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Technology

Blockchain helps businesses to profit from social progress

Asian farmers and voters ready to reap benefits of new technology

Hara incentivizes farmers to provide certain data by making it redeemable for digital tokens that can later be exchanged for fertilizer and other necessities. (Courtesy of Hara Token)

SINGAPORE/TOKYO -- After wiping the sweat off her brow and adjusting her straw hat, Liswati walks along one of her fields under Indonesia's hot tropical sun, eventually squatting down to inspect her crops. Instead of jotting down some notes with a pen and paper, she keys information about soil quality and other conditions into her smartphone.

With very little effort, she has given thousands of others involved in Indonesian agriculture -- from government officials to nongovernmental organizations -- data that can be analyzed and possibly utilized to boost the country's farm output.

The underlying technology? Blockchain, the same digital tracker that balances cryptocurrency ledgers.

Liswati is using a system provided by Singapore-based Hara Token, which connect farmers to lenders, insurers, buyers and other parties. Hara asks farmers to input information regarding grain prices, soil quality and land ownership. In exchange for this data, farmers are given Hara tokens, which can be traded for fertilizer and other necessities.

In the Asia-Pacific region, blockchain-backed businesses are expected to earn revenue of $4.59 billion by 2023, and the market is forecast to grow at a compound annual rate of 54%, according to a report by Netscribes market intelligence. The research company added that the region's blockchain innovations will attract a significant volume of venture capital.

Brant Carson, partner and colead of Digital McKinsey in Australia and New Zealand, noted that blockchain's disruptive potential has been "the driver of intense experimentation" since its launch more than 10 years ago. Today, 14 major industries are using blockchain technology in more than 90 ways -- to keep track of supply chains, tell consumers where their groceries come from or to help migrant workers make cross-border payments.

In Asia, blockchain is taking a stab at solving some of the big social issues of the day.

As Southeast Asia's population swells, so does the need for food. But the region's numerous small farmers lack the knowledge and techniques that workers on industrialized estates use to improve yields. Indonesia's palm plantations offer a glimpse into the plight of small farmers. In 2015, these farmers managed up to 40% of the nation's total oil palm plantation area. Their yield, however, was 50% lower than that of large-scale commercial companies, according to the World Resources Institute.

By sharing data with one another as well as with other stakeholders, these small farmers can close the gap with their industrialized peers. And since blockchain opens everybody's books to everybody else, it has been seized on to act as a conduit.

Hara's tokens tie together a complex web of parties who have an interest in Indonesian agriculture. Lenders, insurers and others who want a look at what is happening on farms can buy farmer-provided information on Hara's data exchange, which determines the value of the tokens.

The farmers, too, have access to the data, which offers a real-time picture of the state of Indonesian agriculture. Hara believes this picture will help farmers become more knowledgeable about best practices and prices. In theory, productivity will rise.

Hara is targeting up to 2 million users of its system globally including South and Southeast Asia, Latin America and East Africa.

Hara and Pundi X, which is trying to bring digital currency payments to the masses with its point-of-sale terminals, are making the devices accessible to farmers. (Courtesy of Hara Token)

EToro, a social trading and investing platform, is more ambitious. It has launched GoodDollar, a blockchain-powered universal basic income experiment that endeavors to provide a sum of money to cover everyday needs, regardless of a recipient's income, employment status or resources.

Participants first create accounts on the GoodDollar platform and have their details verified via smart contracts.

Corporate and investment partners can take part in the project by offering to back the creation of further GoodDollars. The eventual goal is to completely decentralize GoodDollar so the cryptocurrency is only controlled by its users, not a single entity, and to enable all users to convert GoodDollars into other cryptocurrencies like bitcoin and Ethereum.

"The project is to implement a cryptocurrency that pays social interest to those who have less," said Yoni Assia, co-founder and CEO of eToro. "With the rise of technology [displacing workers], the tech industry needs to find solutions for those [who have] less [with which] to participate in the economy and pursue their purpose."

Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba is also adapting blockchain for social purposes. In 2016, it created a blockchain charity tool called Ant Love. The platform connects Alibaba's users with more than 1,000 charities. The system allows donors to track transaction histories to understand where and how their money is being used.

Blockchain has political ambitions as well. The NGO MiVote India plans to use a blockchain-based platform ahead of this year's elections. MiVote provides politicians of any affiliation, including independents, with a tool that helps them to digitally connect with voters.

Voters are identified via their mobile phone numbers, which are associated with individual identification numbers. MiVote will poll its users on food, infrastructure, the environment and other issues, then notify them of the results. When 60% of MiVote's users agree on a solution to a social problem, it becomes a plank that MiVote-endorsed candidates must adopt.

MiVote also tries to ensure that everyone's vote is counted. India, the world's biggest democracy, is no stranger to electoral fraud. It is operated through donations from NGOs or governments. As MiVote prohibits donations from companies, some candidates use crowdfunding for their election campaigns.

The NGO's blockchain solution assures that once a vote has been added to the public record, it can never be tampered with or removed. Instead of having one centralized version of this record, thousands of individual databases observe one another to prevent modifications.

"A real democracy is the enactment of the will of the informed citizen," said Joydeep Mondal, CEO of MiVote India. "MiVote-endorsed candidates will engage [their] community [via] blockchain and create history in India."

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