Blockchain presents new opportunities for Africa

In SA, the central bank recently trialled a blockchain proof of concept.
In SA, the central bank recently trialled a blockchain proof of concept.

In Africa, blockchain technology presents another platform for digital empowerment.

This is according to pan-African telecommunications company Liquid Telecom in its African Blockchain Report 2018, which takes a look at the early pioneers of the technology across Africa, highlighting some of its potential use cases and applications, as well as exposing some of the challenges that lie ahead.

Blockchain is essentially a distributed ledger technology that allows information to be exchanged among several parties but not altered. It can create a shared system of record among network members, eliminating the need to reconcile disparate ledgers.

"Essentially, blockchain works as a global and public ledger without a central database that can be tampered with," says Charles Pittaway, managing director of Sage Pay.

"It is a permanent, cryptographically sealed record that cannot be corrupted, creating a trail of financial DNA. Information relating to trades is stored across a number of computers, which makes hacking theoretically impossible," he adds.

Revolutionary tech

However, Liquid Telecom points out that of all the emerging technologies making their mark across Africa at the moment, blockchain doesn't initially seem the most revolutionary.

"Compared to some of the weird and wonderful connected devices introduced as part of the trend towards the Internet of things or the science-fiction-meets-reality potential for artificial Intelligence, it is no real surprise that blockchain hasn't quite captured the general public's imagination in the same way," says Ben Roberts, Liquid Telecom's group chief technology and innovation officer.

Nonetheless, he points out that to the African business community, blockchain represents a new opportunity to improve processes and drive efficiency.

"Consumer trust in online services and platforms has been shaken by years of fake news, major data breaches and serious misuse of personal data.

"Blockchain presents an opportunity to shine truth across the Internet; placing digital records and transactions into a shared ledger and ensuring there is no single point of failure or no one organisation controlling that data."

Regarding digital empowerment, Liquid Telecom says in a region of fragmented data, complex supply chains and inefficient trade, blockchain has the power to transform the way businesses share information, track assets and deliver their services.

It explains that its ability to deliver transparency across transactions and services also makes it an ideal fit for governments and their delivery of public services, which for too long have found themselves susceptible to fraud and corruption.

"What we discover is a real appetite for public and private organisations alike to seize the blockchain opportunity while it is still in its nascent stages," Roberts says.

"There is much work to be done. There are no global standards or regulations in place for the technology, and new skills are required in the workforce to support its rise. One thing is for sure, as the global discussions around blockchain technology continue to grow; Africa will be part of it."

Roberts points out that Liquid Telecom is starting to see the first crop of African start-ups experimenting with blockchain and crypto-currencies.

Digital crowdfunding

Take Rwandan start-up Uplus, which is utilising blockchain to secure all transactions on its digital crowdfunding platform, he says.

"The technology also allows the platform to take contributions from any country and convert it to the local currency. A lot of existing applications in Africa tend to fall short when it comes to user experience, and blockchain could certainly help address some of these issues; be it by creating a new trusted way to make payments or verify user identification."

Roberts believes that during this early stage of blockchain experimentation and proof of concept, it will be crucial for start-ups and businesses to develop solutions that are relevant for African communities. Without that, the technology won't gather momentum, he adds.

"Regulation can nurture or constrict the technology and will have a role to play in being a 'make or break' for blockchain. Living in Kenya, I'm proud to see how proactive the government has been in seizing the blockchain opportunity."

In SA, the central bank recently trialled a blockchain proof of concept designed to simulate a "real-world" trial of a distributed ledger technology-based wholesale payment system.

The project has laid the foundations for SA's future collaborative work, essential in the blockchain context and fulfilled its objective of providing useful insights to all participants.

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