Falk Benke, CTO, BeamRemit.com. Image by HumanIPO
Falk Benke is the chief technology officer (CTO) of BeamRemit.com, an Accra-based startup that allows Africans to remit money cheaply and instantly. He spoke to HumanIPO on the increasing demand for Bitcoin in Africa, the money remit market in Ghana and the startup community in Accra.
HumanIPO: Why did you decide to build a startup around Bitcoins?
Benke: There is a huge demand for Bitcoins in Ghana. Through one of our products launched earlier, we transacted over US$35,000 worth of Bitcoins in only three months.
Why is Bitcoin popular in Ghana?
People who buy Bitcoin from us want to use it to pay for stuffs online because the payment systems in Ghana are not yet very sophisticated. For example, it is very difficult for locals to buy stuffs on Amazon; it is really hard for instance to pay a freelancer who does a job for them and lives in the United Kingdom. You need to have a bank account, do a bank transfer. You need to pay fees and it takes a long time. You may not be willing to go through the hassles. But with Bitcoins you can make transactions and make payment on all the major platforms and transfer funds either directly with Bitcoins.
The other side is if you own the coins for some reasons and want to get rid of them. It happens when people purchase Bitcoins maybe in USA, UK or the rest of Europe. And they want to send them to their families back home and they want Cedes (the local currency in Ghana). That’s basically where we come in.
Even when people are being ripped off, they still stay with popular remittance services. How do you see yourself competing with the likes of Western Union?
That is a very good question. In fact you are very right. People who use Western Union don’t question it and they don’t feel they are paying too much. I know for fact people are saying it’s fine. People don’t know Western Union has a hidden fee in its exchange rate. When you exchange the money into local currency, they use an exchange rate that is not very favorable to the customer. Basically they lose money and people are not aware of that.
For us, we are local, we are on the ground and we are focusing for now on UK to Ghana and it would enable us to be closer to our customers and find out the best medium because we have a lot of stuff going on in Ghana’s mobile money market and a lot of online wallets that cater for the ‘unbanked’.
If we can convince users we can provide faster and more convenient services for users, we can compete. In terms of marketing we are in talks with the Diasporas. We are in contact with the communities in certain countries and building a relationship with them. Through that I think we can be competitive in the remittance market.
You said you plan to come to Nigeria. SimplePay recently started accepting Bitcoins on their platform. At DEMO Africa 2014, I saw the Beam team a lot with Rich Tanksley, the Director of Operations at SimplePay. Are you guys planning anything together in the short term?
First of all, Rich and the Beam team we are good friends, basically we’ve been working together for the past one year and you know it’s like a no-brainer that once we are ready for Nigeria we will sit down with them to talk about a possible relationship because they’ve been in the market already and they’ve built solutions for the Nigerian market for the past couple of years. So they will be the first we will talk to once we decide to move into Nigeria.
Nigeria has a bigger market than Ghana, so why did you choose Accra over Lagos?
That’s because my co-founder and I used to work at MEST where we were teaching young aspiring entrepreneurs. We know the ecosystem very well at MEST, we have reached all playmakers and we know the tech scene very well. We are familiar with the Ghana market so it was very easy for us. Also, Ghana is smaller market. I see Ghana as a place where we can start off on small scale, once we are ready for bigger markets we will come to Nigeria.
How does a first-time user use you your service?
Starting from October, I encourage everyone to go to beamremit.com, the prerequisite is you have Bitcoins,. You will enter account details including address for compliance reasons. You enter the amount of cedes you want to send and we will give you the Bitcoins equivalent you have to pay. You will see a checkout page. If you have a smartphone you can easily scan the QR code and the Bitcoins would be transferred to our wallet. Once we receive confirmation that the Bitcoins have been transferred, we could roll out the payment to the recipient through mobile money. Once we are fully automated, this process would take less than a minute but for the beta, there are processes involved so it would take less than 10 minutes. But in the long run it has to be almost instant once we are fully automated.
We are working very hard to make the process as simple as possible. Once you’ve entered the necessary details the first time you sign, you can complete transactions within 2 or 3 clicks because we don’t ask for the same type of details every time.