HERAT -- In the middle of a bazaar in western Afghanistan, Arezo Akrimi takes out her smartphone and, after a few taps of the screen, exchanges some cryptocurrency for a bundle of hard cash.
Akrimi, 19, is one of 100 students in Herat receiving about $200 a month in cryptocurrency since September thanks to an American NGO, Code To Inspire.
This sum, which she converts at a currency exchange into afghanis, is crucial for paying rent and helping feed her family of six.
During the past seven months, Afghanistan's economy has virtually collapsed and the country is in the grip of a crisis caused by the freezing of billions of dollars of assets held abroad.
But digital currencies and their decentralised architecture, impervious to international sanctions, are allowing a handful of young Afghans to avoid the worst of the crisis.
"It was very surprising for me to learn that this could be used in Afghanistan," said Akrimi. "It was really helpful."
Bank transfers to Afghanistan are almost impossible currently.
But even those with money in a bank struggle to get it out -- individuals are limited to withdrawing the equivalent of $200 a week, and businesses $2,000.
Customers have to queue for hours even for those transactions.
Cryptocurrency transfers have allowed the NGO to circumvent these obstacles while ensuring that each donation reaches those who need it most, said founder Fereshteh Forough.
"Crypto is an incredible way to overcome all kinds of political and economic sanctions but also a tool that can change the lives of people living in an authoritarian regime," said Forough, an American whose parents fled Afghanistan in the 1980s.
To guarantee the financial security of the student recipients, the NGO avoids paying them in bitcoin, the best-known cryptocurrency but whose price regularly swings wildly.
Instead, it favours the BUSD, a so-called "stablecoin" whose price is backed by the dollar.
"One BUSD is $1," said Forough.
Beyond this humanitarian initiative, cryptocurrencies are gaining other followers in Herat, according to currency dealer Hamidullah Temori.
He has seen an influx of new customers over the past six months, many of whom regularly come to convert crypto-assets sent by relatives from abroad into afghanis.
Cryptocurrency transfers to and from Afghanistan have increased by 80% since last August, he said.
Transfers are instantaneous and commissions are much lower than for transactions made through Western Union or hawala, the over-the-counter system traditionally favoured by Afghans.
In Kabul, Noor Ahmad Haidar has become a crypto convert by force of circumstance.
The young man, who started exporting saffron to the United States, Britain, Australia and Canada in early 2021, now has 90% of his orders paid for in bitcoin.
"I avoid going through the chaotic process of bank transfers," he said.
"Since August, it has really become the only option available, and the most convenient for me."
Its growing popularity in Afghanistan was noted by Chainalysis in its 2021 Global Cryptocurrency Adoption Index, which ranked the country 20th out of 154 countries for "grassroots take-up".
"We're at a time when there are more solutions that allow you to trade cryptocurrencies on your phone and more people understand what it is," said Kim Grauer, the firm's director of research.
Still, while momentum is growing, the volume of trading remains very low, she said, and will remain so because of the lack of internet access and high levels of illiteracy in Afghanistan.
'Willing to take risks'
But for those who can venture into this world, cryptocurrencies could be a lifeline.
Besides his studies, Ruholamin Haqshanas writes from Herat for India-based media specialising in new technologies.
Over the past seven months his salary, paid entirely in stablecoins, has allowed him to absorb the galloping inflation and the free fall of the afghani.
"The stablecoins offer a very good protection against the loss of value of the currency," said the 22-year-old student, who now earns more than his doctor father.
The young man is also trying to speculate on some of the more volatile cryptocurrencies, thanks to the advice of a WhatsApp group with 13,000 members in Herat.
Fellow student Parisa Rahamati earned $600 in February hedging on the price of decentralised currencies such as Ethereum and Avax -- a windfall she shared with her widowed and unemployed mother.
"You have to be willing to take risks," said the 22-year-old. "Crypto is 50/50... you can double your bet or go to zero."