AUG 10, 2022
If successful, the “Mi Primer Bitcoin” program, which recently rolled out in El Salvador, could be coming soon to a school near you.
The grassroots Mi Primer Bitcoin, meaning “My First Bitcoin,” program has picked up steam in El Salvador. The first cohort of Bitcoiner-come-students began 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, El Salvador’s director of education, to delve into the country’s struggles and successes in Bitcoin (BTC) education and to understand the rate at which it is spreading among 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 like seed phrases, satoshis or mining. There was “Bitcoin Beach,” the name donned to the 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 population. Indeed, Salvadorans would require hundreds of hours of training, learning and “orange-pilling” to be able to save and transact in Bitcoin.
A mammoth task loomed for the Salvadoran government. “The State will provide training on the use of this cryptocurrency.” However, what would that training look like? How could the state rapidly and effectively introduce Bitcoin classes when they themselves would also have to get to grips with new money?
All the while, Bitcoiners, commentators and the mainstream media watched as the El Salvador experiment played out. Dennehy, who had spent the past living and working in Latin America, told Cointelegraph that upon the law’s announcement, he had to get to the country as soon as possible:
“I knew that I wanted to do something to help make sure that it worked out, that it was a success here.”
Dennehy had been “predisposed to the separation of money and state” for some time, and upon first learning of Satoshi Nakamoto’s innovation, while living in Ecuador in 2013, he became a fervent Bitcoiner. He jokes that as per most “OG” Bitcoiners’ experiences, the first exchange he bought BTC from was hacked, losing him around 2 BTC at the time — now worth over $40,000 at the time of writing.
Almost 10 years later and after the arrival of the first country to adopt Bitcoin, he had to find a way to pitch in. He flew to El Salvador the second the opportunity would allow. However, similar to other Bitcoiners who have made the pilgrimage to El Salvador, he was struck by how few merchants and vendors accept Bitcoin. “There were effectively zero [merchants] when the law came into effect,” Dennehy told Cointelegraph in May.
Rikki, a Bitcoin podcaster and human rights activist who spent 45 days living in El Salvador living on Bitcoin and nothing else, he shared similar stories about his travels in Bitcoin Land: “Nobody here knows anything about Bitcoin. [The government] didn’t provide one second of education to the people of El Salvador.”
Motto explained that Bitcoin has since been incorporated into financial education as well as financial literacy programs across the country. “The Ministry of Education, Science and Technology is working together with various institutions related to Bitcoin in the country”:
“Including Bitcoin Beach Wallet, Mi Primer Bitcoin and others, in the development of a training module in Financial Education that incorporates updated content such as cryptocurrencies and electronic wallets.”
Even so, relying on a government or third party to get things done would be counter to Bitcoin’s ethos, that of “Don’t trust, verify.” A grassroots Bitcoin education campaign that would spread like the network, one 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 nongovernmental organization that offers free Bitcoin education to Salvadorans. It has since received funding from the 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 familiarizing himself with his new home. He’d ask casually, “Do you take Bitcoin?” and realized that many people not only didn’t accept Bitcoin, but they asked Dennehy to explain the decentralized currency to them.
“They were interested to learn more. They saw something with varying degrees of knowledge level, but generally low, low but interested,” he said.
Some of the first teachers on the program came for the preliminary meetings that Dennehy hosted in Airbnbs and meeting rooms. The first class took place on Sept. 24, 2021 in a yoga studio “because we were starting from zero,” Dennehy detailed.
“We had no funds, we had no spaces. […] And in fact, in our first class, one student came,” he said.
Unabashed and with a conviction forged across multiple Bitcoin bear markets, Dennehy and his team soldiered on. By October, classes had ramped up to almost 80 students, and November boasted over 250. The Bitcoin price was also beginning to soar — a likely catalyst:
“The reality is that interest level changes depending on what the price does.”
Nonetheless, interest was sustained during 2022’s price action. The class numbers reached all-time highs in April this year of over 800 students while the price sank to yearly lows. The classes boil down to financial literacy, from the history of money to what problems money solves, Dennehy explained. Financial literacy and Bitcoin education go hand in hand.
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 at the moment, and unfortunately not all the population knows and knows how to make good use of them.”
Importantly, the Bitcoin Diploma program targets teenagers — i.e., those most eager to learn about money — as they know that money is intrinsically linked to their independence. It’s a smart move, Dennehy state, as they’re the most likely to diffuse the Bitcoin message around El Salvador:
“If we could reach every 16-year-old or 17-year-old in the country, we will effectively teach the entire country in one year because that demographic is really strategic. They go home and they’ll talk to their parents, their aunts, their uncles, their little brothers and sisters.”
The examination for the Bitcoin Diploma, taken in week 10, is split into four parts. The first part is to create a wallet and then restore it on another device. The second task is to make a transaction on-chain, find the transaction in the blockchain explorer then explain why the transactions can be considered final.
One year since his arrival, Dennehy “would put the number at 10% of the population now is an active Bitcoin user.” Similarly, as much as one-fifth of merchants in El Salvador now accept Bitcoin.
Progress is evidently good, but Dennehy stressed that Bitcoin is a global currency. The progress made in El Salvador could be reflected across the world:
“We are focused on El Salvador at the moment because we have limited resources and El Salvador is the signal. This 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 create a successful template here, then the idea is to rebrand it as Bitcoin, El Salvador and then open up Bitcoin.”
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