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UNICEF invests in SA blockchain start-up

SA start-up 9Needs uses blockchain tech to create better management systems for early childhood development services. (Photograph: 9Needs Web site)

SA start-up 9Needs uses blockchain tech to create better management systems for early childhood development services. (Photograph: 9Needs Web site)

The United Nations Children's Fund, UNICEF, announced late yesterday it would make venture capital investments in emerging market tech start-ups, including a blockchain company from South Africa.

9Needs uses blockchain and advances in identity technology to create better management systems for early childhood development services.

Last year, the company said in a blog post it was finding ways to connect children to education, health services and social benefits, using mobile decentralised applications (mDApps).

9Needs uses mDApps to collect information on how development services are being delivered, which can be used by investors and service providers.

The start-up partners with remote rural communities near renewable energy projects, such as solar and wind farms. The companies that operate these projects, do so through the Independent Power Producer Programme (IPPP), which requires them by law to invest in developing local communities – in return receiving a long-term contract from government.

IPPP companies have to report back regularly to the Department of Energy about the investments they are making, and show how local communities are benefiting. 9Needs uses mDApps to help early childhood development centres that often have a hard time meeting the stringent reporting requirements.

The company says: "Any information that is collected in the process is owned by the child for their own future benefit. Because mDApps are based on blockchain technology, the data are encrypted and remain private."

First round

It was not disclosed how much UNICEF would invest in the start-up.

Four other start-ups from emerging markets were also chosen. This is the organisation's first portfolio of investments in open source technology solutions, including tools that improve connectivity, real-time data collection, identity technology and learning. The investments fall under the UNICEF Innovation Fund.

The four other start-ups include Saycel from Nicaragua, which provides affordable mobile connectivity to communities that are not on the traditional information grid in rural areas.

mPower from Bangladesh creates a digital registry platform to improve data collection and delivery of maternal and child healthcare.

Innovations for Poverty Alleviation Lab from Pakistan creates stories and information that can be played over a simple mobile phone to help fathers (who may be semi-literate) support their families for better maternal and new born health.

Chatterbox from Cambodia provides a fundamental technology layer to be integrated into UNICEF's RapidPro platform to extend its reach to communities that are low literacy.

Future funding

UNICEF has said following the first five start-ups, it plans to add up to 40 additional companies next year. 

It will apply a venture capital approach to source solutions for issues in transportation, identity, wearable technology, finance and personal data.

"The UNICEF Innovation Fund is a new way of doing business at the UN; combining the approach of Silicon Valley venture funds with the needs of UNICEF programme countries," says Cynthia McCaffrey, director of the UNICEF office of innovation.

"Using UNICEF's 190 offices and 12 000 staff, the fund will help us source and support companies that might be overlooked by traditional investment vehicles.

"The fund allows us to prototype technology solutions, as well as expand our networks of open source collaborators to improve children's lives," says McCaffrey.

The next round of applications for investment is now open. More information can be found here. The deadline to apply is 1 January 2017.


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