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DIGITAL ECONOMY & TECHNOLOGY

The African Village Mining Bitcoin

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By Ian Birrell

Bondo is a scattered cluster of villages in a remote region of Malawi near the border with Mozambique. It sits in the foothills of Mount Mulanje, where residents rely on their feet for transport and a few crops to feed their families. Yet unlike in most places in this impoverished country, when night descends they can now switch on lights, stoves and televisions in their homes.

For electricity has arrived in Bondo. Three turbines were installed in a micro-hydro scheme exploiting the fertile region’s rainfall. And the impact has been life-changing for the 1,800 homes so far connected to a mini-grid. Children can study after dark, so now have a better chance of passing the exams for secondary school rather than having to leave aged 11. Drugs and food can be stored in fridges, so villagers do not have to make the 12-mile trek to the hospital and can produce batches of food or drinks to sell at market. Cooking the evening meal is three times quicker — and far less destructive to the environment — without the need to collect firewood.

One group of women giggled when I asked if they had televisions and watched football in their homes. “Before, our husbands would say they were going off to watch football when they were really walking out with other women. Now they can no long claim they are going off for football,” Bertha told me. The senior chief told me they had never dreamed of having energy supplied to the villages, with a dozen maize mills, many small enterprises, schools, shops and churches also connected to the grid. “When you move around Bondo you see happy people — and that’s because of electricity.”

Yet the big surprise in Bondo is not simply the supply of energy to such an isolated community, in a country where only one in eight citizens has access to grid electricity and on a continent where almost half the 1.2 billion population still lack this life-changing supply. The real eye-opener is the stack of 32 computers inside the concrete pump shed. This innovative mini-grid — located more than two hours from Malawi’s second city of Blantyre along bumpy roads and tracks that can become impassable in a torrential downpour — is mining Bitcoin to fund its operation.

It is a smart idea. The computers used to create valuable new Bitcoin tokens and validate transactions consume around the same amount of energy as a medium-sized country such as Sweden would generate. Hence the stinging critique of how this cryptocurrency wastes the planet’s precious resources. This initiative flips that narrative by using Bitcoin mining to fund energy in parts of Africa that are too poor or remote to merit connection to grids, but which do have plentiful supplies of potential power sources. Mining soaks up the excess energy of these renewable plants. And this delivers not just electricity but a powerful jolt to to drive development in the local economy.

The concept comes from a Kenyan firm, Gridless, set up in 2022, whose backers include Twitter founder Jack Dorsey. There are four other sites in Kenya and Zambia and plans for scores more across the continent. Its aim is to demonstrate how Africa could play a central role in countering the conventional belief that Bitcoin, now 15 years old, is used simply for risky speculation and dodgy transactions. Instead, it backs those who claim it will lead to more inclusive financial systems as it usurps the control of dysfunctional governments and manipulative central banks.

It will also release the community from reliance on foreign handouts to survive. The Bondo power plants were built by Mount Mulanje Conservation Trust, a local group trying to protect the mountain region’s unique bio-diversity, and were initially supported by finance from aid and development agencies — but now Bitcoin covers the running costs. This offers a commercial incentive that does not rely on altruism or subsidies to deliver power to remote regions, while exploiting energy waste at times of low use such as overnight.

Malawi, one of the world’s poorest nations, provides a powerful case study in the failures of aid. As former development minister Rory Stewart said in a lecture at Yale, Britain gave £4.5billion over half a century to this southern African country corroded by corruption and bad governance, yet it ended up “if anything, poorer than it was when we started”. “Bitcoin can prevent Bondo becoming the sort of white elephant that you see across Africa, built by aid groups and then abandoned,” said Erik Hersman, chief executive of Gridless. He admits that he is “not a big fan” of the sector. “They come in with low-cost loans and grants to finance all these schemes that they say will pay their way in 30 years but the sums never add up. This is a new way to finance development.”

Malawi also demonstrates another reason why there is rising interest in Bitcoin in Africa: people are seeking a safer home for their cash than local currencies. Prices rose sharply after its currency was devalued two months ago by 44% against the US dollar — the second decrease in value of the kwacha in 18 months. Many African countries on the continent have suffered also from catastrophic inflation, while official currency conversion rates can be significantly lower than street rates.

One Kenyan entrepreneur told me she turned to the cryptocurrency after seeing her savings constantly eroded even in a country with lower than average inflation for the continent. “I was trying to save to buy a house but kept finding my sums declining. I wanted more stability so tried Bitcoin, and then found it had other uses,” said Marcel Lorraine, founder of Bitcoin DADA. Her clients include a trader of alternative health products in a Nairobi street market, who found it much cheaper to use than changing currencies after being introduced to it by a Nigerian customer and is now hoping it will provide a stable platform for building her business to obtain a shop.

While Warren Buffet dismissed Bitcoin as “probably rat poison squared” and the economist Paul Krugman has compared it to a Ponzi scam fuelled by libertarian fantasies and “technobabble”, devotees see it as a liberating force due to the decentralised design created by its mysterious and pseudonymous creator, Satoshi Nakamoto. BlackRock, the world’s biggest asset manager, has even applied to launch a Bitcoin exchange-traded fund that may open up the market to the US wealth management industry.

Certainly Bitcoin, for all its fluctuations, can seem comparatively reliable if you live in Africa — or indeed many other parts of the planet, from Argentina to Lebanon. “This is what I have seen everywhere,” said Peter McCormack, who travels the world for a Bitcoin podcast. “Here is an alternative to gold and property for a middle class that has some money and patience, but is seeing expenses and costs rise while savings decline in value. And a strong middle class helps build a strong economy by driving consumer spending, reducing reliance on the state and driving innovation and entrepreneurship.”

Bitcoin has also become a helpful tool for activists and journalists in dictatorships, since it makes it far harder to track funds. In Togo, a West African state run by one despotic family since 1967, it is used to channel cash to opposition and civil society leaders despite the freezing of bank accounts. Bitcoin has been instrumental in delivering donations to Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation in Russia and the pro-democracy movements in Belarus and Myanmar.

Alex Gladstein, chief strategy officer for the Human Rights Foundation and author of a book arguing that Bitcoin offers freedom from archaic monetary systems and political strifebelieves the cryptocurrency is especially exciting for Africans, since they suffer “all kinds of financial repression”. He points out there are 45 currencies on the continent — with 15 still controlled by France — with high transaction fees on conversion deals that are largely processed by Western firms with heavily-fluctuating rates. “Bitcoin provides an escape and an alternative for Africans while its use is less limited than some people think,” he says. “Entrepreneurs there have figured out how people without the internet can use Bitcoin, which is frankly remarkable.”

This agility is typical of the technological innovation exploding across Africa, driven by a young, rapidly growing and increasingly well-educated population. “The beautiful thing about Bitcoin is that it is a bottom-up technology and its adoption has been genuine at all levels,” said one key figure at the second African Bitcoin Conference in Ghana at the end of last year.

Only time will tell if Satoshi’s invention will turn out to be a bubble with bad consequences or, as optimists believe, a driver of profound change in the world. The fraud conviction of Sam Bankman-Fried, who ran one of the world’s biggest cryptocurrency exchanges, and admission of money-laundering by the boss of another major exchange has hurt the reputation of cryptocurrencies for many in the West. But Bitcoin certainly seems to offer something positive in societies scarred by autocracy, colonialism, military coups and woeful governance — as seen with those computers in a concrete shed in rural Malawi turning water into streams of cash to fund electricity.

Ian Birrell is an award-winning foreign reporter and columnist. He is also the founder, with Damon Albarn, of Africa Express.


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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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