- Ahmad Abu Daher, 22, says he and his team of more than 40 Lebanese and Syrian employees are working around the clock to man thousands of machines across the country.
- He got into the business after graduating from university into an environment of financial chaos, as the country's banking system collapses and hyperinflation takes root.
- He's one of many Lebanese turning to crypto mining to stay afloat.
It takes a lot to keep a grassroots cryptocurrency mining business up and running in Lebanon. Ahmad Abu Daher says he and his team of more than 40 Lebanese and Syrian employees are working around the clock to man thousands of machines across the country.
"We can't sleep. We can't have any break," the 22-year-old Abu Daher told CNBC at 2:36 A.M. Lebanon time. "All of my team are still awake. They don't sleep. Our shift is working 16 hours per day, and sometimes, up to 18 or 19 hours."
Abu Daher's voice competes with the sound of machines whirring in the background, each crunching thousands of complicated math equations to produce a mix of crypto tokens – now a vital source of income in a country where money has stopped making sense.
Lebanon once boasted a thriving and resilient banking sector that attracted the world's elite. But after decades of war, bad spending decisions by the government, and financial policies that the World Bank has compared to a Ponzi scheme, the country's economy is in ruin.
The local currency has lost more than 95% of its value since 2019, the minimum wage has plunged to $17 a month, pensions are virtually worthless, and bank account balances are just numbers on paper. Banks close without warning and ATMs are often either out of cash or entirely offline from nationwide blackouts. When locals are able to gain access to their accounts, many tell CNBC that they have grown accustomed to withdrawing money at 15% of its original worth.
Against this backdrop, Abu Daher jumped into the crypto mining business a little over two years ago. He and a friend began with three machines running on hydroelectric power in Zaarouriyeh, a town 30 miles south of Beirut in the Chouf Mountains.
"When we started, it was our great idea to make money while sleeping or eating," said Abu Daher. Nowadays, Abu Daher says he is online 20 hours a day.
An architect by training, Abu Daher saw several other university students unable to find work after graduation, so he realized he had to be proactive, teaching himself various technical tasks by watching YouTube videos.
It has been 26 months since Abu Daher first set up shop, and he says that business is thriving.
He now has about 400 crypto farms with between 5 and 100 machines each, in 42 villages across the country running on a mix of hydropower, solar power, and fuel. Abu Daher says that he pulls in about $20,000 a month, and typically, half of those proceeds come from mining and the other half from selling machines and trading in crypto.
When CNBC asked for crypto exchange statements and copies of bank balances to corroborate the estimate, Abu Daher said that the figure was pieced together from trading, mining, and selling machines, in a mix of transactions involving cash, checks, and tether, as well as multiple crypto wallets.
Abu Daher certainly has the trappings of a mining baron.
"When Ahmad pulled up in a white Range Rover to greet us and take us for a tour of the town, I was kind of impressed," said Mohamad El Chamaa, a journalist at L'Orient Today who previously reported on Abu Daher's crypto mines. "I had known him before Covid when he was a college student at the architecture department and I was his TA. It looked like the crypto business was treating him well."
Abu Daher had a few black swan events on his side soon after he broke into crypto mining.
In May 2021, China expelled crypto miners, flooding the market with cheap, used mining rigs and reducing competition. This happened as cryptocurrency prices climbed toward all-time record highs.
As geopolitics permanently reshaped the landscape of the crypto mining industry, Abu Daher and his team began to build out their own farms across Lebanon with rigs acquired at fire sale prices from miners in China. Paying for those machines was not always straightforward.
"Due to sanctions controls, difficulty with using cash, and specifically in Lebanon, the banking system and the inability to use dollars or wire money, USD tether is essentially a key intermediary currency between people in the Chinese hardware market to Lebanese purchasers," said Nicholas Shafer, a University of Oxford academic studying Lebanon's crypto mining industry.
Abu Daher's farms span the country, with roughly half of his equipment in the hydro-rich Chouf range, and the remaining 50% scattered throughout Lebanon, including in the Beqaa Valley, which is close to the Syrian border, and offers solar power as an alternative electricity source. (Though, as Shafer notes, the problem with solar is capacity — solar typically does not produce enough megawatts to mine at scale.)
Abu Daher also started to host rigs for people living across Lebanon, who needed stable money but lacked technical expertise and access to cheap and steady electricity, as the nation often experiences blackouts.
The mining boss does appear to be sharing those profits with his team. Shafer, who conducted field research at some of Abu Daher's mining sites, says that of Abu Daher's 40 employees, all receive a formal salary ranging from $800 to $4,000 per month in U.S. dollars or in tether. The blacksmith, who makes the least of any of Abu Daher's staff, earns more than 26 times the minimum wage in Lebanon, according to Shafer.
Abu Daher mines for a mix of cryptocurrencies, including litecoin, dogecoin, bitcoin, and ethereum classic — and in some cases, he has programmed the machines to switch to mine whichever is the most profitable coin that day. He uses software called TeamViewer to remotely monitor and keep track of all this hardware.
"Each machine can mine many coins, and each coin has their specific equations," explained Abu Daher. "Maybe today the best coin to mine is bitcoin, tomorrow it's litecoin, and the day after that, it's ethereum. We are always moving to have the most profit that we can."
Around two-thirds of his customers are Lebanese, including some mining for bitcoin, dogecoin, or litecoin as a way to get spending money for daily expenses like fuel and food. One-quarter are Syrian, and the remaining 8% are a mix of people living in Egypt, Turkey, France, and the United Kingdom.
With some of his clients, Abu Daher is merely a custodian of the machines — housing them, cooling them, and providing steady electrical power and strong internet access. He charges a fee and in exchange, he gives them a cut of the mining proceeds in crypto. Others just ask him to broker the equipment sale and install it.
Unlike the massive mining farms of Texas that stack hundreds of thousands of machines into buildings the size of multiple football stadiums, Abu Daher prefers to spread out his electrical footprint, divvying up his thousands of miners in places like stores, basements, and apartments, each with 10 to 20 machines, unless it's a house where he can split up groupings of miners into different rooms. In exchange for the space, Abu Daher pays rent in cash. In what was once a barbershop, for instance, Abu Daher runs 15 ASICs.
"At first glance, the town does not look like much of what you would think a 'mining' town would look like, but then you look inside the storefronts that are replacing traditional businesses, and you get a better feeling. For example, one of Ahmad's farms used to be a barbershop – there's still a mirror inside and ads for beauty products – but make no mistake that it is a fully fledged mining farm," said El Chamaa of some of the mines in the Chouf range.
He added that, "The mining farms themselves were not as impressive as the ones I've seen on TikTok, but my keen observation was that they get the job done either way."
Now, Abu Daher is trying to educate the locals about mining, mainly because he needs the extra manpower to keep the business going.
"We are trying to let someone in each village learn about mining in the purpose to help us. We can't cover all the machines we have by my team, because we have a huge amount of machines, and we are selling a huge amount of machines," he said.
In Oct. 2019, money stopped making sense in Lebanon. After a season of unrest triggered by an ill-fated taxation scheme and years of economic mismanagement, banks first limited withdrawals and then shut their doors entirely as much of the world descended into Covid lockdowns.
Hyperinflation took root. The local currency, which had a peg of 1,500 Lebanese pounds to $1 for 25 years, began to rapidly depreciate. The street rate is now around 40,000 pounds to $1. After re-opening, the banks refused to keep up with this extreme depreciation, and offered much lower exchange rates for U.S. dollars than they were worth on the open market.
Today, withdrawals of U.S. dollars deposited into the Lebanese banking system before 2019 are capped, and each so-called "lollar" is paid out at a rate worth about 15% of its actual value, according to estimates from multiple locals and experts living across Lebanon.
Meanwhile, banks still offer the full market-rate exchange rate for U.S. dollars deposited after 2019. These are now known colloquially as "fresh dollars."
Cryptocurrencies are volatile — the price of bitcoin has dropped about 70% from its peak a year ago — but the power of earning fresh dollars is a massive incentive for Lebanese to enter mining.
Rawad El Hajj, a 27-year-old with a marketing degree, found out about Abu Daher's mining operation three years ago through his brother.
"We started because there is not enough work in Lebanon," El Hajj said.
El Hajj, who lives south of the capital in a city called Barja, started small, purchasing two miners to start.
"Then every month, we started to go bigger and bigger," he said.
Because of the distance to Abu Daher's farms, El Hajj pays to outsource the work of hosting and maintaining the rigs. He tells CNBC that his 11 machines mine for litecoin and dogecoin, which collectively bring in the equivalent of about .02 bitcoin a month, or $360.
It's a similar story for Salah Al Zaatare, an architect living 20 minutes south of El Hajj in the coastal city of Sidon. Al Zaatare tells CNBC that he began mining dogecoin and litecoin in March of this year to augment his income. He now has 10 machines that he keeps with Abu Daher. Al Zaatare's machines are newer models so he pulls in more than El Hajj — about $7,200 a month.
"I got into it because I think it will become a good investment for the future," Al Zaatare told CNBC.
Al Zaatare pulled all of his money out of the bank before the crisis hit in 2019, and he held onto that cash until deciding to invest his life savings into mining equipment last year.
"I don't have any problem now living in Lebanon since I am getting fresh dollars from mining," said Myriam Harfoush, a 32-year-old French teacher living in Baakleen — about a 45-minute drive south of Beirut.
Harfoush, who trades in crypto on the side, told CNBC in a WhatsApp message that she took all of her money out of the bank at the start of the crisis and now has mining machines in Zaarouriyeh. (Harfoush only spoke to CNBC in written messages on WhatsApp, citing concerns over speaking by phone.)
"If you can get the machine, and you get the power, you get the money," said Shafer. "Crypto is something that with the right type of expertise, you can produce in your local context."
Cryptocurrencies like bitcoin, dogecoin, and litecoin are created through a process known as proof-of-work, in which miners around the world run high-powered computers that collectively validate transactions and simultaneously create new tokens. The process requires a lot of electricity, and because this is the only variable cost in a low-margin industry, miners tend to seek out the cheapest sources of power.
More often than not, renewables offer the most competitive pricing on electricity.
"It's a way to convert a locally stranded resource (electricity) into a global commodity," explained Nic Carter, a partner at Castle Island Ventures, which focuses on blockchain investments. "Hydro, especially run on the river, is one of those classic resources which tends to have a supply-demand mismatch."
Dammed hydro can better accommodate fluctuations in demand and grid needs, whereas run-of-the-river hydro produces constantly, Carter tells CNBC.
"So you often see these stranded or underutilized hydro resources being monetized part of the time with bitcoin mining, as we saw infamously in Sichuan and Yunnan in China," continued Carter.
Abu Daher taps into a hydropower project which harnesses electricity from the 90-mile Litani River that cuts across southern Lebanon. He says he is getting 20 hours a day of electricity at old pre-inflationary rates.
"So basically, we are paying very cheap electricity, and we are getting fresh dollars through mining," continued Abu Daher.
But the government, facing electrical shortages, is starting to crack down.
In January, police raided a small crypto mining farm in the hydro-powered town of Jezzine, seizing and dismantling mining rigs in the process. Soon after, the Litani River Authority, which oversees the country's hydroelectric sites, reportedly said that "energy intensive cryptomining" was "straining its resources and draining electricity."
But Abu Daher tells CNBC he is neither worried about being raided — nor the government's proposal to hike up the price of electricity.
"We had some meetings with the police, and we don't have any problems with them, because we are taking legal electricity, and we are not affecting the infrastructure," he said.
Whereas Abu Daher says that he has set up a meter that officially tracks how much energy his machines have consumed, other miners have allegedly hitched their rigs to the grid illegally and are not paying for power.
"Basically, a lot of other persons are having some issues, because they are not paying for electricity, and they are affecting the infrastructure," he said.
Abu Daher, who has a knack for building creative designs to solve real-world problems, says that his next goal is creating a closed energy loop for his mining farms. He envisions a system in which the heat produced by the machines is harnessed and that geothermal energy is repurposed to power the miners, as well as to heat homes and hospitals in the villages where these mines are located.
"Instead of buying fuel to heat up our homes, we would buy mining machines. We produce heat to heat up our building, and at the same time, we produce money," Abu Daher explained of his grand vision for the future of crypto mining in Lebanon.