Hermann from Bitcoin Ekasi joins me to chat about his journey banking the unbanked:

  • Being inspired by bitcoinbeach
  • Conditions in the town in Mossel Bay, South Africa
  • Shops taking bitcoin payment
  • Dealing with volatility
  • Why maximalism is practical
  • Using services like Bitrefill
  • Bitcoin education centre – built with bitcoin / Paxful



Stephan Livera links:

Podcast Transcript:

Stephan – 00:00:08:

Hi. You’re listening to Stephan Livera podcast, a show about bitcoin and Austrian economics brought to you by Swan Bitcoin. Today my guest is Haran from Bitcoin Ekasi. So for those of you who don’t know, this is a town, Mossel Bay in South Africa. They have a bitcoin community where there are some swim and surf coaches earning bitcoin and also kids who are spending bitcoin in the town. So this is a really interesting story of actually banking the unbanked, and we get into some examples on how and why that is the case, and I’m sure you will appreciate the insights from this episode. Now, a message from some of the sponsors of the show. Coinkite.com are the creators of my favorite bitcoin hardware devices. They have the cold card, which is their well known device. But I’m sure many of you don’t know about the tap signer. This is a really cheap device. It’s an NFC style tap signing device, so you can use it easily with wallets on your phone, such as nunchuck. And it’s a really easy experience. You’ll find it a breeze just to register that new device and create a wallet and then tap to sign. So the tap signer comes in at a cheaper price point. It’s about $40, so it’s an excellent choice for those of you looking for something different to diversify your setup or perhaps have multisig with this as one of your keys, you can get this over at coinkite.com and use code Livera if you want a discount on your cold cards. Now, when it comes to storing our stack for the long haul, Unchained Capital can help with multi signature. And they are known for having a concierge onboarding program where you can pay upfront. They will ship you the hardware if you need it, they’ll call with you and help you set up your vault. Now, the new thing is that it’s coming with an unchained inheritance protocol so you can be prepared for multigenerational bitcoin savings. Think about it. Have you thought about the right way to transition the bitcoin to your heirs? They have step by step checklists, letters for the executor or trustee inheritance seed phrase card and also a tamper-proof bag. So if you are concerned about your bitcoin security and you want to remove single points of failure from your setup, go to unchained.com, use the code Livera and you can get a discount on your concierge onboarding program. Lastly, if you’re looking for a day to day bitcoin or Liquid wallet, Green is Blockstream’s industry leading wallet. It has a range of features such as multi signature security. It’s got full node verification where you can connect this up to your own electrum server and use your own full node. And it also has tour support. For those of you who want to use the privacy preserving features of the onion router. Blockstream Green has a multi signature shield. You can, if you want, use it in single signature mode. But the multisignature shield has a feature where you can keep one key on Blockstream servers and that acts as a two factor authentication. And you can also use timelocks or a third backup key to ensure you retain full ownership of your funds. It’s also integrated with hardware worlds like Blockstream, Jade, Ledger, Trezor, and so there’s a range of features. It’s a multiplatform, you can get it on iOS, Android or desktop. Go to blockstream.com/green. And now on to the show. Hermann, welcome to the show.

Hermann – 00:03:06:

Yeah, how’s it, man? Thanks for having me.

Stephan – 00:03:08:

Yeah, I think you’re doing some cool stuff and I thought this would be a really cool story for listeners to hear about, so yeah, do you want to just tell us a little bit about yourself? I know, you know, I had the chance to meet you just briefly at El Salvador at Adopting Bitcoin and was really interested to hear a bit about what you’re doing and a bit of your story. I’ve read some of your articles and seen what you’re tweeting about also. So do you want to just give us a bit of a background on yourself and how you came to be where you are?

Hermann – 00:03:35:

Yeah, man. Well, I’m based in a town which is about 4 hours east of Cape Town, so we’re based in Mossel Bay, been using Bitcoin as a means of payment since about 2015. We were hit with sanctions in our business, we cater for overseas tourists. Our market is primarily in Russia and Eastern Europe. My wife is Russian. We’ve been married for about twelve years now. When the first sanctions started to hit, we started using Bitcoin because we couldn’t receive payments via bank transfer anymore. And I’ve just been obsessed with Bitcoin since then because I thought to myself, like, this is a wonderful technology that allows you to do what you want to do without governments for some ridiculous arbitrary purpose cutting you off. I mean, we had nothing to do with the hostilities there, but we were prevented from doing business as a result of it.

Stephan – 00:04:27:

Yeah. And with the sanctions. Do you mind telling us a little bit about how that happened? Is it mainly just that you couldn’t get access to normal banking or that you couldn’t receive payments from the customers? Is that what was going on?

Hermann – 00:04:37:

Yeah, pretty much. I mean, sort of the stuff that’s happening now between Russia and Ukraine, there was a precursor to that, which sort of started in 2014, I think, with the annexation of Crimea. So there’s been a long history to it. The stuff you see now hasn’t just popped out out of nowhere. And so people living both in Ukraine and in Russia were cut off from their banking services. I mean, ironically, the first payment we received in Bitcoin was from Ukrainians, not from Russians, so they obviously were banking in Russia despite being Ukrainian, which is the case for a lot of people there and I’m just so grateful that we had a way to circumvent that.

Stephan – 00:05:17:

That’s great to hear. And so I think in your article you mentioned you started accepting bitcoin in 2015. So it’s been some time, right? It’s not like you just came to bitcoin yesterday. You’ve been around and you saw an opportunity to use bitcoin where you had been shut out of the fiat financial system. And so I’m curious as well, like, even back in those 2015 days, were you experiencing resistance from customers? Were they saying, oh, I don’t want to go and get bitcoin, why can’t I just pay you with cash or fiat?

Hermann – 00:05:48:

Yeah, I think there was less resistance than what I’m experiencing now because people probably didn’t know about it. I mean, hardly anyone knew about it. We had to sort of educate people when they reached out and they wanted to pay and we said, look, we can’t take fiat payments. And we had to sort of direct them towards resources where they could go and learn. I think today there’s a lot more sort of knee jerk resistance towards bitcoin. I think a lot of people have come to hear about it and they don’t like it for other reasons, like they don’t trust themselves or they want to trust the government, and for that reason, they don’t like Bitcoin. I think a lot more people are resisting it today. Back then, it was sort of like, kind of cool because no one knew about it.

Stephan – 00:06:30:

In a way that’s fascinating to hear because you would think after seven years, we’ve gotten better at teaching people what bitcoin is. But in a way, there’s maybe some emotional or psychological barriers that were even more difficult to surpass than just the initial hurdle of just knowing what bitcoin is and how to use it.

Hermann – 00:06:49:

Yeah, I mean, the people that we received our first payments from were very quick to sort of become enthusiastic about it. It just solved a practical problem and they had a practical problem. They wanted to come on holiday and they wanted to come on holiday with us because they liked the stuff that we were doing and putting together and they couldn’t pay us because their banks had shut them out. And bitcoin solved that problem and was just a practical circumvention of that. I think today, like you say, a lot of people have emotional issues with it and are actually rejecting the wrong thing. They’re not rejecting bitcoin itself.

Stephan – 00:07:21:

Yeah, that’s unfortunate. But hopefully people do learn. So tell us a little bit about what you are doing, as I understand you have tourism and surf as well. So what exactly are you selling on that side? And then we’ll get into the Bitcoin Ekasi project as well.

Hermann  – 00:07:35:

Yeah, like on that side, we’re basically just the regular tour operator. I mean, we put trips together for people that want to come to South Africa. They want to come on a surfing holiday. They don’t want to bother with organizing the thing themselves, which can be quite a hassle if you’re going to a new country for the first time, if you just want to sit back and relax. You want to make sure you surf. The best waves you don’t want to drag are only quipped along. You don’t want to worry about driving or booking the right places to stay. And we put the holiday together for people, and we organize seven day, ten day, 14 day trips, whatever the group wants specifically. And nothing special about it. It’s just basically surfing holidays.

Stephan – 00:08:14:

Fantastic. Okay, so let’s get into the bitcoin project aspect of it. Now, I know you were inspired by bitcoin beach, so can you tell us a little bit about it? What was your experience there, getting inspired by bitcoin beach and then going on to start your own project?

Hermann  – 00:08:27:

Yeah, I mean, I’ve been pretty much obsessed with bitcoin since first getting into it because it’s just this incredible thing. I’m not super tech minded. I try my best to keep up with the technical side of things, and I try to educate myself as far as possible, but I’ve always wanted to contribute in some way. And when I heard about bitcoin beach, I thought to myself, well, this is a way in which I can contribute. I’ve been running this little organization as a sort of a side operation to our business. It’s a little nonprofit organization, and we work with kids from a really poor community, try and teach them a constructive skill. And we use surfing, and it’s better than them running around causing shit and getting into gangs and drugs and all that crap. So we bring them down to the beach. And I figured that I could contribute to the bitcoin ecosystem by demonstrating that bitcoin can be used as a form of daily money, because at the end of the day, that’s what will have to happen. I’m not saying that bitcoin is ready for that today, but eventually, if we want bitcoin to become this global asset that people use on a daily basis, then someone has to start somewhere. And I think bitcoin beach did that, and they demonstrated that it’s possible. And obviously it’s not perfect, but you’ve got to start somewhere, and that’s basically what we’re trying to emulate, trying to showcase that it’s possible in another location, not just in one.

Stephan – 00:09:51:

So can you set the context as well for us in the town you’re in? What’s it like, their unemployment, illiteracy, housing, running water situation? Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Hermann  – 00:10:01:

Yeah, so it’s a typical South African township. South Africa has this fucked up history. Sorry, I hope you don’t mind.

Stephan – 00:10:08:

That’s all right.

Hermann  – 00:10:09:

Swear words on your show. But it really is a pretty horrible, horrible situation of racial segregation that this country has. And townships are a sort of a hangover from that period where people congregate in large communities, sort of slums outside the big cities. And it’s a sort of a situation you have in many other countries around the world. But education is a big problem. Illiteracy is a massive problem. A lot of people live without running water. Houses are constructed from, like, scrap material where people pick up the side of the road. You’ll have some of the kids that we recruit, there’s like 7-10 people living in a one bedroom structure, you know, so there’s no there’s no sort of privacy. And there’s a big issue of fatherlessness because the you know, the parents tend to go away and find work somewhere else and then start another family and never come back. So all all the social issues that you would associate with poverty, you find in these sorts of places, very difficult circumstances to grow up in.

Stephan – 00:11:13:

Yeah. That’s a hard situation. And so, as I understand then, the idea is you’re trying to, in a way, with this project, you’re helping show people that even under these conditions, bitcoin still makes sense for people, and in some cases, it’s the only alternative.

Hermann  – 00:11:28:

Right, yeah, 100%. I thought to myself when I came across bitcoin beach and I heard what they did, I thought to myself, well, that’s great, because it shows that bitcoin really starts at a ground level. And I figured, well, if we can demonstrate that bitcoin works here, then there’s no practical reason why it can’t work anywhere else. I mean, I know a lot of people are going to say that they prefer not to use it, and that’s fine. No one’s going to force this on anyone else, but there’s no practical reason why someone can’t use it. If it works here, if people generally have the excuse that it’s too complicated or it’s too volatile or blah, blah, blah, whatever, and, well, if the people that we work with, if they can use it, then I think those excuses become a lot more difficult to justify, if you know what I mean.

Stephan – 00:12:17:

Yeah, sure. In terms of ability to use bitcoin, basically, I’ve seen some of the videos you’ve been posting and stuff, so I presume most people have a phone and they’re able to have a smartphone.

Hermann  – 00:12:27:

Most adults, yeah, most adults have smartphones. It’s very rare that we come across someone who doesn’t have a smartphone. I mean, the phones are very low end devices. You hardly ever see iPhones. Most of it is sort of like cheap android devices, but you can pick one of those up for really cheap. And generally the problem is, does the phone have enough memory to load a new application? So if you have a bitcoin wallet that takes up a little bit more memory, then you might have to start deleting other apps. That’s actually the biggest problem that we have.

Stephan – 00:13:00:

Yeah. And you know what? That’s something I’ve noticed even when I talk to Sri Lankans as well. It can be a similar situation where they’ve got a cheap Android and they need to uninstall some other applications or they can install Bitcoin apps or wallets there as well. So can you tell us a little bit about what that process has been like onboarding people into bitcoin under these conditions?

Hermann  – 00:13:20:

I guess the one thing that we’ve done, it wasn’t really planned. Like a lot of the stuff, we just kind of started talking to people and see how it goes. And I think the one thing that we found is just, like, demonstrating the practical use cases. I don’t show any particular products or services, but I’ve got to say that Bitrefill has been one of the most magical orange pilling apps that we could have found because it’s kind of funny. Like, I was just in Ghana recently for a conference there, and the same thing happened when I was talking to people there. But when too, like, we met some fishermen on the beach, and it’s a very similar situation. You’ll give them a couple of sats into a wallet and they’ll be like, yeah, this is kind of cool. But the moment you show them how to convert those sats into credits for the phone, it’s like the light goes on and there’s the spark in their eyes because then they realize, holy shit, they’ve just bought phone credits using digital tokens from their own phone. And that’s kind of when it goes off, like, this is real money. Like, the moment you can demonstrate it’s real money, that’s when the light bulb goes off. And generally using something like Bitrefill is the best way to do that because it’s instant. The value that they’re used to is instantly delivered to their phone, and that value is phone credit. And it’s a very valuable thing in sort of poorer communities. Phone credit is a highly sought off to commodity there. So, yeah, that works really well. I think that’s been one of the main ways we’ve approached people. But to be honest, that work wasn’t done by me. That work was done by the coaches who work for the organization. Because generally I’m from a much more privileged situation. I have an education. I’ve got sort of a background in business and so on. And I’ve tried my best to have the coaches from the community itself be the ones that go out and do the onboarding so that it’s not seen as, like, this external effort. You would have seen this in some of the places you’ve traveled to as well, where it’s hard for an outsider to come in and sort of start helping people. It’s better for a person from the community.

Stephan- 00:15:25:

Yeah. So then I guess in a way, it’s about that initial onboarding that you might have had to do with some of the coaches, and then eventually they are skilled up enough now to go out and actually do the teaching themselves. So you’ve got a bunch of videos where you have basically kids who are going around town and they’ve got their bitcoin wallet and they’re buying groceries at the shop with Lightning. So tell us a little bit about how that came about.

Hermann  – 00:15:49:

Yeah, well, I mean, so, you know, so we’ve got this group of kids that have been coming to our after school program. They attend five days a week, and we try and encourage them to come down and learn something useful. And so, I mean, we’ve started giving the kids who show, like, a regular attendance, we started giving them small rewards in Bitcoin. And this was actually something that was suggested by Michael Peterson from Bitcoin Beach. I was a little bit reluctant to do that, but I trusted his sort of guidance on this and it’s worked out really well. And the way we approach that is kind of like I mean, we’ve never given the kids money for as long as we’ve been running this organization. It’s been more than ten years now. We started the underlying nonprofit in 2010, and I’ve learned my lesson the hard way. What is a good way to try and uplift poor communities? And generally handing out free stuff is not a good way to do that. You don’t hand out food, you don’t hand out clothes. Like teaching someone a skill, that’s a good way to learn. That’s a good way to help poor communities teaching skills. But handing out free stuff generally creates a toxic relationship. And so I was very reluctant to do that. But Mike explained to me that it’s a very valuable thing to have because generally the children will attract more curiosity from people. And so where adults might be reluctant to engage with another adult when they encounter this new technology, they’d be more willing to engage with a child and ask them, hey, what are you doing? Like, what’s this? And they’d be more open to receive new information when they’re talking to a child, rather than being orange pilled by an adult. And so it’s been quite effective. We’ve had people approach the kids asking like, hey, what the hell are you doing here? What’s going on? What’s this? And then that sort of like, sets the stage for one of the coaches who’s an adult, to come in and say, okay, this is what we’re doing. So we’re giving these kids these rewards and they have to earn it. I mean, we don’t just hand it out randomly. We’ll give kids the rewards if they’ve really shown sort of a level of commitment to the program and learning something useful. These kids showed up five days a week after school, and that’s generally not easy for a child to do. If they’re just fucking around, then they’ll probably go and do something else. So that’s pretty much the back story. And it works.

Stephan – 00:18:12:

Yeah. That’s fantastic. And so what’s it been like trying to get some shops onboarded in the town, so that there’s actually some circular economy growing there.

Hermann  – 00:18:21:

I mean, getting the shops on board is obviously the most difficult part of the whole thing. It’s generally quite easy to tell someone, listen here, we’re going to be paying your salary in bitcoin because they get paid on a weekly basis, so the sort of volatility wouldn’t affect them too badly. And the amount of their salary is tied to fiat, so it’s adjusted for volatility, it on a weekly basis. But getting the shops on board, that’s quite tricky because they’re the ones that are sort of like, how can I put it? Left with the hot potatoes at the end of the day. So it’s been tough and to be honest, I think I’ve seen it adopted in ways that have surprised me. We’ve got ten shops that are accepting bitcoin and surprisingly enough, three out of ten is holding on despite the volatility. Obviously, they’ve seen this as an opportunity. The shop that we onboarded, the first in August last year, so it’s been just over a year. She’s holding on to a significant amount of bitcoin and she’s seen the price go from around $40,000 all the way up to 60 something, and now seen it come back down to below 20. So it’s interesting to see people adopt it in that way. And it’s been entirely we’ve been really careful not to push this onto people that don’t want it, because one of the first things that we will be accused of is irresponsible, being irresponsible, pushing a volatile asset into a poor community. So we’ve been really careful to keep it as voluntary as possible and which is part of the reason why we haven’t expanded to more shops. We try and keep it small because if something goes wrong, I guess at least the damage can be contained if we stay small.

Stephan – 00:20:06:

Yeah. And I think it’s also fair to say that you want those shops to have a chance of actually earning revenue. And if you, if there’s not enough people spending bitcoin around at the shops, then it’s not really sustainable. So if you’ve only got a few shops and everyone’s, everyone with bitcoin is going to those shops, then there’s a bit more of a they’re going to get a bit more bitcoin revenue coming in. But I’m curious how some of those shops are dealing with it, because as an example, if they have to then go pay their suppliers or staff or rent, how are they dealing with that? Or is it just more like they’re treating it like, I’m going to keep some of the profits in bitcoin. That’s basically what they’re doing, right?

Hermann  – 00:20:41:

Yeah. The shops that are holding on that are not cashing out, they’ll, they’ll, you know, for them, it’s sort of like a long term investment. So the money that they do have in bitcoin is something that they don’t need to cash out anytime soon, but that’s only three out of ten, the other seven shops are all cashing out. And I guess for them, from what I’ve seen, it’s more like an interesting sort of experience. It’s something new that they’ve because I just spoke to one of our coaches again yesterday, and generally the shops don’t have bank accounts. And we were dealing with the shop now, again, recently, where the owner of the shop doesn’t have a bank account, and we’ve been trying to find ways okay, so how can we help him cash out? Eventually we got to a point where it’s like, okay, so his girlfriend, she’s got the necessary papers and so we can open a Paxful account using his girlfriend’s papers, but the shop owner himself. So it’s kind of like it’s finding creative ways in which they can cash out to local fiat. And I know that that’s not exactly the idea, because then the bitcoin is not circular, but it’s one small step at a time. We’re not going to close the loop overnight. And so far, 70% of the shops are cashing out, but we have seen a small percentage of shop owners actually going and then using their bitcoin. So taking those sats one step further, so we’ll have one or two of the shop owners, for example, that’s going to cut their hair at another shop that also accepts bitcoin. And now there’s a bitcoin transaction happening between two businesses, so each time that thing happens, we get closer to closing the loop. And so I think for them, for the most part, it’s just an interesting experience in being able to make digital transactions, which they generally haven’t been able to do, which is pretty cool.

Stephan – 00:22:27:

Yeah. And of course they can use the likes of bit refill, right? So they could be using bitrefill to get phone credit and that’s one of their ways to, quote unquote, cash out. But actually they’re spending bitcoin. So that’s interesting to see as well. I’m curious then, in terms of your customers on the surf tourism side, any of them bitcoin isn’t spending bitcoin at the shops?

Hermann  – 00:22:47:

Well, I guess it’s an interesting question, especially now. More recently, like now with what’s happening in Russia in the last sort of half a year or so, it’s been a little bit more than half a year now. The last couple of tours we’ve had, 100% of payments have come in in bitcoin, because now, really, there is no other way. Our markets are still primarily Eastern Europe and Russia. And it’s interesting, I guess, in a nutshell, we’ve never really been pushing tourists, we’ve never really wanted to take tourists into these poorer areas. I mean, a lot of tour operators do that, but I don’t like this sort of drive through the township type tourism. And we’ve always used the nonprofit to give people a taste of South Africa because we’ll have tourists and kids surf together. But then it’s like a constructive environment and it’s a level playing field. But now, since we started the bitcoin project, some of these tourists have been curious, like, hey, what’s going on up there? I see the coaches walking around with, like, bitcoin t shirts and stuff. And so we’ve we’ve taken people up there and it’s, you know, it’s surprising how many people are, like, interested in crypto and stuff, but they have no idea about the Lightning Network, for example. And so it’s actually been interesting to see that this is sort of like becoming an educational project for people outside of the project as well. Because now you’ve got this little project in this little unexpected environment that’s using bitcoin and everybody knows bitcoin and crypto, but then people come in and they sort of get a better understanding of maybe what this is all about. Say, oh, we’ve had people interested in what’s going on there. And it’s fascinating to see that new connection between tourists and people on the ground in South Africa.

Stephan – 00:24:24:

Yeah, and I think you make a good point about the so called crypto people as well. Oftentimes if I’m out at a meet up or I’m chatting with people, there are times when I’m chatting to a quote unquote crypto person. And then the impression that they have of bitcoin’s Lightning Network is that, oh, Lightning. I thought that thing was like stagnant and not working and whatever. And then it’s like, no, I’ll actually demonstrate seeing is believing, right? So if you can show them, hey, you can buy this thing on bitrefill or you can buy products, real world things with it. But I think you’re right that a lot of people, even the ones who we would think might know people who are in the broader, quote unquote, crypto world again, crypto is in quotes, right? Crypto means cryptography as far as I’m concerned. But even people from that world, you’d think they would know about Lightning or like, have you done a Lightning transaction? But actually many of them have not. And so I think it’s really fascinating to see. So it’s one of those things where we have to get really good as a community at marketing and showing people, hey, this Lightning, it works, it’s real, it’s here. Here are some videos of me doing it. Here’s a picture. Here are some people. Here’s an island who do it, here’s a town who do it. All of these things, we can’t see enough of them.

Hermann  – 00:25:33:

Yeah, no, 100%. I think on that point when I was in El Salvador and I was hanging out with Michael Peterson, he was telling me how CZ from Binance came to visit El Zonte and he’d never made a Lightning transaction before. Look, like I said, I’m not super technical, but I’ve done as much work as I can. And as far as I can tell, I think Lightning is by far the most exciting thing happening in the entire crypto space. There’s nothing more exciting than that, because I think this is how we onboard billions of people, which is what we’ll have to do if we want this thing to go anyway. If we’ve got a couple of hundred thousand people playing around with this technology, it’s not really going to accomplish what we hope it can. So Lightning is a super exciting development and then a lot of people actually haven’t seen it work in real life. And I think that’s a very valuable thing that should be demonstrated. The coaches who earn their salaries, they’re using Lightning like a normal person would use a bank card on a daily basis. They’re literally buying their groceries every single day on the Lightning Network. And I know a lot of it’s custodial and so on, but it’s early days. These things are going to develop and the development we have seen in the last three or four years have been incredible. So just imagine where we will be another three or four years from now.

Stephan – 00:26:56:

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Yeah, I think that’s totally fair as well. I think it’s the right tool for the job. Right? So if I’m talking to somebody in the western world, I’ll basically 100% of the time point them to a non custodial app. But I can understand totally for somebody who’s coming from a lower socioeconomic standing position. I think from that point of view, look, it’s going to be hard to tell that person that they must use noncustodial apps. So I think as long as that scene is like the smallest spending money amount and once they stack enough that it’s worthwhile, okay, now it’s time to go noncustodial. Okay, now maybe you even think about a hardware device, right? And there are low cost hardware devices as an example. There are these like tap signer as an example. There are others out there that are low cost devices, even seed signer, Blockstream Jade. These are some examples out there that are like low cost devices. So I’m curious, has that been something you’ve had that conversation then with any of the coaches or anyone or they’re not at that level yet.

Hermann  – 00:29:53:

Yeah, we’ve got all our coaches onto hardware wallets for what they’re saving long term. We’ve also got the shops onto hardware wallets if they are holding for the long term. Like I said, most of them are actually cashing out, but the three shops that are holding on long term, they’ve all got hardware wallets. So we’re trying to do this in the most sort of responsible way possible. I mean, it’s really opened my eyes as well. To see on the ground, one sometimes have to be like, you’ve got to be aware of the realities of life. We had one coach who backed up his seed phrase, and fortunately this was in the very early days, so he had very little, had very little Bitcoin saved. But the backing up process, again and again, writing on twelve words, we actually had him stamp it into metal and then he did eventually lose his wallet, came back with his backup and it was missing some of the words and he just hadn’t written down all twelve words properly. And obviously you can’t have someone watching, looking over his shoulder when he’s doing the backup process, because that’s part of the whole idea is that you do your own backup. Like, if I’m doing the backup for him, what’s the point? I might as well keep it in a wallet that I control. So these are the realities of life on the ground. If you’re dealing with communities like this, and one has to take that into account, it’s easy to say, like noncustodial, noncustodial, noncustodial, but at the end of the day, the reality is that these things happen slowly. And if you’re going to do it in a responsible way, it means that sometimes the more responsible option is actually a custodial wallet before you get into the nitty gritty. But we are definitely pushing in that direction of being self sovereign, in control of your own keys as far as possible.

Stephan – 00:31:35:

Yeah, and I think that’s a fair position to have. I see it like many of us will make mistakes. I mean, I made mistakes when I was new to bitcoin, and I’m sure you have. I’m sure. Probably most listeners have made a mistake at some point in their bitcoin career, maybe lost some sats or done something stupid, sent something to the wrong address. We’ve all made these kinds of mistakes, and really, that’s what makes us learn. So it’s difficult to walk through life and think, oh, with enough preparation, I can avoid every little error. That’s just not realistic for you or for me or for many people.

Hermann  – 00:32:06:

Yeah, no 100% man like this. Self custody is not all in effort, all in one go, all at the same time. Right at the beginning, I think it’s a learning process, and I’m still learning. It’s been however many years, and I’m still trying to figure out how to run a Lightning node. And it’s tricky. It’s tricky. I’m using Lightning in a custodial way, despite having been in bitcoin for a while, and I consider myself relatively okay in the technicalities, but it’s a learning process. It’s been one hell of a learning process for me running this project, too. I’ve seen people adopt bitcoin in ways that I’ve never expected. So I think as long as you recognize that it’s a learning process, one step at a time.

Stephan – 00:32:48:

Yeah, sure. I’m curious, from your perspective, what’s been the issue for you? Like, with using, as an example, the likes of Phoenix or Breez or like Muun Wallet or any of those kinds of wallets. What’s been for you? The main hold up compared to using a custodial?

Hermann  – 00:33:03:

Phoenix was actually one of the first wallets that we looked at when we started off. I mean, we’ve never had a developer on the team, so we’ve had to build this project using apps that you can download from the App store.

Stephan – 00:33:15:

Yeah, sure.

Hermann  – 00:33:16:

So Phoenix was one of the first ones we looked at when Moon came out. That was also pretty awesome. I love the simplicity, especially the interchangeability between on chain and Lightning. But at the end of the day, the one thing that the wallets we use have to have is a static LNURL address.

Stephan – 00:33:38:

I see.

Hermann  – 00:33:39:

Because that’s the most practical way of paying salaries. Like if you’re going to be paying salaries on a weekly basis every Monday, I’ve got to sit down and pay the salaries for nine people. And I’ve got to do all of that over Lightning. Then it’s unrealistic to expect those guys to all send me a Lightning invoice for the salary amount all at the same time when I have a 30 minutes gap to sit down and do the salaries.

Stephan – 00:34:07:

Got you. So it’s the invoice time out and the expiry window that’s making it difficult for you there. Got you. Yeah. Interesting. And I think this is actually just feedback for probably developers and people and builders listening. They might be thinking about ways around that. So as an example, there’s Lightning addresses. And I mean, there’s all kinds of ways around that, but yeah, some of them are custodial, but hopefully this is seen as like a stepping stone, and eventually it gets to a state where they are able to do it, like where everyone can do it non custodial, or at least more people can. But I mean, certainly I think you’re on that track. So one other interesting point I wanted to bring up. I know you were tweeting about this from your visit. It says you were in Ghana and there was a village chief expressing skepticism about bitcoin. So can you tell us a little bit about that? What happened there?

Hermann  – 00:34:57:

Well, it turns out it was actually a chief from a neighboring village. So one of the issues was that there was also a bit of jealousy involved. But I mean, basically at the conference in Ghana, I went with a delegation of speakers. So some of the people that were speaking at event and we visited a new education center that was opened by built with Bitcoin and Paxful. Both of those organizations have been, I mean, especially like Paxful, who’s backing the whole operation in terms of like, education. I think they’re just heading in the right direction. They’re heavily focused on educating people. And so they were opening this new education center, and this guy showed up and he walked in with a whole entourage of people, and he seemed to be the most important person there. And I incorrectly assumed he was the chief from that village, but it turns out he was the chief from another village. But that sort of besides the point, because the point still was. And the point that I was trying to make with that tweet was that there’s this perception that Bitcoin might be a scam because of all the scams associated with the quote unquote, crypto space. And there’s a hell of a lot of stuff in the crypto space that’s selling itself as something that it’s not. And it just really kind of frustrates me. I’ve adopted the stance of being a bitcoin maximalist purely for practical purposes. I don’t even want to bother looking at any of the other stuff because 99.9 times out of 100, it’s going to be a scam. And that’s just based on the experience of the last however many years. I was actually, I was actually very curious and excited when Ethereum launched back in the day, and I was like, oh, this is cool, this could be interesting. Like, let’s see what’s going to happen here. And like, over time with the whole, ICO craze and stuff like that. How many of those projects are just gone? They launched with this whole big fanfare and whatever, and they’re just gone. So this chief was skeptical. I think, actually the guy I think he actually might have lost some money on FTX, which also is also why he was sour. And so he actually said in his speech that we should be careful. We, meaning the village people, should be careful of this bitcoin education thing because bitcoin might be a scam. And I can understand why he says that, but obviously once you’ve educated yourself on bitcoin, it becomes pretty clear that there’s no way it can be a scam. Like, it’s just the protocol. Like, how is that a scam? It’s used by scammers, and particularly scammers who create things that look and smell and feel like bitcoin, but is in fact something completely different. And so it’s kind of, like, sad to see that there’s all these projects, like, riding on bitcoin’s success. I think some people might have misunderstood that tweet, but from a purely practical perspective, I think bitcoin maximalism just makes sense for people in my position. Because, like, if if you’re working in a community like ours where you’re already struggling with basic education, like, you know, a lot of people struggle to read and write. Where where are you going to begin explaining the difference between the 20,000 different shitcoins out there? It’s a hopeless task. So it’s just the easiest, best, most practical, safest way is just ignore all of them. Bitcoin and that’s it. It just makes more sense.

Stephan – 00:38:14:

Man yeah, and as you were saying, there’s all these crypto clowns who are basically scamming and writing the reputation of writing the reputation of bitcoin to try to or writing bitcoin to coattails, right? And then in a way, it’s tarnishing bitcoin because crypto, quote, unquote, crypto fails and then they blame bitcoin and say, oh, we need more regulation. I see. Look, are you quote, unquote, toxic maxi people, et cetera? You haven’t helped anyone. Well, the people who stuck with bitcoin, they’re able to and the people who particularly listen to the advice about not your keys, not your coins. They didn’t get scammed, right? They’ve got their coins. Yes, the paper value, the price of bitcoin is down from the all time high, but that’s always going to be true over certain periods of time. So I think that’s kind of where that lies. But I’m also curious to get your view, like, while we’re talking about that, the volatility, because that seems to be the big thing, right? There are people talking about, do we need stable coins? Do we need some kind of stablecoin on Lightning? Things like this? I’m curious if you have any reactions to that being where you are.

Hermann  – 00:39:22:

Yeah, I mean, look, the volatility obviously, that’s one of the first things people often ask me about. And I think if you’re cashing in and out of bitcoin on a regular basis, then I don’t think the volatility is an issue. Obviously, if you’re being paid your salary on a weekly basis and the amount is tied to fiat value, then if there’s some volatility to the downside, then next week it’ll bring you back up to the level one over a week to week basis, there’s volatility to the upside and the downside. So the coaches have never really had an issue because they earn on a weekly basis and the shops are also cashing out on a regular basis. Where volatility is an issue is sort of like over a month to month basis. But then we’ve been very clear with the shops, look, if you think you’re going to need this money, cash out immediately. If you don’t cash out, make sure that this is something you’re going to hold for several years. And I think by taking that stance, you can kind of mitigate most of the volatility risk. Because, look, I think if you look four years into the future, probably bitcoin is going to be worth multiple times more than it is now. So don’t worry about the price if it’s four years from now, and if you are even slightly worried about the price, cash out tomorrow. Like, don’t even, don’t even think about holding it for another month. And I think that’s how we approach that. But just to get back to your previous point, I want to ask you something, if you don’t mind.

Stephan – 00:40:47:

Yeah, sure.

Hermann  – 00:40:47:

So this is one of the things with this whole bitcoin maximalism and the crypto space thing. Actually, to a large extent, this project sort of turned me into a bitcoin maximalist. Before this, I was kind of like this project and the 2017 ICO craze. And I think this is something that a lot of crypto people don’t realize. Speaking for myself, I didn’t come into this space as a bitcoin maximalist. I encountered bitcoin and then I encountered ethereum, and then I encountered one after the other. Then slowly but surely but surely, all the crypto scams out there turned me into a bitcoin maximalist. And I think that’s a similar journey for a lot of people. But I’m curious to know how you got to that, because I know you’re a bitcoin maxi too. I’m curious to know what, what turned you into us.

Stephan – 00:41:35:

So my story is probably a little atypical. I basically got into bitcoin, was interested in sound money and just never really got into altcoins. Right. So I started so I mean, I’ve mentioned a few times, but basically I really got fascinated by bitcoin in December 2012. Bought some of my first coin in early 2013 and was obsessed with bitcoin ever since. And so back in those days, people who are writing content and, you know, back in those days, who were the, you know, influencers back then Andreas Antonopoulos, Tuur Demeester, Trace Mayer, my friends Michael Goldstein, Pierre Rochard, people like that. Conrad Graff was around in those days. And so for me, I just kind of came to Bitcoin from that view. And I was already a libertarian, right? I was already anti central banking, already anti fiat money. So for me it was just like bitcoin is the most important thing and I just never really got that interested in other coins and tokens and so on. And I saw it like, look, if you want to do equity, issue actual equity, if you want to do debt, do debt. But Bitcoin is meant to be the money. And that’s that, right? To me, I guess I just kind of came to it and that was what I was most interested in. Maybe we could say that now to the point where let’s say, quote unquote, the Bitcoin maximalist criticizing all the crypto projects. I think it’s often out of wanting there to be a truthful reflection of what that thing is, whether it’s like false marketing about this idea that some altcoin can do more transactions per second than Bitcoin. And of course now we have Lightning. So that’s basically totally gone. Things like over the last few years, people would say things like, oh, but we need some kind of more expressive smart contracting and this and that. And at the end of the day, I think what matters is having a robust, scalable, decentralized, verifiable, open permissionless, all of these aspects, and scarce, and you need it to be all of these things. And just beating. Like even if you can beat Bitcoin in one of those areas, you’re probably not beating Bitcoin across all of them or across multiple of those areas. And that’s really what it is. And it’s about accessibility also, right? So even for people, the everyday person, to be able to run their own Bitcoin node, that’s something that Bitcoin people have been very we’ve all been very much focused on that idea that it should be accessible to the everyday person, that they can run a Bitcoin node. And that’s why you see all this whole Raspberry Pi thing. Although nowadays I would pretty much tell people, look, if you can afford to just buy an old laptop or use an old laptop or an old computer, that’s probably going to be better. But the point is you can do it. I’d say those are probably the key reasons for me. But I know my journey and my story is not exactly typical, but I think it also is a journey of learning, right? As you learn more about the technical aspect and the economic aspect, you sort of start to get to that point. And I think if you think about name brand and recognition, right, if you search, like, even if you look at Google search trends, you’ll see bitcoin is just so far ahead, because if somebody knows the term cryptocurrency, they generally they know the word bitcoin. They don’t necessarily know a lot of the other ones. And there’s something to that. This network is hard to beat and the grassroots is hard to beat. You don’t really see, like, Ethereum town.

Hermann  – 00:44:56:

I think there’s a reason for that.

Stephan – 00:44:58:

There’s bitcoin beach. I don’t see Ethereum Beach, and Ethereum is number two on the ship coin list or whatever. So if you go even further down there’s, how many other 20,000 other coins? That’s kind of how I’m seeing it.

Hermann  – 00:45:15:

Yeah, to be honest, I think there’s no Ethereum Beach because I don’t think they really care about anything else. There’s no wider reference for them. It’s this crypto bubble and that’s it. And whatever you can do in the crypto space, that’s what they care about. But there’s a bitcoin beach because bitcoiners care about practicality. This thing has to have a real use case in the real world. And it’s interesting that you mentioned that, because I connected pretty well with the rest of the bitcoin communities, especially the ones that have made a bit of progress, like Bitcoin Jungle, Bitcoin Lake, Bitcoin Beach, Brazil. There’s a couple of others, too. And the interesting thing is that none of them had much contact with each other before starting off. But the one thing they all do have in common is, like, they don’t tolerate shitcoins. It’s bitcoin and bitcoin only, and it’s an interesting correlation between them. And I think maybe eventually we will see an Ethereum Beach, but so far that hasn’t happened. And I think there’s a very good reason for that. Maybe I can’t put it into words so well, but I think the observation that bitcoiners have given birth to this community effort, it’s kind of telling because at the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about. It’s like, we want to make money that’s usable by everyone, and I think that’s quite important. But, yeah, I mean, I think your story with how you came to be a bitcoin maxis, maybe a little bit atypical. But speaking for myself, a lot of the bitcoin maxis I’ve met are not actually very toxic people. We’re nice people. It’s just that we get toxic towards people who portray themselves as doing something that they’re not really doing. And I think that’s where a lot of the shitcoin projects really start to piss me off when they talk about things. And I’m like, Wait, hang on. What’s really going on here?

Stephan – 00:47:02:

Yeah, well, there you go. And so then, while we’re on the whole topic of education, I’m curious, have you had the chance, even with the coaches, what kind of stuff have you used to teach them? Has it been like, do they listen to any podcasts or do you give them a book? Or they read an article here and there? Or is it just all kind of whatever you teach them in person and show them in person.

Hermann  – 00:47:23:

So we’ve had some books donated and we’ve employed a full time teacher. This is also largely thanks to Paxful and Built with Bitcoin. It’s an education center that we opened recently. Education is super important. I mean, a lot of people say this, but as far as I’m concerned, education is like the bedrock for freedom because freedom is all about making your own choices, making voluntary choices. And I very, very strongly believe in that. I believe people should make their own choices. I don’t think there’s any future where we have a sustainable situation of government telling people how to live their lives. I think the moment you introduce government, you inevitably always end up with authoritarianism. That’s just human nature. And if you’re going to have freedom and voluntary choices, like a choice is only voluntary if it’s well informed, right? Like if you don’t know what you’re talking about, how you’re going to be able to make any choice whatsoever. So education is one of the first things we focused on. And in terms of resources, there are some sort of like I don’t know if if it’s too early to call them canonical, but there are some texts that I consider really important. So we’ve got the Bitcoin Standard donated that’s sitting in the library. We’ve got a couple of other ones, including 21 Lessons. And I think Bitcoin Magazine has been a really good source of information for myself. So I’m constantly sending articles to the coaches on Bitcoin Magazine. But as far as the coaches go, their literacy skills are relatively good. But the wider community, sometimes we struggle with that. So we’ve actually produced a little ten minute documentary in the local language, which is Torsa, and that was done with the help of bitrefill. So we did the footage, bitrefill paid for the sort of editing and stuff. And then another local project in South Africa did the translation from English to Xhosa. And that’s something that we take to people and we show them and with it being audio visual, it’s really engaging, it’s sometimes in areas where literacy levels are quite low, it’s really difficult to spread education with written material. Like even like a little pamphlet becomes pretty much useless if you have people who struggle to read and write. So that audiovisual thing, so a lot of YouTube videos, like, there’s a lot of really useful things out there in terms of that. Yeah, man, there’s a lot of content. I think the biggest problem actually is not the lack of content. The biggest problem is filtering out the noise and focusing on the stuff that’s valuable. And I think for that reason, if you’re going to do something like this with Mike Peterson and El Salvador or the other projects, they all have someone who’s got some experience in Bitcoin leading it because it’s really difficult filtering out the noise. I think that’s the big challenge.

Stephan- 00:50:06:

Yeah, that’s a really interesting observation, because you’re right that now there’s a plethora of Bitcoin content out there. There’s a range of stuff, even 21 lessons that’s actually available for free now at swan.com/21lessons. People can get that the electronic version for free. But yeah, it’s all out there and it requires a lot of curation. I’m curious as well in terms of any other learnings that came from your discussion with the other communities. Like, what were there, were there any other big similarities or differences that you noticed?

Hermann  – 00:50:34:

I think some of the similarities are is that there’s at least two other projects that focus a lot on sort of like underdeveloped communities in terms of socioeconomic development, and then there’s communities like Bitcoin Jungle that focus on the expat community. And I think those are two of the important use cases for these types of circular economies so far that I’ve seen. So it’s interesting to see these two different use cases developed where, on the one hand, you can use Bitcoin to uplift people who are coming from a previously disadvantaged situation because they don’t have access to banking and finance. And on the other hand, you can use Bitcoin to help expat communities be in a situation where they are not as hampered by regulations against moving money across borders. Because let’s face it, the banking system in most developed countries work pretty well until you have to cross a border. Like when you cross a border, it doesn’t matter how well developed the banking system in your home country is, the situation becomes horrible once you have to start moving across borders. So those are the two interesting use cases I’ve seen developed amongst the circular economies. I know the big ones in Bitcoin Island, for example, they’ve got an integration with Strike and that’s made remittances really easy. And now strike is also integrated with Bitnob, which serves West Africa. And again, that’s making remittance really easy, because and as like Jack Mallers says, like, Bitcoin can basically be a central bank for the world, where you can have the settlement system, where two companies in two completely different jurisdictions, as long as they both speak the language of bitcoin and Lightning, then there’s no reason why they can’t interoperate. So, yeah, that’s a really interesting use case. Obviously, our situation is more aligned with Bitcoin Beach, Brazil, where we’re using Bitcoin to try and uplift a previously heavily disadvantaged community where people don’t have access to basic finance or even bank accounts. And I think it’s a really valuable thing. I think people underestimate the power that you can give to a person by giving them access to digital money if they’ve never been banked before. This whole thing of banking the unbanked, there’s been a lot of criticism. I specifically remember there’s one panel at Bitcoin Amsterdam where I think. The lady is called Jemima something.

Stephan – 00:53:01:

Infamous panel.

Hermann  – 00:53:02:


Stephan – 00:53:02:

So this is the journalism one. There was Joe Hall from Coin Telegraph, Pete Rizzo from Bitcoin Magazine. What’s that other lady’s name? She used to be at FT Isabella Kaminska. And then Jemima, who is currently still at FT. Yeah.

Hermann  – 00:53:16:

And I was sitting there listening to that and I thought to myself, because one of the criticisms that Jemima came up with is she’s pushing back in her own I mean, I’m paraphrasing, but in her own words, she said she’s pushing back against this narrative that bitcoin is, you know, banking the unbanked. Because she says that that’s a disingenuous lie, that bitcoiners used to push bitcoin. And I was sitting there thinking to myself, like, just in my little small project that I’m running, we don’t have any massive influence or anything. It’s a small, little project. But in this little, small project, I’ve seen numerous instances where a person has greatly benefited from having digital payments. Just as one example, we had a coach who can’t get a bank account. He’s got problems with his papers, right? His birth certificate has a fucking spelling mistake on it. So they won’t give him a bank account, right? He was having his money stolen by family members who are older and wiser than him. This guy is only still a teenager. He’s only been working for a couple of years. We don’t pay him a big salary. He earns a little bit, but that money is really valuable for him. And he was having his money manipulated out of him because there’s only so many places where you can hide cash if you share a one bedroom house with seven other people. So eventually they’re going to find that cash and they’re going to take it and they’re going to use it to buy cigarettes and alcohol and whatever. And when we started paying him in Bitcoin, man, all of a sudden his money was his. Like, no one could take it because it was stored on a phone that was protected by a password. And like, they couldn’t manipulate the password out of him. And that changed the family dynamics. And all of a sudden, this young man was now in a position where he was responsible for deciding what’s going to happen with the money that he earned. And that’s a far more healthy situation just in a social sense. And so I’m sitting there listening to this lady on this panel saying that, and I’m thinking, like, someone has to push back against that narrative because Banking the Unbanked really is quite powerful. And you’re not going to hear these stories because it’s happening in situations where not many people are paying attention to and maybe it’s still isolated incidents, but I actually do think that that narrative, banking the unbanked is a very powerful one and it makes a massive impact on people’s lives.

Stephan – 00:55:48:

Well, yeah, I think that’s a great example. You have left there. And I think you’ve also made the point about getting the lifeboat ready before the ship goes down. So what are you getting out here? Why should we get the lifeboat ready before the ship goes down?

Hermann  – 00:55:58:

I mean, look, the ship is sinking, right? And I think in a South African context, there’s a massive number of people who live with difficult circumstances. Like, you’ve got massive inequality in South Africa. And unfortunately, the government here has made things worse because they’ve made promises that they can’t keep. And just this morning, I was just again reading a little bit on South Africa’s debt, and our previous president was making all kinds of new social grants and he was doing this with borrowed money, right? Because that’s what politicians like to do. They buy votes and they buy votes generally from uneducated people who are going to give them their vote, even though these politicians are driving the country into the ground. You can’t pay people social grants with money that you’ve borrowed. That’s not going to end well. I understand that you want to help people and lift them out of poverty. It’s a natural human instinct to want to feed someone if you see a hungry person. But if you’re going to borrow the money to do that, that’s not going to end well in the long run. So better find a better way of doing that. I think if South Africa does go down the route where I don’t know how this plays out, I haven’t got the financial background, but I just know that there’s going to come a point where this government can no longer afford to borrow money and it’s going to have to cut back on something. And if it cuts back on the social grants, it’s going to cause massive social uprest. I mean, if it cuts back on anything, it’s going to cause massive social uprest. Like, we had big protests in South Africa last year because they wanted to put one of the previous presidents in jail. This guy was as corrupt as they come, and just the threat of putting him in jail caused massive unrest. And so if there’s this lifeboat that can give people a bit of hope, maybe if we can demonstrate that this because, I mean, generally bitcoin is perceived as something for rich people, but if we can demonstrate that, hey, poor people have access to this too, and you can actually protect your own future. Even if you don’t earn a massive amount of money, you can protect your future by saving in bitcoin. In the long run. No one is going to get rich from this overnight. But if the South African currency does go into steep or high or hyperinflation like what we’re seeing in Ghana now, you know, where I think they’ve got like, 40% inflation. If that happens to the South African currency and we’ve already demonstrated that, you know, this is something that poor people can use too, then then that’s a lifeboat for for the masses. You know, where they’ve got at least they’ve got something then, because, look, what else are they going to do at that point? People with wealth and money are already moving overseas. And I experienced this because I come from a relatively privileged background. Everyone I know who can afford it is thinking about moving overseas because they see the writing on the wall in South Africa. Unfortunately, that’s the reality. But the people that don’t have wealth, what are they going to do? Maybe if there’s this little bit of hope, and I think bitcoin is hope, and if you can give people a little bit of hope, maybe that will work to sort of mitigate a lot of the social unrest that we would see in an otherwise hopeless situation. Because, I mean, people go out and burn buildings if they’ve got nothing to hope for at the end of the day.

Stephan – 00:59:13:

Yeah, no, I think that was a very powerful report. I think people should try to build out the lifeboat in whatever way we can, whatever way that means to you listeners. Go out there and build the bitcoin community in the Lightning community, whatever we can do to get more people onboarded. Ideally noncustodial, but if you’ve got to start them somewhere and then eventually get them into noncustodial over time, it’s going to help. I think it all helps. So, Hermann, thank you so much for joining me. Where can people find you online if they want to find out more about you or what you’re doing?

Hermann  – 00:59:42:

100%, man. I think the best place to go is Twitter. We’ve got a handle on Twitter at bitcoinekasi. Otherwise there’s the website, which is bitcoinnekasi.com. Generally, I reply to Twitter DMs, unless it’s clearly a scam message. But if it’s a genuine message, I will reply eventually, maybe not straight away. That’s the best place. And thanks for having me. I really appreciate it.

Stephan – 01:00:07:

Fantastic. Thank you. Bye. So I hope you found the perspective valuable. It’s some on the ground perspective. So this is a great episode to share with your family and friends who don’t believe you about bitcoin banking the unbanked. The episode and the transcript will be available over stefanlivera.com/441. Thanks for listening and I will see you in the Citadels.

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