• July 26, 2021

Exclusive: What Happened When an Entire Town Went Full Crypto

 Exclusive: What Happened When an Entire Town Went Full Crypto

Bloomberg Businessweek describes what happened when an anonymous donor started “seeding” the tiny El Salvadoran surfing village of El Zonte (population: 3,000) with Bitcoin, turning it into the world’s biggest Bitcoin experiment.

Workers now receive their salaries and pay bills in Bitcoin, tourists can buy pupusas with a special Bitcoin payment app, and community projects are financed with Bitcoin donations. According to Jorge Valenzuela, an upbeat 32-year-old surfing aficionado who leads the volunteers, “it has changed my town….” [T]he most striking thing these days is the orange “B” — the international symbol for Bitcoin — splashed on garbage cans, near the entrance of the dirt-floor pizza joint, and hanging on the wall near the surf shack at the beachfront hotel. The town has never had a bank. Now the lone ATM buys and sells Bitcoin… In El Zonte, Bitcoin is a possible solution to an actual problem, as opposed to a solution in search of a problem, which is how critics describe its role in, say, the U.S…

But it was the pandemic that ultimately jump-started the project. When El Salvador’s tourism industry and El Zonte’s economy collapsed, Michael Peterson started making monthly transfers of about $35 in Bitcoin to 500 families around town [on behalf of an anonymous donor]. He used Wallet of Satoshi, one of the many existing smartphone apps created for small transactions using Bitcoin, which is notoriously impractical — expensive and slow — for everyday purchases. As more stores began asking how they could accept Bitcoin, Peterson decided El Zonte needed its own app. The Bitcoin Beach Wallet, which launched in September, similarly uses technology that allows for small transactions. It shows users how much they hold in Bitcoin and greenbacks and where they can spend it. Shops in town price everything in dollars, whether the underlying transaction is in Bitcoin or not. A cappuccino always costs $3.50, even if Bitcoin’s value has just jumped or dropped. In this way, it behaves more like a token than a currency…

He says that 18 months after the project launched, roughly 90% of El Zonte’s households are interacting with the currency regularly. “It’s crazy how fast Bitcoin has caught on,” he says. Businesses are using it on their own to pay bills and accept payments. Residents use transfers to the Strike app, the ATM, and peer-to-peer transactions to move money back and forth between Bitcoin and cash… Many business owners say it makes up just a small fraction of sales. Although some 85% of families have access to smartphones, many still live in cramped houses with dirt floors and tin roofs. But for others, it’s clearly been life-altering. A construction crew chief pays his dozen or so employees in Bitcoin. He was sick of losing them for a half-day every month so they could travel to the nearest bank, an hourlong bus ride away, on payday…

El Zonte is among the longest-running experiments of its kind, but it’s still largely untested. “I’d be very interested in seeing what happens if we enter a bear market,” says McCormack, the British podcaster. “If you’re a shop owner and you have $50 a day in Bitcoin sales and all the sudden that goes up to $60, that’s cool. But what happens when it starts going down to $40 or $30?”

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