Blockchain Technology and its Role in Real Estate Transactions

Guest Writer
3 July ,2018

by Jeff Kinuthia

A blockchain is a digital database or ledger distributed across a network of computers which is protected by coding the data to prevent editing and removal, and blockchain technology is the underlying application that enables all of this. Importantly, a blockchain records and stores all the transactions that occur within the network, essentially eliminating the need for third parties to confirm the validity of the transactions.

Until recently, blockchain technology was largely utilized and associated with cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin but more and more jurisdictions are slowly opening up to its use in different areas such as financial asset management and in land registration systems.

Which is timely because aggrieved citizens voiced their concerns with the government for years regarding the poor management of the lands registries. In 2016 the Ministry of Lands finally embarked on a digitization exercise of the 57 land registries across the country which have been keeping manual records since 1895. This exercise is ongoing and is aimed at improving the delivery of services through electronic land transactions.

While this effort must be lauded, it came at a period when the developed world appeared to be going one way and Kenya the other. However, the recent announcement by the ICT Cabinet Secretary that blockchain technology will be applied to supplement the digital database is a welcome relief that places Kenya firmly on the forefront of the blockchain revolution.

Blockchain’s advantage over traditional databases (such as the one being implemented by the Ministry) are numerous. First, under blockchain, a central database or settlement system maintained by the Land Registry for example, is replaced by multiple copies. This is great because the problem with a centralized system, especially in a country with endemic corruption, is that ill-intentioned bureaucrats often infiltrate and tamper with the system and a digital database is not be exempt from such tampering.

In a land transaction utilizing blockchain, multiple copies of a blockchain will be held by any number of interested parties such as owners, potential purchasers and agents. These copies continuously and automatically update their contents via a complex consensus mechanism that means that they are always identical. By using hashes to identify every real estate transaction (thus making it publicly available and searchable), proponents argue issues such as who is the legal owner of a property can be remedied.

Secondly, Blockchain technology also underpins ‘smart contracts’, which are programmable contracts that self-execute when certain conditions are met, and offer the possibility that transactions could complete much faster when combined with a blockchain registry.  For instance, title to the property could be transferred to the purchaser automatically on receipt of funds into the vendor’s account.  The result would also be to speed up the registration process.  With the ledger updating immediately, the registration gap would be eliminated.  This, in turn, would also lead to greater efficiencies and cost savings for land registries.

Third, nothing on the blockchain can be changed save with the consensus of the network. Any confirmed transactions on the blockchain cannot be changed.

Lastly, what happens on the blockchain stays on the blockchain. A public blockchain will act as a public ledger meaning that as long as the blockchain remains operative, the data on it will remain accessible.

Globally, other countries are already in various stages of exploring blockchain-based land registries:

  • In Brazil, the government partnered with a blockchain start up to overhaul the land registrar at two Brazilian municipalities by embedding land possession data into the bitcoin blockchain. The pilot program begun in August 2017 and is ongoing. 
  • Sweden is the country that’s furthest along in putting land registries on a blockchain. It is a country with an already well-established land registry system and believes blockchain could save the Swedish taxpayer over $100 million by speeding up transactions, reducing paperwork and minimizing fraud. 
  • Republic of Georgia has already agreed to use blockchain to validate all government related property transactions. Since its launch in February 2017, Georgia’s blockchain provider has helped implement property registration and has registered more than 100,000 documents.
  • Closer home, Rwanda recently announced that a Swiss cybersecurity company, in partnership with Microsoft, will soon offer support to the Rwandan Government in adopting blockchain technology in the country’s land registries.

Challenges facing the implementation of blockchain

Regulations have always struggled to keep up with advances in technology and blockchain is no exception. One of blockchain technology’s challenges is that it reduces oversight. There is thus a strong argument for blockchain applications to work within existing regulatory structures not outside of them, but this means that regulators in all industries should understand the technology and its impact on the businesses and consumers in their sector. New regulations will therefore need to be formulated to govern this intergration.

Second, many potential applications of blockchain, such as in land transactions, require smart transactions and contracts to be indisputably linked to known identities and thus raise important questions about privacy and the security of the data stored and accessible on the shared ledger. A key question that will always be raised is who has access to the ledger and how is access controlled?

Further, in Kenya, the current data protection laws we have in place are inadequate and we needed greater legislation with regard to accountability of persons and institutions that hold data. The relevant legislation, the Data Protection Bill (2013), has been stuck in Parliament for years now. Adequate data protection laws will therefore need to be implemented.

Finally, cost. The cost of implementing blockchain technology in a country like Kenya might prove to be a great challenge. This is firstly due to the fact that we are yet to digitize the land registry. Blockchain can only be implemented on a digital platform. The exercise, which begun in 2016 is still ongoing and there is currently no indication as to when the exercise will be completed. Once the digitization is complete, we will then need to set up the infrastructure which will involve acquiring the right software and computers with great computing and storage power.

What now?

The announcement by the ICT Cabinet Secretary on blockchain and land registries, and the setting up of a digital ledger and artificial intelligence taskforce by the ICT Ministry is an encouraging sign that the government is open and willing to adopt blockchain technology.

In the private sector, numerous startups have begun already begun implementing blockchain in their businesses. Examples include ‘ChamaPesa’, a blockchain savings application for savings groups set to officially launch in 2018. ‘Land Layby’, a real estate firm, recently announced that the firm is set to roll out an application for a blockchain-powered land registry by April 2018. The initial role of the platform will be to provide a mirror reflection of the Government Land Registry systems.

In the cryptocurrency sector, numerous companies relying on blockchain technology such as ‘L-Pesa’ and ‘Belrifics Global’ have gone a step further by launching Initial Coin Offering (ICO’s). ICO’s are a funding mechanism similar to Initial Public Offerings (IPO’s) in which startups sell their underlying cryptocurrency tokens in exchange for bitcoin.

Such advancements and application of blockchain locally appears to have contributed greatly to the fact that Nairobi was chosen as the host of the 2018 World Blockchain Summit in March.

Blockchain technology is a revolutionary tool that will change the way we do business in a lot of different sectors from the land registry to the financial sector and practically every industry that has great data management needs. The ultimate question therefore is not if, but when will this technology’s application will become widespread in Kenya.

 

Jeff Kinuthia is a lawyer specializing in corporate and commercial law. He can be reached on njeffkinuthia@gmail.com 

Towards a Democratic Internet

Brenda Wambui
22 May ,2018

The web (and the rest of the internet) has become a space where citizens come to chat, share ideas, critique the government and explore ways in which Kenya can function better for its citizens. It is a space where one is sure to find the most robust discussions about what it means to be a Kenyan citizen. As the importance of this space has increased, it has also become a place to spread misinformation and disinformation, propagate harmful speech, silence dissent and promote violence. As such, it is important to fight for its openness – which allows us to freely express ourselves, debate our ideas – and uphold our democracy.

The Democratic Principles for an Open Internet serve as an important guide in our efforts to protect this space.

Freedom of expression is a key pillar of any democracy. Kenyans should be able to seek, receive, and impart information freely on the internet without censorship or interference. It is undemocratic to block websites such as Twitter and Facebook, and services like WhatsApp as many Kenyans feared would happen during the 2017 general election, or to throttle internet speeds, which likely did happen. The intended effect of such actions is to suppress free speech, and it is often accompanied by arbitrary content takedowns, paid political posting and in some cases, online violence intended to instill fear.

Freedom of assembly and association is also important – everyone has the right to associate freely through and on the internet for social, political, cultural and other purposes. Kenyan citizens should be able to meet up and organize (especially politically) online to further their goals. This means that the LGBTQI community, feminists, sex positivity and body positivity advocates, human rights defenders and activists among others should be able to use the internet to peacefully organize, exercise their democratic rights and advocate for those of others. It is undemocratic to threaten WhatsApp group administrators with arrest for content posted on their groups due to the potential for misuse of such power.

Accessibility of the internet is key – everyone has an equal right to access and use a secure and open internet. All Kenyans should have equal opportunity for access and participation online, and public stakeholders (such as the government) and private stakeholders (such as Safaricom, Facebook, Google and so on) should identify and address the inequalities that exist, particularly among women and other minorities. We must work to make internet access more affordable, and to increase infrastructure and coverage across the country, especially in rural communities.

Privacy and data protection online are paramount – we all have a right to privacy online. This means freedom from surveillance, the right to use encryption, and the right to be anonymous online. We also have the right to data protection, which includes control over our personal data (and its disclosure, collection, retention, processing and disposal). It is undemocratic for Kenyans’ communications to be surveilled by intelligence agencies. We need to fight for a data protection law and an authority to provide oversight, both of which we do not currently have. Kenyans also need to be educated on the importance of protecting the data, while the government needs to be accountable for all the data it collects and issues (for example, birth certificates, ID  and passport numbers, NHIF and NSSF IDs, KRA PINs, drivers’ license numbers and so on). How does the state keep this data safe? Who has access to this data? Do Kenyans consent for their data to be used for the purposes for which the state uses it? We need answers to these questions.

We also need to have personal safety and security online. It is undemocratic for the web to be a space used to threaten others with physical, sexual and psychological violence/harassment. The police, and the state at large, should take it seriously when people, especially women, report stalking, trolling, blackmail, revenge porn, and hate campaigns. Online violence is still violence, and online harassment is still harassment.

The internet must be inclusive – cultural and linguistic diversity must be promoted, and technical and policy innovation should be encouraged to facilitate plurality of expression. It is important, for example, that our government publishes information online in English and Kiswahili (which it rarely does), as many Kenyans do not speak English. Official state websites should also be accessible to persons with disabilities, such as vision and hearing impaired people. The online space in Kenya must also be structured in a way as to encourage the voices of women and other marginalized people so as to increase its inclusivity.

Network equality must also be assured – we should all have universal and open access to the content online, free from discriminatory prioritization, filtering or traffic control on commercial, political or other grounds. It is the basis of net neutrality – the idea that internet service providers should treat all content flowing through their towers and cables equally, without ensuring faster access to some sites and slower access to others. This is why net neutrality must be protected, and why Facebook’s Free Basics is dangerous. It is also why internet throttling during elections, for example, is undemocratic.

Standards are necessary to make sure these principles work – the internet’s architecture, communication systems, and document and data formats should be based on open standards that ensure complete interoperability, inclusion and equal opportunity for all.

Lastly, there has to be governance – all these principles mean nothing if they are not implemented atop the legal and normative foundations of human rights and social justice, which should be at the heart of how the internet operates and is governed. Multiple diverse stakeholders across sectors should be involved in internet governance, such as the government, civil society groups, private sector stakeholders, academia and the media should be brought to the table in a transparent and multilateral way, based on the principles of openness, inclusive participation and accountability.

This way, we can ensure that the internet in Kenya remains open, accessible and democratic.

Why Kenyans Should Worry Even More About Facebook

Brenda Wambui
27 March ,2018

Facebook has recently found itself in hot water after a whistle-blower came out to talk about how Cambridge Analytica, a firm associated with both Uhuru Kenyatta’s and Donald Trump’s elections, mined the data of about 50 million users of the platform and used it to target them with often divisive political messaging. This is far greater than the initial estimate made in 2017 of 30 million accounts. This cannot be considered a breach of data, as they did it using the tools that Facebook gives third party developers access to, but a breach of users’ trust on Facebook’s part. They did not even bother to tell their users about this breach until March 2018 when the whistle-blower came out.

Hot on the heels of this information, it was recently revealed that Facebook, now known for being irresponsible with user data, has been storing extremely detailed logs of the date, time, duration and recipient of Android users’ calls when they have Messenger or Facebook Lite installed on their devices. It is worth noting that most Kenyans with smartphones are on Android. However, our concerns about Facebook should be even greater.

I recall clearly when Mark Zuckerberg, co-founder and CEO of Facebook, came on an “Africa tour” in 2016 and stopped by Nairobi to “learn about mobile money.” Before that, he had been to Lagos to meet with local businesses and developers to understand how Facebook “better support tech development and entrepreneurship across Africa. While he tried to portray his visit as altruistic, it was anything but.

Zuckerberg’s Chan Zuckerberg Initiative has invested in Andela to the tune of USD 24 million, and, Facebook’s Free Basics Initiative (under their Internet.org arm) is active in Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Angola, Ghana, Tanzania, Zambia, among others. Free Basics is a platform provided by Facebook in association with various telecom operators in different countries (in Kenya it’s Airtel), where certain basic websites are available free of cost. They hope that “by introducing people to the benefits of the internet through these websites, we hope to bring more people online and help improve their lives.”

According to their website, it provides people with access to useful services on their mobile phones in markets where internet access may be less affordable. The websites are available for free without data charges, and include content on things like news, employment, health, education and local information. They go on to say: “the internet is essential to growing the knowledge we have and sharing it with each other. And for many of us, it’s a huge part of our everyday lives. But most of the world does not have access to the internet. Internet.org is a Facebook-led initiative with the goal of bringing internet access and the benefits of connectivity to the two-thirds of the world that doesn‘t have them.”

Free Basics, however, is not all roses. It only allows users to access a very small section of the internet, and that portion is under the control of a corporation that chooses what services will be accessible for free. Since when can corporations be trusted with so much power? It offers unequal and biased access to the internet. The people at Facebook have to think your website is a “useful” basic, using standards that are unknown to the rest of us, and then allow free access to it on certain carriers. The selectiveness of the whole thing is amazing. Facebook partners with select Internet service providers to provide selective access to select websites. And then, they call it Free Basics, yet the very implication of the word basics is access to all.

This goes against the principle of net neutrality, which is the belief that Internet service providers should enable access to all content and applications regardless of the source, and without favoring or blocking particular products or websites. Through this service, Facebook becomes a gatekeeper: all web traffic generated on Internet.org goes through their servers, which spells trouble because it creates room for surveillance and privacy violations, since so much data is being concentrated in such few services.

Spying governments and hackers are now able to target very specific websites to get your data. This is made even worse by the fact that Facebook does not allow encryption on Internet.org (because the websites need to be light and load fast), yet this is one good way to protect users from online attacks. This is every hacker’s dream. To make matters worse, people worldwide confuse Facebook with the internet, while many others do not know that Facebook itself is on the internet. Isn’t it problematic if they become the main gatekeeper for the majority?

Free Basics also lacks transparency. What are the policies regarding user data? What happens when governments request for data access? What are the partnership terms with the telcos they are partnering with? How are core services for the service selected? What about the ones that are rejected? Why are they rejected? Who exactly covers the costs incurred by the telcos for providing this service? Are they being paid more or less than what they usually get paid by consumers for data? And most importantly, why is Facebook creating a walled garden? What about companies that are unable to, for some reason, meet whatever vague requirements Facebook has for being on the platform? Are they dead on arrival?

Perhaps the plan is for Facebook to increase its dominance in the market, get customers hooked on this free stuff, price others out of the market, and do whatever it damn well pleases after that. But how well is this plan working? Not too well. Buzzfeed did a piece on who is actually using Free Basics, and as you can imagine, the results will shock you. Most of the mobile operators in question that responded to their questions, and not Facebook, were actually the ones subsidizing the data because they believe it is a good customer acquisition and retention strategy. However, most of the people using Free Basics were not first time internet users. Many of them already have data plans and just use Free Basics to reduce their costs.

If Facebook really cared about providing access to the underserved, why not use its massive influence to urge telcos to offer data plans with low data caps to marginalized communities? Or, why not pay for this themselves? Then, everyone can have equal access to the internet? This fight has now been brought to Africa’s doorstep. Facebook lost this fight in India, and we must not let them win here. If a country with over 1.2 billion people can resist this giant corporation with a unified voice, so can African countries.

In India, they had a rallying cry against Free Basics: that it was poor internet for poor people. This is essentially what it is. They marched on the streets, protested online, and they targeted companies that had agreed to partner with Facebook, rating them poorly, until one by one, they dropped out of the programme. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India put out a letter to Facebook that ended with important questions, and the way Facebook handled this was terrible, and resulted in Internet.org being banned in India. They went on with a ham fisted approach, taking out billboards, newspaper ads, and sending millions of SMSs. They even asked people to call their telcos, which was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Zuckerberg learned from this very public humiliation, and this no doubt was behind his charm offensive in Africa. We have to be smart about this; we too must say no. We are at an important crossroads. The next billion can go online like we do now, and enjoy unfettered, nondiscriminatory access to the internet, with all the knowledge hosted there and the tools available for them to express freely. Or, they can get a second class experience. Poor internet for poor people, with limited access to the web as dictated by big blue.

It’s up to us to choose.

The Blindspots of STEM-Focused Education Reform

Guest Writer
3 May ,2016

by Laila Le Guen

Curriculum reform is a hot button topic in any part of the world but the stakes are particularly high in Kenya, where the 8-4-4 system has been so consistently criticised since its implementation. Science, technology, engineering and mathematics – known as STEM subjects – have been identified as a priority and take up a large chunk of the debate. However, viewing education solely through the lens of STEM introduces a number of dangerous blindspots.

Scientific thought is produced by social beings

While it’s evident that well-trained STEM specialists are needed for Kenya’s economic development and that education could be tailored to respond to this pressing need, a strong push towards STEM education might not achieve all that it is expected to. In a society where the image of the scientist is of someone who outsmarted everyone in school and has an uncanny ability to understand mathematics, the temptation is strong to view STEM professionals as special beings removed from social issues, operating in the ethereal world of hard facts and figures. The shocking truth is that science is in fact made by scientists, who are human beings like you and me. As such, they navigate a socio-cultural environment where tribalism, racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, and other unsavoury -isms and -phobias exist, no matter the profession one happens to practice.

The study of science and technology trains the mind in a certain way of understanding the world, of interacting with data and solving problems. It’s such an incredibly valuable method to have at one’s disposal that one might be tempted to extend it to every sphere of life. Unfortunately, being a responsible member of society requires an analysis of a broader spectrum of experiences that do not easily find an answer in science and technology taken in isolation. This is because we live in a society that has a history, traditions, norms and belief systems that affect us individually and collectively.

Social sciences and the arts have developed approaches to questions such as: how do we combat prejudice and discrimination in the workplace? How do we think beyond our own circumstances to include people whose experiences we will never fully understand? How do we build a better society for all? These are questions we are all confronted with daily by virtue of living alongside other human beings who can never be summed up by a mathematical model.

Hidden ideologies

This line of thinking takes us all the way back to the fundamental issue implicitly addressed in every educational endeavour, that is the vision we have for young people. Do we see them as future cogs in a big economic system or do we consider them as full human beings in need of guidance to find their place in a complex society? It looks like the former model often goes unquestioned because it is seen as the more pragmatic of the two, the more realistic, or even the only we can afford to pursue.

I would argue that the kind of education we find desirable tells a lot more about our political leanings than about what the economy ‘demands’. Thinking that technology is a neutral force in the world reveals not the absence of a political stance but a vision of society that wilfully ignores structural injustice.

Thus, curriculum design implies choices and ideological orientations that may not always be explicit. It is about sorting out between values and coming to a compromise about what knowledge is deemed valuable enough to be passed on at a national level. Every part of the educational experience – what subjects are taught, the content of lessons, how students are examined, etc – is a site where power relations are at play. A national education system focused mainly on building a strong STEM foundation sounds appealing in the short term and intuitively makes economic sense. It’s also a domain of knowledge that’s reassuring for it seemingly provides clear-cut, universal answers to important questions. So, let’s cover our bases, the rest will come later, right? Except that encouraging STEM to the detriment of other equally worthy subjects of interest can have deleterious unintended effects. For instance, the strict division of young people into discrete arbitrary categories (scientist / arts-oriented) creates a mindset of limitation instead of potential and ends up devaluing non-STEM talents.

Reevaluating our approach to STEM

For formal education to be a transformative experience it needs to be in touch with contradictory strands of knowledge, a perspective known as contrapuntal analysis, thus defined by Harry Garuba in an opinion piece on the changes needed following the #RhodesMustFall protests in South Africa:

Contrapuntal analysis takes into account the perspectives of both the colonised and the coloniser, their interwoven histories, their discursive entanglements – without necessarily harmonising them or attending to one while erasing the other.

Transforming the curriculum involves contrapuntal thinking at every level; it needs a contrapuntal pedagogy that brings the knowledge of the marginalised to bear on our teaching. A transformed curriculum is one that encourages contrapuntal thinking and pedagogy.

If we accept harmonious society-building as a goal of education, we need to understand how science and scientists fit into the society. This work must be chiefly done by scientists, with input from specialists of other disciplines. Doing this requires asking the right questions and adopting thinking strategies such as contrapuntal analysis, which brings to bear all the messiness of the human condition. For instance, have you ever researched what mathematics and philosophy looked like before Western-style schooling was introduced in what is now Kenya? If not, we’re working under the assumption that these disciplines were created by Westerners and that Kenyans are condemned to constantly playing catch-up to externally received forms of knowledge. This sounds like a destructive worldview to pass on to younger generations. I believe school could be the place where one receives guidance on how to examine these issues without necessarily providing ready-made answers.

By any means, encouraging young people to study STEM subjects and giving them the means to succeed in this field should remain a critical part of the current curriculum reform. However, the process should be informed by a broader view of education, one that does not take for granted a vision of STEM-focused education as the highway to economic development.

Laila Le Guen is a translator and editor based in Nairobi. She is a member of the Ed10 Consortium, a civil society organisation currently involved in the public consultation on curriculum reform. She is particularly interested in the intersection of language, education and technology in the Kenyan context.