ICONLOOP took part in the “Transform Africa Summit,” Africa’s largest tech conference, held from May 14 to 17 in the Rwandan capital of Kigali.

Notably, ICONLOOP was the only blockchain company to take part in the event, which was also attended by tech giants such as Google, Facebook, Huawei and Kaspersky. Rwandan President Paul Kagame and ministerial-level officials from other African states, Estonia and Japan attended as well.

Transform Africa Summit is the flagship event of SMART Africa, an initiative launched by African governments to accelerate socioeconomic development and bring Africa into the knowledge economy through affordable access to broadband and use of ICT. The SMART Africa Manifesto, adopted by seven African heads of state at the first Transform Africa Summit in 2013, was endorsed by all heads of state and government of the African Union in January 2014.

Africa’s opportunity to leapfrog

ICONLOOP’s Director of Public Affairs, Josh Choi, joined a panel discussion entitled “Interoperability for Africa.” Choi discussed how interoperability could bring value in a rapidly transforming environment in Africa, where states are busy creating new free trade regimes and visa-free agreements. He pointed to blockchain as a technological foundation for secure, reliable data exchange and asset trading.

In particular, he highlighted the socio-economic benefits blockchain could bring to three sectors: digital identification, the supply chain, and microfinance.

In an email with The Iconist, Choi notes that many people in Africa lack even basic national identification papers. This leaves them vulnerable to human trafficking and labor exploitation, among other things. The good news is that Africa can leapfrog, a skill which the continent demonstrated an aptitude for when it skipped landlines and went straight into mobile communications.

“Just as Africa jumped straight to the mobile era, skipping several steps that advanced countries had taken, the continent’s national ID systems can be directly digitized,” he says. “Digital identity was one of the big topics at the conference, and we believe blockchain can provide a significant contribution to the digital ID system.

Blockchain can also improve the supply chain, especially in the agricultural sector, where so much administration work remains paper-based. “Cooperatives in the local market responsible for the logistics of agricultural products such as coffee, rice or bananas still use paper-based ledgers,” says Choi. “Accordingly, there’s a lot of administrative work to ensure all the information is correct and transparent. I believe there is a huge opportunity to apply blockchain in the supply chain of agricultural products in Africa, making it more transparent, easy to manage and real-time.”

Choi also points to the challenges of microfinance in the developing world, where many small farmers lack access to traditional financing options. “They could enhance their productivity if they could get a loan and use it to invest in more seeds, machines or bio-fertilizers,” he says. “But banks charge high interest rates, they are unsure if the loan is being used in the right place and farmers have no credit histories.”

Enter cryptocurrency. Choi says, “I believe crypto-based micro-loans can solve these challenges thanks to transparent transaction recording and lower administrative costs driven by smart contracts.”

The importance of getting in early

Besides the main panel discussion, ICONLOOP met with Africa-based startups, provided guidance in blockchain applications and discussed possibilities in DApp development.

ICONLOOP took part in the summit as a “Knowledge Partner” of the International Telecommunication Union’s Smart Incubator Program. The partnership, which dates back to a collaborative arrangement signed in April between the blockchain developer and the ITU, aims to provide support and know-how on blockchain to startups around the world. In particular, ICONLOOP is supporting the growth and expansion of start-ups in African countries through pilot projects focusing on three core pillars: technical know-how, business development and outreach and networking.

Choi says the participation of so many nations and major tech companies in the conference indicated that Africa was a “land of opportunity.” 

“Africa is moving forward so quickly to catch up to the advanced world,” he says. “Most Fourth Industrial Revolution topics such as AI, Big Data and IoT were discussed at the conference. But I realized that there were very few blockchain experts there. ICONLOOP was the sole blockchain company at the conference.”

For fast-growing businesses in Africa, he points to blockchain’s utility in innovation such as mobile payments, e-government and Big Data-driven agriculture.

“Many startups, entrepreneurs and government officials in Africa are very eager to learn about blockchain. But they have difficulty getting expertise,” he says. “I think next year there will be much more interest in blockchain. So it’s important to be a first mover. I think ICONLOOP has taken the first and most important step to engage with an African market that is growing more and more dynamic.”

“I met many young and talented African entrepreneurs who are highly interested in using blockchain for their services,” he adds. “Nothing concrete happened, but now is certainly the right time to build a blockchain ecosystem in Africa through training and support for tech startups. This is a great opportunity for ICON to expand its network into an emerging market.