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Seven Ways to Use Blockchain for International Development

August 22, 2017

Blockchain is the single most disruptive technology for the international development sector as we understand it today. In a blog post for Devex, Dr. Jane Thomason, Senior Global Advisor, Digital Transformations at Abt Associates, writes that "blockchain is here to stay" and that "we can expect to see it increasingly in emerging markets." Thomason offers seven examples of how difference sectors are using blockchain.

1. Financial services
Fintech, or financial services applications, is the fastest-moving sector. Many of these applications are aimed at the unbanked. For example, BitPesa is a pan-African blockchain-based payment system headquartered in Kenya targeted at businesses to easily make payments to employees, distributors, and suppliers. 

2.  Remittances
In the ever-expanding space of remittances, CASHAA is a blockchain-based financial service that helps complete mobile cash transfers with zero fees. Cash senders can choose the amount to transfer in their currency and the amount to be received in the currency of the receiver.

3. Peer-to-peer energy trading
Another rapidly developing sector is peer-to-peer energy trading, which offers opportunities for the poor to both access renewable energy and trade it. Solar startups Azuri TechnologiesOff-grid Electric, and Mobisol are producing low-cost solar panel solutions for off-grid areas in rural Africa. For example, in Bangladesh, SOLshare offers a blockchain-based "swarm electrification" service to allow solar producers to sell solar electricity to their neighbors.

4. Supply chain
Agriculture supply chains also hold great potential for blockchain, Thomason writes. Bext360 leverages blockchain technology to manage payments in automated kiosks that evaluate produce — cherries and coffee — negotiate price and transfer digital cash. The company makes digital/mobile payments directly to all the stakeholders in the supply chain, including farmers, communities, banks and others. Their system tracks the goods from their source to end consumer, enabling customers to directly interact with the supplying communities.

5. Land registry
In the area of land registry, two startups in Ghana are testing blockchain solutions. BenBen’s blockchain-enabled land registry allows people to search, manage, and verify property and land documents such as site plans, indentures, and mortgages. Bitland hopes to create a digital land registry that is universal, transparent, immutable, and bridges the gap between the government and undocumented areas.

6. Identity
Identity is central to all of these applications. Bitnation's Refugee Emergency Response focuses on the identity and financial issues of displaced people in the European refugee crisis. By signing up for a blockchain emergency ID, refugees can have a permanent, non-government affiliated ID (a quick response code) that is verified through their relationships with friends and family. Bitnation also provides access to bitcoin debit cards, where donors can fund a refugee’s new bank account, leading humanitarian aid right to the hands of those who need it.

An exciting new entrant to the ID space is the IDBox, which can register a digital identity without electricity, internet, or smart phones. IDBox can be used in humanitarian emergencies, remote populations, and can ensure cash transfers reach intended beneficiaries. Abt Associates is working with the Papua New Guinea Central Bank and IDBox founder Julien Bouteloupe to run a use case trial in Papua New Guinea.

7. Fund tracking
Another area of interest is the development of applications to track donor funds. For example, Aid: Tech works with governments and NGOs to improve the flow and transparency of funds and services to underserved people. They have completed a blockchain pilot in Lebanon, providing digital cash vouchers to Syrian refugees to enable them to purchase much-needed food and other supplies. Another startup called Disberse aims to reduce the mismanagement or misappropriation of funds moving from donor to recipient.

How Will It Be Funded?

Thomason writes that it’s not just the technology developments to watch — it’s also how funds are raised to scale it. A new phenomenon called initial coin offerings  raises funds by creating their own cryptocurrency. These are offered at discounted rates on digital assets before they hit the cryptocurrency exchanges. A digital asset is created, a value determined — and by consensus reached by investment, value is settled by a network of participants rather than by a central authority or government. 

 “The international development community needs to start thinking about the ways blockchain technology can transform how we do our work,” Thomason writes. “While there are many questions still to be answered in this new world of tokens and digital everything— it is without question a space we must watch closely,” she concludes.

A full version of the piece is available on Devex.

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