The University of Pretoria graduate bringing bitcoin to Africa

Written by Ciaran Ryan. Posted in Journalism

Kgothatso Ngako wants to share the excitement of bitcoin with the more than 1bn people on the continent by translating its materials into all major African languages. From Moneyweb.

What started as a passion project for Kgothatso Ngako has become a full-time occupation. Image: Supplied
What started as a passion project for Kgothatso Ngako has become a full-time occupation. Image: Supplied

Kgothatso Ngako first heard about bitcoin in 2015 while studying computer science at the University of Pretoria. He immediately grasped its potential to transform Africa and the world.

“I saw it as a tool to deliver sovereignty and freedom to the ordinary people, rather than relying on governments to do this. The first thing that struck me was here is a way to save money and not have your savings destroyed by inflation. At that point I decided I wanted to get involved in the crypto space full time.”

In 2019 he launched Exonumia, an open-source platform with the mission to translate content about bitcoin into native African languages.

So far, material has been translated into eight African languages, and includes the original ‘white paper’ written by bitcoin founder Satoshi Nakamoto, and several of his explanatory emails and other materials intended to encourage wider bitcoin adoption in Africa.

Read: Cryptocurrency banking potential in Africa

The languages mostly covered so far are: IsiZulu, Sesotho, IsiNdebele, TshiVenda, Kiswahili, Oshiwambo and Khoekhoegowab. This week, Shona was added to the list, with the translations made possible with a grant from crypto exchange BitMex.

Next to come are translations into Arabic, Somali, Hausa, Igbo, Berber, Chewa and several other west African languages.

Ngako comes from a Sotho-speaking home, with English very much a second language. The South African schooling system forced him to acquire a mastery of English, and in doing so he found a new fascination – language and translations.

Huge response

What started as a labour of love for Ngako has now turned into a full-time occupation.

“I got specialists involved for most of the translations. We have since expanded the team across Africa, but it is all run from SA. We did this all on a shoestring budget, but the response we have been getting has been huge, and we can measure that from the pageviews on our website,” says Ngako.

Ngako’s colleague Happy Mahlangu has been responsible for many of the translations into South African indigenous languages, as well as the translation into Zulu of the book ‘Layered Money’ by Nik Bhatia.

Earlier this year Ngako formed a non-profit organisation – also called Exonumia – and brought on board three fellow directors who share his passion of bringing bitcoin to Africa: Siyabonga Mjali, Matlapane Sebetoa and Sibongile Rakgatjane.

Serendipitous encounter

Ngako grew up and went to school in Mamelodi, north of Pretoria, and planned to become an engineer – until an enthusiastic techie at a University of Pretoria career expo convinced him to study computer science.

He imagined he might end up as a software engineer for Facebook or one of the other tech giants, but then caught the crypto bug.

“I was doing a software project and was offered payment via PayPal or bitcoin. Stupidly, I took payment in rands via PayPal, and then I saw what happened to the price of bitcoin and I was kicking myself,” he says.

“I decided I better start paying attention to it and understand why its price was accelerating the way it was.”

Read: Hilton College matric student solves multi-billion dollar crypto puzzle

In explaining the purpose behind Exonumia (a name for numismatic items such as tokens, medals or scrip), Ngako references Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises from his book ‘Theory and History’.

Mises stresses that those limited to a grasp of native languages only are relegated to subordinate positions of society when new rulers come to power and enforce a new language as the medium of instruction for both economic and political activities.

“The longer such a society continues to conduct day-to-day affairs without using their native dialects, then those native dialects die out because they become insufficient tools for those looking to partake in activities of value,” says Ngako.

“Our project is aimed at delivering sovereignty and financial liberty to all people living in Africa.”

He adds: “Maybe for the first time in history, we have a system of private monies such as bitcoin that are beyond the control of politicians and central banks.

“China, as powerful as it is, tried to ban cryptos, and look what impact it had on prices – very little.

“These are exciting times, and we want to share this excitement with the more than one billion people on the continent.”

You can sponsor a language translation here.

You can contribute translations to the project here.

Ciaran Ryan

The Writer's Room is a curated by Ciaran Ryan, who has written on South African affairs for Sunday Times, Mail & Guardian, Financial Mail, Finweek, Noseweek, The Daily Telegraph, Forbes, USA Today, Acts Online and Lewrockwell.com, among others. In between he manages a gold mining operation in Ghana, and previously worked in Congo. Most of his time is spent in the lovely city of Joburg.