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How to Teach a Nation Crypto

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The basic Mi Primer Bitcoin program, which stands for “My First Bitcoin”, has gained momentum in El Salvador. The first cohort of Bitcoiner-come students began their studies in May. Founded by John Dennehy, an American activist and journalist, the program also has the support of the Salvadoran government.

Cointelegraph spoke with Dennehy and Gilberto Motto, Director of Education of El Salvador, to dive into the country’s struggles and successes in Bitcoin (BTC) education and to understand the speed at which it is spreading in the land of volcanoes.

The Genesis Block

When El Salvador adopted Bitcoin as legal tender on June 8, 2021, very few Salvadorans besides President Nayib Bukele could explain concepts such as seed phrases, satoshis, or mining. There was “Bitcoin Beach,” the name given to sleepy surf town El Zonte, the birthplace of bitcoin adoption in El Salvador.

But the 3,000 local residents would have their work cut out to teach the remaining 6 million. Indeed, Salvadorans would need hundreds of hours of training, learning and “plundering oranges” to be able to save and transact in Bitcoin.

The time when Bukele onboarded up to 6 million people into the Bitcoin protocol. Source: Twitter

A gigantic task awaited the Salvadoran government. Motto told Cointelegraph that according to Article 6 of the Bitcoin Law, “the state will provide training on the use of this cryptocurrency.” However, what would this training look like? How could the state quickly and efficiently introduce bitcoin prices when it should familiarize itself with fresh money?

All the while, Bitcoiners, commentators, and the mainstream media watched the El Salvador experiment unfold. Dennehy, who has spent the past living and working in Latin America, told Cointelegraph that when the law was announced he needed to travel to the country as soon as possible:

“I knew I wanted to do something to make sure it would work, that it would be a success here.”

Dennehy had been “predisposed to the separation of money and state” for some time, and as soon as he learned of the innovation from Satoshi Nakamoto, while living in Ecuador in 2013, he became a avid Bitcoiner. He jokes that according to most experiences of ‘OG’ Bitcoiners, the first exchange he bought BTC from was hacked, causing him to lose around 2 BTC at the time, which is now worth over 40,000. $ at the time of writing.

Almost 10 years later and after the first country to adopt Bitcoin arrived, he had to find a way to get started. He flew to El Salvador as soon as the opportunity arose. However, like other Bitcoiners who have made the pilgrimage to El Salvador, he was struck by how few merchants and vendors accept Bitcoin. “There was actually no [merchants] when the law came into effect,” Dennehy told Cointelegraph in May.

Rikki, a bitcoin podcaster and human rights activist who spent 45 days in El Salvador living on bitcoin and nothing else, told Cointelegraph similar stories about his trips to Bitcoin Land: “Nobody here knows nothing bitcoin. [The government] did not provide a second of education to the Salvadoran people.

Motto explained to Cointelegraph that Bitcoin has since been incorporated into financial education as well as financial literacy programs across the country. Motto told Cointelegraph that “the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology is working with various bitcoin-related institutions in the country”:

“Including Bitcoin Beach Wallet, Mi Primer Bitcoin and others, in developing a financial education training module that incorporates updated content such as cryptocurrencies and e-wallets.”

Even so, relying on a government or a third party to get things done would go against Bitcoin’s philosophy of “don’t trust, verify”. A grassroots bitcoin education campaign that would spread like the network, which would complement and extend the government’s bitcoin education plans, would be well suited.

Mi Primer Bitcoin, founded by Dennehy in 2021, is a non-governmental organization that provides free Bitcoin education to Salvadorans. It has since received funding from LookingGlass as well as IBEX Mercado, a Bitcoin and Lightning Network service provider.

The project came to Dennehy during his first conversations with Salvadorans when he became familiar with his new home. He would casually ask, “Do you take Bitcoin?” and realized that not only were a lot of people not accepting bitcoin, but they asked Dennehy to explain decentralized currency to them.

“They were interested in knowing more. They saw something with varying levels of knowledge, but generally low, low but interested,” he said.

Some of the program’s first teachers came for the preliminary meetings that Dennehy organized in Airbnbs and meeting rooms. The first class took place on September 24, 2021 in a yoga studio “because we were starting from scratch”, detailed Dennehy.

“We had no money, we had no places. […] And in fact, in our first class, a student came,” he said.

Unapologetically and with conviction forged in several Bitcoin bear markets, Dennehy and his team persevered. By October, classes had reached almost 80 students, and November had over 250. The price of Bitcoin was also starting to skyrocket – a likely catalyst:

“The reality is that the level of interest changes depending on what the price is doing.”

Nonetheless, interest was buoyant during the price action of 2022. Class counts hit all-time highs in April this year with over 800 students while the price fell to yearly lows. Classes boil down to financial literacy, from the history of money to the problems money solves, Dennehy explained. Financial literacy and bitcoin education go hand in hand.

The motto agreed with Dennehy’s assessment, stating that Bitcoin and financial literacy must work in tandem in El Salvador: “Savings, paying taxes, planning expenses, personal or family budgets and ‘other concepts are still valid for the moment, and unfortunately not all the population knows and knows how to make good use of them.

It is important to note that the Bitcoin Diploma program targets teenagers – that is, those most eager to learn more about money – because they know that money is intrinsically linked to their independence. It’s a smart move, says Dennehy, because they are most likely to spread the Bitcoin message around El Salvador:

“If we could reach every 16- or 17-year-old in the country, we would effectively teach the whole country in a year, because that demographic is really strategic. They go home and they go talk to their parents, their aunts, their uncles, their little brothers and sisters.

The exam for the Bitcoin diploma, passed in week 10, is divided into four parts. The first part is to create a wallet and then restore it to another device. The second task is to perform an on-chain transaction, find the transaction in the blockchain explorer, and then explain why the transactions can be considered final.

A year after his arrival, Dennehy “would put the number at 10% of the population is now an active Bitcoin user.” Similarly, Cointelegraph reported that up to a fifth of merchants in El Salvador now accept Bitcoin.

Related: Morgan Stanley Encourages Investors to Buy Battered El Salvador Eurobonds

Progress is obviously good, but Dennehy emphasized that Bitcoin is a global currency. The progress made in El Salvador could be reflected around the world:

“We are focused on El Salvador at the moment because we have limited resources and El Salvador is the signal. It is the front line. But our ambition is global. Our ambition is to change El Salvador, but also to change the world.

He explained that “once we have created a successful model here, the idea is to rename it Bitcoin, El Salvador, and then open Bitcoin.”