Blockchain to the rescue: Africans find real-world applications for blockchain technology
Blockchain technology, the underlying innovation behind cryptocurrencies, is a relatively new feature of the technology landscape in most of Africa. Indeed, when the cryptocurrency world exploded late last year, it was business as usual in most of the south, centre, east and west of the continent.
For comparison purposes, there are more than 500 cryptocurrencies globally, but only a few emanate from Africa. The continent might be playing second fiddle in the cryptocurrency game, but recent developments depict a continent which is slowly but surely finding its footing in the potentially disruptive blockchain technology space.
This newfangled technology is an open-source, decentralised platform that is not controlled by any central authority or government. It runs distributed ledgers which permanently record all transactions.
In Kenya, the government is taking the unprecedented role of championing this technology. On 1st March, Kenya’s president Uhuru Kenyatta launched the country’s first blockchain and artificial intelligence (AI) task force, mandated to critically look at how the technology can be deployed to solve local problems. An 11-member team, made up of topmost technology experts and blockchain supporters will develop a 15-year roadmap for blockchain adoption in only three months.
While cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology have become famous for being a means of exchange and a store of value, the government looks set to blend the with AI to create a facial recognition technology. This project will utilise pictures recorded by street cameras to enhance security in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital.
”I hope this revolution… will not leave Africa behind,” said President Kenyatta as he unveiled the blockchain task-force. Elsewhere, local entrepreneurs are deploying the technology to restore order in Kenya’s chaotic real estate sector.
Land Layby, a Kenyan real estate company, is creating a parallel, blockchain-based land registry that will complement the official government registry. As in most of Africa, huge chunks of Kenyan lands are held communally, meaning that most individuals have no title deeds. This in itself creates fertile ground for corruption and cartels, since officials are able to generate multiple title deeds which make land buying a potential goldmine for wayward land merchants and brokers. Such are the gaps that the Lands Layby team seeks to fill.
According to Peter Tole, who heads Land Layby, a publicly available online record will easily eliminate fake title deeds. At the same time, the government is developing its own blockchain database of land registries to streamline the sector.
Kenya is not the only African country that is deploying the blockchain technology. In Ghana, whose land sector is beset with problems that mirror those of Kenya, a start-up is using this technology to give more than 80% of Ghanaians some form of land ownership. 80% of land in Ghana is communally held, according to its lands commission.
Back in Kenya, other government agencies including public hospitals are quickly adopting the technology. The public health sector is building a decentralised network of 98 public hospitals to allow easy sharing of data among the institutions.
Interestingly, private firms are joining the bandwagon with an aim of disrupting their respective sectors. AIG, a multinational insurer was among the first financial sector players to adopt blockchain technology. It recently partnered with IBM to launch “smart contracts” policies that will execute automatically when certain parameters are met.
In the same light, a local startup is also targeting social savings groups with a distributed ledger application to help them track their records in a tamper-proof method. ”In the long term, this app will link individual savings groups to the global blockchain,” said Michael Kimani, the co-founder of ChamaPesa.
Not to be left behind, Africans have innovated to create their own versions of cryptocurrencies. One of these is Isaac Muthui, who recently launched a digital currency dubbed Nurucoin which runs on the Ethereum blockchain. Although the project is at the pilot stage, it has attracted thousands of investors. Nurucoin aims to enhance intra-African e-commerce trade by giving traders access to an integrated payment system.
A local bitcoin exchange, BitPesa, which has been operational for the last four years, sees a huge opportunity in global payments. According to Elizabeth Rossiello, who heads Nairobi based BitPesa, “blockchain payments are becoming a favorite mode of payments for multinational companies with local subsidiaries simply because they attract low fees”. If adopted, blockchain-based financial services could positively change the financial landscape.
While this technology seems to be gaining traction in Africa, there are hurdles that could stifle its widespread adoption.
First, cryptocurrencies are facing a widespread crackdown from regulators across the world. While some governments and regulators are supporting the technology, others, like Kenya’s Central Bank, have warned the public against trading in cryptocurrencies, likening them to Ponzi schemes. The fact that the government is at the forefront of experimenting with the blockchain technology, however, offers a glimmer of hope.
“The new technology is not just a backup for cryptocurrencies. It’s also applicable in a variety of sectors, including land. This is arguably one of those technologies that cannot be ignored,” said Prof. Bitange Ndemo, a Nairobi University don and the chairman of the newly formed Blockchain Task-force.
Automation of repetitive tasks leads to higher value work
Two-thirds of global office workers feel they are constantly doing the same tasks over and over again. That’s according to a new study (2021 Office Worker Survey) from automation software company UiPath.
Whether emailing, inputting data, or scheduling calls and meetings, the majority of those surveyed said they waste on average four and a half hours a week on time-consuming tasks that they think could be automated.
Not only is the undertaking of such repetitious and mundane tasks a waste of time for employees, and therefore for businesses, but it can also have a negative impact on employees’ motivation and productivity. And the research backs this up with more than half (58%) of those surveyed saying that undertaking such repetitive tasks doesn’t allow them to be as creative as they’d like to be.
“When repetitive, unrewarding tasks are handled by people, it takes time and this can cause delays and reduce both employee and customer satisfaction,” Gavin Mee, Managing Director of UiPath Northern Europe tells Business Chief. “Repetitive tasks can also be tedious, which often leads to stress and an increased likelihood to leave a job.”
And these tasks exist at all levels within an organisation, right up to executive level, where there are “small daily tasks that can be automated, such as scheduling, logging onto systems and creating reports”, adds Mee.
Automation can free employees to focus on higher value work
By automating some or all of these repetitive tasks, employees at whatever level of the organisation are freed up to focus on meaningful work that is creative, collaborative and strategic, something that will not only help them feel more engaged, but also benefit the organisation.
“Automation can free people to do more engaging, rewarding and higher value work,” says Mee, highlighting that 68% of global workers believe automation will make them more productive and 60% of executives agree that automation will enable people to focus on more strategic work. “Importantly, 57% of executives also say that automation increases employee engagement, all important factors to achieving business objectives.”
These aren’t the only benefits, however. One of the problems with employees doing some of these repetitive tasks manually is that “people are fallible and make mistakes”, says Mee, whereas automation boosts accuracy and reduces manual errors by 57%, according to Forrester Research. Compliance is also improved, according to 92% of global organisations.
Repetitive tasks that can be automated
Any repetitive process can be automated, Mee explains, from paying invoices to dealing with enquiries, or authorising documents and managing insurance claims. “The process will vary from business to business, but office workers have identified and created software robots to assist with thousands of common tasks they want automated.”
These include inputting data or creating data sets, a time-consuming task that 59% of those surveyed globally said was the task they would most like to automate, with scheduling of calls and meetings (57%) and sending template or reminder emails (60%) also top of the automation list. Far fewer believed, however, that tasks such as liaising with their team or customers could be automated, illustrating the higher value of such tasks.
“By employing software robots to undertake such tasks, they can be handled much more quickly,” adds Mee pointing to OTP Bank Romania, which during the pandemic used an automation to process requests to postpone bank loan instalments. “This reduced the processing time of a single request from 10 minutes to 20 seconds, allowing the bank to cope with a 125% increase in the number of calls received by call centre agents.”
Mee says: “Automation accelerates digital transformation, according to 63% of global executives. It also drives major cost savings and improves business metrics, and because software robots can ramp-up quickly to meet spikes in demand, it improves resilience.
Five business areas that can be automated
Mee outlines five business areas where automation can really make a difference.
- Contact centres Whether a customer seeks help online, in-store or with an agent, the entire customer service journey can be automated – from initial interaction to reaching a satisfying outcome
- Finance and accounting Automation enables firms to manage tasks such as invoice processing, ensuring accuracy and preventing mistakes
- Human resources Automations can be used across the HR team to manage things like payroll, assessing job candidates, and on-boarding
- IT IT teams are often swamped in daily activity like on-boarding or off-boarding employees. Deploying virtual machines, provisioning, configuring, and maintaining infrastructure. These tasks are ideal for automation
- Legal There are many important administrative tasks undertaken by legal teams that can be automated. Often, legal professionals are creating their own robots to help them manage this work. In legal and compliance processes, that means attorneys and paralegals can respond more quickly to increasing demands from clients and internal stakeholders. Robots don’t store data, and the data they use is encrypted in transit and at rest, which improves risk profiling and compliance.
“To embark on an automation journey, organisations need to create a Centre of Excellence in which technical expertise is fostered,” explains Mee. “This group of experts can begin automating processes quickly to show return on investment and gain buy-in. This effort leads to greater interest from within the organisation, which often kick-starts a strategic focus on embedding automation.”