3 ways blockchain innovation is enhancing humanitarian response

Here’s how blockchain innovations bring untapped value to WFP’s humanitarian operations

By Gulia Rakhimova

WFP actively seeks new ways of delivering humanitarian assistance by exploring cutting-edge technologies and innovations, and has done so since its earliest days. Photo: WFP/Jörg Koch.

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 in 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 produce 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.

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.

Since the pilot’s launch in February 2020, 100 smallholder farmers have been onboarded, trained and are now using the Decapolis platform in Jordan. Photo: WFP/Mohamad Batah.

Decapolis is an early stage startup that came through the WFP Innovation Hub in Jordan and tailored its pilot plan at WFP’s Innovation Bootcamp. Decapolis is now operational in Jordan under WFP’s Sprint Programme.

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.

The EMPACT innovation project 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 or even 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.

The WFP Innovation Accelerator is working with a startup to explore the use of a blockchain based payment system to solve this issue. “The blockchain would provide students with access to a digital account and significantly reduce the transaction fees for bite-sized microwork payments,” says Gustav Stromfelt, New Ventures Consultant at WFP Innovation Accelerator. To date, the startup has worked with 40 Kenyan university students to pilot an initial concept which they brought to the WFP Innovation Bootcamp in March 2021.

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.

Presentation of the Atrium at the Interagency Innovation Bootcamp co-hosted by the UN Innovation Network and WFP Innovation Accelerator in 2019 in Munich, Germany. Photo: WFP/Sebastian Widmann.

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 now open to any interested UN staff. Over 30 UN agencies representing 20 blockchain projects and more than 200 users are currently on the Atrium.

Discover more and start your blockchain journey with the Atrium

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.

Find out more about us: http://innovation.wfp.org. Subscribe to our e-newsletter. Follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn and watch our videos on YouTube.

Sourcing, supporting and scaling high-impact innovations to disrupt hunger.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store