Emmanuel Noah - Revolutionizing land rights with blockchain

2017 was a big year for blockchain. Bitcoin, the first popularized application of blockchain technology, has received a lot of hype especially as its price has skyrocketed in the past year. Now in 2018, we’re anticipating the emergence of more new and exciting applications of blockchain, where the technology is being harnessed to create greater equality and transparency.  

Blockchain has been heralded as the second generation of digital revolution. The first digital revolution – the internet – has completely changed how society operates in ways that were unimaginable at the time. In a similar way, it will become more clear how blockchain technology can reshape the world, as we see how it can be applied beyond just bitcoin and cryptocurrency – in supply chains, legal work, real estate, or any industry that requires recording of transactions.  A lack of transparency perpetuates inequality and corruption, and blockchain’s ability to create a trustworthy record has the power to disrupt the status quo for a more equitable future.

One startup already embracing just such an opportunity in Ghana is BenBen, founded by Emmanuel Noah. I caught up with him right before the launch of Hack the Future of Development Aid,  Sustainia’s latest report on the potential of blockchain to disrupt the aid model, in partnership with Coinify and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark. Emmanuel was at the report launch at the UN City in Copenhagen, speaking about how BenBen is digitizing land transactions in Ghana with blockchain technology to combat corruption.

What inspired you to create BenBen?

After completing my studies the University of Michigan, I returned to Ghana to work as a Government Technology Specialist at the Lands Commission. I was midway into a Gates Foundation Research Grant, and I focused my research on land-based revenue payments. As a public sector worker, many of the officials were enthused about our work. Leveraging this experience, I began to engage with the officials at the Commission on wider applications of the technology and we began to look at the issues that had been overlooked. Eventually, the research project evolved into what we now know as BenBen. African problems are best solved by Africans, and that holds true with the vision behind BenBen.

How can blockchain technology contribute to greater equality?

Blockchain is the cure to the many challenges in offering equitable access to opportunity. In developing countries, citizens earning less income are faced with relatively higher costs to credit and finance. This is especially true when it comes to them applying for financing using assets such as land and property as collateral – there’s just too much uncertainty and risk around the asset for a lender to be comfortable with. In my opinion, blockchain technology has the potential to eliminate the many barriers around trust, transparency, and auditability of assets that marginalize these groups in the financial services space.

In which ways is BenBen changing land ownership in Ghana?

The vision has always been to enable trusted, secure and risk-free land transactions. In a country like Ghana where 70% of court cases are land-related, blockchain-recorded transactions drastically lower the risk in participating in land transactions. Land is the predominant asset in most developing countries, and we believe creating a system where landowners can successfully transact is paramount to encouraging land ownership as well as growth in related sectors such as housing, agriculture, mining and even energy.

How can BenBen reach the poorest citizens, who have no access to smartphones, limited access to the internet, and limited ability to pay fees?

Decentralization is key when it comes to promoting access and inclusivity. We’re currently developing several micro-franchising models that allow trained citizens in rural communities to serve as service points for land transactions. Additionally, with Ghana having a mobile phone penetration rate of 128%, we plan to engage low income earning land owners via USSD services which are not dependent on internet access.

Some people are critical of blockchain’s energy demand and its associated environmental impact. How would you respond to that?

Unfortunately, initial iterations of distributed ledger tech were built with little environmental impact guidelines in place. However, cryptocurrencies such as ethereum are beginning to test more energy efficient algorithms which have the potential to drastically reduce energy costs. In another light, the current prevalence of renewable energy solutions presents a more sustainable method of providing clean computing power. I’d say it’s only a matter of time before we see an environmentally sustainable blockchain ecosystem in place.

What’s your advice for entrepreneurs looking to solve global challenges?

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Anyone who wants to take their ideas far past their comfort zone has to be ready to work and collaborate with others. Have an open mind to teamwork and be committed to pace yourself – these challenges weren’t created overnight so you shouldn’t expect to solve them in a day either.

Learn more about the potential of blockchain technology to create a more equitable world in Sustainia’s latest report Hack the Future of Development Aid in partnership with Coinify and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark.