Image credits: Ayodeji Agboola
The crypto industry has long been criticized for its disconnect with the real world, but some players are trying to show that underlying blockchain technology can solve some of today’s society’s most pressing challenges, particularly in regions where basic infrastructure is lacking.
Akowea Nairobi-based startup that is part of Starter Battlefield 200 2023 from TechCrunch Disrupt, has developed a blockchain-based platform to deliver verifiable academic records. Speaking to TechCrunch in an interview, Akowe founder Ayodeji Agboola suggested that there is high demand for digital certificate verification systems in sub-Saharan Africa, in part due to the difficulty of reissuing academic records and the possessiveness of universities towards them.
“The university is proud of the fact that a student goes through their school and the certificate is issued to them. They usually only issue the certificate once. If it’s lost, most of the time they don’t want to reissue it; what they would give you is an affidavit. This singular nature of universities makes them very protective of certificates,” Agboola said.
In 2018, the founder, who ran a digital marketing company, began training a cohort of small business owners on how to use Facebook. As of 2019, the program had trained 30,000 people and had to prove that people had completed the course.
“We couldn’t find a very easy tool to use, so I just decided: you know what? Let’s build this thing,” he said. “So it was late 2020. We built it in three weeks. We demonstrated it. We tested it for our own certificates. It worked well. I said, yes, we are in business.
“In Nigeria, in Africa, (blockchain) needs to be a tool that people can actually see, use and solve their problems,” Agboola added.
The role in which blockchain plays a key role is storage. To begin, organizations upload their certificate templates and a list of recipient names, upon which Akowe automatically generates digital copies of each individual’s academic records. Say a recruiter or visa officer needs to verify a person’s college certificate, they can then check all of that metadata, including the URL of where the certificate is hosted (usually a company’s website). school), university names, student names, courses, grades and year of graduation. – on the blockchain used by Akowe.
Akowe has used Hyperledger, a permissioned blockchain, in the past, but is now working with a new ledger database solution released by Amazon, QLDB, which allows organizations to create centrally managed records.
“The immutable ledger gives it the security, the tamper-proof nature and everything you really need so that you can then be sure to verify anyone who wants to check the credentials,” the founder explained.
Akowe, meaning “clerk” in Yoruba, is still run by Agboola as a sole proprietorship, to this day, with the help of contracted developers. It offers its platform to universities for free, but takes a cut of the fees that universities charge users. It is in the final stages of setting up pilot projects with two institutions and is in talks with 15 others, according to the founder.
The challenge for the startup does not lie in the technological part but rather in user acquisition. “At a private university, you understand the business process much better. It’s profit driven and all that. . . but the majority of people go to public universities. These are the most prestigious universities in Nigeria. . . and there’s a lot of red tape that you have to deal with,” the founder said, adding that he had been careful in making his business pitches due to the negative image of blockchain.
“In the beginning, we were always very open to saying, hey, blockchain, blockchain. But then we found that (universities) had a negative connotation or understanding of the concept because they had seen what happened with cryptography, and as far as they’re concerned, they’re one and the same. So we stopped putting blockchain at the forefront of the conversation,” he said.
“But when we talk about safety, data, security, data and privacy, then we say: this is what we do. And it’s very different from crypto and all that. And then this conversation is much better to have.