Kenya has rightfully earned its stature as one of the top technology hubs not only in Africa but across the globe. Innovations such as M-Pesa, a mobile money platform by leading telco Safaricom, have helped the country live up to this billing.

With such widely acclaimed perception, Kenyan is always expected to set the pace in new and cutting-edge innovations. This is no exception in the realm of blockchain.

And despite numerous challenges, the country is looking not to disappoint having instituted mechanisms to ensure this new technology is appreciated and adopted. 

The Blockchain and Artificial Intelligence Taskforce officially presented its report to the Information Cabinet Secretary Joe Mucheru last year in 2019, with recommendations on how to go about this technology in the coming years.

The country is thus already set on the path of implementing the technology that promises far-reaching implications on business operations and other sectors of the society.

But what is blockchain and why is the world keen on its uptake?

Blockchain is a distributed and decentralised ledger technology (DLT) that chronologically and publicly records all transactions in a network.

The digital ledger is held and updated by anyone who takes part in maintaining the network. It is, therefore, a peer-to-peer platform that eliminates intermediaries, thereby creating trust and integrity of transactions through elimination of fraud, underhand dealings while keeping hackers at bay.

The World Economic Forum has stated that by 2025, 10 per cent of the global gross domestic product (GDP) will be stored on blockchain and blockchain-related technologies.It is this promise of blockchain that the world is seeking to tap through its adoption in various sectors of the economy.

For Africa where corruption and myriad forms of malpacrices are experienced in almost every sector of human endeavour, this innovation is godsend. 

In agriculture, the mainstay of Kenya’s and indeed Africa’s economy, the technology is expected to enhance food security. How will this happen?

The system will play a critical role in weeding out fake farm input sellers. This means farmers will get quality seeds, fertiliser and pesticides, enabling them to obtain optimum production. 

Adoption of the technology, will also reduce or even entirely eliminate fraud and ensures the right farmers receive the much needed assistance.

The  blockchain taskforce report notes that Kenya needs to apply AI and analytics to detect fraud, trace unsafe products and deliver training to farmers to improve quality.

In the education sector, the technology will help curb the current rampant cases of certificate forgery and infringement into academic content copyrights.

This will be done through creation of an e-portfolio for all academic credentials. This will go a long way in ensuring that firms get the right, authentic human resource for enhanced production.

The media industry is also in dire need of blockchain. In an environment where fake news is rampant, the innovation can play a vital role, enabling readers to validate genuine news while shutting the door on such fake stories.

“There is a private blockchain customised for journalists currently in use across the globe called Civil, which is a decentralised communications protocol designed for independent newsrooms and journalists that are experienced in producing high quality investigative international and local feature stories. Any journalist can join the network,” says Benjamin Arunda, author of Understanding the Blockchain, one of the pioneering books in this new field.

The medical field, where availability and accuracy of data is a matter of life and death, will immensely benefit from blockchain. Healthcare has witnessed communication breakdown related to diagnosis and treatment, arising from poor data management.

This technology will eliminate such disasters. “You have heard of surgeries being done on the wrong patient. This arises from confusion of patient data and clinical medicine,” says Jackline Gachiri.

“But if a blockchain was in place, all patient data would be captured and shared in real time among hospitals. Patients would also be confident to deal with qualified physicians, with a good balance between data privacy and data transparency being struck.”

The taskforce also recommends aggressive use of technology to improve integrity of medical records. The government, the report adds, should tap blockchain to enable customers trace the supply chain of medication, help tackle counterfeit medication and augment the skills of medical professionals.

The construction industry where illegal planning approvals have been a constant thorn in the flesh, will find blockchain effecting in curing these challenges.

“Blockchain will curb land fraud and construction of poor quality houses that later claim the lives of tenants,” he adds.

In politics, blockchain experts say the technology can play an important role of  entrenching democracy as  the existential challenge of electoral malpractices will be a thing of the past.

This is good news for Kenyan voters as elections are always the subject of bitter fallouts emanating from rigging claims.

“This is the technology that will eventually help democracies achieve electoral justice. Election rigging shall become a practice of the past,” says Mr Arunda.

“To achieve free and fair elections, blockchain must be used to create a tamper-roof system that eliminates voter fraud and provide an authentic record of votes cast.”

Sierra Leone has already used the technology in conducting its polls. “In 2018, Sierra Leone became the first country in the world to use blockchain in tallying presidential elections alongside the normal process to demonstrate that indeed Blockchain can be used in tallying votes,”  the blockchain taskforce report notes.

How prepared is Kenya for this ground-breaking innovation?

While Kenya has a long road to travel as far as adoption of blockchain is concerned, admirable progress is being noticeably being made.

Aside from the government that has proactively taken into account the potential benefits of blockchain in the economy, a number of groups and organisations have come up to create awareness on the importance of the technology and push for its use.

Blockchain Association of Kenya, Aeternity Hub Africa, BitHub Africa, Distributed Ledgers, Blockchain & Research Technologies (DLBRT), Blockchain for Business, Exponential Operating System (EOS), Nairobi community and Andela Kenya have all been in the front line in educating Kenyans since 2016.

“We are gradually gaining more following in this field. Nowadays we have more people coming to our free training events. We have blockchain meet-ups every week to spread the gospel in Nairobi,” says Blockchain Association of Kenya’s chairperson Roseline Gicira.

That more people and companies are seeking to train on the technology is a pointer to the significant role it is bound to play going forward.

“We are driving the adoption of blockchain in Africa through corporate trainings, educational programmes, workshops and boot camps. We train software developers on best practices for building decentralised applications.

“We are now working closely with companies to help them identify their areas of operation that can benefit from deployment of certain elements of Blockchain. We enable traceability of goods in a supply chain, integrate cryptocurrency payment gateways and also enable crowdfunding,” says Aeternity Hub Africa chief operations officer Frank Deya.

University of Nairobi don, Prof Bitange Ndemo says Kenya has to set a favourable ground for blockchain adoption given the central it will certainly play in effort to address many of the economic, social and political challenges it faces.

“We are happy that the Ministry of Information, Communication and Technology is giving this tech space sufficient support. Once this technology matures, the debate about whether the country is ready will end. It will be instrumental in weeding out corruption and other social vices,” he says.

This technology, he noted, will be part of an ecosystem of other emerging technologies that increase speed of data transmission while ensuring the data is accurate and secure.

“Blockchain will eventually be synchronised with Artificial Intelligence (AI), data science, 3D printing, 5G network and Internet of Things (IoT) to create a seamless web of cloud sourced services in a secure and transparent tech ecosystem.”

Challenges

As Kenya gradually rolls out this transformative technology, it must contend with numerous stumbling blocks. One major hurdle that experts invariably point out is the gap in knowledge and skills on the technology. 

Kenyans, Prof. Ndemo says, will only embrace blockchain when they understand its potential impact on their lives. The better the technology is understood, the more it will be adopted.

“In developed economies such as the United States, United Kingdom and Canada, blockchain is presently being taught in colleges. Here in Kenya, we seem to be taking too long to realise how much critical these skills are,” says Prof Ndemo.

Another challenge is scalability of the available networks as most of them can only accommodate limited number of transactions.

“The biggest challenge in most blockchain networks has been scalability. Most networks have a limited number of transactions that can be run per second,” says Felix Macharia, the co-founder and head of community operations at EOS Nairobi.

He, however, says his company has come to solve this fundamental hurdle.

“EOS is an application development just like Android only that it is decentralised. It is not run by any individual or central company but by an open source community spread across the world,” he says.

With only one company in Kenya providing scalability solutions, the challenge is enormous for companies that need private blockchain networks.

How can these teething problems be solved?

Techies say for the Fourth Industrial Revolution to be actualised in Kenya, holistic support is needed in a public-private partnership models because emerging technologies are now becoming inevitable to adopt.

“There is an urgent need for societal and politico-economic change of policy to accommodate this technology and help speed up its uptake. More awareness across the country is needed,” says Roselyne Wanjiru, Kesho Lab’s strategic liaison officer.

The taskforce on blockchain and AI gave the government recommendations that seek to help Kenya tackle key problems such as corruption, land fraud, food insecurity, fraudulent procurement and election disputes. 

“The great challenge is now passing the information to the political class and explaining to them how this is going to work. If people can be able to trust technology like M-Pesa then we should also trust blockchain to deliver free, fair and transparent elections,” says ICT Cabinet Secretary Joe Mucheru.

The blockchain report cites countries that are using Blockchain and AI to fight corruption. These include Ghana, Georgia and Ukraine.

“Kenya needs to pilot this promising concept and issue an infrastructure coin or one that deals with the problem of unemployment,” the report says.

But despite blockchain’s promise to create trust through credible transactions in every sector, it is not a panacea to all the problems in Kenya’s socio-political and economic life.

“Technology can be used to create trust, but even with the advancement of Artificial Intelligence, it cannot create empathy,” Prof Ndemo remarks.



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