Internet pioneer Nii Quaynor thinks the blockchain can change life in Ghana

Profile picture for user jreed By Jon Reed May 13, 2016
One of the most interesting attendees at Consensus 2016 was African Internet pioneer Nii Quaynor, who is actively building the blockchain community in Ghana. In this exclusive discussion, Quaynor explains why he has high hopes for blockchain in Ghana, and how he intends to overcome the obstacles in his path.

Nii Quaynor at Consensus 2016

When Nii Quaynor learned about Bitcoin, he immediately saw its potential in Ghana. But someone had to go first. "What's the hardest part about Bitcoin? Mining? Then let's do that." Doing the hard part to get projects off the ground seems to be hard-wired in Quaynor; he's been inducted into the Internet Hall of Fame for two decades of pioneering Internet build-out in Africa.

At Consensus 2016 in New York City - a Coindesk event - Quaynor told me why he's decided to go all-in on blockchain for Ghana. But the story starts earlier, with Quaynor's role building Ghana's Internet infrastructure:

Nii Quaynor: Around 1992, I decided to return to Ghana to see what I can do to help. My Ph.D. thesis and research was in distributed systems. I was familiar with all the work on TCP/IP that was being done at the time, the gateway protocol.
Jon Reed: The building blocks of the Internet.
Quaynor: Yes, I was exposed to that early. I always wanted to build a network. I had already built some private networks, but around 1992, I realized that we're going to go through an open network, which was the Internet. I quickly prepared my team to migrate to Internet-based networks. In 1993, we were successful in establishing a connection to what we now call the Internet.

Has the Internet led to transformational change in Ghana?

Quaynor told me that he always saw the Internet as a transformational change, not just a new networking protocol. So has the Internet lived up to its promise? Quaynor:

I think it has surpassed our expectation. Yes, we knew it was important. We know it would have an impact in practically every area. But the truth of the matter is that it's been used in ways that none of us anticipated. That really proves that the Internet, it is open. We're obviously successful in the application of the Internet to improve the economy. The peer to peer aspect has removed some intermediaries, and so we are getting the efficiencies that I expected in applying the Internet.

But that openness hasn't extended to the supply side. Quaynor:

In some ways, I also feel we haven't done so well. Africa is not really part of the supply side of the Internet in any noticeable way... Currently, at least 95 percent of Internet connectivity provision in the country is done by multinational companies. The local ISPs that were providing this service are not the majority provider of these services. So we missed out on some local economic development there.

The growth of mobile in Ghana - "We pushed for it"

The blockchain's decentralized promise is closely tied to mobile phones - but not just any mobile phones. Smart phones will be needed, to manage things like digital wallets and identity verification. Here, Quaynor sees good news: 65 percent of the mobile phones in Ghana are already smart phones. Did Quaynor see the mobile revolution coming?

We did anticipate it. In fact, we were pushing for it, because we couldn't afford a thousand dollars for a computer. We knew that the Internet can work with any user interface, and therefore, why not a phone? What we did not anticipate was that connectivity would be provided by the telecommunications companies instead of the ISPs. As the telecoms began to do that, we immediately knew that mobile was ready.

Quaynor and his colleagues lobbied regulators:

We demanded it of our regulators - to improve the spectrum utilization. In some cases, we helped get spectrum allocations for mobile companies. The whole thing's about coverage.

Some areas still need coverage, and broadband-level connectivity. But Quaynor believes Ghana's mobile infrastructure is ready to support blockchain projects. Quaynor's blockchain adventures began with Bitcoin. He saw an imperative to legitimize Bitcoin - what better way to do that than to become a miner himself? Through his company, Ghana Dot Com, Quaynor supports Bitcoin mining and transactions.

In pursuit of the blockchain

About 18 months ago, Quaynor began his quest for blockchain use cases. Mining was the logical place to start:

I decided I needed to be more engaged in the blockchain. I'm an infrastructure type of person, and a very strong software type of person. My immediate reaction was, "Let's go to the hardest job." My rationale was that if we don't have mining operations in Africa, perhaps African banks would not have confidence. They might say, "The operation is in China. Why do I want to go and put my money there?" After looking at it strategically, I decided I wanted my country to be part of it. I wanted the region to be part of it.

Ghana Dot Com is still focused on Bitcoin mining; Quaynor plans to expand into wallets and trading. In the last few years, thanks in part to mobile banking, the "unbanked" in Ghana are down to 25 percent. That's a large demographic that can be aided by banking and other blockchain-powered financial services. Quaynor thinks blockchain tech can help that remaining 25 percent do mobile banking by making mobile banking easier, due to offline capabilities and easier processes.

But it's the "non-financial" blockchain use cases that he finds most compelling. One example? National identification:

Ghana has tried more than once to establish some national identification. It hasn't worked out. Then there are voting issues - so that's one class of things. These sorts of technologies can help with that. I also envisage land-related registries. Land titles are a confusing situation in Ghana right now.

Quaynor thinks the blockchain has a "deeply democratic" potential:

I think we can reduce the obstacles. I can present my identification, I can vote, I can participate in ways that I couldn't before. There were so many problems; I might just sit at home and say, "The hell with this."

Quaynor also thinks blockchain could also play a key role enabling micro-loans and smoothing the path to business launch: "Micro-loans are needed. You might say most of Africa is made up of really small businesses, and they need these kinds of services."

Blockchain adoption - how do you get there?

To realize these potentials, wide scale blockchain adoption is needed. How do you get there? Quaynor is pursuing two paths: use Ghana Dot Com to build out/legitimize the transaction platform, and use his position as a university professor at the University of Cape Coast to spread the educational message. Quaynor is organizing a consortium with three of Ghana's largest public universities to begin training students on blockchain fundamentals.

Ultimately, policies have to change for blockchain and cryptocurrencies to prosper. Quaynor believes his educational efforts will force the issue:

If regulatory environments don't understand this technology, they will act wrongly. The best way I know to get policy to respond is to say, "Here I am." You don't get policy to respond by going underground. You have to surface in a very confident way, and be ready to engage in dialogue, and maybe negotiate to get things going.

He envisions a groundswell of community support:

Community is extremely important for these things. People must talk among themselves, and so I want the ecosystem to surface. Currently, they are diffuse. If you are to ask anybody how many people are working this general area, nobody has an idea.

Quaynor jokes that his example of a Bitcoin trader from Ghana makes people less fearful:

Because it became public that I was mining, others began to write about what I was doing. People thought, "If he's mining, and he has not been put in jail, it must be okay."

I asked Quaynor if he agrees with those who proclaim blockchain will be bigger than the Internet itself. Quaynor sees blockchain at the "fourth layer," on top of the transmission, Internet Protocol, and web (W3C) layers:

I think blockchain rides on these three. It's interconnected through the web, but it's bringing a function the web cannot have by itself. The blockchain is transactional in nature, and has value. I see it as even bigger than the web.

I told Quaynor I hope he has no plans for retirement. "At least it will keep me busy," he quips, before walking away with the energy of a young college graduate.

Image credit - Photos of Nii Quaynor at Consensus 2016 by Jon Reed.

Disclosure - Coindesk provided me with press access to Collission 2016; diginomica covered travel expenses.