How Bitcoin Empowers Grassroots Organizations Fighting Ebola

Beam is a for-profit social enterprise that enables people to send money to Ghana via Bitcoin. Beam instantly transfers the money equivalent of the Bitcoins purchased to the recipients in Africa. In an effort to assist during the Ebola crisis, Beam developed the not-for-profit initiative Bitcoin Against Ebola. Bitcoin Against Ebola used the same transfer technology to allow anyone around the world to donate to organizations and individuals on the ground fighting Ebola in Sierra Leone.

imgres-1By serving grass roots organizations such as Build on Books, Beam helped empower local crisis workers within the communities afflicted by the disease. Below, Falk Benke, CTO of Beam, tells the story of Bitcoin Against Ebola and the work done on the ground by Build on Books.  

This post was sent to us by Theandra Sokolowski, MBA Class 2015. Prior to SBS, Theandra spent a year working at MEST, a technology incubator in Accra, Ghana. Beam is a social enterprise currently based in the MEST incubator.

 

The Power Of Grassroots Organizations

Since the beginning of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, small grassroots organizations on the ground have proven to be an important force in the fight against the deadly disease, complementing the efforts of large international organizations and government bodies. Partnering with one such organization, Build on Books, Beam was able to support these efforts.

Build On Books was born in 2009 as an initiative to support Sierra Leoneans in their efforts to rebuild the country after its 11-year Civil War. It started out as a project focused on donating books from the UK to libraries in and around Waterloo in Sierra Leone. Soon, founder Lori Spragg of the UK and her team, along with Rosetta Kargbo, a former Sierra Leonean math teacher, realized that water, sanitation, education and food were all needed to help shattered communities break out of the vicious cycle of poverty. Build on Books began building boreholes as a way of providing clean water and community toilets to decrease the number of Typhoid and Cholera deaths. Since the Ebola outbreak in August, the organization’s focus shifted toward containing the dangerous disease.

Though grassroots organizations are small, they have a major advantage when it comes to the local connection. Often they’re able to better reach those that larger organizations fail to address, namely illiterate villagers who speak only tribal languages.

“When Ebola reached Waterloo, we already had the logistics and team on the ground to respond quickly,” says Lori. Organizations like Build on Books are able to thrive because they’re well connected and trusted in the community and have local knowledge. When Rosetta Kargbo – also known as the “Hero of Ebola” – and her team started delivering food to more than 300 quarantined people in and around Waterloo, they relied on the district to lend them a tractor so they could reach the more remote houses. As the team had earned the trust of the community, locals were willing to listen to their advice.

Ebola Prevention Workshops held by Build on Books have a high participation rate and often attract honored local authorities like councilors, youth leaders, women leaders and military officers. Lori explains: “During our work feeding the quarantined people it became very clear that the virus can easily be spread by a number of traditional practices such as washing the corpse at funerals, sweating an Ebola patient and performing circumcisions.” The team recognizes the significance of local healers and works hard to get them on board to effectively promote the necessary precautions.


Rosetta Kargbo and team 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Figure 1: Rosetta Kargbo and her team delivering food.

Helping Ebola Orphans

Once a person is diagnosed with Ebola, all family members must go into quarantine for three weeks as a precaution against infecting others. While delivering food to quarantined homes, Rosetta and her team realized that in many such cases, orphaned children were left behind.

“We have tried and tried to get action for these children; without us, the orphans in quarantine would not be fed at all.“ According to Sierra Leone’s ministry of social welfare, it is estimated that 2600 Sierra Leonean children will become orphans due to Ebola.  Orphanages do not have the capacity to take in this number of children. While state officials continue to strategize, grassroots organizations like Build on Books are the ones responding to the immediate needs of the children.

Build on Books provides orphans with food and drink to help them put on weight and remain hydrated. The volunteers deliver cooked meals as well as food that can be eaten right away, like tinned fish, powdered milk, biscuits, gari, sugar, sweets, fruit juices, bread, drinking water and sanitary items like toothpaste, toothbrushes, laundry and bath soap. Rosetta and her team also measure the temperature of the children to recognize Ebola symptoms early. These actions can make the difference between death and survival if a child contracts Ebola. Lori knows that regular visits by helpers also provide much-needed comfort to the orphans and let them know that they are not forgotten: “Some children burst into tears when the volunteers arrive because they are so grateful that somebody has come.”

waterloo orphans-1

 

 

 

 

 

 

Figure 2: Orphans near Waterloo receiving food and sanitary items from the Build on Books team.

Delivering Donations Where They Are Needed

Grassroots organizations are able to overcome many organizational challenges faced by larger institutions by sending funds directly where and when they’re needed.  However it can be a complicated process for small charities to meet their objectives while ensuring that fees for money transfers are always kept to a minimum.  Traditionally, the donations are accumulated in bank accounts in the US or UK until a significant amount has been collected. Then, the money is sent to the receiving country using bank wires or Money Transfer Organizations (MTOs) like Western Union and MoneyGram. Banks and MTOs charge a fixed fee (between $2 and $30) for each transfer and make profits on the exchange rate (3%-15% lower than the actual rate) they provide when converting the amount to the local currency. In addition, if donors make payments through processors like PayPal, Visa and MasterCard, a service fee will be also incurred. For these reasons, it’s not economical for charities to send small amounts abroad using these traditional methods, causing a delay in the funds reaching those on the ground.

 

Supporting Grassroots Organizations via Bitcoin

In light of the Ebola crisis, Bitcoin remittance company Beam, based in Accra, Ghana has started a non-profit project called Bitcoin Against Ebola in partnership with Splash Mobile Money to provide a fast and cost-efficient alternative for sending money directly to charities in Sierra Leone. The project charges only 2% of the donated amount to cover operational costs. Nikunj Handa, CEO of Beam, assures: “Any profits made through this project will be donated to the charities.” In order to keep the costs for sending money low, Beam uses Bitcoin technology on the sending side and mobile money on the receiving end.

To donate via Bitcoin Against Ebola, users simply choose one of the featured charities to support, and allocate the Bitcoin value they’d like to send. “Bitcoin is a pretty new but very powerful technology, since it allows us to accept money instantly from anywhere in the world,” says Handa. This is because Bitcoin transfers are instant and practically fee-less (0.0001 Bitcoins per transaction regardless of the sent amount, which is less than $0.10). However, since there is currently no way to exchange or spend Bitcoin in Sierra Leone, Beam converts the Bitcoin to Leones (the local currency) and distributes the funds to the charity within minutes, using mobile money.

Mobile money has become an important way of driving financial inclusion throughout Africa. The mobile money technology turns any feature phone or smartphone into a bank account. Users can send and receive money to other phones instantly and at low cost. In order to charge the mobile money wallet or withdraw cash from it, users go to a mobile money agent that can be found in every larger city of Sierra Leone.

Thanks to Bitcoin Against Ebola’s collaboration with Splash Mobile Money, the largest mobile money provider in Sierra Leone, charities can withdraw donations for free from any Splash mobile money agent nearby. Even donations as little as $1 reach the charity within minutes and can be used right away.

So where can donors get Bitcoin to make a donation through Beam? Nikunj Handa explains: “We are aware of the fact that some people might find it difficult to get Bitcoin. We encourage everyone considering a Bitcoin donation to have a look at our tutorial on Beam’s blog. We are also happy to guide interested donors through the process. Just reach out via hello@beamremit.com. We know it can be a bit of a hassle when you start out, but it takes a lot of the hassle away from the charities.”

In addition to Build on Books, the Bitcoin Against Ebola platform currently features LunchBoxGift and Sierra Leone Liberty Group. The Beam team is working hard on getting more grassroots organizations on board and may extend the service to Liberia and Guinea.

Handa is convinced that small charities and the people they are helping will largely benefit from the new way of donating empowered by Bitcoin. Lori of Build on Books agrees: “I didn’t even know Bitcoin existed until the guys from Beam contacted me. Now I am really excited because there could be all sorts of people who have Bitcoins that might donate.”

About the author:

Falk Benke is the CTO of Beam. He can be contacted at falk@beamremit.com.