Baking Bread in a Refugee Camp Just Got Easier 3 2463

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.

3 Comments

  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!

Happy 10th Birthday, Bitcoin!! 7 2913

On January 3rd, 2009, block number zero produced the first 50 bitcoins. They were mined by none other than the mysterious Satoshi Nakamoto. Thus was born the phenomenon of the decade. And on January 8th, ten years ago today, bitcoin became a public network when Nakamoto released bitcoin version 0.1.

Nakamoto announced the release via the Metzdowd cryptography mailing list, calling bitcoin “a new electronic cash system that uses a peer-to-peer network to prevent double-spending.”

Nakamoto’s description of the software that would revolutionize technology is sparing and to the point. “It’s completely decentralized with no server or central authority,” the succinct announcement goes on. “Windows only for now.  Open source C++ code is included.” It describes the proof of work as “ridiculously easy”.

It follows with a brief description of how transactions work, how many coins will be released and how they can expect to split every 4 years, along with the caveats that the software was still “alpha and experimental,” offering “no guarantees”. It’s signed with no letter closing, simply:

“Satoshi Nakamoto”

Bitcoin, This Is Your Life

My what a ten years it has been. Just to recap:

On January 12th, 2009, programmer Hal Finney, who had downloaded the new bitcoin software immediately, received ten bitcoins from Nakamoto. This was the first ever bitcoin transaction. Over a year later in May 2010, programmer Laszlo Hanyecz received 10,000 bitcoins in exchange for two Papa John’s pizzas, initiating the first real-world bitcoin purchase and thereby creating the pizza index.

Bitcoin simmered until 2017, when it’s value jolted from $900 to over $19,000, and bitcoin became a household name. Over the past year, the original crypto has settled to a more modest $4,000 valuation, and stirred up a lot of public din in its wake.

Where Were You on January 9th, 2009?

So where were you on the day of Nakamoto’s announcement? Probably on your couch watching DVDs of Pineapple Express and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia seasons 1 through 3, or laughing at Dr. Horrible’s Singalong Blog on your iPhone 2.

It was a simpler time. Wired was calling Google Earth the number one app on the fancy new iPhone app store. Competition was fierce with Windows 7 in beta. Facebook had recently dropped the “is” from status updates, and a fun app called Twitter (formerly “Twttr”) had just introduced a feature called Trending Topics.

Trending Topics

David Bowie was celebrating one of his eight final birthdays, while Michael Jackson and Patrick Swayze were enjoying their last few months among us mortals. Only days later, pilots Chesley Sullenberger and Jeffrey Skiles made aviation history by skillfully crash landing US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River, saving everyone on board.

A burgeoning class of ennui soaked fashionistas, deemed “hipsters,” were described in Time Magazine as “smug, full of contradictions and, ultimately, the dead end of Western civilization,” a vermin who “manage to attract a loathing unique in its intensity.” They went on with this colorful character sketch:

“Hipsters are the friends who sneer when you cop to liking Coldplay. They’re the people who wear t-shirts silk-screened with quotes from movies you’ve never heard of and the only ones in America who still think Pabst Blue Ribbon is a good beer. They sport cowboy hats and berets and think Kanye West stole their sunglasses. Everything about them is exactingly constructed to give off the vibe that they just don’t care.”

Time Magazine, 2009

Is it time for any of that to come back into style yet? Maybe give it a few more years. We need a break.

Williamsburg was gentrifying and Portland was still America’s best kept secret. The streets were flooded with fixed gear bikes and the sounds of Grizzly Bear, Real Estate, Kings of Convenience, and TV on the Radio.

Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion was just a few days old, and Fever Ray’s self titled was about to drop. The world was listening to Lady Gaga, whose single “Just Dance” hit number one on Billboard’s top 100, and Taylor Swift’s Fearless, which was the top selling album.

That same month, box offices favored the cuddly Marley & Me, while The Dark Knight swept the people’s choice awards. Audiences were still getting wowed by Avatar, paying a lot to be disappointed by Mall Cop, and getting hyped about the upcoming Watchmen movie.

Meanwhile in Washington DC, a president with a multisyllabic vocabulary was about to be inaugurated (a rarity in the 21st century, we would find out), and his kids were playing with a Wii they got for Christmas.

Here’s To Another Decade Ahead

What a time it was, the dawn of 2009. And most of us, at least for a few more years, had never heard about blockchain, cryptocurrencies, or bitcoin.

And now here we are.

So, dear reader, here’s to ten more years of crashes, booms, bubble scares, hype, derision, libertarian fanboys, pizza and moon lambos. Happy tenth birthday, bitcoin!!1

These Six Blockchain Startups Just Got Seed Funding From UNICEF 29 2796

The United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund is investing $100,000 in blockchain tech. Six startups have won the bid for the funding, and have one year to develop prototypes of open source software that addresses global issues such as mobile phone access, financing for social projects, or healthcare transparency.

Back in January 2018, UNICEF called for applicants, offering tens of thousands of dollars in seed financing to “for-profit  technology start-ups that have the potential to benefit humanity”. They received over 100 applications from 50 countries, and chose the following six to invest in:

Atix Labs

‘On a mission to democratize social impact financing using blockchain technology’

Argentina’s Atix Labs is developing a platform for funding small to mid-sized startups in Southeast Asia. The network connects social enterprises in need of funding with financers from all over the world. In their system, funds will be traceable, so it’s clear where exactly they’re used and how much of a social impact they actually end up having.

The problem with social impact financing and traditional crowdfunding, they say, is not access to capital, but transparency between financier and financed. Blockchain is a natural solution.

OneSmart

‘Developing a blockchain and AI software to increase transparency and accountability of government allocations of resources’

Mexico’s OneSmart is building smarter cities through a prototype that holds governments accountable for their uses of funds and delivery of services. They site the rapid growth of urban areas as evidence of the need for an updated system of governance.

Their platform, they say, builds a “more trustable public administration but also a very efficient one”. And it benefits governments by allowing them “to have continuous access to new and better data”. Fortifying city administration with clearer, more secure information management will, OneSmart hopes, make for more transparent and accountable government resource allocation.

Prescrypto

‘Shifting clinical data ownership to users by using a healthcare blockchain’

Prescrypto, also from Mexico, is building a system called RexChain to shift control over sensitive medical data to the hands of patients. It makes prescriptions and health records portable by digitizing them, secure by storing them on the blockchain, and easier for patients to access and share with the doctors they trust because it’s under their control.

They say that “since patients are often treated by many rotating doctors, it is difficult to make relevant and accurate clinical information readily available to many doctors and providers.” This can be especially true in developing countries. Prescrypto also cites the vulnerability of medical information to commercial exploitation as a reason to make it more secure and user-controlled. Decentralizing this information on a secure blockchain, they say, “offers a novel improvement”.

StaTwig

‘Using a blockchain platform to make the food and vaccine supply chain transparent and accountable’

India’s StaTwig is fixing the supply chain behind food and vaccine delivery to make sure resources are delivered efficiently to children in need. Their platform connects everyone in the supply chain—financers, producers, regulators, distributors and consumers—for a transparent process.

Getting food and vaccines to children can be difficult in some places, and efficiency gaps in the supply chain create unnecessary losses of critical resources. “Nearly 30% of all the food goes to waste during its storage and transportation and the number is nearly double for vaccines,” they say of refrigerated (or “cold-chain”) transportation chains. “50%-60% of vaccines lose their efficacy because of cold-chain failures, however,  supply chains account for nearly 80% of the costs of the vaccines.” Their software simplifies and better organizes supply chain data to prevent such failures and losses.

Utopixar

‘A platform to collaborate on initiatives addressing social and environmental challenges’

Tunisia’s Utopixar is creating a social tool to foster collaboration in organizations, communities and other groups facing environmental and social challenges. Utopixar says after the Arab Spring rippled through Tunisia, it became clear that “innovative incentive systems have the potential to engage people to solve local challenges.” Their token system rewards users for partaking in community decision making, or contributing solutions to local educational, employment, or environmental problems. Tokens earned by community participation will be redeemable as cash, or as credit in community marketplaces.

W3 Engineers

‘Developing an open-source messaging solution providing connectivity in remote areas’

Bangladesh’s W3 Engineers is building a mobile messaging app for refugee camps that uses mesh technology, so it doesn’t require an internet connection. “Refugees deem connectivity to be critical in their daily lives,” they say, “and they are willing to make large sacrifices to get and stay connected, sometimes prioritizing it over essentials like food, healthcare, education, and clothing.”

With a mesh system, paying for internet or mobile carriers is no longer necessary. The more people install the app, the stronger the mesh network. W3 Engineers is hoping to connect the world’s 68.5 million people displaced by violence with access to online healthcare, education, entrepreneurial opportunities, and communication with their loved ones.

Funding the Future of Social Impact

Investments in these companies, UNICEF says, “are part of UNICEF’s larger blockchain explorations of using smart-contracts for organisational efficiencies, creating distributed decision-making processes, and working to build knowledge and understanding of distributed ledger technology both in the United Nations and in the countries where UNICEF works.”

These blockchain startups represent only a fraction of the UNICEF Investment Fund’s tech funding. Their list of 33 financed companies for 2019 so far includes developers of AI, IoT, VR, and extended reality (XR), in addition to blockchain. These efforts apply the latest technology to the problems of the world in most urgent need of solutions.

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