Bitcoin has economically empowered young women in Afghanistan who have no access to banks, offering a glimpse at how digital currencies and blockchain technology are poised to reshape the world.
Elaha Mahboob, an Afghan tech entrepreneur and philanthropist in her early twenties, is on her way to a rural school outside Herat, in northern Afghanistan, when her driver points out two men on a motorbike who have been following them, turn after turn.
There’s currently not a single computer at the school she’s travelling to, but Elaha is there to arrange IT classes for the girls, covering the basics, like how to sign up for Facebook, as well as the not-so-basic, like how to buy and sell digital currencies like Bitcoin — and all the way up to advanced programming. But she knows that the local shura – or council of elders – aren’t happy with the initiative, even though she has offered to extend the same lessons to boys.
Afghanistan might be the last place that comes to mind when Bitcoin is mentioned. But Bitcoin has helped Afghan schoolgirls overcome very real obstacles, giving us a glimpse at how these cryptocurrencies — and, perhaps even more importantly, the blockchain technology underpinning them — have the power to transform the world. “Blockchain could open up access to the global economic system just like the Internet opened up access to knowledge,” says Accenture Managing Director Graham Richter, who leads the Blockchain practice in the UK and Ireland.
As Elaha approaches the school, the motorbike is still close behind her car. With no one else for miles around, her driver decides to turn around and bolt back towards the city. “That’s when they fired on our car,” Elaha says.
Access to technology changed the lives of Elaha and her older sister Roya, who both studied computer science at Herat University after taking computer classes through the UN Development Programme. Roya went on to become the country’s first tech CEO after she co-founded Afghan Citadel Software in 2010 with Elaha and two other colleagues.
Now, the sisters are determined to hand the same power to the next generation of girls growing up in a patriarchal culture. With the profits from their software start-up, they founded an NGO called Digital Citizen Fund, which went on to launch computer-science classes for girls in 11 schools and two standalone IT centres in Afghanistan.
More recently, Roya created a robotics team made up of six Afghan girls in their mid-teens, who flew to Washington, D.C. in July 2017 to compete in the FIRST Global robotics challenge, against thousands of other high-schoolers from around the world. By the time they arrived at the competition — after receiving a special exemption from a U.S. travel ban — the girls were celebrities. The competition organisers gave them a special award for courage, and the girls went on to meet global leaders including Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.
None of this progress happened without a fight — Elaha describes the attempt on her life outside the Afghan school as one example of the opposition she and her sister have faced as they fight for girls’ education. Before that, she says, the sisters had received threats from local conservatives, including Taliban members, but from that point onwards, “they really made a huge problem for us. We couldn’t start the programme in that school because it was very dangerous.”
“This was one of the reasons I left Afghanistan. But we never thought we’d ‘shut down’ our programmes. We never will — even if they give us other problems, because we believe we can really make a change for these girls, and we have to do that. We never want to stop our mission.”
THE POTENTIAL OF THE BLOCKCHAIN
When people in tech hubs like Silicon Valley download an app that allows them to buy and sell a digital currency, like Bitcoin, they’re probably motivated either by curiosity or by riches. The lure of wealth can be compelling, especially in late 2017 when the price of Bitcoin skyrocketed. If you had bought just $100 worth of Bitcoin in 2012, those same tokens would have been worth around $200,000 by late 2017. But the value can fluctuate wildly and by February 2018, it would only have been worth half that.
For Roya and Elaha, however, the potential of Bitcoin was much more radical, and they came to it as a genuine solution to a difficult problem. Their pioneering work, first with Bitcoin, and more recently, with the Ethereum blockchain, demonstrates the ways in which digital currencies could be truly transformative in the developing world, where far fewer people have access to banking services.
With Digital Citizen Fund acting as the umbrella organisation, Roya and Elaha launched a blogging platform for women in 2013, where the teen girls they were teaching IT skills could put their digital talents to use. They’d create computer graphics and write blog posts, and in return, be paid small amounts of money. These students didn’t have bank accounts, though, and picking up stacks of cash from the local bank to hand out to the young girls came with its own challenges.
Roya Mahboob says that she’d have to get male colleagues to accompany her to the bank for safety, and would then find that her students were expected to hand over all their cash immediately to their families. She’d see successful bloggers who were unable to buy new shoes. “When I’d say, ‘We pay you, why don't you have money?’ they’d say ‘Well, I give the money to the family, or someone takes it from me.’”
PayPal wasn’t operating in the country at the time, and the Kenyan money-transfer service M-Pesa, which can be used to send money via text message, charged high transaction fees. “We were just searching to find a way to send (payments) in a way that women would have control of their finances,” Roya says.
The solution, suggested by Italian tech entrepreneur Francesco Rulli, who had supported Roya’s work in various ways, was Bitcoin. The girls could spend the Bitcoin on online services like Skype credit, trade it among themselves, or save it and exchange it for cash with their teachers. The change was so big for the platform and its contributors that the sisters dubbed the site “bitLanders.”
Afghan student Marjan Osmani, now 18 and studying literature at Herat University, was one of the girls who piloted this scheme. She was 14 when first she started taking computer classes at school through Digital Citizen Fund, and she was soon writing dozens of blog posts for bitLanders, using her school’s computer between classes.
“I can’t have a bank account in my country,” she says. “By using blockchain, I can save it — it’s my own money — and buy many things for myself, including a beautiful laptop. I could also find some money to help my family members, buying school materials for my brother and sister.”
In many ways, Bitcoin wasn’t an ideal currency for Afghan girls in 2013. Its price was constantly fluctuating, there were hardly any ways to spend it, and it’s not intuitive to use. As anyone who has downloaded a Bitcoin wallet and bought the currency knows, the clunkiness of the steps you have to go through are reminiscent of the way it felt to download MP3s in the days before iTunes.
But it allowed the girls to take ownership of the money that was theirs, to look at their digital wallets whenever they wanted and track their income accumulating. In a place which is low on women’s rights, has high crime rates and a banking system hardly anyone uses, it felt like a revelation.
Elaha was one of those who was buying Bitcoin from students working for bitLanders who wanted to convert their money into Afghanis. “At the time I didn’t have an online bank account, or any credit card, so I felt like, ‘Okay, now I can manage my earnings,’” she says. “It was exciting.”
Roya felt the same way. “It was a great solution,” she says. “You could pay them in a second and they’d have the money in their wallet, and no one else knows — unless they have the password. Even if someone stole their bags, they can’t steal their money.” In Afghanistan, she explains, women often invest any savings in gold, and gold jewellery, which can be converted back to cash when needed, so the idea of Bitcoin as a type of “digital gold” made sense to the students.
Then, during the course of 2014, the price of Bitcoin dropped from a high of around $1,000 to about a third of that amount. The crash followed a high-profile hack of a major Bitcoin exchange, regulations and warnings from various national governments and banks, and the closure of the online black market, the Silk Road, which was an early driver of Bitcoin adoption.
“We lost a lot of money,” Roya says. “I had to pay my users because I gave my promise, so I paid everyone what they earned in dollar prices. That’s one of the reasons why we lost the business.”
While Digital Citizen Fund kept growing, and cryptocurrencies remained on the curriculum for the girls’ financial literacy classes, the bitLanders blogging platform ceased to exist. “Everyone was disappointed,” Elaha says. She had bought-up a lot of the students’ Bitcoin as an investment, and while many of the girls’ panic-sold what they had during the crash, she waited for prices to recover to about $400 before she sold off most of what she had.
It was that year that Roya moved to New York City after an increasing number of threats from both the Taliban and rival male-run software entrepreneurs. Elaha followed soon afterwards.
AN ETHEREUM-POWERED FUTURE?
Bitcoin has gone through more than one major crash since 2014, but it hasn’t stopped people from investing in the currency, and the price per coin has been climbing vertiginously year-on-year. Elaha sold off most of her Bitcoin as soon as the price had recovered from the 2014 crash, but she did hold on to some. That came in handy as the value of Bitcoin started shooting upwards during the next three years, multiplying by 10 and then almost 20 times in value. By the time she was accepted to study for a Master’s of Public Administration at Cornell University in 2017, she was able to cover her first semester’s tuition by selling off some of her Bitcoin stash.
During that time, some of the initial excitement about the potential of Bitcoin, especially in the worlds of business and finance, had shifted. Bitcoin continued to be mined, traded, and used for transactions and payments, but it became clear that there were many novel uses for Bitcoin’s underlying architecture that could make even more of an impact.
This architecture is known as the blockchain. It allows Bitcoin to function without a central authority in charge, by keeping a record of every transaction made using the currency (bundled into “blocks”) that’s available for all users to see. “Bitcoin has done the world of blockchain a huge service by bringing it to the public mind,” says Accenture’s Graham Richter.
Each block of transactions is verified by miners: people using the processing power of their computers to race to decipher a cryptographic puzzle. Whoever wins the race gets to timestamp the latest block of transactions and add it to the chain of all previous transaction blocks. As a reward, they’re paid a small amount of new Bitcoin. This structure makes Bitcoin unique, but also could limit its scale. “If everyone had to start using Bitcoin today, Bitcoin would collapse because the infrastructure can’t handle that volume,” Graham says.
In 2015, another digital currency was launched on this model, by 21-year-old Russian-Canadian programmer Vitalik Buterin, called Ethereum. It took the basic idea of Bitcoin, but evolved the concept by allowing new layers of architecture to be built on top of it. Rather than just transferring money, Ethereum allowed people to create smart contracts, which would automatically unlock funds once certain conditions had been met. (You could create a smart contract on a blockchain, for example, that automatically sends out payments as the different stages of a project are delivered and completed.)
“Ethereum is still completely underappreciated by the public,” Graham says. “Ethereum is blockchain, but it's actually much more than that. It's what's called the World Computer. It's the first example where you have a single computer that runs in a distributed way so that anyone in the public can access its computing power.”
“Ethereum is built to guarantee the best qualities of the blockchain: integrity, consensus and transparency,” he adds, “but it does more than transactions and payments. It allows you to create contracts that execute themselves, for example, a travel insurance policy that automatically pays out when a flight is cancelled.”
The applications for business are limitless, and companies have been exploring the potential of Ethereum and custom-built, private blockchain solutions in fields from diamond mining to healthcare records. Accenture, along with more than 150 of the world’s most powerful innovators ranging from JPMorgan Chase, Microsoft, Intel, BP and Credit Suisse to the Indian government, have joined forces to push forward this technology, creating the Enterprise Ethereum Alliance. This activity has meant the value of Ethereum’s token, Ether, which was valued at around $10 at the start of 2017, has been oscillating between around $300 and $750 throughout the second half of the year.
BLOCKCHAIN SOLUTIONS FOR A NEW AFGHANISTAN
Financial service providers have been early pioneers in using blockchain. Accenture is working with five banks in the Nordics that allow companies to be paid by banks as soon as they raise an invoice, Graham says. The banks then collect the money from the payee.
The potential uses are even greater for any company that has a supply chain, Graham says. By putting entire supply chains on the blockchain, a retailer for example could immediately identify the source of a contaminated product, remove it and replace it with an alternate supplier — removing any potential bottlenecks.
Roya is one of the many entrepreneurs around the world who’s now experimenting with the possibilities offered by Ethereum. One of the many industries that the Ethereum blockchain is poised to disrupt is e-commerce. Because of the way that it can trigger automatic payments when certain conditions are met, it allows the creation of decentralised marketplaces without middlemen or high transaction fees. While the finer details of Roya’s own plans are under wraps as she files patents, she will say that she’s planning to launch an e-marketplace based on the Ethereum blockchain in 2018, on which female entrepreneurs will be able to sell their products. In October 2016, Digital Citizen Fund won $35,000 as finalists in MIT’s 2017 Inclusive Innovation Challenge; this money, along with funds from various other sources, will go towards creating this platform. While initially targeted at Afghan women, it will eventually be open to both men and women in that country as well as others.
Roya’s experience with Bitcoin hasn’t dimmed her view of the cryptocurrency market that started this tidal wave of change. She still believes that “Bitcoin will continue to be the main player” in the world of cryptocurrencies, and that it’s still a “great solution” for developing countries. Both she and Elaha continue to invest and trade Bitcoin, as well as Ether and a few other digital currencies, such as Litecoin. They are also ensuring that other Afghan girls can take advantage of the opportunities these digital currencies offer. Digital Citizen Fund will be adding cryptocurrency trading and mining courses, lasting between three and six months, to their roster of classes for 2018.
All this is happening as Roya forges ahead with plans to start a new STEM-focused university, the “MIT of Afghanistan,” as she describes it. She recently gained the support of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to launch the institution, thanks to his interest in the all-girls robotics team she assembled and continues to mentor. Among other aims for the centre, Roya wants blockchain solutions to be developed at the university that could one day be used by the Afghan government.
Because blockchain technology is so hard to hack, and because every transaction is verified by miners, it has useful applications for streamlining government operations in areas such as welfare payments, company incorporation, house ownership records and taxes. By allowing citizens to interact with the state through a digital platform, it can also eliminate corruption, as government officials no longer need to act as middlemen for these transactions.
“We’ll build new technology on the blockchains for free,” she says, and adds with a laugh, “If we build the schools and technology, no one can make excuses.”
The plans Roya has to create social change in Afghanistan through tech education for girls have already started to have an impact, thanks in part to the international success of the robotics team. Families who forbade their daughters to come to Digital Citizen Fund classes are now clamouring for their girls to be included, and the team have been touring the world, giving speeches on tech education for women.
“These girls are not only a role model for Afghan girls,” she says, “they are also a role model for many other girls to go into STEM subjects. If the girls in Afghanistan can do it, girls living in developed countries can do it as well.”
It’s not only the robotics team who are inspiring others around the world. Roya has given many speeches on her own pioneering tech work, including one at the Blockchain Summit on Richard Branson’s private island in the Caribbean. She’s shown that cryptocurrencies and blockchain solutions can solve real problems, especially in countries where the pre-existing financial and technological infrastructure is leaving people behind.
She provides an example to others to stay curious, to keep experimenting, and to be imaginative in dreaming up ways that complex software can make life better, whether that’s for a schoolgirl who can’t afford new shoes, or an entrepreneur wanting to launch a new business.
She’s also clear about her belief that progress can be made when innovators collaborate, rather than compete. This is important when it comes to huge technological changes that disrupt entire industries, as the formation of the Enterprise Ethereum Alliance demonstrates. It’s also important when entrepreneurial ideas are intertwined with a drive for social change. As much as Roya wants to boost Afghanistan’s economy, she’s also passionate about empowering girls and women to carve out a path in male-dominated fields such as engineering, technology and finance.
Blockchain technology can be economically liberating not just for Afghan women, but also for the country and the developing world as a whole. Often financial transactions require checks on proof of address or credit history that are “completely constraining and insurmountable” for many, especially in emerging markets, Graham says. “Blockchain is a good way to bridge that gap,” he says. “It will bring the Third World into the world economy.”
When she was constantly receiving harassing phone calls in Herat and being frozen out by women who were afraid to be associated with her, Roya says, “I think they did that because I was alone. If you have one person it’s easy. What about hundreds? What about thousands? What about hundreds of thousands, or a million people who do the same thing?”
For this reason, she teaches her students “to be supportive of each other, how to work together, and be competitive in a positive way. Then, maybe we can bring change.”f