ACCRA, GHANA — Up until February, Janet Maingi didn’t think much about bitcoin. Born and raised in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, Maingi had instead spent more than twenty years focused on trying to solve one of Africa’s biggest problems: connectivity. To that end, she spent more than 20 years working in operations in the telecom industry, in companies specializing in internet and wireless networks to cable and satellite television. But earlier this year, the 45-year-old mother decided to take on the continent’s second-biggest issue: Its energy problem.
Africa is a renewable energy mecca. There’s an estimated 10 terawatts of solar capacity, 350 gigawatts of hydro, and another 110 gigawatts of wind, according to data from Energy, Capital & Power, an investment platform focused on Africa’s energy sector.
Some of this renewable energy is being harnessed already, but a lot of it isn’t, because it is expensive to build the kind of specialized infrastructure necessary to capture it. Even though Africa boasts 60% of the best solar resources globally, the continent only has 1% installed solar PV capacity, according to the International Energy Agency.
“When you sit back and look at rural Africa and rural Kenya, one of the things that is very prevalent in the homes — I am talking about the 50% that are not electrified — is children have to do their assignments using either paraffin lamps or candles,” Maingi told CNBC on the sidelines of the Africa Bitcoin Conference in Accra.
“Think of their eyesight, think of their health,” she said.
Maingi was frustrated by the divide between generation and capacity, given that 43% of Africa’s population, or 600 million people, lack access to electricity. So in February, she began spitballing creative solutions with two friends, and the three of them landed on a sort-of counterintuitive idea: bitcoin mining.
Mining for the world’s biggest cryptocurrency is a process known as proof-of-work. Miners around the world run high-powered computers that collectively validate transactions and simultaneously create new tokens. The process requires a lot of electricity, and because this is the only variable cost in a low-margin industry, miners tend to seek out the world’s lowest-cost sources of power.
Bitcoin gets a bad rap for the amount of energy it consumes, but it can also help to unlock these trapped renewable sources of energy. Bitcoin miners are essentially energy buyers, and when they co-locate with renewables, it creates a financial incentive for buildout and improves the core economics of renewable power production. The IEA says that in rural areas “where over 80% of the electricity-deprived live, mini-grids and stand-alone systems, mostly solar based, are the most viable solutions.”
By May, Maingi and her two colleagues decided to try it out. They founded a venture called Gridless to see whether the additional demand of bitcoin miners on these semi-stranded assets could make renewables in Africa economically viable — and crucially, whether the additional source of energy could power communities previously out of reach of microgrids that electrify parts of Africa.
Gridless also has plans to expand into other parts of Africa with the help of a fresh injection of cash.
Jack Dorsey’s digital payments firm Block and Alyse Killeen’s bitcoin-focused venture firm Stillmark, have led a $2 million seed investment into the company, which Gridless says it plans to use to open new mines.
Maingi is the chief operations officer, and her two friends turned co-founders, chief executive Erik Hersman, and chief financial officer Philip Walton, have spent the last several months launching pilots across Kenya in which they work with mini-grid hydro and solar generators to use their excess capacity to mine.
“We had spent years building internet connectivity infrastructure in rural and urban Africa, and realized that you cannot have a 21st-century economy without both power and connectivity together,” Hersman told CNBC.
“As we looked at the next problem to solve, we realized that bitcoin mining solved a major problem for renewable mini grid energy developers, in that we could be their industrial off-taker for stranded power, no matter where they were located, thereby making them more sustainable and increasing electrification across Africa,” continued Hersman.
Gridless currently has three operational pilot sites in Murang’a, a rural town that’s a 90-minute drive northeast of Nairobi. Each mine runs on hydroelectric power from HydroBox, an energy company based on the continent. Two of the mines have about 50 kilowatts of capacity, and by Thursday, the third mine will expand to 300 kilowatts.
To put those numbers into perspective, 30 kilowatts would power about 500 households. 50 kilowatts is closer to 800 households.
In January, Gridless plans to launch another 50-kilowatt hydromine in Malawi and its first solar-powered site in West Africa that will have a 30 kilowatt capacity.
Lowering energy costs
So far, the economics make a lot of sense for everyone involved. Gridless serves as a sort of anchor tenant. The company finances construction and manages the operation of data centers in rural communities where traditional industrial or commercial customers are not available, according to a company statement released Tuesday.
Because the power supplier benefits from selling energy that previously had been discarded, the energy plants will sometimes lower costs for the end user. At one of their pilot sites in Kenya, for example, the hydro plant dropped the price of power from 35 cents per kilowatt hour to 25 cents.
The buildout of capacity is also electrifying households. Gridless says they’ve already seen this translate to containerized cold storage for local farmers, battery charging stations for electric motorcycles and public WiFi points.
Once those types of needs are met, Gridless said in a statement that the remaining electricity capacity is used to power the bitcoin mine.
“Bitcoin and mining is really the tool. We’re not doing bitcoin for bitcoin,” said the lead for bitcoin mining and wallet at Block, Thomas Templeton. “The whole objective is really to empower these villages. Bitcoin is a means to that end.”
Block is also working on a project to make bitcoin mining more distributed and efficient.
Making the mining process more accessible has to do with more than just creating new bitcoin, according to Templeton. Instead, he says the company sees it as a long-term need for a future that is fully decentralized and permissionless.
The company is solving one major barrier to entry: Mining rigs are hard to find, expensive and delivery can be unpredictable. Block says it is looking into making a new ASIC, which is the specialized gear used to mine bitcoin.
Democratizing access to the mining process is big for Block. Right now, Africa accounts for around 0.2% of the global bitcoin hashrate (an industry term used to describe the collective computing power of the entire network), according to the Cambridge Centre for Alternative Finance. The bulk sum of the hashpower shifted from China to the U.S. over the last 18 months after Beijing banned crypto mining. Many in the industry tell CNBC that this kind of centralization is a problem.
“Decentralized mining is essential for the resiliency of bitcoin,” said Templeton, who added that Block kicked off its mining initiative to make mining more accessible, user-friendly and reliable, so that more people can mine.
It was a sentiment echoed by Dorsey in Accra on Tuesday morning. The Block CEO, who said he still plans to move to Africa for six months, added that Block wants to partner with other companies on the continent to make it easier to onboard people into bitcoin.
“We’re working on a hardware miner to make it more, hopefully, accessible and more efficient for people around the world and especially on the continent to participate in securing the network and making it even more resilient in the form of something that’s also useful for other things, not just mining.”
Supporting the rise of bitcoin mining across Africa also translates to another big goal for Block: Helping to accelerate global renewable hashrate.
“Gridless represents a close strategic alignment with our vision of ensuring the bitcoin network increasingly leverages clean energy, in combination with bitcoin computational centers around the world,” said Templeton.