One of the biggest challenges for farmers in developing countries is proving the value of their work. Crops are traditionally sold through middlemen who pay in cash before delivering to larger processors. That leaves growers without a formal transaction record, which means they have no official work or credit history. As a result, entire communities can’t gain access to financial services like banking, lending, or crop insurance that could help lift them out of poverty.
That changed in June 2018 when roughly 2,000 cassava farmers in Zambia began selling their harvests through BanQu, a blockchain-based software as a service platform that creates a decentralized digital ledger of each transaction. All of the crops bought on the platform went to just one buyer, Zambian Breweries, which bought 1,400 metric tons of the starchy root vegetable, which is a key ingredient for the locally made beer. Instead of cash, each farmer received a digital payment through BanQu’s blockchain platform. The service delivers virtual tokens that can be redeemed for cash when needed, or applied to other networked transactions (like paying their energy bill). It also tracks and stores what volume of goods were delivered, the quality of those goods, and what price-per-pound that yield commanded.
Zambian Breweries’ parent company, AB InBev, spearheaded the project for several reasons: Logging sales in a traceable and transparent way provides both an immediate view into what’s happening within their supply chain, and the ability to ensure that everyone receives fair wages. “If there are any issues with the transaction, we have that visibility now, and the farmer has a voice to talk to us directly,” says Katie Hoard, AB InBev’s global director of agriculture and sustainability. Eliminating large cash transactions also lowers the risk of that money being stolen, which had been an issue for many women farmers.
The effort also aligns with AB InBev’s 2025 sustainability goal, which is to ensure that 100% of farmers are properly skilled, connected, and financially empowered. (The company purchases from over 25,000 small-share farmers.) To that end, it’s expanding: In late 2018, AB InBev invited BanQu to join its 100+ Accelerator and scale its idea elsewhere. In April 2019, the company will start a new program with 1,000 barley farmers in India. It’s already active in Uganda, where it expects to reach 7,000 barley farmers by the end of the year. Zambian Breweries will add 2,500 additional cassava farmers in Zambia in 2019–meaning 4,500 in total are using the BanQu platform in Zambia
BanQu, which is the winner of Fast Company’s 2019 World Changing Ideas Awards in the Developing World Technology category, started in 2016 with the idea of providing people more dignity and opportunity through the creation of digital economic identities. It’s now active in 12 countries. One crucial component, of course, is connectivity. But the world is reaching a technological tipping point: According to BanQu’s research, at least 60% of the global poor have access to cell phones. These don’t necessarily need to be smartphones. In Uganda, BanQu operates by spending text-based receipts over SMS service.
While BanQu initially focused on building transparency and trust within agricultural systems, it has adapted the same mechanics to help impoverished kids in Costa Rica certify their education so they can get hired into better jobs, and enabled female refugees along the Syria-Jordan border to receive micro-loans to restart their lives. Working with major companies remains a key step. “If you look at the 5,000 global brands today, they procure raw materials and finished goods from about a billion of the 2.7 billion people who live in poverty,” says BanQu founder and CEO Ashish Gadnis.
Helping those people prove and maintain their value not only stabilizes communities but creates the sort of stable markets that encourage more investment.