The technological revolutions that have shaped the modern world have thus far all taken root in rich countries. Today, a new disruptive technology is breaking that mold – blockchain. Nowhere is this plainer than Haiti, the poorest country in the Western hemisphere and home to a blossoming range of projects using blockchain technologies to solve problems in ordinary people’s lives.
As a developing economy, Haiti faces unique challenges — the country is more traditionally associated with earthquakes than with tech innovation. Haiti today is a hotbed of applied blockchain projects, projects that are expanding our understanding of the technology’s potential.
In agriculture, an empowering initiative called AgriLedger founded by Haitian entrepreneur Genevieve Leveille and rolling out in Haiti this year is set to transform the food supply chain landscape. A custom-built platform powered by blockchain allows international buyers to scan a QR code and immediately access data on produce origin, transport, and costs in each step in the supply chain. Logistical data – sale documents, certification, and transportation – are made immutable and visible on the web. The payment system then makes data available to all participants in real time, and only vetted endorsers can validate transactions. This process makes it possible to certify product quality, thereby tackling a longstanding challenge preventing many buyers from entering the Haitian market. Furthermore, farmers themselves are safeguarded against price fluctuations, as the market price is determined by supply-demand principles rather than bargaining power.
Similarly, the Blockchain Cotton Project (BCP) is set to have a big impact in the cotton industry. Haiti has not produced cotton for years, yet if all goes to plan, it will soon be supplying millions of pounds of organic cotton for shoes, shirts, and other items sold in US stores. Haiti’s smallholder farmers face challenges tracking the production process of organic cotton. Using blockchain technology, cotton buyers have access to information about the full cultivation process, starting with the farmer’s name and GPS location of the farm and down to the exact fertilizer applications and impact of a specific batch on the environment. Without blockchain it is nearly impossible to verify whether products from Haiti are organic or fair-trade. The BCP employs RCS Global Better Sourcing Program’s technology — an on-site traceability and due diligence tool that guarantees the quality of the cotton and ensures farmers are paid a fair price for their crops. This pilot, which in 2019 involves a handful of farmers, could involve as many as 17,000 within five years. That would revitalize the entire industry, which has seen a 30-year standstill.
Applications go far beyond farming and food production. Blockchain is also changing the recycling process in Haiti, which had for years been plagued by corruption and price fluctuations. In order to counter these challenges Plastic Bank teamed up with IBM to launch a recycling initiative, which today has 32 branches around Haiti. The initiative pays for recyclable plastic with a crypto token system custom-made for Haiti. it operates on two tokens, one tied to the dollar and the other that can be exchanged for goods through Plastic Bank. Fair price for the plastic is ensured through a digital weighing system, making sure collectors are paid the right amount proportionate to the plastic bulk. Previous plastic collection programs bore risks for plastic collectors when redeeming their cash, but by taking the human bias out of the system, collectors’ earnings will stabilize. Today, there are about 3,500 recyclers in Haiti, with top recyclers bringing in about 200,000 pounds of plastic per month. The Plastic Bank project also ensures collectors’ security in case of price fluctuations in the plastics market. The approach benefits the most disadvantaged in Haitian society – poor women and children — who now have assurance they won’t be cheated out of their hard-earned wages.
The ecosystem in Haiti is preparing for the changes wrought by blockchain by building infrastructure and educating businesses. Haiti’s first accelerator Banj, created together with Google Launchpad, is facilitating further implementation by giving tools and professional support to startups. Other promising initiatives that aim to educate Haitian businesses about the potential of blockchain include Cryptocurrency for Haiti and Haiti Blockchain Alliance. And the recent announcement at the Haiti Tech Summit in June 2019 that the Haitian Central Bank is planning a pilot for a blockchain backed digital currency shows that the crucial next phase of blockchain development, institutional adoption, is already underway. Considering the financial instability in Haiti, a digital currency would be a blessing. Not only would this development regulate the effects of extreme inflation, it would also reassure foreign investors who were previously alarmed by currency fluctuation.
These recent developments illustrate how blockchain is already improving life for ordinary Haitians. It seems 2019 is a critical moment, as these projects begin to take effect and demonstrate their full potential. The industry in Haiti is a perfect example of blockchain’s application not just for commerce, but as a catalyst for social change by ensuring quality, fair conditions, and reduced economic volatility. The potential to reshape society, to connect people in new and transparent ways, addressing the unique challenges of emerging markets, is within grasp.
Sheikh Irfan Mohammed is the Managing Partner of Bloccelerate VC, a blockchain focused venture fund. Throughout his career Sheikh Irfan has held leadership positions at EGB Capital, a Greece focused debt fund, and at the Center for Asia Leadership Initiatives, a Harvard-based Asia think tank. He is also the founder of Irfan Consultancy, a technology solution consulting firm.