Can Bitcoins solve the e-payment challenges in the Caribbean?
The Bitcoin has been around for a few years, but until last month very few of us had heard about it. This post outlines what the Bitcoin is, and discusses whether it could solve the e-payment challenges that exist in the Caribbean.
It is no secret that there is considerable difficulty in processing transactions and payments over the Internet in most Caribbean countries (see our post, Has e-commerce stalled in the Caribbean?). For the few local vendors who might have the requisite facility to do so, securing it would have been an onerous and expensive process, which has limited take-up and adoption across all sectors. More importantly, online sales are almost exclusively outbound – from the Caribbean to more developed markets, such as the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom – with virtually none occurring in the reversed direction.
Over the past two weeks, the “Bitcoin” has been gaining mainstream attention. Demand for it has escalated considerably, which experts have suggested has been due to the financial crisis in Cyprus. In a nutshell, the financial sector in Cyprus has collapsed and the country has been trying to secure a EUR 10 million bailout from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. In order to get the funds, the Cypriot government will (reportedly) be seizing up to 60% of uninsured deposits to try to stabilise the economy, which in turn has resulted in considerable loss of confidence in the country’s banking and financial sectors. Moreover, it has also put a spotlight on the Bitcoin, which it has been suggested, offers an alternative to the traditional banking sector, and could offer solutions to Cyprus and its citizens. However, what is the Bitcoin, and could it offer the Caribbean a viable means of facilitating online payments?
The Bitcoin 101
Launched in 2009, Bitcoin (BTC) is a digital currency that has no central management authority, and uses instead peer-to-peer technology to issue Bitcoins and manage transactions. Although some vendors have created and issued Bitcoin notes and coins, its true value exists electronically, where:
- there is no centralised control, such as a central bank, unlike traditional currencies
- the currency’s value is based on demand and supply, similar to a stock market
- individuals directly control their currency holdings and their transactions, with minimal external intervention
- Bitcoin accounts and transactions are private, which means that governments would have limited information on and control over a person’s Bitcoins “stash”.
Can Bitcoin offer the Caribbean a solution to its e-payment woes?
Presently, a number of businesses, primarily online businesses accept Bitcoin, and it is widely acknowledged to offer a unique mechanism, outside of the traditional banking sector, which is gaining wider acceptance. Hence, Bitcoins might be a solution that Caribbean vendors and suppliers could begin to explore to determine the extent to which it might be satisfied with their needs. Having said this, below are some matters to consider:
- Bitcoin is still developing a critical mass. Although demand for Bitcoins has increased drastically, the currency is yet to have the critical mass of users (buyers and sellers), which could indicate its permanence as a global currency, and lead to more widespread acceptance and inclusion in trade. Hence although vendors could decide to accept Bitcoins from their customers, in the majority of instances, they will be unable to pay their suppliers for goods and services in that currency.
- Currency is still highly volatile. Similar to gold, Bitcoin’s value can change drastically, which presently makes it unpredictable as shown in Figure 1. For vendors, it might not be practical to set prices for goods and services in BTC. Moreover, should Bitcoins be accepted, vendors might also need to exchange them for more stable and widely accepted currencies, which would add to the transaction costs that could be incurred.
- Bitcoin is subject to cyber threats. Similar to the conventional banking sector, hacking and other cyber threats have been reported around Bitcoin. The Bitcoin system itself is highly secure, but much of the theft reported appears to be due to compromised account details, or network breaches.
However, it is important to highlight that unlike the traditional banking sector, where systems are in place to provide customers with some degree of protection and recourse from unauthorised access to their accounts, this is not the case with the Bitcoin. As a decentralised system, where the user only controls access to his/her Bitcoin stash, there is virtually no recourse for theft or loss of account (or wallet details).
The above considerations all point to some degree of risk when using Bitcoins, which many persons might find unpalatable. More importantly, since it is not a mainstream currency, organisations or vendors cannot conduct all of their business in the Bitcoin. However, it could be offered as one of many options to receive payment, which could offer the Caribbean a means of facilitating payments online in an environment where the traditional banking system does not appear to be encouraging use of this facility.
Image credit: zcopley (Flickr)