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Bitcoin for the Unbanked

Cryptocurrencies That Go Where Big Banks Won’t

Roughly 2.5 billion adults in the world don’t have access to banks, which means somewhere in the order of 5 billion people belong to households that are cut off from a financial system that the rest of us take for granted. They can’t start savings accounts. They don’t have checking accounts. They can’t get credit cards. They live in places where banks don’t want to go, and because of this, they remain effectively walled off from the global economy. They are called the unbanked. But they are not unreachable, not by a long shot, and one of the biggest and most exciting prospects bitcoiners talk about is using their cryptocurrency to bring these billions of people roaring into the twenty-first century.

The Caribbean is an area of the emerging-market world where a strong case can be made for locals to use bitcoin to get around a restric­tive financial system. 

Jamal Ifill, a young, soft-spoken artist with a head full of dreadlocked hair and a warm smile, has been blowing glass in Barbados for 11 years and has had his own one-room studio-cum-showroom for five years. One of his latest pieces is a two-foot-high, rectangular, latticework lamp that to our New York eyes looked like one of the Twin Towers. He sells his artwork locally and has attracted some attention; a piece he made was presented to Prin­cess Anne when she visited the island in 2011. He wants to expand into the U.S. market, but the logistics and costs of moving money from there to here are prohibitively high, so most of his business remains local. 

“I tried everything,” Ifill says, sitting at the desk that doubles as his office and workspace in his small glass-blowing studio in Bridgetown, Barbados. “Credit cards, PayPal, Western Union. They’re too expensive.” 

Leroy McClain, managing director of the government-run Barbados Investment Development Corp., explained why that is: The big international banks are happy to provide merchant-banking services to companies in the

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