Alakanani Itireleng, Botswana's "Bitcoin Ambassador." All photo credts: Alakanani Itireleng
Alakanani Itireleng, 36, believes in Bitcoin. “I love the prospect and the possibility that Bitcoin might bring to laypeople like me,” she tells me.
She calls herself the Bitcoin Rep, Botswana’s Bitcoin Ambassador, and, as far as she knows, she’s the first Bitcoiner to hail from the mid-sized African country of just over two million people.
She’s not your typical crypto-fan. ADSL only arrived to her homeland in 2006. By last year, only 11.5 percent of the country had internet access, according to the ITU. Itireleng has broadband at home, but prefers dial-up through her phone because it’s “more convenient as I am able to use it anytime or anywhere.”
We had planned to speak earlier, but Itireleng had trouble connecting to the Internet. “At long last I managed,” she said. “I use a modem. It’s usually good, except on the fewer occasions when it acts up.” Everything is pay-as-you-go.
She's also fairly unique in the Bitcoin world for being a woman. “I guess I am a lady who dreams outside off the kitchen," says Itireleng when I mention my pleasant surprise.
Itireleng's enthusiasm is rooted in what she sees as the empowering possibilities of the technology’s self-regulating model. She said that Bitcoin promises her and the people of Botswana a sense of control, and she sees numerous parallels between her experiences online in the real world. There are risks everywhere, she explains.
“I have realized that trying to make it with other online programs, you fall from one scam to the other,” she said. “You are not in control. You don’t know what the other person at the end is thinking with the program he or she invented. It’s hard.”
Bitcoin hasn't made Itireleng rich, and she currently teaches religious studies to teenagers between 15 and 18 while she pursues a Master's in business administration at Amity University through the India-based school's e-learning program. "As for technology, I am just self-taught," she said.
Unlike some early adopters who've ridden the Bitcoin rollercoaster to soaring, speculative heights, Itireleng speaks with an evangelical belief in Bitcoin as a system for change, much like Roger "Bitcoin Jesus" Ver.
To start, she posted a brief ode to Bitcoin on YouTube. “It’s a very low quality video, and you might just laugh at it, but I just wanted to show how much Bitcoin means to me,” she said. “To me, it’s a life changer. I didn’t show my face. I guess I was too shy.”
She also set up a Facebook group called "Bit Crazy" where she shares news and educational materials for like-minded "Bitcoin Ambassadors."
When I asked her if she would be willing to make a new video, one where we could see her, she happily obliged, in a bid to spread the gospel further. "Many are still not convinced about it," she said. "They see my dream as unrealistic, as something meant for people outside Africa. But I will be the first motswana lady Bitcoin owner and will change the lives of many."
“I have a bank account, of course,” she said. “With Bitcoin, I believe it's different. I believe Bitcoin can change the lives of any person since the government is not responsible for how many bitcoins one can make. The prospect it brings is changing how everything is done online."
"The bank can question why I have a certain amount of money in my account, a whole lot of bureaucracy and all," she continued. "With Bitcoin, I will be in control. I still have to learn about mining and all that, but right now I am hooked to the idea.”
When I compliment her on her tech savvy, she chalks it up to personal tragedy. For Itireleng, the Internet is a symbol of hope, a digital portal to a world of possibilities, and, at times, sadly, her only option.
“I have always been this person who is fascinated by making a life online,” she said. “But it actually started when I wanted to make money to help my son, who had a heart problem.”
While advanced medical care is available in Itireleng's home of Gabrorone, Botswana’s capital and largest city, average people can't afford it.
Her son’s heart condition was beyond the scope of local clinics, so she took to the web in search of medical information and ways to raise funds to save her eldest child.
"When our son was sick, we became financially crippled," she said. "We don't have an excellent medical hospital here in Gaborone. We depend on our neighbor South Africa, and with my son's medical condition, it was hard. Sometimes when I took him to the clinics, they did not even know what Noonan syndrome and hyperthrophic obstructive cardiomyopathy was, and I had to explain."
“I spent a lot in trying to make it but at the end I got nothing,” she told me. Pako Junior passed away last year. He was only four years old.
He’s survived by his younger brother, Bakang Kgosi, who recently turned two, and Itireleng's husband, Anderson, who she admits with a chuckle, has “techno phobia.”
He’s not the only one, said Itireleng. “Countries like the US are always ready to embrace change and the risk these changes bring, but here in Botswana, people are so guarded and so afraid,” she said. “One guy I was talking to told me that he has been following Bitcoin, but he does not trust 'these technology people.'”
Itireleng draws hope from other developing worlds, as she rattles off impressive knowledge of Bitcoin’s rapid international expansion gleaned from scouring the web daily for Bitcoin-related news.
“Countries like India have already embraced Bitcoin even though, from what I read, they have had challenges here and there,” she continued. “China, I read, already has Bitcoin millionaires there even though the country once banned the use of such."
Most importantly, Bitcoin fever has reached Africa. “Kenya here in Africa has accepted Bitcoins with Mpesa and their Kipoch wallet,” she said. “South Africa, our neighbor country, is already fully into Bitcoin, and I have even joined some of their pages on Facebook just to learn.”
Education is central to Itireleng’s mission of spreading cryptocurrency awareness, but—as is the case with other early adopters, evangelists, and Bitcoin speculators—so is making money.
“I tried affiliate marketing, joined a lot of programs that promised to help make money, but they never delivered,” she says of her online money-making exploits. “The only place I managed to cash in was with F5m Millionaires Club.”
I check out F5m's website, and, as expected, it’s super shady, promising that “anyone can start” their own “home Internet business.” With “zero experience” you can “begin earning money IMMEDIATELY.”
These experiences eventually led her to Bitcoin, where her results are decidedly mixed. “It has been a long bumpy road,” she said. “When I started with Bitcoin, I joined one site where I have to refer members to earn 0.01 bitcoins for every task, and the payout amount is 1 bitcoin. I worked hard and made 1.34 bitcoins. But when i tried cash out to my wallet, I couldn't because I had to take out some kind of survey, which the site says it's not available in my country.”
“At the moment, I just visit sites like FreeBitco.in, BitVisitor.com, and all these places where you have to visit the sites to earn bitcoins and satoshis and all that,” she continued. “I am far from making 1 bitcoin. The best I have so far is 0.00019121BTC. Again, I don't know if, after reaching the level I want, they will allow [me to] cash out, or there will be another survey block.”
That uncertainty isn't enough to stop her, however. “I don't give up,” she said. “I have a dream, and I believe I will reach it. I will attain that dream one day, and I want to win over my countrymen, who, at the moment, are so skeptical after having gone through one pyramid scheme after the other. It's hard to make them understand what Bitcoin is about, especially since I have nothing to show them, but I know one day I will be able to prove bitcoins exist.”
I mention that her exploits sound like some kind of reverse-Nigerian Internet scam, a risk she is keenly aware of.
“I believe some of these sites, like the one I’m talking about, are just taking us for a ride on people’s enthusiasm and the hype because people are in love with it,” she conceded. “Maybe the idea is for them to have a lot of traffic to their websites and then deliver nothing.”
Slightly smaller than the state of Texas, Botswana’s economy is also built around mining, mostly of the diamond variety. The Orapa mine is the largest in the world, producing $1.6 billion worth of diamonds in 2013.
Since gaining its independence from the United Kingdom in 1966, when the GDP per capita was $70, the country has catapulted from being one of Africa's poorest to a having standard of living comparable to Mexico or Turkey. Botswana now has one of the highest levels of economic freedom in all of Africa, aided by sound fiscal policy and a competitive banking system.
"It's hard to make them understand what Bitcoin is about, especially since I have nothing to show them, but I know one day I will be able to prove bitcoins exist.”
But “competitive” is a relative term, and like the situation with healthcare, inequality reigns. The country has a GINI coefficient of 63, making it the third most unequal country in the world, according to available CIA data, just behind South Africa and nearby Lesotho. Consequently, individual experiences can vary. Tighter regulations are an indicator of Botswana’s continuing development, but they can also be a headache for the little guy and an opportunity for abuse by local officials.
“Once, I applied for a loan, and I had a few thousand Pulas in my account. But before they could credit my account, I have to tell them the source of the money they see in my account,” she said. “The money in my bank account feels like it is not mine, but theirs.”
“You know with banks, what can one say,” she continued. “We just have to put our money there since keeping it in the house is not safe. We always hear stories of money disappearing in people’s accounts mysteriously, and it takes forever for them to recover their money.”
Itireleng views Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies in general as an obvious solution.
“With Bitcoin, I will own it,” she said, though she realizes the model’s inherent security concerns. “There is not much ‘disappearing’ of bitcoins I have read of except of some story that this guy has stolen millions [worth] of bitcoins. The only problem that may come with Bitcoin is hacking, but I believe as [more] people and countries begin to use it, more reinforcements will be in place. For me, Bitcoin is pure genius.”
“It is difficult for people to buy into the idea of Bitcoin, truth be told, but I am a dreamer.” she said. “I don’t want to give up. If I were to go by how many times I have been scammed [in real life] and scammed online, I wouldn’t be dreaming about owning a bitcoin.”
“But I see something here,” she said, once again demonstrating how in-tune she is with the crypto-scene. “We will see a lot of coins coming up. Already, I read there is Coinye West coming up. We are living in the world of gadgets and technology. It is where the world is going. I just pray that I make it.”
Along those lines, Itireleng is what you might call a techno-utopianist, struggling to hide her enthusiasm for what she believes to be the boundless potential of technology. Beneath it all is the dream of rags-to-riches. Bitcoin represents hope.
“I think a lot can embrace Bitcoin without fear,” she said. “Imagine if my country, which has a very small population and a lot of unemployment, could create millionaires through this phenomenon. It means these people can set up industries, jobs, and maybe even open more mines in this country, which has a lot of mines."
For now, Itireleng is happy to simply spread the gospel, learn from the experiences of neighboring countries, and rally government support as well as the development of much-needed infrastructure, like local exchanges to convert Pulas, and businesses where people can spend their newly acquired digital cash.
“I have been talking to a few friends and they are ready to try it,” she said. “I want to talk to one of the prominent members in my area to hear their side and visit people like economists.”
“If I have a few coins in my wallet, the first thing I will do is connect with our neighbor South Africa where there are places you can use your bitcoins so I can learn first from them how they manage to make Bitcoin accepted and used in their country,” she continued. “We’ll need sites like Mt. Gox to exchange them to dollars and Pulas. Companies like PayPal also might come in handy.”
More than anything, she promises to lead by example.
“If people see a change in your life, they will ask how you do it,” she said. “Of course, when I answer Bitcoin, everyone will want to know more. So I guess seeing is believing for a lot of people.”