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DIGITAL ECONOMY & TECHNOLOGY

Nigeria’s Digital Currency: What the eNaira is for and Why it’s not Perfect

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By Iwa Salami

Nigeria recently became the first African country to introduce a digital currency. It joins the Bahamas and the Eastern Caribbean Central Bank in being among the first jurisdictions in the world to roll out national digital currencies. The Conversation Africa’s Wale Fatade asks Iwa Salami what a digital currency is and whether Nigeria can achieve its aims of introducing the currency.

What is a digital currency and how does it work?

A digital currency is a means of payment or money that exists in a purely electronic form. Central bank digital currencies are issued and regulated by the nation’s monetary authority, or central bank, and backed by the government. They are different from existing electronic central bank money, which is provided by central banks but can only be used by banks and selected financial institutions. When financial institutions pay each other, they pay in reserves from accounts held with a central bank.

Before central bank digital currencies, the only way consumers could use money that is a direct liability of a central bank was with physical cash. Existing digital retail payment from customer deposits accounts in banks are based on money that is the liability of the institution providing the account, not a central bank. A central bank digital currency is a direct liability on the central bank and is available to all households and businesses giving them access to electronic central bank money.  It can be transferred or exchanged using technologies such as blockchain. Blockchain is a system of storing records of transactions across a network of computers.

Nigeria’s digital currency will be the digital form of the Naira and will be used just like cash.

A central bank digital currency is not a cryptocurrency. Cryptocurrencies, such as Bitcoin, are not currencies in most countries since they are not a generally accepted form of payment. Although they are still widely referred to as cryptocurrencies, they are best described as digital assets, or crypto-assets.

The Bahamas, Saint Lucia, Grenada, Antigua and Barbuda are among the seven countries that have launched central bank digital currencies.

Why has Nigeria launched a digital currency?

The Central Bank has given several reasons for launching the eNaira. It is to:

  • promote and facilitate financial inclusion
  • enable direct welfare disbursements to citizens
  • facilitate diaspora remittances
  • reduce the cost of processing cash
  • improve the availability and usability of Central Bank money
  • increase revenue and tax collection
  • support a resilient payment system
  • improve the efficiency of cross-border payments.

The introduction of the eNaira will enable peer-to-peer payments, cutting out ‘middle men’ or the use of intermediaries, such as financial institutions.

What are the risks and how can they be mitigated?

One is its potential to disrupt existing banking systems. This could occur if citizens decide to hold digital currency instead of keeping their physical Naira in a bank account. This would mean that banks would not have money to grant loans and other financial products. It could result in banks raising their interest rates as an incentive for customers to keep deposits within the banks. But then interest charged on loans would also go up to cover interest on savings.

However, since the eNaira is non-interest bearing and the Central Bank can place transaction and balance limits on certain eNaira wallets, this risk is minimized.

The second risk is operational. For example, if IT systems were to fail or if there were technological glitches, or cyber-attacks. These can compromise user privacy. The Central Bank will need robust technology and IT security systems.

Closely linked is reputational risk to the Central Bank if the operational risks materialise. They are likely to have a huge impact on its credibility and reputation both domestically and globally.

When the Central Bank takes on this new function – issuing the eNaira and maintaining a central ledger of all transactions – it might find it harder to perform its key function of ensuring a safe and sound financial system since its focus could be diverted towards managing the eNaira system in addition to carrying out its other functions in the domestic economy.

A possible way to lighten this burden is through creating synthetic central bank digital currencies. This idea was put forward in 2019 in an International Monetary Fund paper. In such a system, the central bank does not directly manage the system, but outsources tasks to private institutions. Financial institutions issue the digital currency, which is fully backed by central bank money.

Closely linked is the risk of the system being used to launder money and finance terrorism. Financial institutions would need strong systems for combating these threats, supported by national legal infrastructure.

Another risk is around data protection and privacy. The Central Bank claims that the:

eNaira system is built with deep considerations around privacy and data protection and in compliance with the National Data Protection Regulations.

However, as the system is designed in line with the guidelines to prevent the illicit flow and use of funds which require identifying transacting parties and the details of their transactions, proper systems need to be in place to ensure that the privacy rights of users of the eNaira system are not violated.

There’s also a need to educate people about the eNaira. Although the central bank says there are ‘campaigns to deepen the understanding of eNaira amongst the population’ it is unclear what this entails. Citizens need to know the difference between the digital representation of cash deposits in bank accounts and the eNaira in digital wallets.

Is Nigeria ready for it? If not, how can the gaps be addressed?

Nigeria could certainly pull this off, provided the technology infrastructure and the technological know-how are in place. It is stated that the eNaira shall be administered by the central bank through the Digital Currency Management System to mint and issue eNaira but it appears this system has been built by Bitt, a global financial technology company. It provides digital currency and stablecoin solutions to central banks, financial institutions and ecosystem participants worldwide. As such, the maintenance of the eNaira system would very much depend on the technological strength of this company and the extent to which they are retained to provide a maintenance framework for the system.

Another issue is the electricity crisis and lack of widespread access to the internet across the country. These should be immediate priorities for the Central Bank, and the government, to resolve for the eNaira system to be successful. It is good to see that there’s a plan for the system to be usable while offline.

Another challenge that the poor may have in accessing the eNaira system is the difficulty of attaining digital identity. The eNaira design plans to use the existing Bank Verification Number and National Identity Number regime. Getting the documents needed for these is expensive and cumbersome.

As Nigeria has the largest population on the continent, spearheading this process could signal the start of a regional monetary integration. If central bank digital currency arrangements could work together across the continent it could solve the challenge of the inconvertibility of African currencies. This could help intraregional trade, which has been challenging to achieve in Africa. With the African Continental Free Trade agreement now operational, the successful launch of the eNaira might be a step towards regional monetary integration in Africa and potentially a regional central bank digital currency.

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

Courtesy: The Conversation


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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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