Kenyan Startup Aims to Speed Bitcoin to Africa

Money Transfer

Bitcoin users have been compared to latter-day evangelists, steadfastly trying to persuade the masses to use a mysterious electronic currency hidden in the Internet. But one company is hoping their cause will appeal to a continent of new believers.

BitPesa, a Kenya-based startup, is holding a product-launch event Saturday in London to showcase the potential of bitcoin as a currency-transfer medium for the developing world.

“The existing methods to transfer money are through channels owned by large corporations and institutions, but such heft is not always needed when customer accounts are not held in fiduciary trust,” Chief Executive Elizabeth Rossiello said.

Billing itself as a “digital currency exchange for Africa,” the company allows customers with bitcoin to convert the digital currency to Kenyan shillings through its website. BitPesa then sends the funds to the customer’s desired Kenyan mobile-phone wallet with a subscription to M-Pesa, Orange, Airtel or Yu mobile operators. Recipients get the money almost instantly.

The company charges no transfer fees and says its exchange rate is competitive with those of other financial institutions. BitPesa stresses that it isn’t a wallet service and doesn’t hold any customer funds.

The BitPesa launch party will focus on connecting Kenyan early-adopters, representatives of the Kenyan diaspora and bitcoin aficionados. Given the lack of understanding that surrounds bitcoin, current users will demonstrate how the process has worked for them.

As elsewhere in Africa, cellphone use in Kenya is widespread and increasing, offering a large target market for BitPesa’s service. Mobile penetration in Kenya is 76.9%, according to an April sector-statistics report by the Communications Commission of Kenya. Safaricom, a subsidiary of the U.K.’s Vodafone GroupVOD.LN +0.29%, says 67% of new phones bought in Kenya are smartphones.

“In the next few weeks and months, we want to become a visible presence amongst the diaspora community and those in Kenya who move money home from abroad,” Rossiello said.