a Beach conference.

How the Philippines Connects and Makes Payments

Filipinos Love Social Media

The Philippines has a culturally diverse population of 100 million, scattered over an archipelago of over 7,000 beautiful tropical islands. How do the citizens stay connected? The answer is social media.  Filipinos are among the most active social media users in the world, illustrated by a remarkable 98% Facebook penetration rate and Makati City being named Time magazine's Selfie Capital of the world for Instagram selfie shares.

Social media is used extensively, both by citizens and government bodies. Cities and regions have their own Facebook pages and Twitter accounts. Public services are monitored, and called out by the populace when they don't do their jobs properly: there is no hiding from a tweeted picture of rubbish left uncollected.

Pre-Paid Mobile Talktime

Credit card penetration, I was told, is less than 10%in the Philippines and a similarly low proportion of people are 'banked'. This is due to Filipinos’ preferences for avoiding debt and not spending money they have yet to earn (an attitude the West may very well wish to consider).  

But even the unbanked want and need to transfer value. A popular solution is pre-paid mobile talktime which is used extensively for payments. Although pre-paid mobile talktime, like Bitcoin, is valuable and useful, it’s acceptance is limited by its own ecosystem.

Bitcoin Could Reshape Commerce in the Philippines

Bitcoin transcends phone operators, geographies, politics, and borders. It is the ultimate pre-paid talktime: decentralised, and universally compatible. Making Bitcoin easier to acquire and distribute would push merchant acceptance and create a compelling ecosystem that opens the world to the unbanked and the unbanked to the world.  

Bitcoins would allow the unbanked to make payments both domestically and internationally for a good or service. This is a game changer for merchants, increasing their audience, marketplace and reach.

Lessons for the Emerging World

Although in many ways the Philippines is unique, we can extend the lessons learned to similar emerging economies. Nations with poor financial infrastructure and those where many citizens lack a physical address and can't get bank accounts or credit cards (or choose not to) are natural candidates for digital currency adoption. With added leadership, coaching, and funding to the nascent entrepreneurial startup scene, the Philippines has the potential to become a testbed of social finance applications for other emerging economies.

I look forward to working with bitcoin and digital currency companies in the Philippines. While wealthy nations will build the essential infrastructure and ecosystem for cryptocurrencies, the greatest social impact will be witnessed in the emerging world.