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How Africans Can Use Bitcoin Despite Limited Internet Access


Written by:

Alex Lari

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A new service is enabling a growing population of Africans with limited internet access to engage in peer-to-peer transactions with bitcoin.

Limited Internet Access

Despite a growing number of internet startups, internet penetration in sub-Saharan Africa remains low, with only 29% routinely using internet as of 2020. This proved to be a challenge for bitcoin adoption in this region.

To tackle this problem, a solution had to be made available that could service customers without internet connectivity.

Although internet access remains low in this part of the world, phone usage is widespread, with 74% of sub-Saharan Africans using SIM cards in 2018; this number is expected to rise to 84% by 2025.

This presented an avenue to bring about a method of communication needed to transfer bitcoin.

A New Solution

In 2022, Kgothatso Ngako, a South African software developer, created Machankura, a groundbreaking tool designed to overcome Africa’s mobile internet connectivity challenges.

This innovative solution provides access to bitcoin by utilizing the Lightning network through a User Identity Module (UIM) telecommunication network on mobile phones. The tool operates via an Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD) interface.

Sending and receiving bitcoin through USSD commands — Machankura website

This enables many users to utilize features of the backend server without the need for an internet connection — through a simple “query and response” method on a communication channel similar to SMS.

Related reading : Why Bitcoin & Lightning Is The Best Blockchain Remittance Model Yet

How Does It Work?

USSD is a mobile communication technology that allows users to have limited text-based interaction with the back-end applications and services on a server directly from their mobile phones, through a real-time connection using the traditional GSM protocol without need for a data channel.

Unlike SMS messages, USSD sessions enable two-way communication, providing nearly instantaneous queries and responses. Users can access USSD services by dialing specific short codes, usually five numbers.

The typical USSD process involves a user sending a query, such as requesting their account balance. The USSD gateway forwards this request to the user’s USSD application, which then responds to the query. The response, limited to 182 alphanumeric characters, is sent back to the USSD gateway and displayed on the user’s mobile phone screen.

What Machankura Offers

According to their website, Machankura currently operates two Bitcoin Lightning nodes and provides various bitcoin services to its users through USSD commands.

Its currently servicing users in Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Namibia, Nigeria, South Africa, Uganda, and Zambia.

It provides users with Lightning addresses to receive bitcoin in the shape of (phone number), and users who want more privacy can use a username instead of their phone number.

Through USSD, it also enables users to redeem Azteco vouchers and Flash 1 vouchers to top up their balance.

Machankura also provides a “barter bitcoin” service, which users can use to barter their bitcoin for goods and services through platforms like Bitrefill and Lightning Watts.

What This Means For Africans

The positive aspect lies in the fact that this situation provides Africans with a distinctive opportunity to develop tools tailored for rural and developing regions that do not have a stable internet connection yet.

Other offline bitcoin solutions, like Locha Mesh in Venezuela, rely on mesh networks to relay messages from one device to another until it finds a device with internet connectivity. Locha Mesh relies on having multiple users within a small radius who operate mesh network devices.

However, the unparalleled context in Africa presents a business advantage for technologists aiming to reach the estimated 2.7 billion people who, per the International Telecommunications Union, still lack reliable internet access.

Many people in Africa use phones without internet connectivity, such as basic phones like the Motorola C113 or feature phones like the Nokia 3310.

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