Vision for blockchain in Africa is becoming a reality
Ethiopia and Rwanda keen to realise promise of the technology
29 May 2018 John O'Connor 7 mins read
The hope of bringing the benefits of blockchain to Africa has been around even longer than IOHK itself. Founder Charles Hoskinson talked about the promise of the technology driving financial inclusion on the continent in a TEDx speech in 2014. The vision encouraged me to join the Cardano project. This month, IOHK signed an MoU with the Ethiopian government to train and hire junior software developers and use Cardano in its agriculture industry, a step towards this promise being realised. Now the real work begins, as we look to use Cardano to solve real problems in Ethiopia and beyond.
The IOHK team flew into Addis Ababa, the capital, on May 3 for Ethiopia’s first blockchain forum, which we jointly organised with the Ethiopian Ministry of Science and Technology. As Director of African Operations, my last two months in Ethiopia have been a whirlwind of interaction with government, universities and the local technology scene. It was a pleasure to have those that I’ve met join us on stage to discuss what blockchain can do for Ethiopia.
We did not arrive with solutions, but with a commitment to find them. IOHK’s Alan McSherry who leads the Cardano Enterprise team, came out to gather business requirements for permissioned applications of Cardano, as did 13 other members of the IOHK team. Seeing the ideas that emerged from the dialogue between IOHK and the ministry validated our launch in Ethiopia, and our belief in a productive and mutually beneficial relationship. This belief is enshrined in the MoU Charles signed with the Minister of Science and Technology, Dr Getahun.
MoU’s are non-binding but are taken seriously in Ethiopia, because they represent a required first step before entering into contractual obligations. In the MoU, we stated our intent to train and hire Haskell developers from a new office in Addis Ababa. The Ethiopian government stated its intent to help us to deploy Cardano in Ethiopian agriculture. This training course is the first of its kind in Africa. We expect to start in September 2018 with an inaugural class of 30 women developers. All of our trainees will leave with the ability to create blockchain applications to help drive tech-enabled growth in Ethiopia. Those who excel will be hired by IOHK and not only contribute to Cardano code, but help build the blockchain agriculture applications we are exploring in partnership with the government. With 80 million Ethiopians working in this industry, the opportunity for blockchain to make an impact is huge. Coffee is Ethiopia’s largest export, and there are many sophisticated companies along the supply chain who have a deep understanding of the product.
We are in active discussions with many such companies to develop, refine, and implement the technology. Proving the origin of coffee is one such application. I’m also excited about using smart contracts to incentivise smallholder coffee farmers to adopt more productive farming practices (I’ll be writing more about some of our projects like this in the coming weeks). Some 80% of Ethiopia’s population is under the age of 30, and GDP growth is 10% a year. With the right support from government, Ethiopia could transform into an incredibly powerful, technology-enabled economy. Ethiopia’s national animal is the lion, and if that lion has been sleeping, it is now waking up.
The day after the conference IOHK spent time with many of Ethiopia’s most promising entrepreneurs and the tech community. IOHK worked with Ethiopian accelerators ICE Addis and Bluemoon to have local startups pitch their existing startups, and how they were planning on leveraging blockchain technology. The judge was, of course, Charles.
This was a highlight of the trip for me. After a pitch Charles would mischievously state that he had a few questions, before delivering a grilling that would have a Harvard MBA looking for the nearest exit. The startups held up fantastically.
Since I began talking to local entrepreneurs in Addis two months ago I’ve received many messages from local companies interested in learning more about the technology. The first Cardano Addis meetup was the beginning of a process of fostering understanding and adoption of the technology. The pitches showed me that these startups have not only begun looking at blockchain, but have puzzled out how it can add value to their businesses. Our colleagues in Cardano’s commercial entity Emurgo shared my view, and are in discussions about investing in a cohort of blockchain-enabled Ethiopian technology startups.
The next leg of the trip for the IOHK team took us to Kigali, Rwanda, where Charles was talking at the Transform Africa Summit.
The summit aimed to bring together global and regional leaders from government, business and international organizations to collaborate on new ways of shaping, accelerating and sustaining Africa’s digital revolution. Blockchain was a key focus for the conference organisers, and we were honoured to have been invited and recognised for the efforts we are beginning to make in the region. Rwanda is truly a miraculous example of what can be accomplished when a country is united in its purpose and its government has embraced the principles of accountability, efficiency and openness.
The opportunity for IOHK to help enable this transformation is incredibly exciting. There are many countries where the promise of a technology that can bring transparency to government processes would be met with trepidation. It is huge credit to Rwanda that they seek to not only participate, but promote the technology’s adoption through the Transform Africa Summit.
And so on to strategy. Whilst we expect to have operations across many African countries in the future, focusing our initial efforts on Ethiopia and Rwanda will be a powerful start. Ethiopia has a government that is eager to engage in digital transformation and though early in that process, has the ability to deploy the technology across the country. The applications we are discussing could benefit tens of millions of people. Rwanda on the other hand has a population a tenth the size of Ethiopia. However they are leading Africa in their commitment to support innovative technologies. Ideas can be tried and tested. If they fail, lessons will be learnt and the next attempt will be better. This principle is the central driver of innovation, and Rwanda has embraced it.
After a whirlwind few weeks I’d like to thank everyone who has allowed us to reach this point. I thank ICE Addis, Bluemoon capital, as well as Impact hub in Kigali for hosting events with us and connecting me with the local entrepreneurship. I thank the IOHK and Emurgo teams who flew out to be on the ground and help us establish our work. But most importantly, I’d like to thank Yodahe Zemichael from the Science Technology and Information Centre and Dr Getahun Mekuria, Minister of Science and Technology. You have been more agile, proactive, and enthusiastic partners than we could have hoped for. We look forward to working with you.
How Cardano can help development in Africa
We are taking the first steps on our journey in the continent and invite you to join us
10 March 2018 John O'Connor 7 mins read
Five years ago, I was with a friend when she received a distressing call from her home in East Africa. Without permission, someone had been collecting the rent on a small commercial premises she owned in the capital. My friend had inherited the property five months previously from her father, but had only recently discovered that the property had tenants. The rent collector in question turned out to be a neighbour of the property and the previous owner. Upon learning that her father had passed away, he’d elected to take advantage of the confusion and collect the rent for himself. In the court case that followed, my friend provided a fund transfer receipt she had found in her father’s office. Expecting that to be the end of it, she was shocked when the neighbour still claimed the plot to be his, on the basis of his name being registered with the utilities company. The problem for the court was that when there is no reliable record of ownership what should it do? When friends in London ask me if the UK government will ever adopt blockchain technology, I have to stop and think. Blockchain can reduce cost and increase efficiency in almost any industry that involves record keeping. However in countries with entrenched processes and institutions that reliably (if expensively) maintain records, efficiency may not always provide sufficient motivation for governments to switch. The UK Land Registry is such an example. Founded in 1862, this institution has 4,486 employees and over 150 years of expertise and cultural history, which allows me to access a record of ownership history for any property at a cost of £7. This reliable legal title acts as a catalyst for economic growth. Landowners can use property as collateral to borrow money, perhaps to expand their businesses. If they choose to sell their property, the purchaser can pay with the confidence that they are truly purchasing the legal title.
For many African countries however, this is not the case. Efforts to improve records have generally had limited impact. That is not to say there have not been successes. In a three-year programme, Rwanda led an effort to register titles of land ownership. It was effective, and by the time the scheme was complete, 81% of plots had been issued titles, driving investment and economic growth. Embracing the high mobile penetration rate, the ledger was linked to a telephone service, allowing the ownership of plots of land to be instantly queried in ongoing disputes. Yet without the institutional cultural history of accurate ledger keeping, there continued to be problems with keeping records up to date when land was sold or inherited. Enter blockchain.
A digital blockchain property register that identified land using GPS coordinates would allow property ownership to be verified and transferred at low cost. Rwanda has woken up to this, and as part of its digital transformation plan is looking to port its ledger onto the blockchain. There are similar noises in both Kenya and Ghana, as government officials begin to see that the technology might let them leapfrog the 150 years of development the UK Land registry has benefited from.
If the opportunities that are now arising for blockchain trials in sub-Saharan Africa are to be maximised, then they should be built on robust and open-source technology. Our aim with Cardano was to build a blockchain based on peer-reviewed academic research by some of the world’s foremost researchers and engineers. We chose to write it in Haskell, a formal programming language that allows mathematical guarantees of the correctness of code. These design decisions were made not because they were easy, but because they would give strong foundations to whatever applications were built on Cardano. We have started down this road, and now is the time to begin planning trial projects across countries in the African subcontinent. We aim to make Cardano the blockchain used to build land registries and much more.
This is a grand ambition and will not be accomplished in a day. Success will be achieved only if public authorities invest in creating the required legal and regulatory environments for these trials. Even after proving value, there will be implementation challenges in scaling a tech solution to run for millions or hundreds of millions of people. Governments, NGOs, and the private sector will need to work together to fulfill the promise of this technology.
IOHK must earn the right to sit at this table by building credibility through sustained investment of resources and attention. Our first inroads to Africa will therefore be with education. The core of Cardano is the Haskell engineering team, who turn our research into actual lines of code. We have run engineering schools in partnership with universities in Barbados and Greece, taking young graduates and intensively training them in Haskell. At the end of the course, some will be employed by IOHK as junior software developers, continuing their training and earning a competitive salary. Training is free, without obligation, and delivered by leading academics in the field. We have hired 70% of the students that have embarked on the scheme, with most of the remainder continuing on into further education. Education should not strip a country of their best and brightest, and the jobs that are offered are local, allowing hires to contribute to a global project from their own country. This year we will offer our first course in Africa, probably in Ethiopia, and expect the first cohort of Ethiopian developers to be contributing to Cardano code by the end of the year.
If you are based or work in Africa and would like to help, please submit your details through this form. We are looking to partner with governments, the private sector, and NGOs who are interested in using Cardano. We are also looking for community volunteers to help organise events and meetups.
Artwork, Mike Beeple
African Operations Director