3 ways blockchain innovation is enhancing humanitarian response
Here’s how blockchain innovations bring untapped value to WFP’s humanitarian operations — This story was updated on 30 September 2022 to reflect the latest developments on WFP’s blockchain projects mentioned in this article.
By Gulia Rakhimova
Those who champion blockchain suggest that it is the next big disruptor after the internet that could transform every industry. The technology is still emerging, and with enormous potential.
The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) is the world’s largest humanitarian organization and the one providing the largest blockchain-based cash transfer assistance. As an early adopter of blockchain in the humanitarian and development sector, WFP is exploring further opportunities to trailblaze on this front to help in our work towards Zero Hunger. Here’s some of our recent blockchain projects that can change the game for good.
So, what’s so special about blockchain that can be transformative for humanitarian work?
Essentially, blockchain is a type of database that records information in chronological order by adding a new block of data to an ever-growing chain of data blocks. These blocks are all linked together, they reference each other, and the records are both traceable and irreversible at all times.
What makes blockchain truly disruptive is the ability to ensure data is secure and valid without any central authority. Participants of the blockchain can add records to the blockchain, but cannot alter the blockchain because it exists on multiple computers around the world. In fact, nothing in the blockchain can be added, removed or changed without the visibility of the blockchain’s participants. This community visibility and management make it unnecessary for a centralized party to hold authority over the blockchain, offering a new avenue for transparency and peer-to-peer collaboration.
For WFP, blockchain technology can help us trace food products from their source, farms, to an end point, such as markets or retail shops. Blockchain can accelerate financial inclusion for food-insecure communities by recording disbursements of cash based assistance to ensure equitable distribution. Blockchain can also coordinate various humanitarian organizations’ assistance packages that are provided to a population (such as food, protection, shelter, skills development, etc.) which together can ladder up to a better and more sustainable future.
Let’s take a closer look at different blockchain use cases at WFP.
1. Smallholder farmers use blockchain for quality control
Despite producing much of the world’s food, smallholder farmers tend to be food insecure themselves — growing and earning just enough income to make it to the next harvest. Decapolis is a blockchain-powered solution that tracks the quality of the food produce as it passes through the entire supply chain. From the farm to the marketplace, this quality control benefits both the smallholder farmer and the end consumers at markets.
Smallholder farmers use the Decapolis platform to register quality assessments such as lab test results, during each step of its production. Because the blockchain is tamper-proof, smallholders can refer to these records to certify their products’ compliance with local and international food safety standards. On the Decapolis platform, Retailers can verify this product quality, can trace the food produce through the supply chain, and can ultimately be assured that they are purchasing certified premium crops.
This is a step in creating access for smallholder farmers to large food market places, as they compete with large scale industrial food suppliers. Blockchain is a significant differentiator here, enabling a stronger buyer trust and the opportunity for smallholder farmers to access bigger markets, generate better incomes, and support local food systems.
2. Blockchain promotes financial inclusion for the unbanked
Blockchain has untapped potential for WFP and the humanitarian sector at large in that it can enable financial inclusion for the populations we serve. Take EMPACT, WFP’s innovation project that connects young people from food insecure communities to the digital economy. In Kibera, Africa’s largest urban slum located in Kenya, the students are trained to perform routine IT tasks via freelance microwork platforms. In doing so, they can earn income online, afford to buy food and pay for their own housing, when there are no opportunities open in the local job market.
A consistent issue that the EMPACT project faces is that young people in Kibera are “unbanked” — that is, they don’t have bank accounts to receive payments. It is estimated that up to 75 percent of Sub-Saharan Africans are financially excluded and don’t have access to formal financial institutions, credit, or even basic savings accounts. Cash transfer platforms are an alternative, but they incur high costs per transaction that can make receiving payments for microwork prohibitively expensive and time-consuming.
WFP supported the Digital Microwork project identified through the WFP Innovation Challenge in 2020, to explore the use of blockchain to solve this issue; it was implemented as part of the EMPACT programme in Kenya. The project worked with Celo, an open-source blockchain platform, to give students access to digital crypto-based accounts. Corsali, a machine learning startup, developed a platform that makes digital microwork accessible on a mobile device. Together, these two elements enable students to do microwork even from their smartphones and get paid without losing much on transaction fees.
3. Ramping up co-innovation and knowledge sharing with blockchain
The humanitarian and development sector is increasingly applying blockchain solutions in field projects. Sharing knowledge and building on each other’s experience goes a long way to creating new blockchain applications that can advance work towards the Sustainable Development Goals. This is what The Atrium aims to do.
Intended for experimentation, the Atrium is a collaboration platform allowing participants to plant and grow new ideas in a “sandbox” environment, and explore each other’s blockchain applications. The Atrium consists of three components: a web-based community platform with access to learning content and a forum, a GitHub repository of UN blockchain applications, and the underlying infrastructure to set up and run blockchain prototypes.
WFP co-created the Atrium platform with UNICEF and the United Nations Innovation Network (UNIN) to stimulate learning, collaboration, and innovation around blockchain applications across the UN. It is the largest institutional collaboration platform in the UN system.
Emerging frontiers of humanitarian action
The WFP Innovation Accelerator provides startups and innovators with US $100,000 in funding and mentorship to help them advance blockchain solutions tackling global hunger and other SDGs. In 2022, we identified startups with solid and ready-for-testing and deployment projects through a call for applications that specifically sought blockchain solutions. Stay tuned and follow our channels below to receive news about these new blockchain pilots at WFP.
- Visit our website to find out more about Community Inclusion Currencies, Decapolis, Digital Microwork, and other blockchain projects that have achieved impact under WFP’s Sprint Programme.
- Watch this video to learn more about blockchain technology and its applications in WFP’s work.
- Learn about WFP’s Food for Crisis web3 initiative with the Global Blockchain Business Council, which seeks to raise US$1 billion in crypto and fiat donations for WFP.
- Find out about WFP’s frontier innovations portfolio — cutting-edge technologies and ideas that can offer new ways of delivering humanitarian assistance.
The WFP Innovation Accelerator sources, supports and scales high-potential solutions to end hunger worldwide. We provide WFP staff, entrepreneurs, start-ups, companies and non-governmental organizations with access to funding, mentorship, hands-on support and WFP operations.
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