Bill Gates: Digital Currency Can Help the Poor, But Not Bitcoin

By Kate Knibbs on at

Bill Gates has high hopes for digital currency as an important banking tool for the poor. But Bitcoin isn't one of those currencies, he said in a Reddit AMA today. At least not in its current form.

Gates extolled the value of digital currency in his AMA last year as well, explaining that since many poor people in developing countries don't have access to traditional banking, it's not financially worth it for banks to put branches in areas where the amounts stored and transferred are so small, leaving the poor at a huge disadvantage when it comes to exchanging, saving, and accessing money.

Mobile banking costs almost nothing to process, so it actually is worthwhile for banks to provide the service. That means digital money offers an opportunity for mobile banking, and hence the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is so gung-ho about giving people more ways to store their money.

So why not Bitcoin? The billionaire philanthropist and redditor called it "an exciting new technology" in today's AMA, but he doesn't think it's a very good tool to make banking easier in emerging markets because it's so volatile and because it's anonymous:

We don't use bitcoin specifically for two reasons. One is that the poor shouldn't have a currency whose value goes up and down a lot compared to their local currency. Second is that if a mistake is made in who you pay then you need to be able to reverse it so anonymity wouldn't work.

Bitcoin has been touted as a potentially revolutionary banking tool for the poor, and it's likely Gates' remarks will rankle the community. But he did offer an alternative, highlighting the uses of local digital currency like Kenya's M-Pesa over anonymous cryptocurrencies:

The foundation is involved in digital money but unlike Bitcoin it would not be anonymous digital money. In Kenya M-pesa is being used for almost half of all transactions. Digital money has low transaction costs which is great for the poor because they need to do financial transactions with small amounts of money. Over the next 5 years I think digital money will catch on in India and parts of Africa and help the poorest a lot.