Blockchain Technology: Opportunities for Africa

June 15, 2017

The ISOC Blockchain Special Interest Group (ISOC-BSIG) has successfully organized a session at the Africa Internet Summit held in the beginning of June 2017 in Nairobi Kenya. Below is a report of the event along with images and videos.


Session Report:Blockchain Technology: Opportunities for Africa

June 2nd, 2017, Africa Internet Summit, Nairobi, Kenya

The Internet Society Blockchain Special Internet Group (ISOC-BSIG) organized on Friday June 2, 2017 a 90-minute plenary session entitled “Blockchain Technology: Opportunities for Africa” as part of the proceedings of the Africa Internet Summit held in Nairobi, Kenya during 21 May-2 June. The session attracted over 30 attendees leading to an overflow room, which marked significant interest in the subject.

The session’s panel was composed of:

  • Dr. Walid Al-Saqaf, ISOC Trustee and ISOC-BSIG Founding Member
  • Prof. Nii Quaynor, Chair of Ghana Dot Com & Founding Member of ISOC-BSIG
  • Dr. Kommy Weldemariam, Research Scientist & Manager IBM Research – Africa
  • Prof. Gihan Dias, ISOC Trustee & ISOC-BSIG Founding Member

Additionally, contributions via recorded video messages were provided by:

  • Mr. Pindar Wong, Interim-Chair of the ISOC Blockchain SIG
  • Mr. Vint Cerf, Vice President and Chief Internet Evangelist at Google

Below is a summary of the main points raised during the session. You can also find a video of the event towards the end of this post.

Reminder of the early 1990s Internet

The session started with a welcome by the lead organizer of the session Dr. Walid Al-Saqaf, who introduced the ISOC-BSIG and provided attendees with a preview of the agenda. Thereafter, he kicked off the panel discussion by giving a brief overview about blockchain technology and its use cases.

Walid’s talk stressed on the disruptive nature of the technology, which he compared to the Internet in the early 1990s when there were not many adopters but those who believed in it knew its potential. He noted that the technology could allow the deployment of sophisticated smart contracts that can potentially eliminate intermediaries in various sectors including finance, supply, trade, and online services. He concluded by stating that the rapid developments in the field have culminated in some coalitions and initiatives such as the Hyperledger project, which is a global collaboration hosted by the Linux Foundation and the Enterprise Ethereum Alliance, which comprises Fortune 500 enterprises, startups, academics, and technology vendors with Ethereum subject matter experts. He also presented some examples of startups and companies in Africa that attempt to use blockchains to address contemporary problems that deal with trust and accountability.

Booting blockchain technology in Africa

In a video message played at the session, ISOC-BSIG Interim-Chair Mr. Pindar Wong said that blockchain technology has a significant role to play in the development of the Internet in Africa because of the efficiency it produces by lowering costs of crossing trust boundaries. He noted that just like the open-source-driven Internet encouraged permissionless innovation, blockchains can promote permissionless monetization. Hence, blockchains, according to Pindar, open up the Internet to business in unprecedented ways, which help make full use of the Internet’s capabilities as a tool for development and opportunity.

Pindar added that the simplification of identity verification through public cryptography is a key feature that can drive efficiency on the Internet by creating a future where communication has evolved in such a way that domain names and IP addresses are replaced with cryptographic keys. Pindar went further by stating public blockchains could form the missing part that constitutes the foundation of the Internet of trust.

He added that the layer of trust that blockchains provide to a trustless Internet is particularly valuable to Africa, which has the opportunity to lead in this space. He further noted that this year’s Africa Internet Summit had several discussion and training sessions on blockchain-related matters, which are a step towards applying the technology by the same people who helped deploy the Internet in the continent decades ago.

Due to the rapid decrease in the cost of technology, Pindar argued that Africa could have a head-start when it comes to deploying blockchain-enabled solutions for trade and business online since there is a significant percentage of the population that is not yet connected to any banking system. He then extended an invitation to attendees to join ISOC-BSIG, which includes among its members early pioneers of the Internet, but also forward looking entrepreneurs willing to explore ways to promote permissionless innovation to benefit millions of Internet users in Africa and beyond.

A call for caution

In another video message, Google’s Vice President and Chief Internet Evangelist Dr. Vint Cerf was more measured when it comes to blockchain technology, which he believes has got hyperbolic press coverage, particularly when it comes to Bitcoin. He noted that while blockchains, particularly non-anonymous ones, are useful to prevent defrauding data in a particular system if less than half of its members are compromised, there are some vulnerabilities when it comes to security. In his view, the software that is used to connect to and interact with the blockchain needs to be properly audited since buggy or compromised software could prompt various attacks that may lead to risks of tremendous financial loss as demonstrated by the Mt. Gox case in 2014 when over 400,000 Bitcoins were lost.

In essence, Vint’s appeal was to ensure that the safety and security of the software through which the underlying blockchain implementation is made accessible and useful.

View the full video here.

Developing Blockchain Technical Community in Africa

Often referred to as the father of the Internet in Africa, Prof. Nii Quaynor, who is also a founding member of ISOC-BSIG, was among the most passionate and vocal voices on the panel when it comes to the need to have greater and deeper involvement in blockchain technology, particularly in Africa. He talked about the needs, some solutions and challenges. He pointed out that the crypto-currency and blockchain solutions require the internet to perform and also bring value to the internet. This technology brings financial inclusion and integrity to development in Africa. He suggested that developers view the blockchain as yet another data structure while writing the software programs freely. In answering to a question by one of the attendees, Nii said he still participates in a mining pool for Bitcoin, Nii explained that the rapid growth of Bitcoin is a testament to the increasing relevance and adaption of the technology worldwide. However, he admitted that having a competitive edge in the mining industry is very challenging for a miner in Ghana since the energy consumption required for  mining nowadays is prohibitively high for an average miner.

That being said, Nii stressed that the wide applications and potential opportunities blockchains provide for Africa are a reason to give this technology greater attention. AfNOG AIS organized two days of hands-on tutorials  and instructors were sponsored by bsafe network (thanks to Pindar Wong) during the AfNOG workshops that took place in Nairobi leading to the Africa Internet Summit. He stressed that much more is still needed moving forward and expects to see greater interest and involvement by the African community in the months and years to come.

Beyond FinTech

Dr. Kommy Weldemariam, who is a research scientist and the manager of IBM Research for Africa called for paying more attention to implementations of blockchain technology beyond the financial sector. By presenting some of the work that IBM is doing in tracking the supply chain, Kommy indicated that implementations of permissioned blockchains could be effectively used well beyond just a currency. For example, IBM Blockchain is now being used to track shipments and transactions in various supply chains that include food, drugs and even diamonds. He argued that having a broader understanding of the implementation of blockchains is quite important to promote a more trusted Internet for companies involved in shipping and receiving goods.

However, Kommy did point to a number of challenges such as the need to have all members of a permissioned blockchain committed to, involved in and fully aware of how the technology works and their role in the system. This is particularly difficult in Africa and other less developed countries where established standards are sometimes not properly implemented. Hence, he stressed the value of capacity building, training, research and awareness raising within Africa of those use cases and how to improve their work and be involved in such projects to reap the benefits of the technology.

Not needed for everything

While blockchain technology may appear trendy and fashionable, ISOC-BSIG Founding Member Prof. Gihan Dias stressed that it may not be needed for every single new emerging project. Distributed ledger technology should be used for cases where centralized techniques are less effective or even impossible. Gihan urged attendees to first ask “Is blockchain the best way or can another technology do it better?”. If the answer is not convincingly for blockchain, then it is better to consider alternative solutions.

Even if blockchains are used, it is important, according to Gihan, to consider the needs and challenges of using such a technology. Among the major prerequisites is to assemble a team that is competent and understands fully what the technology is about. Getting into blockchain technology-driven projects without the proper skillset and awareness could result in severely negative consequences, he stressed.

As a way forward, Gihan suggested having more frequent and open discussions as well as informative educational sessions on blockchain technology to separate fact from fiction and enlighten potential investors and wannabe blockchain entrepreneurs not only of the potential benefits and opportunities that blockchain technology provides, but also the requirements and risks involved.

Still the beginning

In a lively discussion with attendees, several questions around the technology were raised of which many signalled a degree of skepticism and confusion about the technology and its implications. Some attendees seemed to equate Bitcoin with blockchain while others were not fully convinced if the technology is ready for deployment in Africa.

At the end of the session, it was evident that attendees were more enlightened and informed about what the technology is about and why Africa could be a beneficiary.



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