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DIGITAL ECONOMY & TECHNOLOGY

Cryptocurrencies are Gaining Ground Across Africa. That’s Both Good News and Bad

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Cryptocurrencies have become popular in African and other developing countries. That’s according to a policy brief released recently by UNCTAD, a United Nations agency. Significant proportions of Kenya (8.5%), South Africa (7.1%) and Nigeria’s (6.3%) populations are using these digital currencies. In June, the Central African Republic adopted bitcoin as a legal tender.

The report warns that widespread use of unregulated digital currencies poses danger to the continent’s financial system. In an interview with The Conversation Africa, Iwa Salami, an expert in financial technology law and regulation, examines the future of digital currencies in Africa.

Why is cryptocurrency becoming popular in Africa?

Cryptocurrencies have gained acceptance among a large proportion of the low-income population that was, previously, financially marginalised. Most banks in Africa were not accessible to this segment. Even when they were, low-income account holders were discouraged by high transaction costs. Another factor is economic stagnation compounded by debt crises and political instability in African economies since the era of independence. This has resulted in weak currencies ravaged by inflation in countries like Kenya and Nigeria.

Cryptocurrencies promised to address both financial exclusion and the problem of weak domestic currencies. Cryptocurrency gives everyone with access to a mobile device and internet connectivity the opportunity to engage in activities similar to those conducted through financial institutions and intermediaries. That includes payments, sending remittances and making investments. Investment is particularly inviting to the technically savvy. It gives them the opportunity to hold assets that aren’t affected by rising inflation and depreciating domestic currencies.

Cryptocurrencies are also quicker, cheaper and easier to use than conventional methods. That’s because the technology facilitates peer-to-peer transactions rather than relying on intermediaries. These currencies were more accessible than traditional banks during the pandemic and lockdowns. This further drove their use and growth across Africa.

What does a high number of people holding cryptos imply?

This can facilitate economic activity in African countries. People with no access to banks and banking services are able to pay for goods and services using cryptos. Crypto transactions are also believed to be a more secure way of transacting. Unless someone gains access to the private key for your crypto wallet, they cannot sign transactions or access your funds.

The system also facilitates transparency. All cryptocurrency transactions take place on the publicly distributed blockchain ledger. There are tools that allow anyone to look up transaction data – including where, when, and how much of a cryptocurrency someone sent from a wallet address.

But there are risks, too. What are those?

First, cryptocurrencies are very complex. They require a bit of technological astuteness to embrace. A significant proportion of the adult population in sub-Saharan Africa (34.7%) is illiterate  and may not be able to grasp it. This, to a certain extent, turns the financial inclusion argument on its head.

Secondly, although it is argued that the blockchain is a more secure way of transacting, the downside, of course, is that if you lose your private key there’s no way to recover your funds. This is a threat that does not exist if you have a bank account.

Thirdly, cryptocurrencies have had a history of volatility, (as is currently being experienced in the crypto market). This has adversely affected retail investors, especially those who do not understand this type of asset class.

Another issue of profound concern to African states is the potential threat to monetary sovereignty. Should crypto ever be more widely used than domestic fiat currency, national monetary agencies such as central banks may not be able to steer their economies to a path of growth using monetary policy. Such policy is, after all, primarily administered through domestic currencies.

An associated threat is the weakening of effective capital controls in African states. These are needed to prevent capital flight from domestic economies. Any weakening can result in significant volatility in currency rates and the rapid depreciation of domestic currencies.

There are also threats to financial stability. This could arise from significant exposure that financial institutions, like banks, have to crypto firms such as through loans. Regulation in some African countries, such as Nigeria addresses this by restricting transactions between banks and crypto assets service providers.

What is the future of cryptocurrencies in Africa?

Despite the ongoing downturn in the market, cryptocurrency represents the future of finance and financial transactions. And there are indications that cryptocurrencies are here to stay which is seen from their increasing recognition by countries. At one extreme, the governments of El Salvador and the Central African Republic have adopted bitcoin as legal tender, although the implementation and impact of this on their broader economies have been faced with severe criticisms.

Others, such as Nigeria, have recognised the need for state representation of digital currencies in the form of central bank digital currencies. Many other countries are now exploring this option.

It is important to note, however, that the uptake of central bank digital currencies has been very low in developing countries that have rolled them out. There are also ongoing investigations by countries into the economic impact of central bank digital currencies and whether adoption is the right approach.

But if cryptocurrencies are to live up to their promise, both on the African continent and elsewhere, there must be a globally coordinated and holistic approach to regulation, since transactions are global. Although some action on this front is emerging, the current fragmented approach to regulation across the world is not ideal.

Iwa Salami. is a Reader (Associate Professor) in Law, University of East London

Courtesy: The Conservation


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DIGITAL ECONOMY & TECHNOLOGY

Aeon Bank Officially Launches Malaysia’s First Islamic Digital Bank

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Aeon Bank (M) Bhd has officially launched Malaysia’s first Islamic digital bank, marking a significant milestone in the country’s banking sector. The launch aims to provide comprehensive, Shariah-compliant digital banking solutions to all Malaysians, setting a new standard for financial services in the region.

Comprehensive Shariah-Compliant Solutions

At the public launch ceremony, Chief Executive Officer Raja Teh Maimunah Raja Abdul Aziz outlined the bank’s vision. “We aim to offer safe, simplified, and inclusive Shariah-compliant digital banking solutions such as savings accounts, retirement savings plans, various borrowing options, and payment services,” she stated. “This will allow us to offer financial services to our customers comprehensively, helping us achieve our mission.”

Innovative Banking Products

The Islamic Digital Bank’s services currently include personal banking products like Savings Account-i and customizable Savings Pots with optimization features. These products were developed and refined through extensive testing phases. Raja Teh Maimunah highlighted the success of the beta testing phase, which involved over 1,800 participants over 12 weeks. “The beta test was meant to identify any necessary improvements and fixes. We received a lot of positive feedback on the overall architecture. We did not rush the test and also conducted an alpha test before the beta, ensuring platform stability,” she explained.

Seamless User Experience

Users who activate their Aeon Bank account will immediately gain access to their virtual Aeon Bank x Visa Debit Card-i and can request a physical Debit Card-i. To celebrate the public launch, Aeon Bank is offering a sign-up bonus of 3,000 Aeon Points and triple Aeon Points for transactions using the Aeon Bank x Visa Debit Card-i, along with a profit rate of 3.88% per annum.

Additionally, Aeon Points Programme members will have their memberships automatically linked with the Aeon Bank (M) app, providing extra benefits and rewards to Aeon Group’s outlets and merchants.

Revolutionizing Digital Banking in Malaysia

Jointly owned by Aeon Financial Service Ltd and Aeon Credit Service (M) Bhd, both subsidiaries of Japan’s largest retail group Aeon Group, Aeon Bank is set to revolutionize digital banking in Malaysia. Raja Teh Maimunah expressed optimism about the bank’s potential to perform detailed financial analyses and promote financial inclusion.

Competitive Landscape

In addition to Aeon Bank, a consortium led by KAF Investment Bank Sdn Bhd has also secured an Islamic digital bank license from Bank Negara Malaysia. Other recipients of digital banking licenses include a consortium of Boost Holdings Sdn Bhd and RHB Bank Bhd, a consortium led by GXS Bank Pte Ltd and Kuok Brothers Sdn Bhd, and a consortium led by Sea Ltd and YTL Digital Capital Sdn Bhd.

Promoting Financial Inclusion

With the launch of Malaysia’s first Islamic Digital Bank, Aeon Bank is poised to make significant strides in promoting financial inclusion. The bank’s innovative products and services are designed to cater to the diverse needs of Malaysian consumers, providing them with Shariah-compliant, convenient, and efficient banking solutions. This initiative aligns with the broader goals of enhancing financial accessibility and inclusion across the country.

As Aeon Bank continues to expand its offerings and reach, it is expected to play a pivotal role in shaping the future of digital banking in Malaysia. By leveraging advanced technology and adhering to Shariah principles, Aeon Bank aims to provide a robust banking platform that meets the evolving needs of its customers. The successful launch of Malaysia’s first Islamic Digital Bank marks a new era in the country’s financial landscape, promising a future of inclusive, innovative, and customer-centric banking services.


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DIGITAL ECONOMY & TECHNOLOGY

Crypto Miners See ‘Enormous Potential’ in the Gulf

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  • Crypto miners drawn to Gulf
  • Electricity is 80% of cost
  • Tech-savvy population

With cryptocurrencies edging up again after last weekend’s “halving” – in which the rewards Bitcoin miners get for solving problems is cut in two to maintain scarcity – these are heady days for holders of Bitcoin and other virtual currencies. Bitcoin miners have been attracted to the Gulf by cheap electricity and established infrastructure.

“GCC countries have enormous potential in relation to the development of the Bitcoin mining sector,” Abdumalik Mirakhmedov, executive president of Dubai-based Bitcoin miner GDA, told AGBI. “In the past year, the region has been experiencing active growth, with several significant launches.”

Bitcoin “mining” is a process in which information in a blockchain block is validated by specialist machines. When a complex solution is reached by this equipment, a reward – in the form of Bitcoin and fees for the work done – is then issued. Initially, mining was often done in back rooms and sometimes-unofficial data centres. These days, however, it is increasingly dominated by larger businesses.

This equipment, however, also requires a lot of electricity.  In 2023, the Cambridge Bitcoin Electricity Consumption Index (CBECI) estimated global electricity usage associated with Bitcoin mining to be around 120 terawatt hours – about the same as Australia’s total electricity consumption that year.

Working day and night, Bitcoin miners also generate a lot of heat.  In colder climates, this has sometimes been repurposed to provide heating.  In the Gulf, however, the heat creates even greater electricity consumption, as powered cooling systems are used to keep the machinery within its operational temperature range.

A further problem in the Gulf recently has often been the lack of a clear regulatory framework for the industry – sometimes because of a general suspicion of cryptocurrencies.  Kuwait, for example, has banned all virtual asset transactions, investments and mining. In Saudi Arabia and Qatar, crypto has only quasi-legal status.

Yet, despite the obstacles, “the GCC region is the world’s sixth-largest adopter,” said Paige Aarhus, Paris-based director of crypto news and analysis site DL News. And figures from Chainalysis, a US-based cryptocurrency software development company, estimate that total crypto transaction levels in Saudi Arabia alone amounted to $36 billion and in the first two months of 2024 it hit $6 billion.

In the UAE and Oman, too, a more positive approach has been taken. A regulatory framework has been established, enabling facilities such as the DMCC Crypto Centre in Dubai to provide a wide range of services, including mining. In Oman, $800 million is now invested in crypto mining in the Sultanate. Abu Dhabi’s Green Data City in Salalah was Oman’s first licensed mining entity, while Exahertz International has also now joined it in the southern – and slightly cooler – Omani city.

Power plays

With electricity representing around 75-80 percent of a data farm’s average cost, cheap power is a major draw for miners when it comes to the Gulf. In Oman, although subsidies for electricity are being phased out, typical costs remain at around $0.05 per kilowatt – much less than the US average of $0.23, which is itself lower than average tariffs in Europe. “Innovations such as liquid cooling and immersion cooling are expected to significantly contribute to the expansion of operations within the region,” says Mirakhmedov.

This was recognised at the recent Global Digital Mining Summit hosted by mining server manufacturer Bitmain, held in Muscat. The “Hydro-mining Wins in the Desert” gathering highlighted progress in water cooling.

Green, renewable energy from solar is also available in abundance in Oman and other Gulf countries, providing miners with more sustainable credentials. At the same time, the Gulf offers a developed infrastructure and few restrictions on land for large data farms.

Oman, and other Gulf states, have also all invested heavily in education and training in IT, producing large, tech-savvy populations. “Key benefits of the Gulf also include the region’s access to capital and the ease of doing business,” says Mirakhmedov.  These benefits may help Gulf miners weather the storm of the recent halving.

Larger mining companies, or groups of miners, stand a better chance of absorbing that loss, while “some smaller mining companies may well go out of business as a result,” Aarhus says. With miners in the Gulf generally larger operations with lower overall costs, they may now be well placed for further expansion. More data farms could therefore be springing up around the region, in the months to come.


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DIGITAL ECONOMY & TECHNOLOGY

Zakat on Stocks and Shares: A Modern Dilemma Solved

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In today’s fast-paced world, where the buzz of the stock market is as familiar as morning coffee, a timeless tradition meets the modern age: the practice of paying Zakat on stocks and shares. This intersection of faith and finance might seem like a modern dilemma, but “Zakat on Stocks and Shares: A Modern Dilemma Solved” can be achieved with a blend of ancient wisdom and contemporary understanding. Let’s dive into the world of stocks, shares, and spiritual duty, and discover how this blend enriches both our wallets and our souls.

Understanding Zakat in the Digital Age

Zakat, one of the Five Pillars of Islam, is a form of almsgiving to the less fortunate, calculated as a percentage of one’s wealth. Traditionally, it applied to tangible assets like gold, silver, and livestock. But what happens when your wealth is tied up in the intangible world of the stock market?

Imagine you’re in a vast, bustling city where skyscrapers are filled with traders, analysts, and investors, all meticulously tracking the rise and fall of stocks. In this modern jungle, your investments grow, sometimes unpredictably, reflecting not just your financial acumen but also the global economic heartbeat. Here lies our modern dilemma: how do we apply the ancient practice of Zakat to this digital-age wealth?

Calculating Zakat on Stocks and Shares

The key to solving this puzzle lies in understanding the nature of your investment. Are your stocks purely for capital gain, or do they yield dividends from companies that deal in tangible goods and services? The answer guides how Zakat is calculated on these modern assets.

  1. For Long-Term Investment: If you hold stocks as a long-term investment, Zakat is due on their market value. Think of it as if you’re a farmer with fields (stocks) that grow crops (dividends). Just as a farmer would calculate Zakat on the harvest, you calculate Zakat on the annual value of your stocks.
  2. For Active Trading: If you’re an active trader, your stocks are akin to the goods in a merchant’s caravan, constantly moving and changing. Here, Zakat is calculated based on the total value of your trading portfolio at the end of the lunar year.

Stories from the Stock Market

Let’s take a moment to walk in the shoes of Aisha, a dedicated software engineer by day and a savvy investor by night. Aisha’s portfolio is a mix of long-term tech stocks and short-term trades in renewable energy. When the time comes to calculate her Zakat, she reflects on the nature of each investment. Her tech stocks, akin to a golden wheat field, are valued at their current market price, while her active trades are tallied up like a merchant’s inventory at year-end. This careful consideration ensures Aisha fulfills her spiritual obligations without overlooking her modern investments.

Similarly, Omar, a retired teacher with a passion for philanthropy, uses his dividends from healthcare stocks to support various charities. By calculating the Zakat on his shares, Omar turns his investments into a powerful tool for social good, illustrating how ancient practices can meet modern philanthropy.

Embracing Modern Dilemmas with Ancient Wisdom

The dilemma of paying Zakat on stocks and shares illustrates a broader lesson: that our faith and traditions are not static, but rather, they evolve with us. As we navigate the complexities of the modern financial world, we’re reminded of the adaptability and enduring relevance of Islamic teachings.

Zakat on stocks and shares: a modern dilemma solved, not just through numbers and calculations, but through the stories of individuals who bridge the gap between their faith and their finances. In doing so, they enrich not only their own lives but also the lives of those around them, weaving a tapestry of spiritual and material prosperity that spans the ages.

In conclusion, the practice of paying Zakat on stocks and shares: a modern dilemma solved, offers a fascinating glimpse into how timeless traditions adapt to contemporary realities. It’s a journey that not only addresses a modern financial challenge but also deepens our connection to our faith, our community, and the wider world. As we move forward, let’s carry this wisdom in our hearts and portfolios, ensuring that our investments reflect our values and contribute to a better world for all.


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