Jaime Warlock is one of the frequent users of digital currency service Bitrefill which enables one to buy pre-paid local airtime using bitcoins.
The site allows Airtel, Orange, Safaricom and yu subscribers to buy or receive airtime via the website, among other telcos.
The platform, though created in Stockholm, Sweden, has gained popularity among the more than three million Kenyans abroad who often send airtime to their loved ones through Betrefill.
“I find using Bitrefill to be much faster and more efficient than using a debit card here in the US. I just have to copy and paste the Bitcoin address and the amount to send,” Mr Warlock said in an email conversation.
“Using Bitrefill takes less than a minute while using a debit card takes about three minutes due to all the security stuff on the American Telephone & Telegraph website.”
Mr Warlock told Digital Business that Bitrefill saves his wife, who resides in Kenya, the numerous trips she earlier made to buy airtime from the local shop.
“What happens is that she often doesn’t have available funds, so I just use Bitrefill to load airtime on her phone. It is very fast and efficient. It takes me less than a minute,” he said.
American billionaire Tim Draper is one of the investors in Betrefill, together with Swedish government innovation fund Vinnova. The Bitrefill team was part of the US start-up accelerator programme Boost VC — founded by Mr Draper to focus on blockchain and virtual reality.
Bitrefill founder Sergej Kotliar, 31, said the platform launched in November 2014 allows users to key in their mobile numbers, select the amount of credit they wish to buy then proceed to pay for it using bitcoins.
Users interested in buying airtime have to first visit the website, check if the number in use is supported by the site, select a price plan, and then send money to Bitrefill’s bitcoin wallet address.
“We have built out connections to mobile operators all over the world. We allow digital money to be converted into airtime, with instant delivery, and no need for accounts,” said Kotliar.
“Behind the curtains we handle conversion into approved currency and make sure the money reaches the proper destination.”
Bitrefill doesn’t charge any additional fees for users sending credit on the site.
Kotliar said that apart from efficiency in transactions, its affordable charges are a major attraction to customers compared to fees charged on services by the credit card issuers such as WorldRemit.
A simple idea hatched as an experiment got popular after Kotliar launched a trial version of the platform and noticed orders from different corners of the world.
To date, at the click of a button, users can easily top up phones from more than 600 operators in 143 countries.
Kotliar added that Bitrefill is not limited to airtime only, millions of Kenyans living abroad also send money in form of bitcoins back home.
The payments are sent cross the border over the bitcoin blockchain and are received on Visa devices.
However, for the remittances to go through, bitcoin services should be available in the receiving country.
Kotliar, however, notes that interest among Kenyans in bitcoins is growing at a slower pace than in countries such as Indonesia, Philippines, Egypt and Nigeria where the start-up has hundreds of customers.
What informed the need to launch the venture?
Kotliar explained that the platform was invented on realisation that a lot of people have digital money that they earn online or that gets sent to them online.
“It is very difficult to convert digital money into ‘real’ or physical money, or something money-like. Airtime is ‘good enough’ for a lot of people, because it arrives instantly and doesn’t carry high fees,” said Kotliar via email.
The Bitrefill founder, who is now renowned the world over, says Kenya offers ripe ground for the service to grow.
“We see a great future. We think that digital money is just slowly starting out, and that over time both online work, remittances and business payments will more and more be coming this way — because it’s more efficient,” said Kotliar.
He told Digital Business that Bitcoin is in many ways like “an M-Pesa for the world”, a truly global and unrestricted system that allows true financial innovation.
Mr Kotliar believes that over time, there digital money will be widely accepted and used in transactions.
“When you think of an ‘online worker’, you normally picture someone sitting in front of a computer doing IT work. But in many ways an Uber driver, or an Airbnb host is also working online and earning money online,” he said.
Mr Kotliar, however, notes that there are still lots of pieces that need to fall into place, and this has been integrated into the company’s strategy.
“At the moment, our connection to Kenya we have through several international third parties that we have partnerships with. We connect to multiple people and our system decides in real-time which path is the most efficient (lowest costs) for our users,” he said.