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by EOS Intelligence EOS Intelligence No Comments

Digital Therapeutics: The Future of Healthcare?

Although the COVID-19 pandemic seems to be done with its rampage, many people still opt to access all kinds of services, including healthcare, from the comfort of their homes. As this trend is expected to continue, the global digital therapeutics market, with its projected growth at a 20% CAGR from 2022 to 2035, is one important sector healthcare firms should focus on right now.

Digital therapeutics (DTx) are digital health interventions or software applications that are clinically validated and designed to treat or manage medical conditions. They can be used alone or in conjunction with traditional medical treatments.

The Digital Therapeutics Alliance categorizes DTx products into three types: disease treatment, disease management, and health improvement.

Examples of DTx include a solution to manage chronic musculoskeletal pain developed by Kaia Health, a biotechnology company in New York. This motion analysis tool assesses and guides patients’ progress during physical therapy and tailors treatment to individual requirements.

Similarly, Clickotine from Click Therapeutics, a company also based in New York, uses AI to help people with nicotine addiction. This solution offers a personalized plan fully integrated with eight weeks of nicotine replacement therapy, including options such as gum, patches, or lozenges. It tracks critical aspects such as daily cigarette counts, craving triggers, craving times, etc. A trial study conducted by the company in 2016 claimed that 45% of Clickotine users were able to quit smoking.

Adoption of DTx is taking off amid increased investments

The commercial development of DTx started around 2015 and, since then, has grown into a global market of considerable size. The total value of global DTx start-ups was estimated at a whopping US$31 billion in 2022, according to a 2022 report published by Dealroom, an Amsterdam-based firm offering data and insights about start-ups and tech ecosystems, in partnership with MTIP (a Swiss-based private equity firm), Inkef (an Amsterdam-based early-stage venture investment firm), and Speedinvest (an Austrian early-stage investor).

The number of people using DTx solutions is expected to increase over the next few years, according to a 2022 report by Juniper Research, a UK-based research firm. The study found that there were 7 million DTx users in the USA in 2020, a number expected to rise to around 40 million in 2026.

This increase can be attributed to the fact that DTx solutions are highly accessible and distributable due to an increase in the use of smartphones. A 2021 report published by Pew Research Center, a US-based think tank, found that 87% of Americans owned a smartphone in 2021, compared to 35% in 2011. With this, more people will be able to access medical care without having to spend more on hospital visits.

DTx applications have also been attracting numerous investors owing to the applications’ cost-effectiveness, ease of distribution, and better accessibility. According to the same 2022 report published by Dealroom, global venture capital funding in DTx witnessed a fourfold increase in 2022 compared to 2017.

All these studies reveal that, despite certain challenges, the DTx applications hold the promise of developing into a practical and affordable means of treating illnesses and conditions that impact large numbers of people.

Regulatory pitfalls present a major roadblock to DTx adoption

One main challenge DTx companies face is the regulatory environment. All DTx products must comply with the regulations of regional agencies such as the FDA, HIPAA, HITECH, etc.

Many US firms initially faced regulatory obstacles and payer resistance around product reimbursement. Before 2017, the US FDA classified DTx solutions as a SaMD (Software as a Medical Device) and, therefore, made them subject to risk assessment (low, medium, or high). Due to this, DTx solutions needed premarket approval and rigorous clinical trial results to get approval.

This has improved with the introduction of the Digital Health Innovation Action Plan by the FDA in 2017. According to the new plan, the FDA will first consider the company producing the solution. If the producer has demonstrated quality and excellence, it can market lower-risk devices with a streamlined premarket review. Post-market surveillance and data collection are also done to evaluate product efficiency.

Similarly, in the EU, DTx is controlled by national competent authorities and governed by the European Regulation on Medical Devices 2017/745 (MDR). However, no specific framework indicates the evidence required for assessing the performance or quality of DTx solutions or their production standards. This means that the member states may interpret the dossier requirements differently, leading to a fractured regulatory environment.

The COVID-19 pandemic has provided companies with some regulatory flexibility, leading to an increase in venture capital funding. In 2020, the federal government in the USA issued a new rule allowing healthcare practitioners to treat patients across state lines, including the use of digital medicine. This can increase access to healthcare, especially in rural areas, and physicians will be able to offer timely care to their patients traveling in a different state.

The FDA has also loosened regulations during COVID-19, particularly for mental health products, with the Digital Health Innovation Action Plan. This was to ensure that patients received timely care even from their homes while reducing the burden on hospitals. It waived certain regulatory obligations, such as the need to file a 510(k) premarket notification during the COVID-19 pandemic. The 510(k) is a submission indicating that a new medical device is similar to something already approved by the FDA (a predicate device) to ensure safety and efficiency. However, finding suitable comparables can be highly challenging in the case of DTx, which is dynamically evolving. This can result in misunderstandings or overlooking of critical aspects of these solutions, leading to uncertainty and delays in the approval process. The waiver of this regulation offers DTx companies some relief in the future.

Digital Therapeutics - The Future of Healthcare by EOS Intelligence

Digital Therapeutics – The Future of Healthcare by EOS Intelligence

Patient health literacy is a hurdle in the adoption of DTx solutions

A survey by the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) in 2003 has shown that only 12% of Americans possess proficient health literacy skills, making them able to find and understand information related to their health. This lack of awareness among patients can also impede the ease of applying DTx products.

Patient experience is also crucial for the acceleration of DTx adoption. Older patients unfamiliar with using technological gadgets can find it difficult to adopt DTx solutions. However, a 2022 AMA survey has shown that 90% of people over the age of 50 in the USA recognize some benefit from digital health tools.

Similarly, a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2021 indicated an increase in the use of smartphones and the internet among older people in the USA, driven by the pandemic. Older adults are using technological applications for activities such as entertainment, banking, shopping, etc., even after the pandemic, a 2021 survey by AARP Research, a US-based NPO, shows. This indicates that there is scope for an increase in adoption.

Many companies are now trying to increase patient involvement by using gamification, aiming at patient groups for whom DTx use is likely to be more challenging (e.g., older population, children). DTx developers include game-like elements or mechanics into a DTx solution, such as tasks, rewards, badges, points, and leaderboards. An example is US-based Akili Interactive’s EndeavorRx, a prescription DTx aimed at enhancing attention function in children with ADHD aged 8 to 12. It uses an interactive mobile video game to assist children in improving their attention skills and adjusting to their performance levels. The game’s sensory stimuli and motor challenges also help kids multitask and tune out distractions.

Payer reluctance affects many DTx products

Although the number of DTX products on the market increases, payers’ reluctance to cover their costs to the patient can also slow down adoption. The coverage of DTx solutions is limited, even when they are FDA-approved. Only 25% of payers are currently willing to cover prescription DTx solutions, according to a 2022 survey by MMIT, a Pennsylvania-based market data provider, which involved 16 payers.

Akili Interactive’s EndeavorRx is one such solution facing insurance coverage issues. Elevance Health (previously Anthem) denied coverage for EndeavorRx, deeming it medically unnecessary, while Aetna, another insurance provider, considers it experimental and investigational.

A study released by Health Affairs, a health policy research journal, in November 2023 has shown that only two of the twenty FDA-approved prescription DTx solutions on the market have undergone rigorous evidence-based evaluation. This means that no authoritative results indicating the benefits of these solutions for various population demographics are available, making many payers skeptical of their medical claims.

DTx offers solutions for managing multiple conditions

Over the past few years, several prominent players have emerged in the DTx landscape. Around 59% of the DTx market is concentrated in the North American region and 28% in Europe.

Top players, such as Akili Interactive and Big Health, both US-based firms, focus on offering products for managing mental health illnesses, mostly management of anxiety, depression, and stress, according to a report published in 2023 (based on data until September 2022) by Roots Analysis, an India-based pharma/biotech market research firm. With about 970 million people suffering from mental health conditions globally (according to the WHO), the potential user pool is enormous, offering growth opportunities for DTx solutions developed to address mental illnesses and, over time, driving the growth of the DTx market as a whole.

Many top companies also focus on solutions offering pain management and treatment for chronic conditions such as diabetes, obstructive pulmonary disease, and musculoskeletal disorders. An example is US-based Omada’s pain management solution, Omada MSK. This application guides patients through various customized exercises and records their movements, which are then assessed by a licensed physical therapist (PT), who can make recommendations for improvement. It also has a tool that utilizes computer vision technology to help PTs virtually assess a patient’s movement and range of motion, allowing them to make necessary changes in the therapy.

Similarly, several DTx solutions on the market now focus specifically on diabetes, which affects around 537 million adults globally. Some top companies focus on the previously unmet needs of conventional methods, such as weight management or preventing prediabetes, to help with overall diabetes treatment. US-based Omada’s solution, Omada Prediabetes, comes with a weight scale pre-connected to the app, and the weight is added to the app as soon as the patient steps on the scale. A dedicated health coach assesses the patient’s weight, creates a customized plan, and monitors the patient’s progress. In other similar DTx solutions for diabetes, an app can also give insulin dose recommendations based on the patient’s blood glucose levels.

DTx can serve in a range of other conditions, including major depressive disorder, autism spectrum disorder, and multiple sclerosis, to name a few.

The DTx landscape is rife with development

The DTx business landscape has recently seen many developments, from acquisitions to product launches. One of them was Big Health’s acquisition of Limbix, a California-based DTx firm, in July 2023 to bolster its portfolio, including SparkRx, a treatment for adolescents dealing with depression and anxiety. Similarly, in June 2023, Kaia Health launched Angela, a HIPAA-compliant, AI-powered voice-based digital care assistant, to serve as a companion and guide, enhancing the physical therapy experience for patients.

In another development, BehaVR, a DTx company headquartered in Kentucky, and Fern Health, a digital chronic pain management program, merged their companies in November 2023 to create a novel pain management DTx solution that addresses both pain and fear caused by chronic diseases. With this merger, they launched RealizedCare, an app designed to offer a comprehensive solution that collaborates with health plans, employers, and value-based providers to treat a range of behavioral and mental health conditions. This solution provides clinicians with immersive programs specifically designed for in-clinic use. It is initially focusing on chronic pain.

Bankruptcy of Pear and lessons for the industry

However, the most shocking development in the DTx market was the bankruptcy of Pear Therapeutics in 2023. The remains of this once-prominent company were purchased by four other companies for a total of US$6.05 million at an auction. Pear was a big name in the industry since its inception in 2013. It introduced numerous products such as reSET, reSET-O, and Somryst for treating substance use disorder, opioid use disorder, and chronic insomnia, respectively. It was also the first company to receive FDA approval for a mobile app aimed at treating substance use disorders.

Though the company announced layoffs of nearly 20% of its workforce in November 2022, its management expressed optimism about the company’s growth and reduced operating expenses in the third quarter. But in April 2023, the company filed for bankruptcy.

The demise of Pear has opened the eyes of industry experts to the challenges faced by DTx players. Certain issues were unique to Pear itself, such as the comparatively higher prices of its products and the focus on treating challenging conditions such as substance use disorders. However, the bankruptcy of Pear also brings attention to the obstacles that can be faced by any other DTx company. One crucial roadblock is that physicians and payers still approach these products with caution. Additionally, achieving profitability for DTx might be challenging for all types of players, particularly for small start-ups lacking substantial market influence. The bankruptcy of Pear and the challenges it faced can be used by budding DTx companies as a road map as they navigate this complex sector.

EOS Perspective

DTx is all set to revolutionize the medical industry, with a 2020 McKinsey report suggesting it could potentially alleviate the global disease burden by up to 10% by 2040. Given the impact of emerging treatments on stakeholders, pharmaceutical and healthcare companies should consider expanding their portfolio to include DTx solutions.

With telehealth companies seeing good growth in the pandemic and post-pandemic years, an increase in investment can be expected as they are uniquely placed to support prescription DTx. With the growth of the digital health industry, prominent telehealth providers may also choose to acquire DTx businesses or create their own in-house DTx solutions.


Read our related Perspective:
 COVID-19 Outbreak Boosts the Use of Telehealth Services

An increase in industry M&A activities can be expected in the next few years, with growing incidences of chronic illnesses, improved technology penetration across all age groups, and a maturing market. Big names such as Bayer, Novartis, and Sanofi are also entering into partnerships with DTx companies, indicating a bright future for the sector.

Mental health and behavioral therapy are great fields to branch out for companies starting in the DTx landscape, especially in this post-pandemic era. Demand for such services is likely to be sustained, considering the National Institute of Mental Health Disorders estimates that one in four adults in the USA suffers from a diagnosable mental illness, with many suffering from multiple conditions.

Similarly, diseases such as diabetes, cancer, heart, and respiratory ailments are on the rise. Healthcare companies can effectively address these medical areas through the use of DTx applications, providing personalized care for patients. This approach has the potential to manage not only chronic conditions such as diabetes but also terminal illnesses such as cancer.

Many DTx players will likely focus on areas with unmet needs, including pediatrics and metabolic disorders. With seven DTx-based diabetic management solutions already receiving 510(k) clearance as of December 2022, it can be expected that more products addressing the treatment gaps might flood the market.

The DTx industry is gradually maturing and has been receiving significant investments in recent years (US$8 billion in 2022). While experts view it as a profitable market, hesitation remains, particularly following the bankruptcy of Pear Therapeutics.

Nevertheless, due to the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown measures, technology adoption among older adults has increased significantly. Hence, strategic investments in DTx by pharmaceutical and healthcare companies, taking into account market conditions, can expect to establish a stronger presence in this industry in the future.

by EOS Intelligence EOS Intelligence No Comments

Scarcity Breeds Innovation – The Rising Adoption of Health Tech in Africa

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Africa carries the world’s highest burden of disease and experiences a severe shortage of healthcare workers. Across the continent, accessibility to primary healthcare remains to be a major challenge. During the COVID-19 pandemic, several health tech companies emerged and offered new possibilities for improving healthcare access. Among these, telemedicine and drug distribution services were able to address the shortage of health workers and healthcare facilities across many countries. New health tech solutions such as remote health monitoring, hospital automation, and virtual health assistance that are backed by AI, IoT, and predictive analytics are proving to further improve health systems in terms of costs, access, and workload on health workers. Given the diversity in per capita income, infrastructure, and policies among African countries, it remains to be seen if health tech companies can overcome these challenges and expand their reach across the continent.

Africa is the second most populated continent with a population of 1.4 billion, growing three times faster than the global average. Amid the high population growth, Africa suffers from a high prevalence of diseases. Infectious diseases such as malaria and respiratory infections contribute to 80% of the total infectious disease burden, which indicates the sum of morbidity and mortality in the world. Non-communicable diseases such as cancer and diabetes accounted for about 50% of total deaths in 2022. High rates of urbanization also pose the threat of spreading communicable diseases such as COVID-19, Ebola, and monkey fever.

A region where healthcare must be well-accessible is indeed ill-equipped due to limited healthcare infrastructure and the shortage of healthcare workers. According to WHO, the average doctor-to-population ratio in Africa is about two doctors to 10,000 people, compared with 35.5 doctors to 10,000 people in the USA.

Poor infrastructure and lack of investments worsen the health systems. Healthcare expenditure (aggregate public healthcare spending) in African countries is 20-25 times lower than the healthcare expenditure in European countries. Governments here typically spend about 5% of GDP on healthcare, compared with 10% of GDP spent by European countries. Private investment in Africa is less than 25% of the total healthcare investments.

Further, healthcare infrastructure is unevenly distributed. Professional healthcare services are concentrated in urban areas, leaving 56% of the rural population unable to access proper healthcare. There are severe gaps in the number of healthcare units, diagnostic centers, and the supply of medical devices and drugs. Countries such as Zambia, Malawi, and Angola are placed below the rank of 180 among 190 countries ranked by the WHO in terms of health systems. Low spending power and poor national health insurance schemes discourage people from using healthcare services.

Health tech solutions’ potential to fill the healthcare system gaps

As the prevailing health systems are inadequate, there is a strong need for digital solutions to address these gaps. Health tech solutions can significantly improve the access to healthcare services (consultation, diagnosis, and treatment) and supply of medical devices and drugs.

Health tech solutions can significantly improve the access to healthcare services (consultation, diagnosis, and treatment) and supply of medical devices and drugs.

For instance, Mobihealth, a UK-based digital health platform founded in 2017, is revolutionizing access to healthcare across Africa through its telemedicine app, which connects patients to over 100,000 physicians from various parts of the world for video consultations. The app has significantly (by over 60%) reduced hospital congestion.

Another example is the use of drones in Malawi to monitor mosquito breeding grounds and deliver urgent medical supplies. This project, which was introduced by UNICEF in 2017, has helped to curb the spread of malaria, which typically affects the people living in such areas at least 2-3 times a year.

MomConnect, a platform launched in 2014 by the Department of Health in South Africa, is helping millions of expectant mothers by providing essential information through a digital health desk.

While these are some of the pioneers in the health-tech industry, new companies such as Zuri Health, a telemedicine company founded in Kenya in 2020, and Ingress Healthcare, a doctor appointment booking platform launched in South Africa in 2019, are also strengthening the healthcare sector. A study published by WHO in 2020 indicated that telemedicine could reduce mortality rates by about 30% in Africa.

The rapid rise of health tech transforming the African healthcare landscape

Digital health solutions started to emerge during the late 2000’s in Africa. Wisepill, a South African smart pill box manufacturing company established in 2007, is one of the earliest African health tech success stories. The company developed smart storage containers that alert users on their mobile devices when they forget to take their medication. The product is widely used in South Africa and Uganda.

The industry gained momentum during the COVID-19 pandemic, with the emergence of several health tech companies offering remote health services. The market experienced about 300% increase in demand for remote healthcare services such as telemedicine, health monitoring, and medicine distribution.

According to WHO, the COVID pandemic resulted in the development of over 120 health tech innovations in Africa. Some of the health tech start-ups that emerged during the pandemic include Zuri Health (Kenya), Waspito (Cameroon), and Ilara Health (Kenya). Several established companies also developed specific solutions to tackle the spread of COVID-19 and increase their user base. For instance, Redbird, a Ghanaian health monitoring company founded in 2018, gained user attention by launching a COVID-19 symptom tracker during the pandemic. The company continues to provide remote health monitoring services for other ailments, such as diabetes and hypertension, which require regular health check-ups. Patients can visit the nearest pharmacy instead of a far-away hospital to conduct tests, and results will be regularly updated on their platform to track changes.

Scarcity Breeds Innovation – The Rising Adoption of Health Tech in Africa by EOS Intelligence

Start-ups offering advanced solutions based on AI and IoT have been also emerging successfully in recent years. For instance, Ilara Health, a Kenya-based company, founded during the COVID-19 pandemic, is providing affordable diagnostic services to rural population using AI-powered diagnostic devices.

With growing internet penetration (40% across Africa as of 2022) and a rise in investments, tech entrepreneurs are now able to develop solutions and expand their reach. For instance, mPharma, a Ghana-based pharmacy stock management company founded in 2013, is improving medicine supply by making prescription drugs easily accessible and affordable across nine countries in Africa. The company raised a US$35 million investment in January 2022 and is building a network of pharmacies and virtual clinics across the continent.

Currently, 42 out of 54 African countries have national eHealth strategies to support digital health initiatives. However, the maximum number of health tech companies are concentrated in countries such as South Africa, Nigeria, Egypt, and Kenya, which have the highest per capita pharma spending in the continent. Nigeria and South Africa jointly account for 46% of health tech start-ups in Africa. Telemedicine is the most offered service by start-ups founded in the past five years, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some of the most popular telemedicine start-ups include Babylon Health (Rwanda), Vezeeta (Egypt), DRO Health (Nigeria), and Zuri Health (Kenya).

Other most offered services include medicine distribution, hospital/pharmacy management, and online booking and appointments. Medicine distribution start-ups have an immense impact on minimizing the prevalence of counterfeit medication by offering tech-enabled alternatives to sourcing medication from open drug markets. Many physical retail pharmacy chains, such as Goodlife Pharmacy (Kenya), HealthPlus (Nigeria), and MedPlus (Nigeria), are launching online pharmacy operations leveraging their established logistics infrastructure. Hospitals are increasingly adopting automation tools to streamline their operations. Electronic Medical Record (EMR) management tools offered by Helium Health, a provider of hospital automation tools based in Nigeria are widely adopted in six African countries.

Medicine distribution start-ups have an immense impact on minimizing the prevalence of counterfeit medication by offering tech-enabled alternatives to sourcing medication from open drug markets.

For any start-up in Africa, the key to success is to provide scalable, affordable, and accessible digital health solutions. Low-cost subscription plans offered by Mobihealth (a UK-based telehealth company founded in 2018) and Cardo Health (a Sweden-based telehealth company founded in 2021) are at least 50% more affordable than the average doctor consultation fee of US$25 in Africa. Telemedicine platforms such as Reliance HMO (Nigeria) and Rocket Health (Uganda) offer affordable health insurance that covers all medical expenses. Some governments have also taken initiatives in partnering with health tech companies to provide affordable healthcare to their people. For instance, the Rwandan government partnered with a digital health platform called Babylon Health in 2018 to deliver low-cost healthcare to the population of Rwanda. Babylon Health is able to reach the majority of the population through simple SMS codes.

Government support and Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs)

With a mission to have a digital-first universal primary care (a nationwide program that provides primary care through digital tools), the Rwandan government is setting an example by collaborating with Babylon Health, a telemedicine service that offers online consultations, appointments, and treatments.

As part of nationwide digitization efforts, the government has established broadband infrastructure that reaches 90% population of the country. Apart from this, the country has a robust health insurance named Mutuelle de Santé, which reaches more than 90% of the population. In December 2022, the government of Ghana launched a nationwide e-pharmacy platform to regulate and support digital pharmacies. Similarly, in Uganda, the government implemented a national e-health policy that recognizes the potential of technology in the healthcare sector.

MomConnect, a mobile initiative launched by the South African government with the support of Johnson and Johnson in 2014 for educating expectant and new mothers, is another example of a successful PPP. However, apart from a few countries in the region, there are not enough initiatives undertaken by the governments to improve health systems.

Private and foreign investments

In 2021, health tech start-ups in Africa raised US$392 million. The sustainability of investments became a concern when the investments dropped to US$189 million in 2022 amid the global decline in start-up funding.

However, experts predict that the investment flow will improve in 2023. Recently, in March 2023, South African e-health startup Envisionit Deep AI raised US$1.65 million from New GX Ventures SA, a South African-based venture capital company. Nigerian e-health company, Famasi, is also amongst the start-ups that raised investments during the first quarter of 2023. The company offers doorstep delivery of medicines and flexible payment plans for medicine bills.

The companies that have raised investments in recent years offer mostly telemedicine and distribution services and are based in South Africa, Nigeria, Egypt, and Kenya. That being said, start-ups in the space of wearable devices, AI, and IoT are also gaining the attention of investors. Vitls, a South African-based wearable device developer, raised US$1.3 million in funding in November 2022.

Africa-based incubators and accelerators, such as Villgro, The Baobab Network, and GrowthAfrica Accelerator, are also supporting e-health start-ups with funding and technical guidance. Villgro has launched a US$30 million fund for health tech start-ups in March 2023. Google has also committed US$4 million to fund health tech start-ups in Africa in 2023.

Digital future for healthcare in Africa

There were over 1,700 health tech start-ups in Africa as of January 2023, compared with about 1,200 start-ups in 2020. The rapid emergence of health tech companies is addressing long-running challenges of health systems and are offering tailored solutions to meet the specific needs of the African market.

Mobile penetration is higher than internet penetration, and health tech companies are encouraged to use SMS messaging to promote healthcare access. However, Africa is expected to have at least 65% internet penetration by 2025. With growing awareness of the benefits of health tech solutions, tech companies would be able to address new markets, especially in rural areas.

Companies that offer new technologies such as AI chatbots, drones, wearable devices for remote patient monitoring, hospital automation systems, e-learning platforms for health workers, the Internet of Medical Things (IoMT), and predictive analytics are expected to gain more attention in the coming years. Digitally enabled, locally-led innovations will have a huge impact on tackling the availability, affordability, and quality of health products and services.

Digitally enabled, locally-led innovations will have a huge impact on tackling the availability, affordability, and quality of health products and services.

Challenges faced by the health tech sector  

While the African health tech industry has significantly evolved over the last few years, there are still significant challenges with regard to infrastructure, computer literacy, costs, and adaptability.

For instance, in Africa, only private hospitals have switched to digital records. Many hospitals still operate without computer systems or internet connections. About 40% of the population are internet users, with countries such as Nigeria, Egypt, South Africa, Morocco, Ghana, Kenya, and Algeria being the ones with the highest number of internet users (60-80% of the population). However, 23 countries in Africa still have low internet penetration (less than 25%). This is the major reason why tech companies concentrate in the continent’s largest tech hubs.

On the other hand, the majority of the rural population prefers face-to-face contact due to the lack of digital literacy. Electricity and internet connectivity are yet to reach all parts of the region and the cost of the internet is a burden for many people. Low-spending power is a challenge, as people refuse to undergo medical treatment due to a lack of insurance schemes to cover their medical expenses. Insurance schemes provided in Africa only cover 60% of their healthcare expenses. Even though health tech solutions bring medical costs down, these services still remain unaffordable for people in low-income countries. Therefore, start-ups do not prefer to establish or expand their services in such regions.

Another hurdle tech companies face is the diversity of languages in Africa. Africa is home to one-third of the world’s languages and has over 1,000 languages. This makes it difficult for companies to customize content to reach all populations.

Amidst all these challenges, there is very little support from the governments. The companies face unfavorable policies and regulations that hinder the implementation of digital solutions. Only 8% of African countries have online pharmacy regulations. In Nigeria, regulatory guidelines for online pharmacies only came into effect in January 2022, and there are still unresolved concerns around its implementation.

Lack of public investment and comprehensive government support also discourage the local players. Public initiatives are rare in providing funding, research support, and regulatory approval for technology innovations in the health sector. Private investment flow is low for start-ups in this sector compared to other industries. Health tech start-ups raised a total investment of US$189 million in 2022, which is not even 10% of the total investments raised by start-ups in other sectors in Africa. Also, funding is favored towards the ones established in high-income countries. Founders who don’t have ties to high-income countries struggle to raise funds.

EOS Perspective

The emergence of tech health can be referred to as a necessary rise to deal with perennial gaps in the African healthcare system. Undoubtedly, many of these successful companies could transform the health sector, making quality health services available to the mass population. The pandemic has spurred the adoption of digital health, and the trend experienced during the pandemic continues to grow with the developments in the use of advanced technologies such as AI and IoT. Telemedicine and distribution have been the fastest-growing sectors driven by the demand for remote healthcare services during the pandemic. Home-based care is likely to keep gaining momentum with the development of advanced solutions for remote health monitoring and diagnostic services.

Home-based care is likely to keep gaining momentum with the development of advanced solutions for remote health monitoring and diagnostic services.

With the increasing internet penetration and acceptance of digital healthcare, health tech companies are likely to be able to expand their reach to rural areas. Right policies, PPPs, and infrastructure development are expected to catalyze the health tech adoption in Africa. Companies that offer advanced technologies such as IoT-enabled integrated medical devices, AI chatbots, drones, wearable devices for remote patient monitoring, hospital automation systems, e-learning platforms for health workers, and predictive analytics for health monitoring are expected to emerge successfully in the coming years.

by EOS Intelligence EOS Intelligence No Comments

Agritech in Africa: How Blockchain Can Help Revolutionize Agriculture

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In the first part of our series on agritech in Africa, we took a look into how IT and other technology investments are helping small farmers in Africa. In the second part, we are exploring the impact that potential application of advanced technologies such as blockchain can have on the African agriculture sector.

Blockchain, or distributed ledger technology, is already finding utility across several business sectors including financial, banking, retail, automotive, and aviation industries (click here to read our previous Perspectives on blockchain technology). The technology is finding its way in agriculture too, and has the potential to revolutionize the way farming is done.


This article is the second part of a two-piece coverage focusing on technological advancements in agriculture across the African continent.

Read part one here: Agritech in Africa: Cultivating Opportunities for ICT in Agriculture


State of blockchain implementation in agriculture in Africa

Agricultural sector in Africa has already witnessed the onset of blockchain based solutions being introduced in the market. Existing tech players and emerging start-ups have developed blockchain solutions, such as eMarketplaces, agricultural credit/financing platforms, and crop insurance services. Companies, globally as well as within Africa, are harnessing applications of blockchain to develop innovative solutions targeted at key stakeholders across the food value chain.

Blockchain to promote transparency across agriculture sector

The most common application of blockchain in any industry sector (and not only agriculture) is creating an immutable record of transactions or events, which is particularly helpful in creating a trusted record of land ownership for farmers, who are traditionally dependent on senior village officials to prove their ownership of land.

Since 2017, a Kenyan start-up, Land LayBy has been using an Ethereum-based shared ledger to keep records of land transactions. This offers farmers a trusted and transparent medium to establish land ownership, which can then further be used to obtain credit from banks or alternative financing companies. BanQu and BitLand are other examples of blockchain being used as a proof of land ownership.

This feature of blockchain also enables creation of a transparent environment where companies can trace the production and journey of agricultural products across their supply chain. Transparency across the supply chain helps create trust between farmers and buyers, and the improved visibility of prices further down the value chain also enables farmers to get better value for their produce.

In 2017, US-based Bext360 started a pilot project with US-based Coda Coffee and its Uganda-based coffee export partner, ​​Great​ ​Lakes​ ​Coffee. The company developed a machine to grade and weigh coffee beans deposited to Great Lakes by individual farmers in East Uganda. The device uploads the data on a blockchain-based SaaS solution, which enables users to trace the coffee from its origin to end consumer. The blockchain solution is also used to make payments to the farmers based on the grade of their produce in form of tokens.

In 2017, Amsterdam-based Moyee Coffee also partnered with KrypC, a global blockchain, to create a fully blockchain-traceable coffee. The coffee beans are sourced from individual farmers in Ethiopia, and then roasted within the country, before being exported to the Netherlands.

This transparency can help food companies to isolate the cause of any disease outbreak impacting the food value chain. This also allows consumers can be aware of the source of the ingredients used in their food products.

Agritech in Africa: How Blockchain Can Help Revolutionize Agriculture by EOS Intelligence

Blockchain-based platforms to improve farmer and buyer collaboration

Blockchain can also act as a platform to connect farmers with vendors, food processing, and packaging companies, providing a secure and trusted environment to both buyers and suppliers to transact without the need of a middleman. This also results in elimination of margins that need to be paid to these intermediaries, and helps improve the margins for buyers.

Farmshine, a Kenyan start-up, created a blockchain-based platform to auger trade collaboration among farmers, buyers, and service providers in Kenya. In January 2020, the company also raised USD$250,000 from Gray Matters Capital, to finance its planned future expansion to Malawi.

These blockchain platforms can also be used to connect farmers to other farmers, for activities such as asset or land sharing, resulting in more efficiency in economical farming operations. Blockchain platform can also enable small farmers to lease idle farms from their peers, thereby providing them with access to additional revenue sources, which they would not be able to do traditionally.

AgUnity, an Australian-start-up established in 2016, developed a mobile application which enables farmers to record their produce and transactions over a distributed ledger, offering a trusted and transparent platform to work with co-operatives and third-party buyers. The platform also enables farmers to share farming equipment as per a set schedule to improve overall operational and cost efficiency. In Africa, AgUnity has launched pilot projects in Kenya and Ethiopia, targeted at helping farmers achieve better income for their produce.

A Nigerian start-up, Hello Tractor uses IBM’s blockchain technology to help small farmers in Nigeria, which cannot afford tractors on their own, to lease idle tractors from owners and contractors at affordable prices through a mobile application.

Smart contracts to transform agriculture finance and insurance

Less than 3% of small farmers in sub-Saharan Africa have adequate access to agricultural insurance coverage, which leaves them vulnerable to adverse climatic situations such as droughts.

Smart contracts based on blockchain can also be used to provide crop-insurance, which can be triggered given certain set conditions are met, enabling farmers to secure their farms and family livelihood in case of extreme climatic events such as floods or droughts.

SmartCrop, an Android-based mobile platform, provides affordable crop insurance to more than 20,000 small farms in Ghana, Kenya, and Uganda through blockchain-based smart contracts, which are triggered based on intelligent weather predictions.

Netherlands-based ICS, parent company of Agrics East Africa (which provides farm inputs on credit to small farmers in Kenya and Tanzania) is also exploring a blockchain-wallet based saving product, “drought coins”, which can be encashed by farmers depending on the weather conditions and forecasts.

Tracking of assets (such as land registries) and transactions on the blockchain can also be used to verify the farmers’ history, which can be used by alternative financing companies to offer loans or credits to farmers – e.g. in cases when farmers are not able to get such financing from traditional banks – transforming the banking and financial services available to farmers.

Several African start-ups such as Twiga Foods and Cellulant have tried to explore the use of blockchain technology to offer agriculture financing solutions to small farmers in Africa.

In late 2018, Africa’s leading mobile wallet company, Cellulant, launched Agrikore, a blockchain-based digital-payment, contracting, and marketplace system that connects small farmers with large commercial customers. The company started its operations in Nigeria and is exploring expansion of its business to Kenya.

In 2018, Kenya-based Twiga Foods (that connects farmers to urban retailers in an informal market) partnered with IBM to launch a blockchain-based lending platform which offered loans to small retailers in Kenya to purchase food products from suppliers listed on Twiga platform.


Read our previous Perspective Africa’s Fintech Market Striding into New Product Segments to find out more about innovative fintech products for agriculture and other sectors financing in Africa


And last, but not the least, blockchain or cryptocurrencies can simply be used as a mode of payment with a much lower transaction fee offered by traditional banking institutions.

Improving mobile internet access to boost blockchain implementation

While blockchain has shown potential to transform agriculture in Africa, its implementation is limited by the lack of mobile/internet access and technical know-how among small farmers. As of 2018, mobile internet had penetrated only 23% of the total population in Sub-Saharan Africa.

However, the GSM Association predicts mobile internet penetration to improve significantly over the next five years, to ~39% by 2025. Improved access to internet services is expected to boost the farmers’ ability to interact with the blockchain solutions, thereby increasing development and deployment of more blockchain-based solutions for farmers.

EOS Perspective

Agritech offers an immense opportunity in Africa, and blockchain is likely to be an integral part of this opportunity. Blockchain has already started witnessing implementation in systems providing proof of ownership, platforms for farmer cooperation, and agricultural financing tools.

Unlike Asian and Latin American countries, African markets have shown a relatively positive attitude towards adoption of blockchain, a fact that promises positive environment for development of such solutions.

At the moment, most development in blockchain agritech space is concentrated in Kenya, Nigeria, Uganda, and Ghana. However, there is potential to scale up operations in other countries across Africa as well, and some start-ups have already proved this (e.g. Farmshine was able to secure the necessary financing to expand its presence in Malawi). Other companies can follow suit, however, that would only be possible with the help of further private sector investments.

Still in the nascent stages of development, blockchain solutions face an uncertain future, at least in the short term, and are dependent on external influences to pick up growth they need to impact the agriculture sector significantly. However, once such solutions achieve certain scalability, and become increasingly integrated with other technologies, such as Internet of Things and artificial intelligence, blockchain has the capability of completely transform the way farming is done in Africa.

by EOS Intelligence EOS Intelligence No Comments

Agritech in Africa: Cultivating Opportunities for ICT in Agriculture

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Agriculture technologies in Africa have been undergoing significant development over the years, with many tech start-ups innovating information and communications technologies to support agriculture at all levels. While some technologies have been successfully launched, some are in initial stages of becoming a success. Private sector investments have been the key driving factor supporting the development of agriculture technologies in Africa. In the first part of our series on agritech in Africa, we are examine what impact and opportunities arise from the use of these technologies in Africa.

Agriculture plays a significant role in Africa’s economy, contributing 32% to the continent’s GDP and employing 65% of the total work force (as per the World Bank estimates). Nearly 70% of the continent’s population directly depends on agribusiness. Vast majority of farmers work on small scale farms that produce nearly 90% of all agricultural output.


This article is the first part of a two-piece coverage focusing on technological advancements in agriculture across the African continent.

Read part two here: Agritech in Africa: How Blockchain Can Help Revolutionize Agriculture


Agriculture in Africa has been under the pressure of many challenges such as low productivity, lack of knowledge and exposure to new farming techniques, and lack of access to financial support, especially for the small-scale farmers. These challenges are prompting investments in newer technologies to enhance the productivity through smart agriculture techniques.

Lately, there have been an increased use of various technologies in agriculture in Africa, such as Internet of Things (IoT), Open Source Software, Cloud Computing, Artificial Intelligence, Drones/Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), and Big Data Analytics. Many tech start-ups have developed solutions targeting various aspects of agriculture, including finance, supply chain, retailing, and even delivering information related to crops and weeds. These solutions are accessible to farmers through front-end devices such as smart phones and tablets, or even SMS.

Agritech in Africa - Cultivating Opportunities for ICT in Agriculture by EOS Intelligence

Start-ups lead agritech development in Africa

Many agritech start-ups in Africa have come up with solutions that have led to a rise in productivity of the farms. Drones have been a breakthrough technology, helping farmers oversee their crops, and manage their farms effectively. Drones use highly focused cameras to capture picture of crops, soil or weeds. This, coupled with big data analytics and Artificial Intelligence (AI), provides insights to farmers, saving their time and effort, while also helping them find potential issues which could impact the productivity of their farms.

There are various agritech start-ups that are developing such drones, and providing them to farmers for rent or lease to analyse their crops and farms. A South African agritech start-up, Aerobotics, offers an end-to-end solution to help farmers manage their farms using drones, through early detection of any crop-related problems, and offering curative measures for the problems using an AI-based analytics platform. The company partners with drone manufacturing companies such as DJI and Micasense to deliver these solutions.

Acquahmeyer, another start-up based in Ghana, also provides drones to its farming customers to help them use a comprehensive approach to apply crop pest control and plant nutrition management for their farms.

Advent of advanced technologies such as IoT is also helping farmers to adopt smart farm management through the use of smart sensors connected in a network. This helps every farmer to get granular details of the crops, soil, farming equipment, or livestock, enabling the farmers to devise appropriate farming approaches.

Kenya-based UjuziKilimo provides solution for analyzing soil characteristics using electronic sensor placed in the ground. This helps farmers with useful real-time insights into soil conditions. The solution further utilizes big data analytics to guide the farmers, by offering insights through SMS on their connected mobile phones or tablets.

Hello Tractor, a Kenyan start-up, provides an IoT solution, through which farmers can have access to affordable tractors which are monitored virtually through a remote asset tracking device on the tractor, sharing data over the Hello Tractor Cloud. Farmers, booking agents, dealers, and tractor owners are connected via IoT. The company is also collaborating with IBM to incorporate artificial intelligence and blockchain to their solutions.

AI has also witnessed a rapid growth in adoption across agriculture sector in Africa. Agrix Tech, based in Cameroon, has developed a mobile application that requires the farmers to capture the picture of diseased crop, which is then analyzed via AI to detect crop diseases, and helps the farmers with treatment solution to save their crops.

AI is also helping Kenyan farmers with the knowledge on planting the right crops at the right time. Tech giant, Capgemini, has teamed up with a Kenyan social enterprise in Kakamega region in Western Kenya to use artificial intelligence to analyze farming data, and then send insights about right time and technique of planting crops to the farmers’ cell phones.

There are other agritech solutions that include mobile applications which use digital platforms such as cloud computing to reach out to farmers, and provide them with apt agriculture solutions. Ghana-based CowTribe offers a mobile USSD-based subscription service which enables livestock farmers to connect with veterinarians for animal vaccines and other livestock healthcare services using cloud-based logistics management system. The company focuses on managing the schedules, and delivering the right service to the livestock farmers, to help them safeguard their animals from any health-related problems.

Several agritech investments are also impacting the financial side of agriculture. Kenya-based Apollo Agriculture provides solutions related to financing, farm inputs, advice insurance and market access through the use of agronomic machine learning, remote sensing, and mobile technology using satellite data and cloud computing.

Another Nigerian start-up Farmcrowdy has developed Nigeria’s first digital agriculture platform that provides financial support to the farmers by allowing those outside the agriculture industry to sponsor individual farms.

Several other agritech start-ups across the continent, such as Ghana-based Farmerline and AgroCenta, and Nigeria-based Kitovu have also launched data-driven mobile application for farmers. These technology solutions are proving to be a boon for agriculture sector in Africa, helping improve the overall efficiency and productivity.

Agritech in Africa - Cultivating Opportunities for ICT in Agriculture by EOS Intelligence

Agritech development is concentrated in Kenya and Nigeria

But, when it comes to first adopting the newest technologies and starting an agritech business in agriculture, Kenya and Nigeria have been leading in the adoption of new agritech solutions, accounting for a significant share of agritech start-up across Africa. Kenya has played a pioneering role in bringing agritech in Africa since 2010-2011, when the first wave of agritech start-ups began to bring new niche innovations. Currently, Kenya accounts for 25% of all the agritech start-ups in Africa, and the development is progressing rapidly, thanks to the country’s advancement in technology, high smartphone penetration, and relatively widespread internet access.

Similarly, Nigeria too has sailed the boat of success in agritech start-ups since 2015, and now it accounts for 23.2% of total agritech start-ups in Africa, with include major players such as Twiga Foods, Apollo Agriculture, Agrikore, and Tulaa. The growing inclination amongst Nigerian farmers towards using digital tools in agriculture sector has further pushed the rapid development in agritech sector in the country.

Other countries have also shown potential for agritech development, though it is still in the initial stages of becoming mainstream in their agriculture sectors. Ghana has encouraged several start-ups to launch different technology innovations for making agriculture more sustainable, while South Africa, Uganda, and Zimbabwe have also witnessed the rise in agritech start-ups over the years with newer technologies for agriculture sector.

Recent investments highlight the agritech potential

The agriculture technologies in Africa got the boost from the increased private funding. According to a report by Disrupt-Africa released in 2018, there has been a total investment of US$19 million in agritech sector since 2016. These investments have largely focused on funding agritech start-ups working on bringing innovative agriculture technologies. Also, according to the same report, the number of agritech start-ups rose by 110% from 2016 to 2018.

Some of the recent investments in the agritech sector include Kenya’s Twiga Foods, a B2B food distribution company, which raised US$30 million from investors led by Goldman Sachs in October 2019. The company aims to set-up a distribution centre in Nairobi to offer better supply chain services, while also expanding to more cities in Kenya, including Mombasa.

In December 2019, Kenya-based agritech start-up Farmshine, also raised US$25 million in funding from US-based Gray Matter’s Capital coLabs (GMC coLabs), to expand its operations in Malawi. GMC coLabs also invested US$1 million in another Kenyan B2B agritech start-up Taimba in July 2019. Taimba provides a mobile-based cashless platform connecting smallholder farmers to urban retailers. The investment was focused on strengthening Taimba’s infrastructure and increase the delivery logistics to cater to new markets.

Cellulant, a leading pan-African digital payments service provider that offers a real-time payment platform to farmers, also raised US$47.5 million from a consortium of investors in May 2018, which is the largest investment in the African tech industry till date. Cellulant also plans to channel a significant portion of funds into its Agrikore subsidiary, an agritech start-up dealing with blockchain based smart-contracting, payments, and marketplace system.

EOS Perspective

African agritech is expected to witness high growth in future. According to a CTA report on Digitalization for Agriculture (D4Ag) published in 2018, digital agriculture solutions are likely to reach 60-100 million smallholder famers, while generating annual revenues of nearly US$320- US$470 million by the end of 2020.

Adoption and use of innovative technologies such as remote sensing, diagnostics, IoT sensors for digitalization of agriculture is steadily moving from experimental stage to full-scale deployment, contributing to the data revolution in agriculture, while also unlocking new business models and opportunities.

Apart from these, blockchain is gaining prominence, and finding applications in the agriculture sector in Africa. This technology has the potential to significantly impact the agriculture sector, which we will discuss in the second part of our series on Agritech in Africa.

However, lack of affordability and knowledge to access such technologies, especially by small-scale farmers, has restricted the growth and reachability of these solutions. With the need to educate farmers and make such technology affordable and viable, it is likely that it may take at least 5-7 years before these technologies become truly mainstream in the continent.

A disparity of investments has been observed among the countries in the region. Over the years, countries such as Kenya, Nigeria, and Ghana have experienced a strong growth in terms of private investments, while other countries are left wanting. Investors have prioritized easy-to-reach markets in Africa, leaving behind the lower-income markets, resulting in agritech becoming less sustainable and scalable in these markets. However, several other African countries have shown the appetite to adopt agritech solutions, and offer significant potential.

This requires an intervention and participation from both governments and private investors, which can help improve scalability of agriculture technologies in the region. Implementation of farming digital literacy, public-private partnerships, and increased private sector investments in agritech enterprises can help the agritech industry experience a consistent and higher success rate, thus bringing the agriculture technology to a mainstream at faster pace.

by EOS Intelligence EOS Intelligence No Comments

Blockchain: a Frontline Warrior in Battling COVID-19 Pandemic

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SARS-COV-2 has brought the world to a standstill. Technology and its creative uses have been playing a pivotal role in sustaining lives during the pandemic as well as combating the crisis. One such technology that has been at the forefront of the pandemic is blockchain. From mitigating supply chain issues with medicines and protection gear to facilitating transparency in donations to effectively tracking the spread of the virus and protecting patient privacy, blockchain technology is being applied across the spectrum to contain and manage the outbreak.

The current pandemic has brought to light many inefficiencies and limitations of the existing global healthcare systems, wherein governments across the globe are grappling to control the outbreak, challenged by the lack of a unified, interconnected, and trusted network to share data and track cases. Blockchain has several inherent properties, such as decentralized ledger, transparency, and immutability, that make it suitable for handling and managing various aspects of containing the pandemic.

Outbreak tracking

Global health authorities and governments across the globe are having a hard time gathering authentic data regarding tests and patient numbers, hospital beds, recoveries, etc. Currently, most of the data circulating is disparate and comes from multiple sources, such as hospitals, labs, the public, and media, instead of one authorized source. This is extremely damaging since it results in the creation of a great amount of inaccurate and duplicate data, which, if trusted, makes the process of tracking and containment both time-consuming and ineffective. This is counter-productive to the management of a disease that is as fast-spreading as COVID-19.

Blockchain technology can come into play in effectively tackling this issue. Owing to its distributed and immutable nature, blockchain can provide a feasible solution for tracking the outbreak. Blockchain-based apps facilitate organizations across the globe to form a single connected network where data can be shared in real time and securely. Moreover, since data stored in the blockchain is immutable, it is protected against unauthorized changes, and its distributed nature ensures protection against fraudulent data (since each entry requires consensus algorithms and smart contracts). Lastly, blockchain efficiently manages high volumes of data (as in the cases of the COVID-19 pandemic) on a real-time basis, which cannot be managed using human resources.

However, in addition to these factors, the aspect that stands out the most and makes the blockchain technology ideal for monitoring and managing outbreak-related information is the level of privacy it offers. People do not wish for their information to be shared publicly or be used for other purposes. Thus, it is a challenge to get patients to collaborate with governments and healthcare institutions to share information regarding their condition and wellness. For instance, the Israeli government recently permitted healthcare institutions to track citizens’ mobile phones to control the spread of coronavirus. This has raised concerns from human rights organizations as citizens are not comfortable with sharing their personal information.

Since blockchain uses a distributed ledger, which ensures accountability and transparency with regard to access to its stored data, the information shared through blockchain cannot be extracted or misused. Moreover, information stored in a blockchain cannot be hacked. This encourages patients to share information regarding their condition, symptoms, location, and underlying health conditions without fear of the information being misused or shared with any third party.

Furthermore, information shared by patients in a blockchain network may not only be used for tracking the outbreak but also facilitate health centers’ study of the disease characteristics and patterns to develop treatment and solutions.

For instance, WHO has been using a blockchain-based data streaming platform, called MiPasa, which facilitates the sharing of information amongst need-to-know organizations such as state authorities and health officials. The platform is built on top of Hyperledger Fabric and partners with IBM for blockchain and cloud platforms. The application cross-references siloed location data with health information to track and prevent the spread of the outbreak, all while protecting patient privacy.

In another example, an Atlanta-based developer of blockchain-enabled healthcare applications, Acoer, developed an application called HashLog, which allows real-time logging and data visualization of the spread of the infection. HashLog provides real-time updates on the spread of the disease by tracking the movement of infected people to identify potential outbreaks and prevent further spread. The application uses the Hedera Hashgraph distributed ledger technology, and each entry is recorded through a verified hash reference on the ledger, ensuring that the data is correct.

Donations

In addition to tracking and preventing outbreaks, blockchain also plays an important role in securing donations. From hospitals and state authorities with insufficient funds for medical supplies to economically weaker sections of the population losing sources of income due to lockdown, the current pandemic has displaced a huge number of people across the globe. Thus, in such times, donations play a critical role in sustaining livelihoods and providing healthcare supplies to the affected people. However, given the fraud associated with donations in recent times, lack of trust is a common factor affecting the success of donations. Several individuals want to help and donate, however, are discouraged due to fear of their money being misused.

For instance in India, the government and police warned citizens against several fake relief schemes that have been floating in the name of COVID-19 relief, some even mirroring the Prime Ministers Relief Fund. These kinds of activities deter willing people from donating.

Blockchain technology can be used to effectively combat this issue. Since all transactions in the blockchain are secure, transparent, and traceable, donors can track their funds and see where they are utilized. This gives confidence to donors that their funds are being used for the exact purpose that they intended.

One such example is Hangzhou-based blockchain startup Hyperchain, which built a blockchain-based donation tracking platform for supporting government and hospitals (such as Tangshan People’s Hospital, Jiayu People’s Hospital, and Xiantao No. 1 People’s Hospital) in the donation process. The platform has attracted more than US$2 million in donations.

 

Blockchain a Frontline Warrior in Battling Coronavirus Pandemic by EOS Intelligence

Supply chain tracking

Blockchain technology has been deemed extremely useful in managing and tracing the supply chain in several sectors as retail (for more insights on this, read our article Blockchain Paving Its Way into Retail Industry). However, given the current pandemic, the technology can also utilize similar functionalities and play a significant role in tracking of medical supplies.

Given the pace of the spread of COVID-19, authorities and healthcare organizations across the globe have faced a shortage of medical supplies, such as masks, sanitizers, PPE kits, ventilators, testing equipment, as well as some medicines. This drastic increase in demand has resulted in the distribution of a large number of counterfeit and faulty products. Blockchain technology can play a significant role to combat this. Given the data provenance in blockchain and its immutable nature, it is possible to identify and trace back every touchpoint of the medical supplies to ensure its authenticity.

In addition to filtering counterfeit products, blockchain also helps streamline the supply chain process to ensure hospitals and doctors secure timely supplies to treat patients. Blockchain can provide real-time updates regarding demand so that medical manufacturers can adjust production levels accordingly. In addition, it can help fast-track supply chain contracts through the use of smart contracts and facilitate faster payments, thereby improving overall efficiency.

In February 2020, China-based AliPay, along with the Zhejiang Provincial Health Commission and the Economy and Information Technology Department, launched a blockchain-based platform to facilitate the tracking of medical supplies required for fighting SARS-COV-2. The platform has improved trust within the medical supply chain since it records and tracks the entire provenance of preventive supplies, including masks, gloves, and PPE kits.

Apart from the medical supply chain, blockchain can also help limit supply chain disruptions faced by several other industries due to lockdowns in several parts of the world. However, companies that are using blockchain for managing their supply chain have an advantage as they have better visibility into their complete supply chain and thereby can identify points of disruption in a timely manner.

Avoiding future pandemics

Blockchain is on the front line for fighting the current pandemic, but it also has the potential to prevent future disease outbreaks. Most of the current healthcare surveillance systems across the globe are outdated and lack the required timeliness and efficiency in sharing information with local as well as international health enforcement organizations. Moreover, sometimes there is a question of deliberate delay in the sharing of critical information.

To this effect, blockchain-based health surveillance systems can help mitigate future outbreaks. Since they operate on a decentralized ledger, the surveillance data is transparently available to health organizations across the globe in a real-time manner, without the fear of any political disruptions. Timely knowledge of a potential outbreak is the first and most critical step in preventing a similar situation in the future.

In addition to the above-mentioned applications, blockchain companies, along with institutions, are developing creative solutions that help reduce challenges faced by people due to COVID-19 in their day-to-day lives. For instance, Toronto-based blockchain company Emerge launched a public safety app called Civitas, which assists citizens and local authorities across Latin America. This app matches one’s official ID to confidential medical records stored in the blockchain to identify whether the person is allowed to leave the house or not. Thus, the app allows police to verify if the person has travel permission just on the basis of their government ID and without gaining access to the person’s medical records. The app also determines the safest time and day for going out for essentials for people who are experiencing COVID-like symptoms.

Moreover, as discussed in our previous article (Blockchain Scores Well in the Education Sector), blockchain is also extremely useful in the virtual education scenario, which is now the new way of schooling for a large part of students across the globe.

EOS Perspective

Blockchain technology has several inherent properties that make it ideal for helping to manage and combat the current pandemic. Its decentralized, traceable, and immutable properties make it especially desirable for managing contact tracing and outbreak tracking, which are critical in handling a pandemic efficiently. Moreover, the benefits of blockchain are further amplified when used alongside other technologies, such as artificial intelligence, cloud computing, and big data.

However, despite its several uses, the issue of scalability plagues blockchain adaption at a larger scale. Blockchain is still a nascent technology and lacks high-level scalability. With COVID-19 affecting most of the world, the current blockchain companies do not have the level of scalability to provide all-encompassing global-level solutions.

Furthermore, blockchain technology does not operate alone, and it needs to be configured with the operating legacy system of companies and other stakeholders. However, most legacy systems are relatively old and, therefore, do not support blockchain technology. Updating or reconfiguring a legacy system is a tedious process (both in terms of time and money), and companies may not want to tie up resources for that at the current time.

Given these drawbacks, blockchain may not be deployed at a global-scale level during this pandemic, however, its inherent benefits have made companies, authorities, and global health organizations ponder, explore, and evaluate its potential in managing such situations in the future. While the COVID-19 pandemic has caught the world largely unprepared, organizations and companies across the globe are gearing up to ensure this history is not repeated, and blockchain technology has emerged as a critical part of the solution.

by EOS Intelligence EOS Intelligence No Comments

Blockchain Scores Well in the Education Sector

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Blockchain has now been widely accepted as a technology offering superior capabilities when it comes to data security, transparency, and immutability. This has made it extremely relevant in industries, such as finance and healthcare, where security is critical. However, after getting a foothold in such industries, the technology is extending its reach beyond current uses into other sectors. One such industry is education, where blockchain can facilitate a safe, secure, and auditable ledger covering all education-based data and transactions. However, since blockchain is still new and relatively unexplored in this space, its wide applicability and commercial acceptability is yet to be proven.

Blockchain is fast finding its ground across several industries and education industry seems to be no exception. While still behind in terms of implementation, especially when compared with other sectors such as finance and healthcare, education sector is exploring various blockchain-based applications that can improve data security, facilitate degree verification, and prevent plagiarism, among other things.


Read our other articles on blockchain where we talk about the technology gaining prominence in several industries, including healthcare, retail, banking, car rental, and aviation.


Data breach/security

Industries such as finance and health have been using blockchain to protect their customers’ data. Blockchain can find similar application in the education sector, which is also highly susceptible to data breaches. As per Gamalto, a Netherlands-based international digital security firm, in 2017, the education sector was third (after finance and healthcare industry) with regards to the highest number of experienced data breaches, accounting for 13% of all data breaches across industries.

The use of blockchain to protect student information and records can help mitigate the issue of data breaches. With schools and universities storing data digitally on blockchain, they would be able to store and share student data without making it accessible to hackers. Moreover, data stored on blockchain would help improve transparency and accuracy, reduce human errors and paper-based processes, and eliminate fraudulence.

With schools and universities storing data digitally on blockchain, they would be able to store and share student data without making it accessible to hackers.

Data being stored on blockchain also helps employers be assured that the candidate or student seeking employment has authentic degrees and qualifications.

In February 2019, the Maltese government signed a contract with blockchain startup, Learning Machine, to store all educational records and certificates in the country on a blockchain. The project is a two-year pilot project and aims at ensuring that all educational certificates, including university and secondary school certificates (encompassing state, church, and independent schools), are issued and stored on blockchain. The project is expected to minimize bureaucracy and provide greater security for students’ private data.

Data access and verification

Currently, most institutions store student data within their own systems and the student needs to approach the university to obtain the certification. Alternatively, prospective employers need to verify the authenticity of a candidate’s certificates from the respective university/institution. In cases where a student has multiple degrees and certification, this process becomes cumbersome and susceptible to errors.

Blockchain-based diplomas can offer an easy solution to this issue. With certifications being stored on a blockchain, students can obtain fast and easy access to their records and can share them with potential employers without the latter being concerned about their authenticity.

With certifications being stored on a blockchain, students can obtain fast and easy access to their records and can share them with potential employers without the latter being concerned about their authenticity.

Moreover, in case a university closes down or the credential records are destroyed due to extraordinary circumstances (fire, earthquake, war, etc.), student’s certifications still hold merit and would be verifiable based on blockchain records.

In 2017, MIT introduced a pilot program under which it offered digital diplomas to 111 graduates in addition to the traditional diplomas. These graduates were given an option to receive their diplomas on their smartphones via an app, called the Blockcerts Wallets. The pilot project, which was a partnership between MIT and Massachusetts-based software firm, Learning Machine, enabled students to quickly and easily share a verifiable and tamper-proof version of their diploma with prospective employers, other schools, as well as friends and family.

Apart from MIT, several other institutions offer digital credentials through blockchain. For instance, Open University’s Knowledge Media Institute (KMI) was awarded about US$550,000 (GBP 450,000) in 2018, to develop and employ blockchain technology to allow learners to manage and verify their educational and employment records.

Copyright and plagiarism

Plagiarism is a big issue in the academic world, with people having easy access to other people’s research or educational resources for free over the Internet. However, the use of blockchain can effectively address this problem. One of blockchain’s key characteristic is that information can be securely stored without being tampered with. Thus, academic materials stored in a blockchain-based platform can be accessed by public but cannot be altered or plagiarized. Moreover, any contention regarding originality of information can be tracked and protected with a time stamp.

One of blockchain’s key characteristic is that information can be securely stored without being tampered with. Thus, academic materials stored in a blockchain-based platform can be accessed by public but cannot be altered or plagiarized. Moreover, any contention regarding originality of information can be tracked and protected with a time stamp.

This also helps publishers keep track of reuse of their material and be rewarded based on actual use and reuse of their papers (similar to how they are rewarded for citations of their research material), thereby eliminating any free-use of their materials on the Internet.

Taking things a step further, teachers or publishers could be awarded crypto-coins for the reuse of their material through smart contracts. This way publishers would not have to use intermediaries such as research journals, which charge high fees and thereby limit access to the material.

Creation of decentralized education marketplaces

Education industry still operates in a closed and centralized way with universities and education providers giving credentials for courses through their own diplomas and degrees. Even in case of digital education solutions, there is always a body providing credentials for the course undertaken. Due to this, education remains relatively expensive and not approachable by all.

However, blockchain-based platforms can help solve this problem by creating decentralized education marketplaces, where the quality of education provided is validated by students and educators participating in the course. Using blockchain, these marketplaces connect students and professors who in turn use smart contacts to undertake the course they are interested in. At the end of the course the student receives an immutable certificate of completion and the ledger records the professor who taught the course.

An example of such a company is Switzerland-based ODEM, which was founded in 2017. ODEM is a blockchain-based decentralized marketplace for educational products and services, wherein professors and students come together to teach and learn various courses. The two parties engage through smart contracts and the ODEM ledger recognizes the courses a student has taken or a professor has taught, which boosts their reputation on the ODEM platform. Moreover, ODEM creates ‘skill badges’ for professors and students who complete courses in their network. This helps the decentralized platform as more students wish to undertake courses with professors who have multiple skill badges (thereby higher proficiency in the subject), while professors are also more interested to work with students with multiple badges (i.e. have displayed interest to learn and expand their skill set in the subject).

Several other blockchain-based education marketplaces have emerged. In February 2018, a blockchain-based university, called Woolf University was founded, which allowed any accredited educator to launch and teach courses that would advance users toward a degree.

Blockchain Scores Well in the Education Sector by EOS Intelligence

Other solutions

In addition to this, blockchain increasingly finds application in other educational areas across the globe. In Kazakhstan, the government is using blockchain to manage the national school enrollment of young children to kindergarten. In Kazakhstan, all parents need to apply for their children’s enrollment in local kindergartens, which results in waiting lists for several such institutions, and these lists are managed by the state. In February 2019, the government decentralized the system and put it on a blockchain in order to optimize the waiting list and make the process more transparent.

Similarly, blockchain is also being used for test prepping and learning. Blockchain-based platforms can assist students in preparing for tests as this helps students keep track of their progress. One such example is a chatbot app by Opet Foundation, wherein students can ask questions regarding any subject, the app recommends resources for further studies based on current proficiency, and tracks learning progress through blockchain technology.

Blockchain is also being applied to improve and expand school library systems. With blockchain, schools can create and manage a distributed metadata system for libraries that would allow peer-to-peer sharing of books and other reading material. Also, it will assist in management of libraries as the technology keeps detailed logs of what books are going out and which ones are being returned in an error-free and meticulous fashion. In November 2017, the Institute of Museum and Library Services gave a US$100,000 grant to the San José State University, School of Information to explore blockchain applications in libraries encompassing building an enhanced permission-less metadata archive, supporting community-based collections, and facilitating better digital rights management.

EOS Perspective

Blockchain-based applications are gaining momentum across industries and the education sector is no exception. As in many other sectors, blockchain has the potential to revolutionize the industry, especially with regards to storing data and sharing credentials. Several start-ups have entered this space and are already challenging industry norms.

More so, blockchain-based start-ups in the education sector are becoming even more relevant as the world struggles with calamities such as bush fires or the coronavirus pandemic. As schools and universities shut down due to the ongoing pandemic, blockchain-based platforms play an important role in ensuring that education is not disrupted. Recently, blockchain-based educational platform, Odem, has offered its online integrated learning platform and certification management system free of charge to schools and educators that have shut down due to the virus scare. In the midst of the pandemic, the platform has received interest from Italy, Ireland, Germany, Cairo, and the USA, with a US-based University discussing uploading about 500 courses onto the Odem blockchain to combat class time lost due to the outbreak.

While blockchain appears to be in a strong position to reinvent the education sector, it is easier said than done. Blockchain requires alterations in industry-wide business processes, which not only require significant amount of investments but also involvement of government bodies to develop blockchain regulations as well as build the requisite infrastructure for the technology. Currently the cost of processing and storing data through blockchain is high and scalability remains an issue.

Moreover, currently most schools across the globe have their own systems to store and manage student’s information, progress, and certifications. These would require to be standardized if the use of blockchain grows and new standards would need to be developed. This is an extremely tedious and time consuming procedure and several schools may not be interested in sharing information with third parties.

That being said, blockchain is expected to penetrate the education sector in the years to come and many institutions have already started toying with the technology and its applications. However, just like in case of some other industries, it is yet to be seen if blockchain manages to revolutionize the entire industry or offer few niche applications in some areas and limited geographic scope. It will have a lot to do with the cost and ease of adaptation of the technology in already exiting school systems.

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Blockchain Likely to Make a Safe Landing in Aviation Sector

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Blockchain technology has captured the interest of several industries and aviation is no exception. Its decentralized, secure, and immutable nature makes blockchain technology ideal for many operational aspects and verticals within the aviation industry. In fact, most of the blockchain-based solutions in the aviation sector extend beyond basic financial transactions and range across security and identity management, ticketing, maintenance, baggage management, and loyalty programs. Various stakeholders in the aviation industry, including airlines, airports, aircraft manufacturers and maintenance providers, and airspace technology providers, etc., are partnering together to explore and develop blockchain-based capabilities across the industry’s value chain.

Blockchain technology is fast emerging as the revolutionary technology in the aviation industry with most airline and airport CIOs investing huge resources and effort in exploring this space. As per Air Transport IT Insights 2018 report by SITA, one of the world’s leading air transport communications and information technology company, about 60% airlines have invested in blockchain-based pilot projects or research programs for implementation by 2021. This shows an increase from 2017, when only 42% airlines invested in blockchain-based research programs. Moreover, airports are also exploring this technology, with 34% airports planning blockchain-based R&D projects by 2021.

Owing to its decentralized, scalable, transparent, and secure nature, blockchain technology’s capabilities align well with the needs of the aviation sector, especially in the fields of ticketing, maintenance, luggage tracking, loyalty programs, and identity management.

Blockchain to streamline security and identity management

Passenger identity management is one of the most sought-after uses of blockchain in aviation. As per the SITA study, about 40% airlines and 36% airports claim passenger identity management to be one of the most prominent areas of application and benefit of blockchain technology.

Blockchain technology has the ability to streamline the identity management of passengers through the combined use of blockchain, biometrics, and mobile (or wearable devices). Currently, a passenger needs to pass several checkpoints where different parties (airport staff, airlines, control authorities, etc.) verify their physical IDs. This process is cumbersome, time consuming, and also vulnerable to human errors. Moreover, it results in a great amount of duplication of data as each stakeholder stores and verifies passenger information at their own level.

Blockchain, owing to its immutable, decentralized, and secure nature, helps solve these issues by validating identities using biometrics. Blockchain with security wrappers ensures that the information stored in the system is protected and helps share it with all the stakeholders through the use of authorized access protocols. Thus, blockchain and biometric-based ID management help eliminate the need for paper documentation (such as passport and visa) across the entire journey. This will facilitate a smoother and quicker travel experience for the passenger, as compared with the current verification and multiple checkpoints. Moreover, it will reduce security lapses as the need for paper documents (that can be forged) and human intervention is low.

Blockchain start-up Sho Card, which provides digital identification cards through blockchain, has partnered with SITA to develop a digital identity card as a proof of concept, wherein the traveler obtains a single travel token for his journey.

Under this concept, the traveler undergoes an initial check at the travel counter, where he is positively identified using biometrics and issued a travel token. A photo of the traveler is also taken for verification. This information (biometric ID information, travel token, photo) is stored on the travelers mobile or wearable device and replaces the requirement of any physical/paper identification. When the traveler approaches any gate or checkpoint, he presents the travel token via a QR code on the SITA traveler app. The agent at the checkpoint scans the QR code and validates the travel token and the individual matches to that in the photo. The traveler is allowed to pass if the information matches. This significantly reduces costs and time taken at several checkpoints for document validation. Moreover it reduces the human liability around documents check.

Other blockchain players, such as UK-based ObjectTech and VChain Technology, have also entered into agreements with Dubai’s Immigration and Visa Department and International Airlines Group (AIG), respectively, to provide blockchain-based solutions to streamline passenger data management for the aviation sector.

Blockchain and biometric-based ID management help eliminate the need for paper documentation (such as passport and visa) across the entire journey. This will facilitate a smoother and quicker travel experience for the passenger, as compared with the current verification and multiple checkpoints.

Smart contracts to ease out ticketing

Airlines currently sell paper-based or electronic tickets through their centralized ticketing system. For each booking, there are multiple touchpoints, which include airlines, travel agencies (online and offline), banks and card providers, and government agencies. Upon the sale of a ticket, each party stores passenger data at their individual level, which makes the process complex and vulnerable to errors. In addition, ticketing information being currently stored in a centralized database by airlines and airports makes it vulnerable to hacks and glitches, which in turn can result in reputation and revenue loss for the airlines or airport. This was seen in case of Southwest Airlines in July 2016, when the centralized ticketing database failed, resulting in the cancellation of about 2,000 flights and a revenue loss of US$82 million.

The use of blockchain-based smart contracts helps eliminate the need for paper tickets and e-tickets can be tokenized. Tokenized tickets can have their own set of embedded business logic and terms and conditions associated with how they are sold and used including pricing and timings for the flights. Moreover, further stipulations can be added to the ticket such as the class of the ticket, lounge access, etc. The decentralized nature of blockchain insulates it from hacking and system failures and also mitigates data sharing errors. Furthermore, it allows for the sale of tickets in real-time from different partners across the globe. It also improves customer experience and cost effectiveness of service by automating time consuming tasks, streamlining payment process, and reducing settlement times.

The use of blockchain-based smart contracts helps eliminate the need for paper tickets and e-tickets can be tokenized. Tokenized tickets can have their own set of business logic and terms and conditions associated with how they are sold and used including pricing and timings for the flights.

In July 2018, Russia’s second largest airline, S7 Airlines partnered with Russian commercial Bank, Alfa Bank, to build and sell its airline tickets over an ethereum-based private blockchain platform. The use of blockchain enabled the airlines to securely connect its online booking system with the bank’s payment processing systems, thereby speeding the payment processing time (from about two weeks to less than a minute) and reducing manual paperwork. In July 2019, the airline’s blockchain-based ticketing platform witnessed sales of US$1 million, indicating the success of the venture.

Blockchain to enable luggage tracking

One of the areas where airlines are constantly working on improving customer service and reducing costs is cargo and passenger baggage management. A passenger’s baggage passes through several automated and manual processes before being handed back to them and data about the cargo/luggage’s journey is usually stored in a non-standardized form on an individual level by multiple players that handle the cargo/luggage, including airlines personnel, transportation companies, airports, and local authorities.

This process results in passenger luggage being often lost or misdirected, a fact that impacts the airlines both in terms of reputation and cost. As per SITA’s Baggage Report 2018, this translated into additional costs of about US$2.3 billion for airlines in 2017.

Blockchain, which functions as an online record-keeping system maintained on a peer-to-peer network rather than a central agency or authority, can help airlines tackle the issues of lost luggage. Using blockchain, customers (and airlines) can track the luggage throughout its transfer process, which provides full transparency to the process. Thus if a bag is misplaced, the airlines can track back the entire journey of the lost luggage to identify the point where it went missing and why.

Blockchain Likely to Make a Safe Landing in Aviation Sector by EOS Intelligence

In November 2017, Air New Zealand partnered with Swiss-based start-up Winding Tree (which is a blockchain-based distribution platform for the travel industry), to explore applications based on blockchain technology that could help the carrier improve the efficiency and security of booking and baggage tracking services. The potential applications that Air New Zealand is looking to explore include cargo and baggage tracking, retail distribution, and loyalty program opportunities.

Another use of blockchain in baggage management is in determining lost baggage compensation. Through the use of smart contracts, airlines could automate insurance claims for lost baggage and instantaneously compensate customers. Rega, a blockchain insurance platform, has been deploying blockchain to create a “crowd-insurance” platform in which the risk of lost luggage is shared across the community. This works primarily as a peer-to-peer insurance that uses smart contracts and smart tokens to insure baggage for a group of passengers without the need for any insurance companies, agents, or intermediaries. Through this method, it has managed to reduce lost baggage premium to about US$12 annually for a coverage of up to US$5,000.

Blockchain to better manage maintenance history and spare parts sourcing

Flight maintenance is one of the largest cost-heads for an airline. As per IATA, in 2017, airlines globally spent US$76 billion on MRO (maintenance, repair, and overhaul), representing about 11% of total operational costs.

Currently, the MRO process is extremely complex, with the value chain encompassing multiple players such as manufacturers, component traders, airlines, service providers, and regulatory authorities. Moreover, each of these bodies store information in separate databases or physical ledgers. This makes obtaining information about components and maintenance extremely challenging and time consuming. Moreover, it can lead to data discrepancy (as it is stored at individual levels by the various parties), which in turn questions the reliability of this data and the safety of the component. In these cases, the worthiness of the component is established through an expensive and time consuming investigation, testing, and recertification process.

Blockchain’s decentralized, immutable, and transparent nature, makes it ideal for managing MRO records for airlines. Blockchain digitally logs and stores data regarding aircraft spare parts and maintenance, from the time the part is manufactured, to when it is installed, to every time maintenance or repair occurs. This decentralized, transparent, and real-time storage of data ensures that the information is available to all authorized parties (from airlines to MRO service providers) in a prompt and accurate manner, thereby saving on time and costs while achieving better safety and maintenance standards.

Blockchain’s decentralized, immutable, and transparent nature, makes it ideal for managing MRO records for airlines. 

In addition, the use of blockchain enables airlines to engage in more predictive maintenance, by enabling technicians to review the complete configuration and history of the various components in the aircraft on a blockchain-based ledger. This helps them tackle issues in a preventive manner rather than taking action after a problem has occurred. Similarly, MRO providers can also use blockchain to offer predictive maintenance services to airlines, saving money for both themselves and the airlines.

Blockchain also helps in sourcing spare parts and removing middle men in the sourcing process. Currently, aircraft components are sourced from vendors or traders in a marketplace, who then further scout for the component with manufacturers or sometimes other traders/resellers. This process is expensive (due to multiple mark-ups) and time consuming and most of all, lacks transparency. To tackle this, various manufacturers, airlines, and MROs can create a blockchain-powered aerospace marketplace, where the buyers can share the serial number of the product needed, which in turn can be matched to the real-time ownership and location of the seller currently holding the product. This would eliminate the need for middle men in the industry and also save time and reduce costs especially in case of scarce parts.

In October 2017, Air France-KLM announced its plans to evaluate and develop a blockchain-based system to manage replacement parts on in-service airplanes and improve aircraft maintenance procedures and record keeping. Similarly, in August 2018, Russian airlines, S7, in association with Russian energy player, Gazprom Neft, announced the successful development and implementation of a blockchain-based system to refuel aircraft using smart contracts. The smart contracts will remove the need for pre-payment, bank guarantees, and will further insulate the parties from any unforeseen financial risks involved in the refueling process. This is expected to help reduce cost and also save time both for the airlines as well as their energy partner.

Blockchain to add value to airlines loyalty programs

Flyer loyalty programs, better known as frequent flyer miles, are an integral part of an airline’s customer engagement program. All airlines run a loyalty program, whether individually or as an alliance. However, in traditional loyalty programs travelers need to wait to accrue a certain amount of points to utilize them, with limitations on where and when they can use them. Loyalty programs for alliances have an even more complex structure when compared with stand-alone loyalty programs. This results in limited incentive for travelers to remain loyal to a certain airline(s), thereby defeating the purpose of frequent flyer programs.

Blockchain has the ability to streamline the frequent flyer programs, especially for alliances. By tokenizing loyalty points on the blockchain, travelers can obtain instant value for the points by redeeming them in real-time and across a great number of partnering merchants. Thus with points being accepted as a form of “currency” across a pool of merchants, travelers can use these points in a faster and more efficient manner, thereby remaining motivated to maintain loyalty with a particular airline(s).

In July 2018, Singapore Airlines was the first airline globally to launch a blockchain-based loyalty program for frequent flyers. Under this program, Singapore Airline members can convert their miles into units of payments which are stored in a digital wallet, called KrisPay. This digital wallet was developed by Singapore Airlines in partnership with KPMG and Microsoft. The airline has partnered with 18 merchants across Singapore (including eateries, gas stations, beauty parlors, etc.) where customers can use KrisPay units.

Blockchain initiatives

Considering the various applications of blockchain across the aviation sector, a great number of airlines and airspace technology providers are investing heavily to explore this space and develop blockchain-based solutions for various verticals.

In July 2018, Lufthansa airlines partnered with SAP to launch a global Aviation Blockchain Challenge in order to support blockchain R&D in the sector. Through this venture, the two companies are seeking ideas from entrepreneurs and blockchain start-ups with regards to enhancing passenger experience, improving airline operations, processes, and maintenance, and streamlining the aviation supply chain.

Similarly in July 2018, SITA, which is the air transport industry’s largest technology provider and is jointly owned by a large number of airlines, launched the Aviation Blockchain Sandbox project. Through the Sandbox project, the technology provider aims to achieve intra-industry collaboration to understand and explore the applications of blockchain in the aviation space and undertake cross-industry initiatives. This platform gives access to smart contracts known as FlightChain, which will help improve flight status data problem for airlines and airports by storing all flight information on the blockchain to provide consistent data across the network.

EOS Perspective

Blockchain technology has taken several industries by storm, and shows great potential in several others (read our previous publications: Blockchain Technology – Next Frontier in Healthcare?, Blockchain Paving Its Way into Retail Industry, and Blockchain: A Potential Disruptor in Car Rental and Leasing Industry to find out more). Aviation seems to be no exception. Although application of blockchain in the aviation industry still seems to be largely at the exploration stage (with most companies running proof of concepts and investing in testing phases), it definitely holds the potential to transform the way air travel is currently done.


Explore our other Perspectives on blockchain


That being said, blockchain cannot be seen as a universal remedy for all the issues faced by the aviation sector. To ensure that blockchain is used in the most efficient and cost effective manner, it is critical for players to have a solution-oriented approach when exploring blockchain-based applications, i.e. starting with a specific problem and working towards developing solutions, rather than making blockchain a solution and looking for problems to solve with it. With blockchain becoming the buzz word across the board, it is very common for companies to get carried away with the technology trying to fit in places, where its needs or costs are not justified. Considering that the technology is relatively new and has limited scalability at the moment, a lot of blockchain-solutions that may work well in theory may not be practical in today’s day and may need to wait for the blockchain technology to evolve further.

Moreover, for blockchain to be successfully applied across the industry, it is very important for the stakeholders to collaborate to develop blockchain solutions with regards to sharing data, technology, and costs related to R&D. This is also somewhat of a challenge as adoption of blockchain requires transparency and most companies are wary of sharing their data and information with external players.

Despite these challenges, the adoption of blockchain technology by the aviation sector seems more like a matter of “when”, rather than “if”. Most players in the aviation sector have been operating through traditional business practices for several decades now and may take time to embrace blockchain in mainstream operations. However, several players such as Lufthansa and Air France-KLM have started leading the way. With promises of cost savings and better services, it is to be seen if blockchain can enjoy a smooth landing in the aviation sector.

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Connecting Africa – Global Tech Players Gaining Foothold in the Market

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While in the past, most global tech companies have focused their attention on emerging Asian markets, such as India, Indonesia, Vietnam, etc., they have now understood the potential also offered by African markets. Africa currently stands at the brink of technical renaissance, with tech giants from the USA and China competing to establish here a strong foothold. That being said, Africa’s technological landscape is extremely complex owing to major connectivity and logistical issues, along with a limited Internet user base. Companies that wish to enter the African markets by replicating their entry and operating models from other regions cannot be assured of success. In addition to global tech firms building their ground in Africa, a host of African start-ups are increasingly finding funding from local as well as global VC and tech players.

Great potential challenged by insufficient connectivity

Boasting of a population exceeding 1.2 billion (spread across 50 countries) and being home to six of the world’s ten fastest-growing economies, Africa is increasingly seen as the final frontier by large global technology firms.

However, the African landscape presents its own set of challenges, which makes increasing tech penetration extremely complex in the market. To begin with, only about 35% of the continent’s population has access to the Internet, as compared with the global rate of 54%. Thus, Africa’s future in the technology space greatly depends on its ability to improve digital connectivity. This also stands in the way of large tech-based players that wish to gain foothold in the market.

Large players try to lay the necessary foundations

Due to this fundamental challenge, companies such as Google, Facebook, and IBM have initiated long-pronged strategies focusing on connectivity and building infrastructure across Africa. Facebook’s Free Basics program (which provides access to a few websites, including Facebook and Whatsapp, without the need to pay for mobile data) has been greatly focused on Africa, and is available in 27 African countries. With Facebook’s partnership with Airtel Africa, the company has started to strengthen its position in the continent.

Similarly, Google has launched Project Link, under which it rolled out a metro fiber network in Kampala, Uganda, with Ghana being in the pipeline. Through such efforts and investments, Google is aimed at bringing about faster and more reliable internet to the Africans.

Microsoft, which has been one of the first players to enter the African turf, is also undertaking projects to improve connectivity in Africa. The company has invested in white spaces technology, which uses unused radio spectrum to provide Wi-Fi connectivity at comparatively lower costs.

However, managing to get people online is only the first step in the long journey to develop a growing market. Companies need to understand the specific dynamics of the local markets and develop new business models that will fit well in the African market.

For instance, globally, the revenue model for several leading tech companies, such as Google and Facebook, largely depend on online advertising. However, the same model may not thrive in most African markets due to a limited digital footprint of the consumers as well as the fact that the business community in the continent continues to draw most transactions offline, using cash.

Connecting Africa – Global Technology Firms Gaining a Foothold in the Market

Players employ a range of strategies to penetrate the market

These tech giants must work closely with local businesses and achieve an in-depth understanding of the unique challenges and opportunities that the African continent presents. Therefore, these companies are increasingly focusing on looking for collaborations that will help in the development of successful and sustainable businesses in the continent.

Leading players, such as Google and Microsoft have been investing heavily in training local enterprises in digital skills to encourage businesses to go online, so that they will become potential customers for them in the future.

While this strategy has been used somewhat extensively by US-based and European companies, a few Chinese players have recently joined the bandwagon. For instance, Alibaba’s founder, Jack Ma announced a US$10 million African Young Entrepreneurs Fund on his first visit to Africa in July 2017. The scheme will help 200 budding entrepreneurs learn and develop their tech business with support from Alibaba.

The company has also been focusing on partnerships and collaborations to strengthen its position in the African market. Understanding the logistical challenges in the African continent, Alibaba has signed a wide-ranging agreement with French conglomerate, Bollore Group, which covers cloud services, digital transformation, clean energy, mobility, and logistics. The logistics part of the agreement will help Alibaba leverage on Bollore’s strong logistics network in Africa’s French-speaking nations.

Considering the importance of mobile wallets and m-payments in Africa, Alibaba has expanded its payment system, Alipay, to South Africa (through a partnership with Zapper, a South Africa-based mobile payment system) as well as Kenya (through a partnership with Equitel, a Kenya-based mobile virtual network operator). In many ways, it is applying its lessons learnt in the Chinese market with regards to payments and logistics, to better serve the African continent.

While Chinese players (such as Alibaba and Baidu) have been comparatively late in entering the African turf, they are expected to pose a tough competition to their Western counterparts as they have the advantage of coming from an emerging market themselves, with a somewhat better understanding of the challenges and complexities of a digitally backward market.

For instance, messaging app WeChat brought in by Tencent, China-based telecom player, has provided stiff competition to Whatsapp, which is owned by Facebook and is a leading player in this space. WeChat has used its experience in the Chinese market (where mobile banking is also popular just as it is across Africa) and has collaborated with Standard Chartered Bank to launch WeChat wallet. In addition, WeChat has collaborated with South Africa’s largest media company, Naspers, which has provided several value added services to its consumers (such as voting services to viewers of reality shows, which are very popular in Africa). Thus, by aligning the app to the needs and preferences of the African consumers, it has made the app into something more than just a messaging service.

While collaboration has been the go-to strategy for a majority of tech companies, a few players have preferred to enter the market by themselves. Uber, a leading peer-to-peer ridesharing company entered Africa without collaborations and is currently present in 16 countries.

While entering without forging partnerships with local entities helps a company maintain full control over its operations in the market, in some cases it may result in slower adoption of its services by the local population (as they may not be completely aligned with their preferences and needs). This can be seen in the case of Netflix, a leading player in the video streaming service, which extended its services to all 54 countries in Africa in January 2016 (the company has, however, largely focused on South Africa). Despite being a global leader, Netflix has witnessed conservative growth in the continent and expects only 500,000 subscribers across the continent by 2020.

On the other hand, Africa’s local players ShowMax and iROKO TV have gained more traction, due to better pricing, being more mobile friendly (downloading option) and having more relatable and local content, which made their offer more attractive to local populations.

Netflix, slowly understanding the complexities of the market, has now started developing local content for the South African market and working on offering Netflix in local currency. The company has also decided to collaborate with a few local and Middle-Eastern players to find a stronger foothold in the market. In November 2018, the company signed a partnership with Telkom, a South African telecommunication company, wherein Netflix will be available on Telkom’s LIT TV Box. Similarly, it partnered with Dubai-based pay-TV player, OSN, wherein OSN subscribers in North Africa and Middle East will gain access to Netflix’s content available across the region. However, while Netflix may manage to develop a broader subscriber base in South Africa and a few other more developed countries, there is a long road ahead for the company to capture the African continent as a whole, especially since its focus has been on TV-based partnerships rather than mobile (which is a more popular medium for the Internet in Africa).

On the other hand, Chinese pay-TV player, StarTimes has had a decade-long run in Africa and has more than 20 million subscribers across 30 African countries. While operating by itself, the company has strongly focused on local content and sports. It also deploys a significant marketing budget in the African market. For instance, it signed a 10-year broadcast and sponsorship deal with Uganda’s Football Association for US$7 million. To further its reach, the company also announced a project to provide 10,000 African villages with access to television.

US-based e-commerce leader, Amazon, is following a different strategy to penetrate the African markets. Following an inorganic approach, in 2017, Amazon acquired a Dubai-based e-retailer, Souq.com, which has presence in North Africa. However, the e-commerce giant is moving very slowly on the African front and is expected to invest heavily in building subsidiaries for providing logistics and warehousing as it has done in other markets, such as India. This approach to enter and operate in the African market is not widely popular, as it will require huge investment and a long gestation period.

Local tech start-ups are on the rise

While leading tech giants across the globe are spearheading the technology boom in Africa, developments are also fueled by local start-ups. As per the Disrupt Africa Tech Startups Funding Report 2017, 159 African tech start-ups received investments of about US$195 million in 2017, marking a more than 50% increase when compared to the investments received in 2016.

While South Africa, Nigeria, and Kenya remained the top three investment destinations, there is an increasing investor interest in less developed markets, such as Ghana, Egypt, and Uganda. Start-ups in the fintech space received maximum interest and investments. Moreover, international VC such as Amadeus and EchoVC as well as local African funds appear keen to invest in African start-ups. The African governments are also supporting start-up players in the tech space – a prime example being the Egyptian government launching its own fund dedicated to this objective.

African fintech start-ups, Branch and Cellulant, have been two of the most successful players in the field, raising US$70 million and US$47.5 million, respectively, in 2018. While Branch is an online micro-lending start-up, Cellulant is a digital payments solution provider. Both companies have significant presence across Africa.

EOS Perspective

Although US-based players were largely the first to enter and develop Africa’s technology market, Chinese players have also increasingly taken a deeper interest in the continent and have the advantage of coming from an emerging market themselves, therefore putting themselves in a better position to understand the challenges faced by tech players in the continent.

Most leading tech players are looking to build their presence in the African markets. Their success depends on how well they can mold their business models to tackle the local market complexities in addition to aligning their product/service offerings with the diverse needs of the local population. While partnering with a local player may enable companies to gain a better understanding of the market potential and limitations, it is equally imperative to identify and partner with the right player, who is in line with the company’s vision and has the required expertise in the field – a task challenging at times in the African markets.

While global tech companies are stirring up the African markets with the technologies and solutions they bring along, a lot is also happening in the local African tech-based start-ups scene, which is receiving an increasing amount of investment from VCs across the world. In the future, these start-ups may become potential acquisition targets for large global players or pose stiff competition to them, either across the continent or in smaller, regional markets.

It is clear that the technological wave has hit Africa, changing the continent’s face. Most African countries, being emerging economies in their formative period, offer a great potential of embracing the new technologies without the struggle of resisting to adopt the new solutions or the problem of fit with legacy systems. It is too early to announce Africa the upcoming leader in emerging technologies, considering the groundwork and investments the continent requires for that to happen, however, Africa has emerged as the next frontier for tech companies, which are causing a digital revolution in the continent as we speak.

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