This is the second in a series by Aaron van Wirdum focusing on real people who use cryptocurrencies. Read about his earlier experiences in Italy here: “Real Users”: In This Mountain Town, Everyone Knows About Bitcoin.
The straight stone road from the partially crumbled city wall to the scaffolded church in the center of the central Italian town of Norcia is empty. It glimmers a bit from the rain; the weather is unusually wet for this region today. Tourists and day-trippers that would usually be strolling around the historic town center on Saturday afternoons like these are nowhere to be seen.
Bad luck for Ilaria and Lorenzo. The couple — both in their thirties, both wearing thick coats, scarves and beanies to keep themselves warm — set up a small mobile bar near the end of the street, under a white marquee; the inside is decorated with pictures of flowers. It’s all part of a local street market festival.
There, they sell saffron and beer produced with saffron, produced from the thin reddish stalks plucked from the crocus. It’s a delicacy, Lorenzo explains, as he hands out taster-sized plastic cups with beer. “Pound-for-pound among the most expensive products in the world,” he says.
It’s been almost 18 months since the Norcia area was struck with a seismic shock of 6.2 on the Richter scale: an earthquake that many of the old brick homes typical of the Mediterranean countryside could not withstand. Whole street blocks had collapsed, claiming hundreds of casualties.
Ilario and Lorenzo in their market stand bar
Ilaria and Lorenzo got out safely, but their home was destroyed and their town, San Pellegrino di Norcia, is abandoned. They now live in a small, prefabricated house on the edge of Norcia.
Yet, Ilaria and Lorenzo have been able to keep their saffron business running, even after disaster struck their lives. They rebuilt parts of their organic plantation with financial help from Legambiente, a charity-based NGO dedicated to the earthquake recovery efforts.
This financial help did not come in euros. Legambiente had no euros left, Ilaria and Lorenzo were told when they applied for a reimbursement about a year ago; only Bitcoin. The two had heard of the digital currency a couple of years ago when they were researching local money systems. But they had never owned any themselves.
“We would have preferred euros if it was available,” Ilaria admits, sitting down on one of the wooden benches they installed in the marquee. There are no potential customers stopping by, so she has time to talk about her experience. “But Bitcoin was, of course, better than nothing, so we gladly accepted.”
Guido Baroncini Turricchia, founder of Helperbit
The reason Ilaria and Lorenzo received Bitcoin is Guido Baroncini Turricchia. The 39-year old Italian environmental engineer is the founder of Helperbit, a Rome-based startup that leverages Bitcoin for fundraising campaigns.
Bitcoin is particularly well-suited to these types of causes, Baroncini Turricchia thinks, because of the transparency it provides. Through Bitcoin’s public blockchain, donors can trace the funds they donate and be sure that they really end up at the Bitcoin addresses of the intended recipients of the money — and nowhere else.
“Helperbit was only four months old when disaster struck Norcia,” Baroncini Turricchia recalls, as we are driving in his car from Rome to the disaster-struck town.
“For any natural disaster it takes a couple of days before media attention catches onto the scope of the event and for donation infrastructure to be set up. As the fundraising campaign starts, the amount of incoming donations reaches a peak within one or two weeks. It then fizzles out over the next couple of months or years,” he explains, as he uses his finger to draw a long-tailed, skewed bell-curve through the fogged interior of the windshield in front of him.
The number of incoming donations for Norcia was already past its peak when Baroncini Turricchia was still looking for an NGO that would take Bitcoin donations through Helperbit. Most of them were skeptical, even though he offered to set up integration for free. After several rejections, Legambiente was the first and only NGO that took Baroncini Turricchia up on the offer.
“They were initially skeptical too,” Baroncini Turricchia said. “News coverage about Bitcoin had been negative overall. But they ultimately agreed to give it a try.”
Even though Helperbit was late — it was November before it was all set up — the project was still able to collect more than 10 Bitcoins over about a year’s time. The coins became part of Legambiente’s budget, set up to reimburse local entrepreneurs on some of the costs they had to make to keep their businesses running.
“There are still Bitcoins in the fund,” Baroncini Turricchia said. With Bitcoin’s price increase over the past year, the euro value of this fund is up quite a bit as well. “But I’m not sure many people in Norcia know about…