The words ‘technology’ and ‘innovation’ often bring to mind an image of affluence, such as products and services built by the affluent for the affluent. When resources are optimised in this way, a vast opportunity, namely, to serve the 3.4Bn or 50% of the world’s population living on less than $5.50/day, is missed.
A convergence of factors, including COVID-19, the Ukraine conflict, climate change and inflation, have reversed decades of improvement in food security and poverty alleviation. In two years, the number of severely food insecure people has doubled, from 135MM pre-pandemic to 276MM+ in 2022. According to the latest estimates, one person dies of starvation every four seconds. Aid organisations are strapped for talent and resources and often rely on manual efforts to procure and deliver goods. While their efforts are heroic, they do not lend themselves to scalability or the ability to track and report on resources raised vs outcomes realised.
Continuing to build for the latest high-income consumer trends and applications does not simply represent a missed opportunity; it represents a moral misalignment that must be revisited. What to do, then?
Utilising available technological infrastructure
An uplifting confluence of new and existing technology and hardware offers a place to start. The prevalence of mobile phones in India (expected to increase to 1 billion users by 2025), throughout Africa, rural China and Southeast Asia provide the promise of individually contacting and connecting individuals and families that would otherwise be “off the radar.” This trend towards data-enabled devices is expected to accelerate, with 5G technology reaching further and enabling faster connectivity: 21% of all connections worldwide will be 5G by 2025. Increasingly inexpensive and portable electrical power provided by solar panels and charging stations (enough for a phone and a refrigerator, at least) are increasing in accessibility too.
Imagine an application whose sole aim is to enable an individual, family or group with a mobile phone, to make their needs and approximate location known in a way that protects their identities but allows for their situations to be resourced for at scale. What if that application’s infrastructure offered immutable transparency between sourcing donations and funds and the distribution of aid? This type of solution would enable NGOs and humanitarian aid providers to share a single source of truth – an accurate demand signal, as well as the ability to further benchmark themselves against their own efforts, improving productivity and efficiency.
Leveraging blockchain’s capabilities
Blockchain offers tremendous promise to many use cases beyond cryptocurrency and speculation, and the humanitarian aid sector is one of them. Current thinking in regard to humanitarian aid is groups of well-meaning actors soliciting and distributing aid from well-meaning individuals and corporations. However, we should instead reframe this perception as the highest-stakes operators in the supply chain industry today, where the difference between procuring and delivering the correct goods is quite literally the difference between life and death.
Blockchain is the lynchpin underlying a potential solution, such as the application designed to surface and aggregate beneficiary information for NGOs to use. It enables a secure connection between demand data (individuals and groups in need) and supply (NGOs and aid organisations). There are several use cases within the private sector, including IBM’s offering of blockchain solutions for small and medium-sized businesses operating in the procurement and distribution of goods, from seafood to coffee to wine. The benefits of leveraging blockchain are undeniable. It is absolutely the time to start leveraging blockchain for the greater good!
Reframing blockchain as an accessible technology
However, awareness is not enough. Reducing jargon and, ideally, avoiding talking about the technology underpinning such a solution in the first place is key to ensuring that the concept is approachable and understandable by the largest number of potential users. What’s critical is that the technology works as intended. For example, if I use the Uber application to request a driver to come to pick me up and bring me to the airport, I’m much more interested in whether or not the driver appears at the scheduled time vs the underlying technology that enables the app.
The necessary steps to reframe and expand adoption of blockchain are three-fold. Firstly, building or supporting the building of as many solutions to facilitate positive outcomes in this sector as possible. Secondly, educating or creating the educational materials necessary to inform, de-mystify and de-jargonize such a concept to avoid conflation with the rife speculation around cryptocurrency and ensure general understandability. And thirdly, testing, iterating and launching as quickly as possible.
While the outcomes remain unknown, any business owner knows that the best way to improve is to start with reliable, measurable data. An application that facilitates the gathering and organisation of a reliable dataset and an ‘at a glance’ dashboard for humanitarian aid organisations, policymakers and governments represent a decisive first step in enabling innovation in serving those in need of aid. The sooner blockchain-enabled applications such as TechAid are live, and in use, the sooner learnings can compound and contribute to more and greater innovations to serve and save those facing food shortages globally.