Smallholder farmers to benefit from blockchain-based mobile solutions
By Sherree DeCovny, Co-Founder and Research Principal
I first encountered Dhairya Pujara, founder of Ycenter, when he introduced the session on Blockchain and its Impact on Supply Chain Management at the Blockchain Mini Summit in Philadelphia in May. My ears perked up when he began to talk about blockchain in smallholder farming, the subject of an eBook published by Chain Business Insights in 2018. I caught up with Pujara after the conference to learn more about how Ycenter is using blockchain in the humanitarian supply chain.
Back in 2012 and 2013 when he was studying biomedical engineering at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pujara trained people to repair medical devices, such as incubators for neonatal care, in Mozambique. Through that experience, he recognized an opportunity to use blockchain to track devices and their operational performance, and stop counterfeit drugs from being sold and consumed in the region. When he returned to Philadelphia in 2013, he spent a couple months trying to figure out what can be done with blockchain more broadly in the context of international development and higher education. The result was Ycenter, which was launched in 2014 as an experiential study abroad program focused on project-based learning experiences in Africa and India.
In Ycenter’s first project, several students from Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania created a mobile phone-based application to deliver basic health care and more specifically fight malaria in Sub-Saharan Africa. The project was called “Ola Help” (Ola means “hello” in Portuguese, the native language of Mozambique). The application was originally developed as a malaria information platform, but eventually it became a mechanism for people to request a home visit and a free malaria test from a community health worker. Microsoft Bizsparks supported the technology and initial capital expenditure needs, and collaborated with Ycenter on the project for three years.
Ycenter ran its first program in Kenya in 2016. Pujara met a collaboration partner based in Kenya through LinkedIn, who is now the organization’s executive director for Africa. Funded by USAID and Mastercard Foundation, the program involved training young people in technology and open data as well as building basic Android apps to solve problems for smallholder farmers. One app was designed to leverage the camera on a smart phone so a veterinarian can examine cattle remotely and track diseases in livestock. Traditionally, smallholder farmers would contact drug makers when they have a problem with their cattle, and the companies would simply sell them a drug without diagnosing the problem.
Another major issue faced by smallholder farmers is that middlemen cut into their profits and increase costs for consumers. In 2017, Ycenter ran a workshop in Kenya to better understand the value each participant adds in the country’s agricultural supply chain, with the purpose of looking for ways to improve efficiency.
In a recent trip to Kenya, Pujara started work to create educational programs and build mobile-based apps leveraging blockchain and open data to improve the livelihood of smallholder farmers. The Kenyan government is part of a coalition called Global Open Data on Agriculture & Nutrition (GODAN). GODAN supports the proactive sharing of open data to make information about agriculture and nutrition available, accessible and usable to deal with the urgent challenge of ensuring world food security. It is a rapidly growing group, currently with over 948partners from national governments, non-governmental, international and private sector organizations that have committed to a joint Statement of Purpose.
Kenya is generally becoming a hot spot for developing AgTech in Africa. It’s primarily an agrarian economy, and it’s a relatively inexpensive place for foreign businesses to build and deploy solutions. In addition, access to infrastructure and government policies support this type of work. Mobile-based solutions have proliferated in Kenya over the past couple decades, so it’s a good place to launch new apps, especially for farmers.
In the five years it has been in business, Ycenter has held workshops on social entrepreneurship, humanitarian engineering, innovation and creativity in 10 countries on five continents. It has offices in Philadelphia, as well as in Nairobi, Kenya and Mumbai, India. It has also been invited to do workshops with partners in other countries including Canada, South Korea, Egypt and Mozambique.
From my perspective, it’s exciting to see creative minds deploy blockchain and other technologies in supply chains in ways that have true social impact.