July 17, 2019

How PayPal & The UK Government Are Nudging Young Kenyans to Bitcoin

A spat between the UK Government, PayPal and Kenya freelancers has got everyone mixing up issues.

“Thousands of jobless graduates from Kenya who help lazy university students in developed countries to cheat academically could soon be forced to find something else to do after the UK government started clamping down on essay mills.

On Thursday, international digital money transfer service, PayPal, announced it was withdrawing its services to essay-writing firms selling to university students. This was after weeks of pressure from the UK government, which insists on stopping payments for essay mills would go a long way in beating academic cheating.” – Daily Nation

There are three components to the story.

Firstly, the British Education Secretary, Damian Hinds, says that when UK students tap into cheap labor in Kenya for their assignment it is both unethical and classified as cheating. Forty-six university vice-chancellors last year wrote to Hinds, calling for the banning of cheating websites.

Secondly, PayPal is caught up in the issue by facilitating online payments between UK students and Kenyan freelancers. PayPal has come under pressure to stop processing these payments and declared it would not support unethical academic behavior by UK graduates. Some have suggested, cryptocurrency may serve well as an alternative.

Finally, in Kenya, we are debating whether it is indeed ‘cheating’ or a form of job creation, as thousands of graduates are dependent on the thriving business for wages and employment.

This case is a glimpse of tectonic shifts at play on the future of Africa, its youth population, and the web economy. It is easy to miss the forest for the trees.

To get at the heart of the matter, we need to go back to 2009 when it all began.

How Russians Tap Kenyan Online Writers for UK Essay Gigs

I was once one of them: an educated Kenyan youth at university, armed with a laptop, internet, and an appetite for an extra buck. The year was 2009, and I was in my second year at university. A friend of a friend had just clued me in on a great opportunity, one that paid as much as $1000 a month for remote work. No work experience required, and I did not have to travel for work. Music to my ears!

The gig was simple, write papers for international students – academic essays, reports, dissertations, term papers – anything and everything for a pay per page, in US dollars! For a student, working online part-time, online was a sweat deal, better than most average working adults in Nairobi.

My friend Philip had worked out the nuts and bolts, and risen the writer ranks to the highest levels on Uvocorp.com and Essaywriter.net, two sites where he wrote papers. His consistent work history with great reviews had led to promotion, stars, and more pay per page. He earned exclusive access to higher-paying, more regular jobs – the ones the rest of us plebs dreamed of.

I had different ideas about how to tap into this emerging market. For me, longer-term incentives were a priority beyond money and most importantly, that it did not weigh on me like a ‘job.’ So, I specialized in working on projects that caught my interest, where I could learn while earning. I figured I could make a decent wage, learn something new, and sharpen my research and writing skills all while getting paid.

So, I searched through all the available essay writing sites ( I would later find out they were all co-owned by the same ring of Russian and Eastern European companies),  With just a few a tweaks of the user-facing end, a new name, logo, and domain, anyone could be fooled into believing it was a different company.

I settled on essaywriters.net, took the grammar and citation tests, wrote a 500-word sample paper and weeks later received an emailing saying I got the job!

Even though I was ‘noob’ compared to Philip, from a broader industry perspective, I was still an early adopter

I was lucky to have witnessed the transition from the early days because I do not think people appreciate the lucrativeness of the essay writing industry in Kenya from 2006 – 2014.

People made millions!

Everyone from the writer toiling behind a desk during the peak season before jobs dried up in the summer, to the punters who figured out they could hire people by subcontracting work and make money off the back of other young Kenyans. The supply of educated graduates had long surpassed the capacity of Kenya’s formal sector to absorb the churn, so graduates were open to any opportunity with a decent wage.

Apartments in key locations on Thika Road and Rongai – Roysambu, Kasarani, Kahawa Wendani, Jkuat were refurbished into academic writing sweatshops. Even Cyber Cafe’s jumped at the opportunity, hiring writers who reported each day for their assignments.

Word quickly got around, and in 3 years, 5 out of every ten students had at least heard about it.

‘Business was booming!’

At one point, the overwhelming demand for accounts surpassed the supply of jobs and began to show poorly on the quality of work.  The essay writing companies, owned through shell companies in the UK, responded quickly to check on market forces:

  • Some of their websites closed doors to new applicants.
  • Others put applicants on hold
  • Some raised the cut off requirements for registration
  • Others tightened verification process limiting it to native English speakers only.
  • Tests got harder, and the approval process took longer.

Back on the ground, decreased supply of accounts only shifted the dynamics.

Entrepreneurial Kenyans figured they could make money by creating accounts, building up account profiles to high tier levels, and then flipping them on the open market for $1,200. Relentless demand from newcomers pushed up the market price of accounts to as much as 500,000 KES ($5,000) depending on the tier level. Accounts were now selling like hot commodities.

This business boomed as well, and made millionaires out of account flippers, sustaining the trend of more sweatshops, hiring, refurbished apartments, and more writing jobs.

The Russians, meanwhile, were happy as long as the quality was kept in check and demand and supply was balanced.  Their money was guaranteed from the spread between what students in the UK and US paid and what Kenyan writers charged per page. Sometimes 20% of the price, sometimes 50% depending on the level.

Today, it is 2018, and the business has evolved.

Clients have formed relationships with Kenyan writers outside of essay writing platforms, to varying degrees of success. Networks and groups have also emerged to a degree not requiring Russian brokers.

While the UK government calls it cheating, in Kenya, it is an industry supporting a growing number of youth graduates.

Should Kenya consider academic papers as one of her exports? Is the UK government starting a trade war? Does the Kenyan government need to protect her citizens from unfair trade practice?

How PayPal Facilitates Payments for Kenyan Writers

Writers need a way to receive their earnings in virtual foreign currency and convert them to local currency Kenya shillings.

Back in 2009, arguably even now, getting paid online was a hurdle. There were more than 20+ different online money services. Essaywriters and Uvocorp only supported 4: Moneybookers (now skrill), Paypal, Payoneer card and Bank transfer wire.

Opening a payment account with one of these companies meant a long and arduous process of getting verified, one that Kenyans and Africans had and still have to go through.

  • ID verification
  • proof of residency
  • bank statements
  • Utility bill
  • photo ID

Looking back now, it was my first encounter with the in-built discrimination of people in the developing world by the infrastructure of online payment systems. It was never designed for us. It was never designed with us in mind. Us, lowly inhabitants of the third world.

For example, there was no way to cash out from your online dollars to local currency KES cash, or mobile money like Mpesa. Also, freelancers always (and still do) experience unexpected freezes of their funds for 60 to 180 days asking for resubmitting verification details and utility bills, as if we were not deserving of $2,000.

Working was the easy part; getting paid was a task.

So, just like in the past, smart entrepreneurs stepped in to fill the gap.

Informal online money changers converted virtual dollars to local currency for freelancers and made money off the spread, the difference between dollars from freelancers and how much they paid out to Mpesa, bank and on the odd occasions cash.

Money changers had always lived and worked amongst freelancer communities, on facebook and WhatsApp groups offering their services by advertising, word of mouth, referrals, and recommendations. They understood the pain. Though their rates might not have been the best, sometimes as much as 15% for conversion, freelancers were happy they could always cash out to local currency when needed, and it never took longer than an hour. It was a much-welcomed service.

Just like selling accounts, this too also ballooned into a booming business, making millions for people and establishing careers out of money changing. Just Google “Kenyan Paypal skrill online money to Mpesa” and see for yourself.

But then, the Fintech boom happened, and everything changed for informal money changers. No more windfall.

Paypal to Mpesa, Skrill to Mpesa, Paypal to Equity Bank, world remit to Mpesa, payment gateways all emerged to formally fill the service gap with better rates, more predictable times, and automated services. I remember thinking to myself at the time it was game over.

The number of money changers declined for a while.

More gig platforms have come up since 2009 with a variety of jobs such as transcribing, content creation, programming and development, design – like Upwork and Fiverr. Alongside this trend, integration of payments has significantly improved with transfer services such as Upwork to Mpesa direct, PayPal to Mpesa, Skrill to Mpesa, and PayPal to Equity bank.

Still, they are far from ideal. For example

  • PayPal still freezes accounts of Kenyans when amounts cross a certain threshold.
  • PayPal to Mpesa services is made possible by foreign intermediaries.
  • PayPal has been continually hit by fraud.
  • The KYC ID process is not built with local context in mind

This case with the UK highlights another problem, one of political interference with the internet and technology.

The real issues with online payment services are foundational, which is why Kenyan virtual workers at the frontier of the web economy have begun flirting with Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies.

How Kenyans on the Internet Are Using Cryptocurrency as an Alternative

The design of Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies is to be free from the politic control of governments, including the UK. There is no company or government to say to you, NO!, you cannot use it. Its like cash in the real world, exchangeable directly from hand to hand.

Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies are ideally flexible for informal markets.

Which is why early adopters in Kenya earning or spending in virtual spaces have been using bitcoin as an alternative online payments option. Kyle and I wrote about Bitcoin Filling a Payments Gap in Kenya in 2016. Everything from getting paid online, buying virtual goods for gaming, online sports betting, trading, and remittances.

The same thing is happening in Nigeria after PayPal blacklisted Nigeria and Ghana from its services in 2004.

If countries can be blocked out of the payment system because they are in a politically incorrect part of the world, how do African countries navigate the web economy?

Who decides what counts as work worth doing? Or an honest paying job? Why is PayPal getting in the way of decent-paying jobs and value exchange?

Should we free ourselves from dependence on anyone foreign-run online payment services where the intermediaries play god or turn at the whim of foreign governments? Do we need payment services with low barriers to access, and free to access not discriminating based on the color of my ID? Recall,

PayPal is an American company, and Skrill is registered in the UK.

A growing consciousness of the politics of the internet is taking root out of necessity and why readers and commentators suggested cryptocurrency as an alternative means of value exchange between consenting UK students and Kenyan writers.

Bitcoin is now a hot topic of discussion on some freelancing groups.

The genie is out of the bottle.

Bitcoin is like cash; there is no ID required, no barriers to access. Cryptocurrencies run on public blockchains not subject to control by any government. Cryptocurrency is not a company where ‘a’ boss decides what is wrong or right or says when you can or cannot receive payments.

It is why the smart old money changers are back. They finally found a way to reinvent themselves – market-making cryptocurrencies and local currencies for African virtual explorers.

New digital-savvy money changers have emerged to fill the void of cryptocurrency to local currency forex exchange. Demand for exchange is on the rise, but there are no formal services that allow quick conversion from cryptocurrency to KES or vice versa. So informal money changers step up, to bridge the borders of the offline and the online world.

This time it is also different from 2009.


Source: Coin.dance

The open-source nature of cryptocurrency blockchains has allowed developers to build a public peer to peer marketplaces with escrow features that will enable people to trade from one currency to another with ease and safety. Buyers and sellers can choose from hundreds of online money changers, select their preferred rate, look up an agents history, their reputation, rank them, and even leave a comment for the next trader.

It is much more organized now, and that’s why volumes on local Bitcoins [pictured above], have been trending up since 2013. A peak of 100 million per week in December 2017 and currently an average of 36 million per week.

The activity of informal money changers on peer to peer exchanges resembles that of offline airtime currency exchanges and mobile money agents.

I have written about

And cannot help but notice similar patterns on how online payments by freelancers and online workers in countries such as ours will evolve, just like airtime and mobile money.

Worth watching.

My Takeaways from this Saga

Now that we are on the same page, here are my takeaways from the current state of affairs. Whatever the outcome of the Paypal, UK, & Kenya spat, the five following points will continue to hold.

First, cryptocurrency will continue to be an alternative payment channel for online workers in Kenya and Kenyans exploring the internet for opportunities. This trend will last for as long as cryptocurrency is a form of web payment standard. Increasing political tensions of the web economy will accelerate the adoption of cryptocurrency web payment channels.

Secondly, peer to peer transactions by online money changers bridging cryptocurrency forex demands for inflows and outflows will stabilize and continue to increase. Data on transaction in Kenya from local bitcoins is a good indicator, currently averaging at 36 million KES per week. The highest peak was 100 million per week in December 2017 date.

Thirdly, cryptocurrency gateway services is an online payment gap. In Kenya, we were lucky to explore the possibility of companies like Kipochi (2013) and Bitpesa (2015). They were all right on trend, but perhaps way too early.

What we may see happen is either old gateways pivot to cryptocurrency gateway services or new gateways might emerge to fill the gap. It is also likely Telcos may integrate Or Banks may integrate Or Browsers may integrate.

I have been musing on this future, and it is worth checking out my two essays on the subject

Why Facebook’s New Cryptocurrency Is a threat to Mpesa and Safaricom

How The Chinese, Africa’s Most Popular Browser, And A Bitcoin Mining Company Are About To Change African Payments Africa’s most popular mobile browser, Opera is about to radically change the payments landscape in Africa.

Fourthly, a burgeoning youth demographic, coupled high unemployment levels, is converging with the web economy and driving educated African youth online for all exhaustible opportunities. Digital platforms are fusing with the informal economy. ‘Gig economy’ is the old offline informal economy, reinvented on virtual space. Trade, skills exchange, entertainment, content are all on the table. Embrace it! Do not fight it!

How Digital Platforms are Shaping Africa’s Informal Economy, apps that can drive demand and scale reach affordably are transforming African markets, opening up new opportunities for young Africans.

Finally, I think smart countries in Africa with burgeoning youth unemployment should do everything possible to bridge youth to online opportunities.


This post was inspired by my twitter thread 

Michael Kimani

Blockchain Catalyst. Crypto Analyst. Strong opinions.

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