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Bitcoin Brought Electricity to Countries in the Global South

Blog Post | Adoption of Technology

Bitcoin Brought Electricity to Countries in the Global South

It won’t be the United Nations or rich philanthropists that electrifies Africa.

Summary: Energy is indispensable for societal progress and well-being, yet many regions, particularly in the Global South, lack reliable electricity access. Traditional approaches to electrification, often reliant on charity or government aid, have struggled to address these issues effectively. However, a unique solution is emerging through bitcoin mining, where miners leverage excess energy to power their operations. This approach bypasses traditional barriers to energy access, offering a decentralized and financially sustainable solution.

Energy is life. For the world and its inhabitants to live better lives—freer, richer, safer, nicer, and more comfortable lives—the world needs more energy, not less. There are no rich, low-energy countries and no poor, high-energy countries.

“Energy is the only universal currency; it is necessary for getting anything done,” in Canadian-Czech energy theorist Vaclav Smil’s iconic words.

In an October 2023 report for the Alliance for Responsible Citizenship on how to bring electricity to the world’s poorest 800 million people, Robert Bryce, author of A Question of Power: Electricity and the Wealth of Nations, sums it as follows:

Electricity matters because it is the ultimate poverty killer. No matter where you look, as electricity use has increased, so has economic growth. Having electricity does not guarantee wealth. But its absence almost always means poverty. Indeed, electricity and economic growth go hand in hand.

To supply electricity on demand to many of those people, especially in the Global South, grids need to be built in the first place and then have enough extra capacity to ramp up production when needed. That requires overbuilding, which is expensive and wasteful, and the many consumers of the Global South are poor.

Adding to the trouble are the abysmal formal institutions of property rights and rule of law in many African countries, and the layout of the land becomes familiar: corruption and fickle property rights make foreign, long-term investments basically impossible; poor populations mean that local purchasing power is low and usually not worth the investment risk.

What’s left are slow-moving charity and bureaucratic government development aid, both of which suffer from terrible incentives, lack of ownership, and running into their own sort of self-serving corruption.

In “Stranded,” a long-read for Bitcoin Magazine, Human Rights Foundation’s Alex Gladstein accounted for his journey into the mushrooming electricity grids of sub-Saharan Africa: “Africa remains largely unable to harness these natural resources for its economic growth. A river might run through it, but human development in the region has been painfully reliant on charity or expensive foreign borrowing.”

Stable supply of electricity requires overbuilding; overbuilding requires stable property rights and rich enough consumers over which to spread out the costs and financially recoup the investment over time. Such conditions are rare. Thus, the electricity-generating capacity won’t be built in the first place, and most of Africa becomes dark when the sun sets.

Gladstein reports that a small hydro plant in the foothills of Mount Mulanje in Malawi, even though it was built and financed by the Scottish government, still supplies exorbitantly expensive electricity—around 90 cents per kilowatt hour—with most of its electricity-generating capacity going to waste.

What if there were an electricity user, a consumer-of-last-resort, that could scoop up any excess electricity and disengage at a moment’s notice if the population needed that power for lights and heating and cooking? A consumer that could co-locate with the power plants and thus avoid having to build out miles of transmission lines.

With that kind of support consumer—guaranteeing revenue by swallowing any excess generation, even before any local homes have been connected—the financial viability of the power plants could make the construction actually happen. It pays for itself right off the bat, regardless of transmissions or the disposable income of nearby consumers.

If so, we could bootstrap an electricity grid in the poorest areas of the world where neither capitalism nor central planning, neither charity worker nor industrialist, has managed to go. That consumer of last resort could accelerate electrification of the world’s poorest and monetize their energy resilience. That’s what Gladstein went to Africa to investigate the bourgeoning industry of bitcoin miners electrifying the continent.

Bitcoin Saves the World: Energy-Poverty Edition

Africa is used to large enterprises digging for minerals. The bitcoin miners springing forth all over the continent are different. They don’t need to move massive amounts of land and soil and don’t pollute nearby rivers. They operate by running machines that guess large numbers, which is the cryptographic method that secures bitcoin and confirms its transaction blocks. All they need to operate is electricity and an internet connection.

By co-locating and building with electricity generation, bitcoin miners remove some major obstacles to bringing power to the world’s poorest billion. In the rural area of Malawi that Gladstein visited, there was nowhere to offload the expensive hydro power and no financing to connect more households or build transmission lines to faraway urban areas: “The excess electricity couldn’t be sold, so the power stations built machines that existed solely to suck up the unused power.”

Bitcoin miners are in a globally competitive race to unlock patches of unused energy everywhere, so in came Gridless, an off-grid bitcoin miner with facilities in Kenya and Malawi. Any excess power generation in these regions is now comfortably eaten up by the company’s onsite mining machines—the utility company receiving its profit share straight in a bitcoin wallet of its own control, no banks or governments blocking or delaying international payments, and no surprise government currency devaluations undercutting its purchasing power.

No aid, no government, no charity; just profit-seeking bitcoiners trying to soak up underused energy. Gladstein observes:

One night during my visit to Bondo, Carl asked me to pause as the sunset was fading, to look at the hills around us: the lights were all turning on, all across the foothills of Mt. Mulanje. It was a powerful sight to see, and staggering to think that Bitcoin is helping to make it happen as it converts wasted energy into human progress. . . .

Bitcoin is often framed by critics as a waste of energy. But in Bondo, like in so many other places around the world, it becomes blazingly clear that if you aren’t mining Bitcoin, you are wasting energy. What was once a pitfall is now an opportunity.

For decades, our central-planning mindset had us “help” the Global South by directing resources there—building things we thought Africans needed, sending money to (mostly) corrupt leaders in the hopes that schools be built or economic growth be kick-started. We squandered billions in goodhearted nongovernmental organization projects.

Even for an astute and serious energy commentator as Bryce, not once in his 40-page report on how to electrify the Global South did it occur to him that bitcoin miners—the very people who are turning the lights on for the poorest in the world—could play a crucial role in achieving that.

It’s so counterintuitive and yet, once you see it, so obvious. In the end, says Gladstein, it won’t be the United Nations or rich philanthropists that electrifies Africa “but an open-source software network, with no known inventor, and controlled by no company or government.”

Wall Street Journal | Infrastructure & Transportation

Tesla to Unveil Robotaxi in August, Elon Musk Says

“Tesla plans to unveil its Robotaxi in August, the latest step in the company’s multiyear effort to bring self-driving vehicles to market.

Chief Executive Elon Musk said in a post on X that the Tesla model without a steering wheel or pedals would be shown to the world on Aug. 8.”

From Wall Street Journal.

BusinessMirror | Poverty Rates

PHL Could Hit Single-Digit Poverty Years Ahead of Schedule

“Better labor market conditions and slower inflation in the country could turn the administration’s single-digit poverty incidence aspirations into a reality two years ahead of schedule.

This was according to the latest Macro Poverty Outlook for the Philippines, released by the World Bank on Monday. It estimated that poverty incidence in the country could decrease to 9.3 percent in 2026 from 12.2 percent this year and 17.8 percent in 2021.”

From BusinessMirror.

Blog Post | Economic Growth

Measuring Freedom and Flourishing | Podcast Highlights

Chelsea Follett interviews Leandro Prados de la Escosura about the long term trends in wellbeing, inequality, and freedom.

Listen to the podcast or read the full transcript here.

Let’s discuss your latest book, Human Development and the Path to Freedom.

I have spent many years working on economic performance in the long run, and while I don’t have anything against GDP, I was always uneasy with the idea of using GDP per head as a shortcut for wellbeing. GDP is a good indicator of output but a very deficient indicator of wellbeing.

Most economists say, “This is true, but it’s highly correlated with non-economic dimensions of wellbeing.” There is also a tendency to produce a dashboard of indicators, basically GDP and some additional measures that create a more nuanced picture.

I was unhappy with that. Then I realized that, since the beginning of modern national accounts in the 1950s, there have been attempts to produce alternative measures. More than 30 years ago, the United Nations Development Programme produced the Human Development Index. I was very interested, but at the same time, I was frustrated when I saw that countries with no freedom at all ranked very highly in the index.

For example, in the first report in 1990, they had a retrospect going back to 1975, and I found that Spain, under Franco’s dictatorship, ranked very highly in human development. How come? It wasn’t satisfactory to rank a nasty dictatorship so highly. And then I read the literature accompanying the report and found this very candid assertion: “The purpose of human development is to increase people’s range of choices. If they are not free to make those choices, the entire process becomes a mockery.”

This is an important philosophical point: Human development is not just about living longer or having a higher material standard of living. You can get that in a high-security prison in Norway. Choosing between alternative ways of life is what makes the difference.

To make a long story short, they have tried time and again to introduce freedom, but they never managed to do so because of strong political opposition from country members of the program. So, as an independent scholar, I thought, “Look, nobody is going to read it, but I have the freedom to introduce the freedom dimension.”

Tell me about what you found.

Perhaps what makes sense is to compare what I found to what you would get on the basis of per capita income. If you look at the average increase from 1870 to 2020, the growth in income and wellbeing is very similar.

But if you look closer, you realize there are large differences across different periods. During first globalization before 1913 and between 1970 and 2000, they are relatively close. During the last two decades, the difference is huge in favor of material living standards measured by per capita income. The first part of the 20th century is just the opposite.

What next? Well, try to provide an explanation.

I went in two steps. One was asking, “Why has this growth in human wellbeing happened? What is the intuition?” The intuition is that if you get richer, you’re going to become better fed, healthier, better educated, and freer. But you can also have different levels of wellbeing at the same income level, and the most important finding from a historical perspective is that at any point of income, you have higher wellbeing today than in the past.

If you compare 1870 to 1913, you see that for most of the income levels, you get the same association between health and income, but at high levels of income, you get higher levels of health. Improvements in health techniques and medical knowledge were restricted to the most advanced countries. But if you look at the 1950s, at any income level, you get higher levels of health than in 1913 or 1870. You also find this for education and freedom. If you move to 2000, there is another upward shift.

Of course, there are reversals. There have been four moments in time in which the progression, the positive progression of human development stopped or declined. One was the Great Depression. The second one was during Mao’s Great Leap Forward. Then there were the oil shocks in the early ’70s, but the most damaging one has been COVID. COVID is the first period in which wellbeing measured in terms of augmented human development has declined

However, over the long run, for any income level, whether you are rich or poor, nowadays you have higher wellbeing than in the past.

Those findings are fascinating. What would you say is the biggest implication of your work?

The first thing is that wellbeing, broadly defined, has expanded worldwide more steadily than per capita income.

Secondly, the phases in which we conventionally associate improvements in wellbeing are not necessarily the same as those in which actual wellbeing improved. For instance, there was an important improvement in the so-called interwar period, even though economic growth stagnated. In 20th-century India, before independence, there was a stagnation in real average income but a remarkable improvement in health. This was because of the discovery of the germ theory of disease, which brought simple hygienic practices like washing your hands before eating and not sleeping near animals.

We also tend to forget that the association between wellbeing and income is not fixed. There are movements along the function: if you are richer, other things being equal, you’re going to be healthier, more educated, and freer. But this is not the whole story. There are also upward and downward shifts.

For instance, you could say that in terms of freedom in 2020, we are worse off than we were 20 years ago. This doesn’t mean that people were richer 20 years ago—we’re richer now—but at the same income level, 20 years ago, people were freer than we are today.

So, it’s a nuanced picture. Overall, things are improving, but there are also worrying declines in freedom.


Can you talk about inequality?

In 1870, in the case of wellbeing, inequality was high, and it increased up to the end of the century, then went down. Then, because of World War I, it increased again. But from the late 1920s to the present, with the exception of a reversal because of World War II, there has been a steady decline in inequality of wellbeing.

In the case of per capita income, inequality increased until the end of the 20th century, around 1980, and only began declining after 1990.

Here, I’m referring to relative inequality. If we increase wealth by 10 percent everywhere, inequality in relative terms doesn’t change. Some people are a bit pickier and think, “If my income increases 10 percent and my income is 100, I get 110. If your income is 1000, you now get 1100.” This is absolute inequality.

Relative inequality in per capita income increased until 1980 and has declined since 1990. But absolute inequality in per capita income, the distance between rich and poor, continues growing.

Absolute inequality in wellbeing has declined since 1960. Today, it is similar to what you would find in 1938, 1913, or 1900, but higher than in 1870.

It’s also important to look at what happens to different parts of the distribution. Who are the winners and losers? Broadly speaking, the middle class of the world gained the most, and the lower classes and those at the top won relatively less. If you look at absolute gains, those who were at a higher level of wellbeing got more. But that changes for different dimensions. Those at the bottom, for example, were the main winners in terms of education, while those in the middle were the main winners in terms of health.

I know that your current focus is on freedom. Could you tell me a little bit about that?

I became interested in human development after reading Amartya Sen, who emphasizes what Isaiah Berlin would call positive freedom. Freedom to. But he also emphasizes negative freedom, the absence of coercion and interference. And I think this is interesting because many people think there is a trade-off between negative and positive freedom.

At the end of the day, everybody wants to have negative freedom, but there are those who think negative freedom has nothing to do with income, that would be Hayek, and those who think negative freedom can only be reached as a second stage once you provide for those who don’t have access. For some, positive freedom is a socialist lie to reduce negative freedom. For others, they are two faces of the same coin.

As an economic historian, I find this is an interesting topic for research. If you look at the world, and you can see this in the Human Freedom Index that Cato publishes, you see the countries at the top in terms of negative freedom are also at the top in terms of positive freedom. For instance, Denmark is at the top of the list in terms of economic freedom, but also in terms of education and health.

My question was, well, maybe this trade-off is only a short-run phenomenon. Maybe if you look at the long run, the trade-off doesn’t hold or only holds for a certain period. So why not construct two alternative sets of estimates, one for positive freedom and the other for negative freedom? And this is what I’m trying to do now.

My main discrepancy with the Fraser Institute economic freedom index is that I don’t take into account the size of government. I know this is a contentious issue. People say, “the larger the government, the less room for private initiative.” At a point in time, this is true. And if you look at similarly developed countries, this is true.

But if you take a cross-section at a point in time, you can see that there are countries in which the size of government is much, much smaller, that are not necessarily freer, in terms of absence of coercion and interference, than countries with larger governments. Look at, for instance, Latin American and Sub-Saharan African countries. Think of Somalia. Or think of my own country under Franco. It was a right-wing, but, in many aspects, very socialist dictatorship in which the government was everywhere. But the size of government was very small.

In 1980, do you know what percentage the income tax contributed to the revenues of the central government in Spain? Give me a figure. You would say 40 percent?

Sure, 40 percent.

2 percent.


Nobody paid income tax. So, there was no redistribution.

My point is that the size of government matters less than the nature of government. Perhaps Denmark would have more economic freedom with a smaller government, but if you compare Denmark to other countries, you can see that even though the Danish government is larger, Denmark’s degree of economic freedom is higher. Why? Because the nature of government action is different. It doesn’t interfere as much as another government that is less intrusive in quantitative terms but more intrusive in qualitative terms.

So, if you are looking at a point in time, it makes sense to say, “mutatis mutandis, if a rich country nowadays has a smaller government, this country is going to be freer.” That is true. But the action of government varies from one case to another.

Get Leandro Prados de la Escosura’s book, Human Development and the Path to Freedom: 1870 to the Present, here.