Baking Bread in a Refugee Camp Just Got Easier 3 547

When Zulfiqar Deo and Ondrej Dusilek first visited Jordan in 2016 to conduct interviews in the Zaatari UN refugee camp, they found a paradox. Nearly a hundred thousand refugees, displaced by the war in Syria, were living in a ‘camp’ that’s looking more and more like a permanent settlement every year. Many of these refugees were educated professionals or business people in Syria. But in Zaatari they’re not allowed to work. Though the Jordanian government provides $870 million in annual support, they have restrictions on refugee work permits in order to protect their own economy.

Nevertheless, businesses naturally pop up in a community of this size. Deo, who was detained at the airport, communicated with Dusilek and their support team in the camp, including advisors from PriceWaterhouse Cooper and SIX Group, a coach and mentor from the F10 fintech incubator, and a handful of volunteers. They estimated that three thousand microbusinesses helped circulate $11 million per month in the Zaatari community.

Invisible Businesses

Without access to capital, though, the refugee’s businesses were struggling. A wedding dress rental company couldn’t grow to meet the demands of the community. A baker wanted to scale up his shop but couldn’t afford the machine that would make it possible. “Refugee entrepreneurs are a significant global population not being served,” Deo told The Block Talk earlier this week. “They cannot access a business bank account. They have no formal record that their business even exists,” says Deo. “Even as successful entrepreneurs, they’re financially excluded.”

This ‘significant global population’ is growing fast. Over 68 million people worldwide have been displaced by violence, and that number is growing by 300 thousand people each year. If this unprecedented upsurge continues, we’re looking at a near future in which one out of every 100 people on earth is a refugee.

Part of the refugee experience is disconnection. But we have the technology to connect people. Can we introduce it to regions like Zaatari to engage refugees more directly with the global community? Can we use the blockchain to finance refugee entrepreneurs and stimulate micro-economies in camps and settlements?

Boosting the World’s Underserved Through Technology

That’s the thinking behind BizGees, the company Deo and Dusilek launched to bring microfinancing to refugees. They want to support refugee-owned small businesses with interest-free loans, inventory, six months of ongoing support, and access to amenities from partner companies, like WSV’s ‘business in a box’ toolkit. By Deo’s calculation, a support package like this lowers the risk of business failure from 90 percent (which is close to normal for first time entrepreneurs, although these numbers are tricky to nail down) to a mere 10 percent.

“Refugees naturally nurture the same skills entrepreneurs have just out of necessity,” Deo observes. He notes that the creativity, initiative and ownership necessary for their survival are also traits commonly associated with entrepreneurs. “So why not support them?”

With the support packages Deo designed, 3-5 refugees who typically live on $5 per day could launch a startup or expand an existing microbusiness. Within a year, the microbusiness could become a small business employing 10 more people, who circulate their pay in the local markets and stimulate the whole community. When the loan is repaid after a year and a half, it’s reinvested, providing loans to another business.

Eventually, because of the transparent, chronological way the blockchain stores data, refugee entrepreneurs will build a credit history acceptable to most local banks, better positioning them for traditional finance like they may have had access to back home.

Finding The Right Environment

But there was a problem. Although their model is tested, BizGees couldn’t launch it in Zaatari because of the government’s work restrictions. “We had to move away from Jordan,” Deo said a bit ruefully, “and look for a different environment that allows refugees to work.” That led his team to Uganda, where tens of thousands of refugees have been displaced over the past decade by violence from a Christian terrorist group called the The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), operating in northern Uganda, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

According to Deo, some of the people in Uganda’s camps “didn’t take kindly to the service we were offering at first, asking ‘why is that person getting support and not us?’”

They had to work to re-educate the community on how the model brings long-term returns to everyone, by the money getting re-loaned and by financially stimulating local marketplaces. Now, Deo says, they’ve identified the refugees they can fund and the first microbusinesses should be up and running by the end of this month.

Working in Stressed Communities

Working in refugee camps isn’t easy. “It’s a very complex environment,” Deo says. “In addition to the financial issues they’re facing, there are social issues, psychological issues, most of them have post traumatic stress.” He notes that displacement alone causes mental health concerns, let alone the trauma of losing or being separated from loved ones. “You have to take into account the impact those traumas have as far as how they engage with the public and how they take control of their own lives.”

Consequently, the goal of BizGees isn’t just financial or technological. Their website asserts the importance of entrepreneurship as a way for people to take back ownership of their lives by building confidence and self-worth. Instead of just trying to make a buck, Deo, who has a background in international politics and NGOs as well as business, wants to meet a need.

How Crowdfunding Meets These Needs

BizGees is able to offer loans without interest or collateral because of the way they crowdfund them. Ninety percent of everything they raise goes to the refugees, while the other 10 percent supports BizGees’ operations, which are partially volunteer run.

The public participates through crowdfunding campaigns including art auctions, presales of products from post conflict zones, and cryptomining.

“The reason we’re using crowdfunding is to engage the global community more directly with the refugee experience,” says Deo. “The idea is to personalize it and help individuals to make a real social impact.”

Through blockchain’s ability to connect people directly without a third party, Deo sees a future where a group of individual financiers could get together to sponsor one refugee microbusiness and communicate with them directly. “They’re no longer reliant on third parties to know what’s going on in rural Uganda,” he says. “They have direct access.”

Getting People Socially Engaged

Direct communication is key because it creates the social engagement that is one of Deo’s overarching goals. Most people have no idea what a refugee camp is like, who’s in them, or what they’re facing on a day to day basis, he notes, citing that the average refugee stays on what’s supposed to be a temporary refugee status for 17 years (the U.S. State Department says 26 years on average for protracted refugees). “The support base for refugees is focused on disaster relief, for the first 6 months or so,” Deo says.

“There’s a big gap between the actual experience of refugee populations across the world and how we perceive their experiences,” he says. “We’re looking to use social engagement as a way to narrow that gap as much as possible.”

That’s also why he’s enlisting volunteers to participate in the work, both on the ground in the refugee camps and at BizGee’s headquarters in London. Deo mentioned an American volunteer who came to help with promotional material, website stuff, and office operations. “Her understanding of the refugee experience on day one was very different than it was on week seven,” he says. That in itself he considers a small success.

Goal: A Thousand Refugee Businesses Thriving

As for larger successes and longer term goals, Deo hopes to support 1,000 refugee businesses in the next three years, serving populations indefinitely in Latin America and Asia as well as Africa.

Blockchain technology can work for humanity. Models like Deo’s, which supports at least seven of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, identify something the blockchain can do that world badly needs. This is what we need to see more of from blockchain developers.

The refugee crisis is escalating, but hope can grow within the camps as long as people can live like people. As long as bakers can keep baking, and families can rent their wedding dresses.

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I grew up in the Silicon valley under the technological mentorship of Steve Wozniak. I'm a proud member of the Choctaw Nation, I've lived, worked and traveled all over the world, and I now write in the Pacific Northwest.

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  1. Whoa! This blog looks exactly like my old one! It’s on a entirely different subject but it has pretty much the same layout and design. Superb choice of colors!

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Bitcoin Uses As Much Energy As Austria, Could Add 2°C to Earth’s Atmosphere 2,164 8094

Bitcoin mining, it turns out, damages the earth more than more traditional environmental assaults like actual mineral mining.

According to a paper published Monday in Nature Sustainability, the power-hungry Bitcoin mining process consumes more than triple the amount of energy needed to mine the equivalent amount of gold, more than quadruple what’s needed for copper, and more than double what it takes to mine platinum.

Other coins didn’t fare much better. By their measurements, Ethereum and Litecoin consume 7 megajoules of electricity to produce the equivalent of $1, the same energy expenditure as copper mining but more than that of platinum or gold. Monero eats up 14 megajoules to produce $1.

Naturally, these measurements refer to the notoriously variable dollar valuations of such tokens. “While the market prices of the coins are quite volatile,” write researchers Max J. Krause and Thabet Tolaymat, “the network hashrates for three of the four cryptocurrencies have trended consistently upward, suggesting that energy requirements will continue to increase.”

Bitcoin’s Growing Electricity Bill is Bigger Than Some Countries

We’ve long known that Bitcoin is unsustainable. In a 2015 article for Motherboard, Christopher Malmo pointed out that a single Bitcoin transaction used 5,033 times as much energy as a Visa swipe, and could power 1.5 American homes for a day.

The electricity used to crunch Bitcoin code—and its environmental cost—has been growing with its increasing popularity. Digiconomist’s Bitcoin Energy Consumption Index shows Bitcoin currently consuming 73.12 terawatt hours (or 263.232 billion megajoules) of electricity annually. To put that in context, it’s comparable to the amount of energy it takes to power Austria for a year.

That means there are 175ish countries on earth using less energy than Bitcoin (to say nothing of crypto on the whole), while 66 countries consume less energy per capita than one Bitcoin transaction (it takes 94 thousand kilowatt hours of electricity to mine a single Bitcoin).

Iceland, a major hub of Bitcoin mining farms, spends nearly as much energy on Bitcoin as it does powering its residential homes. In this case, the damage is mitigated because most of Iceland’s power comes from renewable energy.

Canada’s Bitcoin emissions are also on the lower end due to renewable energy sources. They’re using this to court mining companies from China, where mining emissions are about four times that of Canada’s. Montreal International attracts foreign investment by calling Quebec the land of “green bitcoin”. This has caught the eye of some Chinese mining companies looking to go overseas as the Chinese government has discouraged expansion and shut down some mining operations altogether.

Depending on Bitcoin’s growth, some have projected that it could use as much energy as the entire world by 2020.

Digital Currency Has a Real Carbon Footprint

Krause’s and Tolaymat’s research reminds us of the sobering reality that all this invisible wealth has real world costs.

For the 30 months they measured between January 2016 and June 2018, they estimate their four featured tokens collectively belched out at least 3 million tons of CO2 emissions, possibly as much as 15 million tons.

These findings follow another study, published last month, which determined Bitcoin alone could add two degrees Celcius to global warming within the next three decades. That’s enough to raise ocean acidity by 29 percent.

Solving Bitcoin’s Energy Consumption Crisis

So what is the solution? If the world were to switch to 100 percent renewable energy overnight, the problem would be moot. But we can’t hold our breath for that. There could be ways of incentivizing clean energy so greener mines reap more coins, or of implementing clean energy in other ways.

It’s also possible to adopt less computationally intensive mining algorithms so the mining computers don’t guzzle as much juice. This would disappoint a lot of old school Bitcoiners who have invested in hardware, but their feelings don’t really outweigh that 2 degrees celcius that everyone will have to live with (or die by).

Whatever the best solution turns out to be, something needs to change soon. Bitcoin is growing up, and it’s time for it to mature into something more sustainable.

Kenya Looks to Blockchain for Affordable Housing Project 9 380

The “Silicon Savannah” is moving deeper in direction of tech. The Kenyan government has announced a plan to manage the property allocation and funding of 500,000 affordable housing units with blockchain technology.

The units, which the government aims to build by 2022, will be set aside for households with an annual income below 100,000 Kenyan Shillings, about $990 USD. The World Bank estimates Kenya’s gross national income per capita at $1,290, according to Business Daily.

Blockchain will help ensure that the affordable housing is in fact going to those who fall below the average income bracket. Land title fraud has caused problems for Kenyans, as land grabbers target homes and even schools for illegal sales and development. Blockchain’s ability to store verifiable proof of title could help safeguard against fraudsters.

“Kenya will use blockchain technology to ensure the rightful owners live in government funded housing projects,” said Principal Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Charles Hinga, speaking with the World Bank on Monday.

Hinga said the plan will be financed by the National Housing Fund, which will raise over $59.5 million per month to get the project underway. But Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure, Housing and Urban Development James Macharia said it will take $31.7 billion to build a million homes, each of which will cost between $3,000 and $30,000. Macharia called for support from private sector financing.

Under the financing plan, working Kenyans will contribute 1.5 percent of their salary, which will be matched by their employers. “On affordable housing one should not spend more than 30% of their disposable income for housing,” Hinga tweeted yesterday. “Anything above 30% is not affordable.”

A Trustless Relationship Between People and Government

The initiative represents a considerable push to solve housing and title problems for the nation’s lower income families. But how will the government decide to whom the housing units will go? With so much talk about financing underway, people are already calling on the government to outline a plan for how they’ll distribute the affordable housing units.

The government will need to deliver the housing projects in a time when, Hinga acknowledges, the public is skeptical. Earlier this year $78 million went missing in a corruption scandal involving the National Youth Services. Where there is little trust between the people and their government, Kenya hopes to establish transparency through the blockchain’s distributed ledger system.

Kenya’s Move Toward Tech

In March, Kenya’s Ministry of Information, Communications and Technology appointed a blockchain taskforce to explore the ways the nation could use blockchain technology in the public and private sectors. They called it the Distributed Ledgers and Artificial Intelligence taskforce, and by September its chairman, Bitange Ndemo, was calling on the government to tokenize the economy.

Ndemo also proposed government implementation of blockchain to certify the authenticity of retail goods, so consumers can be sure of where their food is coming from, for example.

Governor of Kenya’s central bank Patrick Njoroge has also voiced support for the use of blockchain technology to strengthen service delivery, although he’s opposed the use of tokens and digital currencies.

But the affordable housing initiative could be the Kenyan government’s first real world implementation of the blockchain.

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