The people of Sierra Leone won’t forget 14 August 2017. The region around the capital of the West African country, Freetown, had been bombarded by heavy rain for three days, causing huge mudslides. More than 1,100 people died and many thousands were left homeless in a disaster that prompted a huge influx of international assistance.
The UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) gave a £5 million package to support non-governmental organisations providing essentials such as clean water, medicines, clothing and bedding to thousands of people.
One of the challenges DFID faces in such emergencies is ensuring the aid it supplies to humanitarian groups reaches those who need it quickly and efficiently. But the long supply lines and sheer number of partner agencies involved can make it difficult to trace what has happened to products in the chain.
We’ve been working with DFID to explore how 21st century technologies can make such supply chains more transparent, eventually settling on blockchain for a pilot project. It’s a time of massive change for all kinds of organisation, and the humanitarian sector isn’t alone in experimenting with innovative technologies to improve supply chain efficiencies. We can replicate the lessons learnt here across industries.
The hype around blockchain is huge, but we didn’t go into the process thinking it would be our technology of choice. We worked through a design-thinking process with various stakeholders within DFID to find a solution that offered the right mix of accessibility, scalability, security and regulatory compliance.
Humanitarian agencies already use blockchain. One example is the Building Blocks pilot developed by the World Food Programme - trialling blockchain as a means of making cash transfers more efficient, transparent and secure. However, the focus of our work has been on rapid-response scenarios, such as emergencies like hurricanes and earthquakes, where efficient supply chains are crucial.
While blockchain is often linked to cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, in our case it’s probably best thought of as a secure way of recording the histories of transactions in a supply chain. In simple terms, it’s a database that all those involved in the making, handling and distribution of goods in the supply process continuously update. The blockchain time stamps and securely encrypts each transaction, creating a transparent sequence of traceable events showing what happened to the supplies at each stage of the process.
To work towards a workable technological solution, we first needed to identify the challenges facing those providing and delivering aid. Working with DFID, we analysed the logistics and listened to experienced people in the supply chain team to understand current pain points and opportunities for improvement.
Following this process let us develop a comprehensive list of challenges that we matched to the potential benefits of different technologies. Some of the most critical issues included:
Once armed with this list, we found blockchain had great potential for pilot studies, so we examined how it could help. Key benefits could include:
Having developed robust insights, we used real rapid-response scenarios as examples in workshops with DFID to discuss how blockchain might have helped in past incidents. Thanks to these insights, DFID now understands how it can create a more holistic view of what happens to humanitarian aid.
This knowledge let us develop an ideas storyboard to display blockchain’s strengths and its feasibility in a small-scale pilot project, which we’ll help develop. Our next step is to help DFID explore blockchain for a part of the supply chain. It must cover an area where the regulatory complexity is relatively small, there aren’t too many users or tasks, and there’s potential to scale quickly.
The pilot will help those involved learn about the benefits of blockchain in supply chains and fix systemic shortcomings without hampering sensitive day-to-day operations. By doing so, they could reap the rewards of blockchain across the whole supply chain.
Work with blockchain won’t stop at supply chains – it has practical uses throughout industries as the database for the networked society. You just need to leave your assumptions behind to get started.