East Africa’s first digital currency automated teller machine has been installed in Nairobi, making it possible to buy bitcoins and litecoins instantly in cash.
The ATM allows traders to buy the cryptocurrencies in small tokens for as low as $5, and pay for them in dollars or Kenya shillings.
"The transaction is simple, taking less than two minutes; You get as many bitcoins as the value of your cash," said bitcoin entrepreneur at BitClub Wangechi Kariuki.
The Nairobi-based fintech company launched the ATM recently in the Westlands area, three kilometres from the central business district.
South Africa installed the continent’s first digital currency ATM four years ago and now has two. Zimbabwe and Djibouti each have one. Globally, the US leads, having installed ATMs in more than 2,000 locations.
A growing number of Kenyans are turning to cryptocurrencies as an investment avenue, with the hope of making huge gains, despite warnings from financial regulators and experts.
In order to buy the digital currency, a trader must first set up an account — with a trusted bitcoin trading platform — by providing two names, an e-mail address and a password.
It comes with an inbuilt bitcoin wallet through which the digital currency will be stored. One could also download a wallet from any mobile application store.
The wallet contains your bitcoin address, a long string of numbers that act as the account number, and a QR code which is scanned by the ATM to identify the account.
To buy bitcoins worth $20 for example, users scan their QR codes, deposit the cash with the ATM, then click on the buy option. The tokens will reflect in the buyer’s wallet, and a purchase receipt is sent via e-mail or SMS.
"Bitcoins function just like the loyalty points we earn from shopping at supermarkets or the reward points we get from talk time. You can also use them to buy goods or pay for services," said Ms Kariuki.
However, an analysis of the exchange rates against other online exchanges by The EastAfrican revealed that the ATM rates were slightly higher than market rates.
BitClub, which earns a commission from every transaction at the ATM, says it is in talks with telecoms giant Safaricom to include its mobile money services platform M-Pesa, as a payment option.
The company hopes this will grow the number of Kenyans dealing in cryptocurrencies by eliminating the risks associated with trading online.
"I had been thinking about investing in bitcoin for a while, and decided to give it a shot," said one trader shortly after buying bitcoins worth $2,000 at the ATM.
According to experts, the installation of the ATM which still serves 15-20 people every day, reflects the growing interest in cryptocurrencies especially among young people in Kenya and around the continent.
A Citibank survey released in December 2017 ranked Kenya among countries with the largest bitcoin holdings worth $1.63 billion, approximately 2.3 per cent of the GDP, behind Nigeria at four per cent of GDP.
"This is a fast growing technology. A few years back we approached mobile money with the same caution we have for cryptocurrency. But look where we are now," said the chairman of Kenya’s Blockchain and Artificial Intelligence taskforce, Dr Bitange Ndemo.
"We will soon submit our recommendations from the development of the country’s first bockchain-based cryptocurrency."
Last Month, social media giant Facebook announced that it was considering creating its own cryptocurrency, which would allow the social network’s billions of users to make electronic payments on the platform.
With about 2.19 billion monthly active users as at the end of the first quarter of 2018, experts believe the in-app virtual coin which will take on bitcoin, ethereum and other large currencies, could birth a major disruption of the growing world of e-commerce and digital currencies.
However, as cryptocurrency enthusiasts push for its mainstream adoption, regulators around the world warn that the digital currencies are too volatile to be used as a store of value, and that the lack of sufficient technology to regulate means they can become a window for mass financial fraud.
"Let us understand the opportunities, the pros and cons that cryptocurrencies bring along before we fully plunge along. We are not anti-innovation, we are not anti-cryptocurrency. We support innovation but are concerned about the impact on financial instability and the inherent risks," Central Bank of Kenya Governor Patrick Njoroge told The EastAfrican in a recent interview.
Crypto Aware, an educational service for cryptocurrency investors around the world estimates that they have lost about $670 million through hackers and scams, in the first three months of 2018 alone.
"As long as you’re transacting online, there will always be the issue of vulnerability. Users need to make sure that they have second layer security to safeguard against hackers and do background checks on the people they transact with. Every user has a profile showing the number of transactions he’s has undertaken and the ratings he has received," said Ms Kariuki.