The path to mass cryptocurrency adoption passes through remittances, but it may not happen any time soon.
Cryptocurrency adoption has been growing for a number of reasons. In emerging markets, research suggests crypto remittances are a factor, although some argue that the idea of using cryptocurrencies for these transactions is nothing more than a purist’s dream.
The CEO of cryptocurrency derivatives trading platform BitMEX, Alexander Höptner, predicted earlier this month that by the end of next year, at least five countries will have accepted Bitcoin (BTC) as a legal tender, as crypto assets can be faster and cheaper for remittances.
He believes that all five will be developing countries and that they would adopt cryptocurrencies because of the growing need for cheaper and faster cross-border transactions, increasing inflation and growing political issues.
Various other commentators have suggested that Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are a solution to the high costs associated with remittance payments, as a cryptocurrency transaction can be much cheaper than a remittance payment while settling in a shorter amount of time.
El Salvador was the first country in the world to adopt Bitcoin as legal tender with the country’s Bitcoin Law officially coming into effect on September 7. The government launched a cryptocurrency wallet called Chivo that uses the Lightning Network, a layer-two scaling solution, to transact. The country has also purchased 700 BTC over time.
Global remittances reached over $689 billion in 2018, and commissions were so high a $49 billion industry grew around them. To crypto proponents, El Salvador is a perfect example of how cryptocurrencies can positively change the world, but to others, volatility and a general lack of trust in the market make cryptocurrency adoption impractical and unadvisable.
Are cryptocurrencies banking the unbanked?
With the Chivo wallet, Bitcoin could effectively help offer financial services to El Salvador’s un- and underbanked population. The country’s president Nayib Bukele revealed in September 2021 that 2.1 million Salvadorans are actively using the wallet, despite the pushback against the new law that saw protests even burn a Bitcoin ATM machine.
2.1 million Salvadorans are ACTIVELY USING @chivowallet (not downloads).
Chivo is not a bank, but in less than 3 weeks, it now has more users than any bank in El Salvador and is moving fast to have more users that ALL BANKS IN EL SALVADOR combined.
This is wild!#Bitcoin
— Nayib Bukele (@nayibbukele) September 25, 2021
Per his words, Chivo isn’t a bank, but in three weeks gained more users than any bank in the country. That adoption may, however, be related to a $30 in BTC airdrop El Salvador sent to every adult citizen with the government’s wallet app.
Speaking to Cointelegraph, Eric Berman, senior legal editor of U.S. finance at Thomson Reuters Practical Law, said remittances using cryptocurrencies are a “purist’s pipe dream.” While Höptner pointed out that remittances made up 23% of El Salvador’s gross domestic product in 2020, Berman countered that only a fraction of the nation’s businesses has taken a Bitcoin payment and that the government’s cryptocurrency app has been plagued by technical issues.
Berman further added that “most of El Salvador’s $6 billion in annual remittances still comes via money transfers,” as many are wary of the cryptocurrency’s volatility. Because of the volatility’s impracticality, he said, Bitcoin hasn’t been widely adopted as a payment method among merchants, adding:
“This impracticability is magnified exponentially for the disenfranchised and unbanked. No one wants to send mom $100 only to have it be worth $80 by the time it gets to her.”
Berman added that “rather than the populist uprising that BTC purists have been touting for years,” Bitcoin’s adoption has instead been growing thanks to “some perhaps long overdue happy noises from U.S. and global regulators.”
Indeed, the United States Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) head Gary Gensler has confirmed the regulator won’t ban crypto. In fact, the SEC approved the first Bitcoin futures-linked exchange-traded fund (ETF) in the United States, ProShares’ Bitcoin Strategy ETF, this week.
Bitcoin’s growing adoption and price, Berman suggested, are the result of “institutional enthusiasm that is quite the antithesis of the grassroots movement for the disenfranchised and unbanked that spawned BTC over a decade ago.”
Oleksandr Lutskevych, the founder and CEO of cryptocurrency exchange CEX.IO, seemingly disagrees with Berman’s assessment, saying El Salvador’s adoption highlights Bitcoin as “replacing the traditional, centralized rails used for remittances.”
To Lutskevych, Bitcoin’s infrastructure is being adopted to also promote the transfer of stablecoins on top of its network, ensuring the cryptocurrency’s volatility won’t affect remittances. El Salvador’s move, he said, promotes financial inclusion by helping cut down remittance costs.
Adoption out of “pure necessity”
In emerging markets, crypto proponents suggest adoption may be a result of “pure necessity,” as the transaction fees paid on most blockchain networks dwarf the fees paid to some remittance vendors.
According to Lutskevych, it’s “abundantly clear in the rationale behind Bukele’s campaign that made BTC legal tender” that the nature of the move was to drive BTC adoption forward through remittances. Lutskevych went on to add further:
“One of the primary reasons why the country passed such legislation was to lower remittance costs, promote financial inclusion and boost GDP by leveraging BTC and its transfer infrastructure to promote financial inclusion.”
Per his words, the adoption of new technology is often the result of “pure necessity,” and that may be the case with Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies in developing nations whose populations are heavily affected by remittance costs, which according to Markus Franke, a partner at cross-border crypto payments firm Celo Labs, averages 6.38% and can often go over 10% of the amount being sent.
Driving his point forward, Lutskevych added that the Chainalysis Global Crypto Adoption Index for 2021 shows that out of the top 20 countries by cryptocurrency adoption, two-thirds are “developing countries with a high percentage of GDP coming from remittances.”
He added that developing countries are now recognizing the value of “BTC’s scalable transfer infrastructure, combined with Bitcoin’s sound money properties and decentralization.”
Lutskevych also noted that Bitcoin’s Lightning Network capacity is up over 25% since El Salvador’s Bitcoin Law came into effect, while the number of payment channels routing payments on the network also moved up significantly and began a “parabolic trend right around the time of the law becoming effective.”
To him, growing peer-to-peer (P2P) trading volumes in countries like Nigeria suggest cryptocurrencies like BTC are playing a role in “getting foreign money into the country.”
Franke added to the line of thought, saying cryptocurrencies can be programmed, allowing for more complex financial operations without third parties. These features, Franke said, have seen remittance giants take an interest in cryptocurrencies.
As an example, he pointed to MoneyGram launching USDC settlement using the Stellar blockchain, and added that the Asian Development Bank has revealed services like Ripple, Mobile Money and bKash helped “deliver faster settlement, greater operational efficiencies and more competitive foreign exchange rates during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Amr Shady, CEO of business-to-business payment and financing platform Tribal Credit, told Cointelegraph that Mexico could be another example of a country adopting cryptocurrencies for remittances, as estimates have shown they could reduce costs by 50% to 90%.
It all comes down to numbers
If, indeed, five countries do adopt Bitcoin or any other cryptocurrency as legal tender, adoption seems likely going to keep on growing. Emerging markets rely on remittances and the use of stablecoins appears to be a viable solution to the volatility of crypto assets like BTC.
Projects like Facebook’s Novi are already using stablecoins to facilitate cross-border transactions, with the project’s marketing efforts having a heavy focus on remittances. Central bank digital currencies (CBDCs) may offer similar cheap transactions that will help users move money across borders at a low cost.
The problem with these two solutions is the central entities behind them who can easily start discriminating, and for example, geoblock users. Decentralized blockchains are working on scaling to accommodate thousands of transactions per second, bringing down remittance costs. Add in stablecoins, and the only thing blocking mass crypto adoption could very well be the specific knowledge needed to navigate different blockchains and understand how addresses work.
User-experience improvements have for long been moving addresses and blockchain navigation to the back while helping users focus on payments. Once the use of blockchain technology happens behind the scenes at a low cost, remittances will inevitably turn to crypto. Yet, those transactions may be years away.