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We must adapt to fast-changing technology

Last week, the Coalition of Automated Legal Application (COALA) invited me to talk at their seventh edition of Blockchain Workshops at Strathmore University. This was in collaboration with the African Development Bank.

Majority of the international presenters were young lawyers on a mission to change the world as we know it today.

COALA’s objective of holding the Nairobi workshops was to share knowledge on the emerging technologies within the Blockchain family.

This international multidisciplinary collaborative research and development initiative endeavours to bring clarity in the field of Blockchain technologies, smart contracts and decentralized autonomous applications.

What is Blockchain? Many people simply know it as the technology behind the Bitcoin or other alternative currencies often referred to as cryptocurrency.

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However, this is a limited view of this technology that is set to change the world. The broader definition extends beyond currency.

Academics researching the field will call it a distributed database that maintains a continuously-growing list of ordered records called blocks.

Each block contains a time stamp and a link to a previous block. Once the data is recorded, it can never be erased and no retroactive alteration can be made in a block.

This makes it possible for different use cases.

For example, the problems that we have in the Ministry of Land where crooks have been altering records and stealing land from legitimate owners can be dealt with using Blockchain.

Indeed at the workshop we were told that the government is working with IBM to introduce the technology.

There are several other areas of application including monitoring and payment of royalties for the creative industry, monitoring and validating performance in the education sector.

The technology can be applied in virtually every sector, not just in the financial sector as earlier assumed. COALA is involved in many projects that Kenya should pay attention to.

These include: exploring how blockchains, smart contracts and decentralization can impact productivity, economic growth, shared prosperity and civic participation; legal enforceability of smart contracts; Internet of Things; consensus and scalability around optimization and reduction of transaction/co-ordination costs of the information economy as well as privacy, data integrity and national security.

In essence, these workshops were addressing the inevitable future.

Unfortunately, our policy makers and regulators could not hold to the end. Yet their role is to balance between consumer protection and facilitating innovation.

Technology is changing fast. We cannot isolate Africa, or any other continent or country, from the happenings elsewhere in this interconnected world.

While in the past the fax machine was a technology of choice, today it is obsolete. The same will happen to the current technologies.

Inspired by Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig’s keynote speech from the previous conference, “Thinking Through Law and Code, Again”, these young people in a multidisciplinary environment are trying to look “at how this technology, just like the Internet, will fundamentally change our legal frameworks, and the way we organise and govern human societies.”

Kenya, and perhaps Africa, must join this bandwagon to chart a new less dependent future for the continent.

Blockchain cannot succeed in Africa unless we deal with increasing digital divide in a future that assumes that everyone has a digital footprint. Most of the new technologies today rely on the digital footprint to establish identity that enables them to transact online, take advantage of lower transaction cost and home delivery.

Consider the example of Ibrahim Mwangi-Otieno who lives in Kibra, is a casual labourer and is paid in cash. Has no car, cell phone, computer or any subscription.

He rides a matatu (public service vehicle) and pays cash.
When he wants to send an email, he goes to a cyber café. Blockchain technologies in as much as they help create productivity will mean nothing to Mwangi-Otieno.

We need radical regulatory interventions to increase both access and affordability of digital inclusion. The policy on shared infrastructure should be more explicit to lower the cost of Internet access, which in my view is a human rights issue.

There is no reason, for example, for mobile providers to use infrastructure as a competitive advantage.

This is perhaps the reason why the infrastructure is vandalised in arid areas where we need it most. It is time to use the Universal Access Fund to enable communities to own this infrastructure such that the providers will have to share.

Blockchain technologies will change our future. We must be ready to collaborate and encourage multidisciplinary mechanisms to advance Africa. We have the greatest opportunity to break from past dependencies and begin to control our destiny.

For this to happen, we must drastically change our regulatory environment and make it responsive to innovation.

The writer is an associate professor at the University of Nairobi’s School of Business

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