Chukwuemeka Ezike sends thousands of dollars worth of bitcoin a month in order to trade with Chinese exporting companies.
In return, he receives spare auto parts, construction equipment, and juices for a family business his father started more than 30 years ago. Ezike works full-time at Singapore-based crypto exchange Huobi as its community manager but helps with his family’s business on the side.
He says bitcoin is faster than exchanging currencies the old-fashioned way. And he can use it to leapfrog bank limits of $10,000 a day, which he often needs to do.
Ezike doesn’t pay the manufacturer directly. Over WeChat, he works with a middleman named “Allen” who exchanges Ezike’s bitcoin for renminbi, China’s national currency, and then passes it on to the manufacturer. Ezike couldn’t divulge which companies he deals with, saying, “The Chinese are sensitive with the data that’s shared.”
He’s one of several Nigerians using bitcoin for this purpose. Ezike even helps other Nigerian companies make similar cross-border transactions with bitcoin.
Using bitcoin for global trade
In several ways, bitcoin makes sense for global trade. The currency jumps borders with ease, where other currencies encounter friction. If the counterparty is willing to receive bitcoin on the other end, it’s often faster and cheaper than legacy payments. But this can be a big “if,” since bitcoin is a newer way of transferring money and people aren’t exactly used to it quite yet.
While bitcoin has these nimble properties, it hasn’t disrupted international trade and value transfer just yet, especially given the currency’s current limitations. If more people use bitcoin at once, the network becomes congested and payments slow down.
Behind the scenes, developers around the world are working on the Lightning Network to fix these problems, so that more people, maybe one day even millions, can all use bitcoin regularly without seeing a spike in fees and sluggish transactions.
Read more: What Is Bitcoin’s Lightning Network?
All that said, some Nigerians are becoming reliant on using bitcoin as a way to trade internationally, and are finding bitcoin has significant benefits over legacy financial systems.
Foreign exchange woes
Nigerian bitcoin entrepreneur Chimezie Chuta has another theory for why some are using bitcoin for trade with China and beyond.
Like most other countries in an increasingly globalized world, Nigeria imports a significant percentage of the goods that it uses. As Chimezie Chuta put it: “Nigeria is a very import-heavy country. Food industry, drugs, you name it, construction equipment, cars.” Much of these goods are bought from Chinese manufacturers. “Nigeria’s economy is heavily import dependent and China is a major import partner to Nigeria,” Chuta adds.
Nigerians have to struggle with this process, though. “Access to [foreign exchange (FX)] for importation by Nigerian business owners is highly limited because the [Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN)] has limited liquidity to cater for everyone,” Chuta told CoinDesk.
If Nigerians want to reap the benefits of trade, they need to hunt down a way to exchange their naira (Nigeria’s national currency) for other currencies. In Nigeria, finding U.S. dollars or Chinese remnibi is not an easy task. “Importers typically rely on the black market for the additional FX needed and that comes at a very high price,” Chuta said. This phenomenon has been covered in Bloomberg, for instance.
This is one of the other reasons Ezike has turned to bitcoin as an alternative. “The hustle for [the] dollar and all that is quite a thing I love to avoid,” Ezike told CoinDesk.
With bitcoin, he can “take out all international banking routing processes,” he said.
Others are reaching the same conclusion.
“Chinese exporters have expressed willingness to accept bitcoin payments for their goods; hence, many business people in Nigeria find it more convenient to make such payments with bitcoin for obvious reasons,” Chuta said, adding that bitcoin is speedier, open and trustless.
More naira problems
Entrepreneur Monyei Chinazaekpele was able to buy clothes, COVID-19 masks and tests from House of Trippy in China, to resell to customers in Nigeria.
He decided to use bitcoin after experiencing mounting frustration with current banking limitations, especially their impact on global trade. “I was enlightened about the monetary policies on the ground. I was shocked to my nerve,” he told CoinDesk.
Chinazaekpele reiterated Chuta and Ezike’s point that foreign exchange is tough in Nigeria. “You can’t easily switch to other currencies,” he said, adding that he’s hopeful it’s just “a matter of time” before this situation improves.
“Basically, bitcoin is stress free to use and honestly, the naira is not a good store of value,” Chinazaekpele said, pointing to the naira’s 12% inflation rate, which means the value of the currency depreciates by that much value every year.
Bitcoin’s price fluctuates, and sometimes the price goes down. But Chinazaekpele argues that bitcoin generally doesn’t have this inflation problem, since over the long term the price has been going up.
Chinazaekpele’s also looking to buy a cashew processor with bitcoin, but he’s still working out the details with the factory, which is also located in China.
Keeping it on the down-low
All this trade with bitcoin is happening behind the scenes. Businessmen and women on the ground aren’t exactly eager to publicize that they’re using bitcoin for international trade. For one, the legality of cryptocurrency is fuzzy in the region.
The CBN has issued several warnings to banks. The latest in 2018 advised banks “not to use, hold or transact in any way with the technology.”
“In the bitcoin space we don’t know what reaction to expect, so we try to be a little bit discrete,” Ezike told CoinDesk. That’s why he doesn’t want to reveal the name of his father’s importing business. By only revealing his individual name, he’s less fearful that the Nigerian government will “attack” the business.
“We have had accounts frozen at some point due to bitcoin transactions,” Ezike said. “We had to appeal to re-open them.”
He added that it’s the same situation in China, which is why the people he transacts with there “ensure they [keep] a low profile.”
As for the relationship between the government in Nigeria and crypto, Ezike said that “they are really confused about what to do with it. But hopefully they will embrace it.”