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Kenya’s BitPesa goes on Japanese safari

The Bitcoin-based, cross-border forex company is looking to expand into Asia.

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BitPesa, a Kenya-based fintech with reach across several African and European markets, is looking for investors and business partners from Japan and elsewhere in Asia.

Elizabeth Rossiello, co-founder and CEO, told DigFinshe intends to raise an investor round to be led by an Asia-based institution. “We want to make a big push into Asia,” she said, declining to say how much money the company wants to raise.

Although processing China/Africa foreign-exchange corridors via Bitcoin is a major source of BitPesa’s business, Japan is the central focus of the company’s efforts in the region.

This stems from acceptance of Bitcoin among Japan’s regulators, corporations, merchants and banks. Rossiello says Japan is a thought leader in both technology and adoption of crypto-currencies. Part of the trip was to meet local fintechs and corporations, to remain up to speed and find potential business partners and investors.

Scale fast
“We did Africa by ourselves and it wasn’t easy,” she said, noting the challenges for a startup to manage regulator and banking relationships, particularly in emerging markets.

For example, in 2015, Kenya banned crypto trading, prompting the company to move some operations to Nigeria; BitPesa also ended up in a lawsuit with Safari.com when the telco, fearful of its position, tried to cut off service.

“It’s tough without a large-scale strategic partner,” she said.

Therefore BitPesa’s executives want to work with an investor with regional connections, in order to scale more quickly.

Rossiello founded the company in Nairobi in 2013. Kenya is the home of M-Pesa, the first mobile telephone payments app, now operated by Safari.com.

We want to make a big push into Asia

- Elizabeth Rossiello, BitPesa

The idea behind BitPesa was to take mobile payments cross-border, using Bitcoin to execute transactions quickly and at wholesale forex prices.

Since then the company has spread to six other African markets, acquired a license in the U.K., and, in January, bought a Spanish money-transfer operator, TransferZero. The company has begun to offer its technology on a white-label basis to other fintechs and mobile-payment players; last year, it moved responsibility for its tech stack from IBM to Huawei.

Capital required
In addition to facilitating cross-border payments and giving people in emerging markets access to Bitcoin, BitPesa also creates liquidity and provides a means of settlement between local payment wallets.

Rossiello declined to provide figures for number of users or transaction values, or other business metrics, but did say the firm now processes $25 million in transactions volumes. “We’re the largest to do this globally,” she said, particularly in currency corridors between African countries and China and Korea.

“We’ve showed how to connect South-to-South payments,” she said, “how to get licensed in Europe, and how to use blockchain to create different products and combine that liquidity.”

We've showed how to connect South-to-South payments

- Elizabeth Rossiello, BitPesa

Growing in Asia is her next priority – and perhaps expanding the product set, potentially into areas like trade finance, which would require a lot of capital. The company would also be open to a regional acquisition such as TransferZero, although it’s not an explicit goal, Rossiello says.

In January 2017, the company raised $2.5 million in a Series A round. Since then it has received a total of $10 million of funding, including from investors such as Greycroft, Pantera Capital and Draper Associates.

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Kenya's BitPesa goes on Japanese safari