As it currently stands, The Philippines has the third-highest rate of crypto use across the world, following similar trends within Nigeria and neighbouring Vietnam. As the pandemic hit, and people lost their jobs and livelihoods, Filipinos increasingly began to understand the true potential of Bitcoin as a nouveau form of both investment and income-generation.
Cryptocurrency is on its way to becoming mainstream in the Philippines, with innovations like rural bank integration, BTC ATMs, and gaming rewards acting as reliable early indicators.
It is reaching mass adoption was the consensus by experts from the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) and industry leaders during the webinar held on March 17th by the European Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines (ECCP) and The Fintech Philippines Association.
“We are living in interesting times in crypto,” Philippine Assets and Digital Exchange (PDAX) CEO and Founder Nichel Gaba said. “Between December 2020 to today, something happened to put bitcoin and crypto into a space where even traditional portfolio managers need to consider them.” While acknowledging that the infrastructure supporting cryptocurrency platforms in the country is “healthy,” Gaba also added that the growth of the fintech “‘needs a viable ecosystem because financial services are interconnected. We need support from institutions and regulatory bodies.”
He elaborated that mainstreaming and mass adoption, or the creation of an ecosystem where blockchain and cryptocurrency technology are widely used, has become inevitable because of the shifting technological and financial landscapes. PDAX itself has experienced 70 times more transactions and 15 times user growth in the last 11 months alone.
Bitcoin garnered considerable public attention back in 2017 when values surged from under $1,000 to more than $19,000 by the end of that year. Flash forward to 2021 where a more stable and reliable regulatory framework exists from the BSP, safeguarding users while helping to facilitate the unprecedented growth of 12-year old Bitcoin which Gaba described is still in its “puberty” stage. As of December 2020, BSP has recognised 17 virtual currency exchanges that are industry-compliant; with PDAX being among them.
BSP Technology Risk and Innovation Supervision Director Melchor Plabasan agreed that regulation is important especially because cryptocurrency can revolutionise payments and remittances. Crypto assets can also be used for activities like fundraising. “Regulations are designed to protect the investing public,” Plabasan said, “We have expanded their scope, strengthened the rules on consumer protection and cybersecurity controls.”
Republic Act No. 11211, A.K.A the New Central Bank Act, holds that the BSP’s supervision of financial institutions now includes certain crypto asset businesses. Amendments to the virtual currency exchange policy via BSP Circular 1108 further span the definition and scope of virtual currencies, risk disclosure, capital requirements following a risk-based approach, and internal controls.
BSP also issued a framework early this year to guard cryptocurrency from being used in money laundering.
Amor Maclang, ECCP Innovations Committee Chairperson and Fintech Philippines Association Executive Director, maintained that the public’s evolving needs, which crypto can solve, make its mass adoption inevitable, though it might take time. She said, “We recognise it might take decades for blockchain to permeate. Nascent technology moves more towards mass adoption and that’s why we move to technology from the perspective of advocacy. People don’t need to actually understand the tech to understand what it can do for them.”
Luis Buenaventura II, Founder & Chief Strategy Officer of BloomSolutions, named one reason for organic crypto growth: “Mainstreaming of cryptocurrency will happen naturally if there are enough niche cases, and people find them valuable.”
One niche case is the Vietnamese start-up mobile game Axie Infinity, wherein players raise, battle, and trade “pet monsters” while earning money through a digital wallet. This became a source of income for some Filipinos who had lost their jobs due to the pandemic or were unable to go out during the lockdown; some players were earning as much as Php 500 an hour to Php 10,000 a week. Around 7,000 to 10,000 Filipinos play the game daily, comprising a large part of its user community.
Making cryptocurrency accessible and blockchain technology useful to Filipinos by integrating them to the financial supply chain areas and rural banks is the thrust of UBX Philippines, the fintech arm of UnionBank. According to UBX Board Chairman Henry Aguda, “There are more uses beyond what people nowadays experience. A lot of central banks are moving towards creating digital currencies.”
The first crypto ATM in the country, with a second in the works, is one of UnionBank’s first pioneering efforts to bring the digital currency into the mainstream. The bank’s own stablecoin PHX was also instrumental in conducting remittances from overseas to financial institutions in the provinces. The adoption of PHX has already reached Php B3.1 and is predicted to increase tenfold in the next year or so.
Aguda also forecasted, “Cryptocurrency is in the same vein as digital payment. Years ago people said it will not catch on but look at it now. Regulations have created an environment where crypto is safe and more useful to the public.”
For Atty. JJ Disini, Managing Partner of the Disini Law Office which specialises in information and technology, tapping the crypto potential must be done with a great sense of responsibility, like “acting ethically when problems arise. Resolving dispute resolutions quickly will be good for the consumers. Building trust and security is a shared responsibility,” he said, which is why he welcomes the unified regulatory approach by BSP and the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC).
Gaba noted that the future of cryptocurrency has great potential in the Philippines. “We are confident now that because of the underlying interest in crypto, companies are going to follow suit. We have a nice ecosystem of players, a regulatory framework, and market participants to make crypto more impactful in nation-building.”
At the end of the forum, one thing was clear, which Plabasan summarised as follows: “BSP recognises the future of crypto in the Philippines.”