Venture Capital Firm Greycroft’s Bitcoin Bet Eyes South Africa, the Emirates, and Ethereum
Elizabeth Rosiello knows the frustration of financial exclusion.
On the latest episode of Balancing The Ledger, Fortune’s show covering all things cryptocurrency, fintech, and blockchain, Rosiello discussed her inability to invest in the recent initial public offering on the Toronto Stock Exchange of a friend’s company: Hut 8, a cryptocurrency mining company backed by Bitfury, a Bitcoin mining giant and mutual investor in Rosiello’s own Bitcoin startup, BitPesa, based in Nairobi, Kenya.
“I had been living for 10 years in sub-Saharan Africa and I couldn’t open a [U.S.] brokerage account quickly because I didn’t have a utility bill,” Rosiello said. “My physical presence in another region excluded me from engaging in investment.”
“That’s a privileged person’s problem,” Rosiello said. But it is also indicative of the constraints imposed by geography; “think about all of the diverse, amazing economies and people and businesspeople across the 54 countries across the African continent and how they are routinely excluded in many ways from participating in global markets,” she said.
“Imagine if you just cut Hong Kong off from the rest of the world or just cut off Tokyo,” Rosiello told Fortune’s show hosts, Robert Hackett and Jen Wieczner. “That’s how a lot of businesses feel about living and working in Lagos, Nigeria.”
In recent months, governments around the world have been cracking down on cryptocurrency ventures. China banned so-called initial coin offerings and imposed stricter regulations on exchanges. Kenya, where BitPesa is based, has forbidden cryptocurrency companies from transacting with local banks since 2015. Most recently, the central banks of India and Pakistan decreed that local banks must end their relationships with businesses dealing in cryptocurrency.
“Unfortunately, when there are other economic factors happening, sometimes the central banks make a quick move or place blame where it shouldn’t be,” Rosiello said. She is hopeful, she said, that regulators will warm up to the sector as they did in Japan, now one of the most cryptocurrency-friendly environments, despite being home to Tokyo-based Mt. Gox, once the world’s biggest Bitcoin exchange before its disastrous hacking in 2014.
Rosiello noted several bright spots. Last month, Kenya created a blockchain task force. Around the same time, the South African Reserve Bank began exploring the economic opportunity and risk posed by cryptocurrency, and the central bank’s preliminary assessment was, in her view, optimistic.
Rosiello, whose startup has raised about $10 million in funding, including from the likes of Greycroft, a well-established venture capital firm in the U.S. headed by VC extraordinaire Alan Patricoff, plans to expand to South Africa in the next few months. (For more on Greycroft, read this profile by Fortune Ledger reporter Jeff John Roberts from 2017.)
BitPesa not only has its eyes on expanding across the African continent, but into Europe and the Middle East as well. Earlier this year the company bought TransferZero, a Spanish online money transfer startup, and in the coming months, BitPesa plans to open an office in the United Arab Emirates, Rosiello said.
And that expansion isn’t just geographic, but cryptographic as well. Rosiello is planning to offer more cryptocurrency transaction options beyond Bitcoin through BitPesa before the year is through.
“Bitcoin, for us, has always been the most liquid and most popular, but there is such interest from our African traders for getting into other coins,” Rosiello said.
“We hope by the fall to launch Ether trading,” she said, referring to the cryptocoin native to Ethereum, the second-most valuable public blockchain next to Bitcoin.