Bitso is Latin America’s leading crypto exchange, with over 4 million users across five nations.
In Latin America, the firm hopes crypto can help with high inflation and devalued currencies.
This article is part of “Master Your Crypto,” a series from Insider helping investors improve their skills in and knowledge of cryptocurrency.
El Salvador has famously been rolling out a crypto wallet to the nation’s 6.5 million citizens. The digital wallet is run in part by a startup in Mexico called Bitso, whose name is a mash-up of bitcoin and peso. If you’re tracking the ascendance of crypto in Latin America, Bitso is the startup to watch.
The Quantcast and Harvard Business School alumnus Daniel Vogel launched the crypto exchange in 2014, long before market downturns in 2017 and this year rattled trust in cryptocurrencies around the world.
After Bitso secured seven funding rounds totaling $314 million by mid-2021, its valuation topped $2 billion, cementing the company as Latin America’s first crypto unicorn, startup-speak for passing the $1 billion-valuation mark. It allows users to trade various coins using pesos, among other features, including international money transfers.
“There’s no doubt Bitso paved the way for much of the crypto ecosystem in Latin America, starting before mainstream investors understood the potential for decentralized finance,” Claire Diaz-Ortiz, an angel investor focused on Latin America at the firm VC3, told Insider.
While US crypto is a nice-to-have, it’s a need-to-have in Latin America
Eight years later, Bitso is one of the only internationally regulated crypto platforms in Latin America, offering low-cost remittance options — the ability for migrants to send digital currency back home — and 35 cryptocurrencies to its 4 million users in Mexico, El Salvador, Brazil, Colombia, and Argentina.
The latter three of those countries are among the 20 nations with the most crypto adoption, according to a 2021 report from the blockchain-data firm Chainalysis.
While crypto disciples may be largely driven by ideology, Latin Americans may have immediate fundamental needs digital currencies can help solve, as the BBC noted in April.
Bitso moved into Argentina in 2020. In that market, Diaz-Ortiz said, if you work for an overseas company that deposits your salary in a local bank, your dollar will be turned into pesos at about 130 pesos per dollar, rather than the free market value of 300 pesos or more per dollar. Crypto “is arguably a smarter choice than the Argentine peso,” she added.
About 6 billion people worldwide are estimated to have a bank account, according to a 2021 report from the World Bank.
Throughout the world, at least 2 billion people either lack a bank account or don’t have access to a full suite of banking tools, Diaz-Ortiz said, adding: “Most of those people live in countries with economic systems that look like nothing like the USA and could benefit from decentralized-finance solutions.”
But crypto is likely not the end-all-be-all solution — especially as sufficient adoption stalls, national debts balloon, and the industry remains riddled with fraud and theft.
Latin American market isn’t immune to crypto’s struggles
Chivo, the name of El Salvador’s digital wallet and slang for “cool,” was supposed to be an easy gateway into crypto for the nation’s population and an integral step in the government’s experiment with a digital national currency.
Sixty-one percent of Salvadorans abandoned the app after downloading and withdrawing the $30 sign-up bonus that came with it, according to an April report from the US’s National Bureau of Economic Research.
And like any crypto player, Bitso has faced chilly winds in the crypto winter. It laid off 80 of its 700 employees in May alongside other Latin American crypto startups, citing the need to rethink skills.
Despite the wobbly start, Diaz-Ortiz said Latin America was still primed for crypto adoption.
“Ultimately, the best solutions in decentralized finance are always going to come from founders experiencing these problems and using their resilience to innovate,” she said. Hence why, she added, Latin America is such a great place for web3 right now.
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