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BitPesa V. Safaricom


As a start-up grows up, it begins to get noticed by established companies. This is a great milestone in any start-up’s life. Should the established companies partner with the start-up? Should they copy it? Should they close their eyes and wait to see if the start-up withers? Or, should they try and squash it?

For a start-up, East Africa is not for the faint of heart; it is for the big of heart. And no one has a bigger heart than Team BitPesa. Investors, partners, and customers recognize the strength of our team’s bonds. We love having built our company from Kenya and are proud to be expanding rapidly across the African continent. We are passionate about our work, our markets, and our customers. This passion has driven us to steadily and continually accomplish our goals; every month, every quarter. We are now live in four countries, across five mobile money networks, with instant access to over sixty banks, all backed by an incredible team of twenty people on three continents.

Charlene Chen and I were working with nearly every major microfinance bank and company in the region when Safaricom first rolled out M-Pesa, its domestic mobile money network. We were fans of the innovation that Safaricom first shared with Kenya and the region back in 2007-2009, and we watched as other companies built upon this first mobile money network, with iterations taking the technology to places Safaricom alone could never go.

BitPesa does not compete directly with M-Pesa. Rather, we enable global digital transactions that build bridges between African companies and those around the world. While our first integration and corridor did connect the global bitcoin network to M-Pesa, the BitPesa team quickly added payout and collection corridors to and from Kenyan banks, Nigerian banks, and five other mobile money corridors in Uganda, Tanzania, Nigeria, and even Kenya. We have commercial partnerships with some of the biggest companies across the continent, such as Interswitch Ltd and Bhaarti Airtel. As a company founded in Kenya, we built on M-Pesa; as a pan-African enterprise, we have gone above and beyond M-Pesa.

Unfortunately, a few weeks ago, Safaricom moved to force one of our partners to cease doing business with us in order to keep us off of M-Pesa. We, along with this partner, brought a court case against Safaricom because we believe its actions are an act of intimidation. Today the judge ruled that this case will continue on for further judgment. This could be a lengthy process, as are many legal cases around the world. Importantly, the judge also found that BitPesa is strong enough to sustain its business for the duration of this potentially long trial, even without access to the M-Pesa network.

The Central Bank of Kenya may or may not make an official statement on digital currencies or Bitcoin during this case, because this case is not about the legality of Bitcoin in Kenya. Rather, it is about BitPesa standing strong against an incumbent, with its internal operations and compliance policies laid bare before the court, proud in its graduation from start-up to scalable contender in the marketplace. That Safaricom has moved against us shows that we have already won.