Cardano in Africa: Inside IOHK’s Ethiopia Blockchain Deal

Ethiopia might be not the first place you think of as a hotspot for blockchain technology. 

A predominantly rural country where only 15% of the population has access to the internet, Ethiopia is going through severe civil unrest in the north. Ethnic strife in the Tigray region recently led to thousands killed and millions fleeing the country as refugees to neighboring Sudan. The country is also experiencing local internet shutdowns.

Ethiopia is thus a good example of the gap between the ambitious goals of modern technology and the actual circumstances on the ground. 

IOHK, the company behind the cardano (ADA) cryptocurrency, believes it can help bridge this gap. This week, IOHK announced it has partnered with the Ethiopian government to create a blockchain-based system to track student performance in local schools.

“It’s a hard country, so if we make it there we can make it anywhere,” said John O’Connor, IOHK’s director of African Operations. 

‘A dream come true’

Local challenges do not appear to be deterring IOHK from its mission. “Life has to go on for the rest of the country,” said O’Connor. 

IOHK is establishing a physical presence in the country, opening an office in the capital, Addis Ababa, and starting work on the large-scale blockchain ID project, which is expected to go live in January 2022, O’Connor told CoinDesk. At the moment, the core identity product, named PRISM, is ready, and other features, including classroom management, will come later. 

In a video stream IOHK made on April 29, Ethiopia’s Minister of Education, Getahun Mekuria, spoke of the partnership, saying the “initiative is about bringing technology to improve the quality of education” in Ethiopia. Cardano is one of the top cryptocurrencies, the minister said, which is why “doing blockchain with IOHK is like a dream coming true” for him. 

According to the minister, 5 million students will receive Cardano blockchain-based IDs, which will allow the authorities to track every student’s academic performance. Also, 750,000 teachers will get access to the system. According to the minister, the Ethiopian government struck a deal with an undisclosed Chinese manufacturer to provide enough tablets for the project to happen. 

O’Connor said the ministry, which enjoys financial support from large donors in the West including USAID, will fund the purchase of the tablets, and also build lacking infrastructure so that 3,500 Ethiopian schools have access to the internet and can use the new system. 

CoinDesk asked Ethiopia’s Ministry of Education to confirm these infrastructure plans but received no response by press time. It’s not clear how much the project will cost the government.

On the ground

O’Connor is half-Ethiopian and said he spent a few years in the country, hanging out with tech specialists. He was able to build a good rapport with Getahun Mekuria, who was the minister of science and technology before becoming the minister of education, O’Connor added.

IOHK also got involved with Ethiopia’s local tech community. In 2019, the company organized training for female developers, teaching them to code in Haskel, Cardano’s programming language. After that, the IOHK Addis Ababa office hired seven of the 30 alums, O’Connor said. 

He believes that with Ethiopia’s predominantly young population and the government’s enthusiasm about blockchain, major progress can be achieved no matter how tough the task may appear. At the moment, most information in Ethiopia is recorded on paper, not electronically, so the Ministry of Education has no actual data of the situation on the ground, O’Connor explained. 

Now, IOHK wants to take this obsolete system and launch it into the Web 3.0 era. If the project succeeds, the results will be much more notable than they would be in many other places in the world, O’Connor believes. 

“The marginal improvement in the U.K. wouldn’t be as great as in Ethiopia,” he said.  

How it will work

The system IOHK is building will mostly rely on the Ministry of Education running a full node, and schools will use a light client to get access. However, the system will be operating on the public Cardano blockchain and so will be decentralized in this sense, he said.

To implement the project in thousands of schools across Ethiopia (though not in the Tigray region, where civil unrest continues), IOHK will work with a wide network of partners, O’Connor said, including mobile payment networks. 

As a result, high school graduates will receive cards with near field communication (NFC) chips that will contain their educational credentials. This means the data will be available even if a child doesn’t have a mobile phone or other device to connect to the system, O’Connor said.

This will resolve the issue of fake certifications, which is a serious problem in Ethiopia, he said. This might give young Ethiopians opportunities they don’t have now because their diplomas are not viewed as being reliable in the West, O’Connor said. 

“I studied at Oxford and I was intrigued why there were no students from Ethiopia. When I asked about it I was told [the college] didn’t recognize their credentials. They don’t have enough information about what’s happening in Ethiopian universities,” O’Connor said.  

When the project goes live, it will start with 12th grade students, Minister Getahun Mekuria said in the video stream with Cardano. But in the following years more students will receive blockchain IDs. According to O’Connor, the first million tablet computers for students are due to arrive in Ethiopia this month.