Bitcoin in Senegal: Why is this African country using BTC?


Dakar, the capital of the West African nation of Senegal, now boasts an annual Pan-African Bitcoin conference, over 10 merchants accepting Bitcoin, a local peer-to-peer BTC exchange and a budding Bitcoin community.

What’s more, the speed at which Bitcoin’s progress is unwinding is staggering. The city hosted the DakarBTC Days conference just 10 months after the country’s first “in real life” Bitcoin meetup. All of this is despite a brutal bear market that has put a big dent in Bitcoin adoption.

Why is Bitcoin bubbling in Senegal? Is this country on the path to “hyperbitcoinization,” or at least more entrenched Bitcoin adoption and use? Could Senegal be the next country to follow in El Salvador’s footsteps?

I wanted to find out. I had missed out on the inception of Bitcoin Beach in El Salvador in 2019, so I wanted to explore what a bottom-up, Bitcoin-circular economy might look like in West Africa. This is that story so far.

A colonial currency

The West African Economic and Monetary Union CFA franc is an awful currency. The French created it; they control its conversion rate; they even design and print the notes for use in Africa. A Frenchman sitting in the historic university town of Clermond-Ferrand conjures up the designs in use on CFA notes used by millions of Africans across 13 countries — despite the fact that they might never have set foot in Africa.

The CFA is currently pegged to the euro at a fixed rate of 655.957 to one. In 1994, the peg with the former French franc was slashed from 1:505 to 1:100. The currency devaluation, instigated by France and in collaboration with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, wiped out the savings of the Senegalese people. To cap it all off, French officials sit on regional central bank boards across French-speaking Africa and still hold substantial powers, including veto rights.

African countries using the CFAexplained, “Unlike a typical fiat currency, the system was far more insidious. It was monetary colonialism.”

From Cuba to Turkey, South Africa to Serbia, I have never seen a greater demand or need for monetary emancipation than in Central or West Africa, and the most likely candidate for West Africa’s economic and monetary freedom is Bitcoin.

Making lightning connections

On Twitter in January 2022, I noticed that a few bars in the ex-pat area of Dakar have begun accepting Bitcoin. You can pay for a crêpe or a bissap (a refreshing local drink made with hibiscus flower) over the Lightning Network, at a spitting distance from the beach. 

My thoughts immediately go to El Salvador’s grassroots adoption initiative, Bitcoin Beach, the efforts of which culminated in Bitcoin becoming legal tender in El Salvador. I know at once that I must speak to the person behind these efforts. 

A tall, softly-spoken Senegalese man who spent a chunk of his professional life working in France, Nourou (not his real name), is a Bitcoin advocate like no other

Nourou points to the wings of Africa during an interviewPeer to peer

While traveling in Senegal in February 2022, I attended the country’s first-ever Bitcoin meetup. Not only was this a milestone event in of itself — as previously meetups were conducted online or on the application Clubhouse — but the caliber of the guests in attendance is jawdropping. 

The room is brimming with nonfungible token promoters, Bitcoin maximalists, entrepreneurs, central bankers and even professors from Dakar’s most prestigious universities. The atmosphere is a stark contrast with the Bitcoin meetups I usually attend in Europe or America, where, to be frank, it’s a bunch of white Millennial males preaching the fall of fiat currencies.

Senegal's first in person BTC meetup in February 2022Dakar Bitcoin Days 

Dakar Bitcoin Days gathered enthusiasts and economists from across Africa, in a pan-African celebration of magic internet money. From Cameroon to the Congo, Mali to the Ivory Coast and the Central African Republic, there were interested parties from all over the continent. As Nourou says in an interview while pointing at the continent of Africa, “Africa will fly if we all go together.”

With Nourou backstage ahead of the start of the conferenceBitcoin in Senegal

During the conference, I also set out to interview merchants who accept Bitcoin. I speak to the owner of a French ex-pat bar that has recently begun accepting Bitcoin. Despite being completely new to decentralized currency, the proprietor, Gary, is happy to see new customers coming to his bar thanks to Bitcoin. While we were there, we managed to convince him to accept Bitcoin at his brand-new tattoo parlor.

Tattoo parlour now accepting BTCMama Bitcoin, who has been trading Bitcoin for fish on the Atlantic coast for the past three years. It’s a visionary move in a country where cash reigns king and banking services are generally for the financially privileged. Banks in West Africa charge high fees and incur strict user requirements: Withdrawing cash, for example, can cost a few dollars. 

Throughout my second trip to Senegal, I give out Bitcoin to more than 70 people. The process is simple: I ask them to download a Lightning wallet, usually Wallet of Satoshi, and they tap receive.

The wallet is custodial, meaning they don’t actually hold the keys to their Bitcoin. As a result, they are trusting that Wallet of Satoshi will not perform a Sam Bankman-Fried and run off with the funds, but for newbies, I think it’s a great place to start. 

I send them a few thousand satoshis, which is maybe a dollar or two in Bitcoin. I find it easy to hand out sats in Senegal in comparison with other countries to which I travel. People are eager to get hold of money, and they are eager to learn, trade or simply save with a currency that cannot be debased or stolen in the way that the CFA can.

I give away free Bitcoin to conference-goers. As you can see from onlookers smiling away, it became part of the conference's entertainmentMobile money meets Lightning

Plus, mobile money networks have taken root and flourished across Africa. First rising to fame in Kenya, where the globally recognized mobile money company M-Pesa was founded, mobile money companies have popped up across Africa like Apple Stores in European cities. Most Africans nowadays have a smartphone — they might not have regular electricity or access to free drinking water — but they can get online.

Failing that, it is highly likely that individuals possess an SMS mobile phone: an old-style phone that can send and receive texts. Thanks to mobile money, users can send and receive payments much like a bank transfer. You can simply text your friend’s phone with credit. In Senegal, the biggest mobile payments company is called Wave.

The Wave logo is found in taxi companies, restaurants, bars and cafés. It’s a bit like the Lightning Network, but it’s slower, a lot more expensive, and it uses local currency.

I try to track down an employee at Wave to orange-pill them — and introduce them to the Bitcoin network — and as luck would have it, I bump into one in a bar while watching the World Cup. I immediately ask him to download a wallet and sent him some Bitcoin. The internet connectivity was very patchy where we sat, so it wasn’t the best, and it took a few seconds, cue “Network Error.”

I connect to the bar’s WiFi and send him the Bitcoin. He was impressed and said he’d come along to the conference the following day, but I didn’t see him again. 

There was a funny moment during the interview with the marketing director from Wave. He shared that he met and hung out with Satoshi in Senegal. Apparently, he was a VC kind of guy who went around, drunk as a skunk, partying and investing in companies. 

The face you make when someone says they know Satoshi

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