Ashish Gadnis is the Founder / CEO of the award-winning blockchain application BanQu. He is also a senior strategic advisor to multiple global organizations and the United Nations on the Sustainable Development Goals 2030 agenda. Prior to his current engagements, Mr. Gadnis was the founder and CEO of multiple technology startups, the last one of which was acquired by a $1.5 billion global consulting firm in 2012. Over the past 25 years, Ashish has been recognized for his private/public sector contributions with awards such as — MIT Innovate for Refugees (Syrian refugees) award, Young Global Leader (World Economic Forum), Minority Business Leader (Twin Cities Business), 40 under 40 (Business Journal), Change-Makers Innovator Award (Coding Schools in Refugee Camps in East Africa) and Battery Ventures Innovation Award — Democratic Republic of Congo (for Asili: a mobile / cloud-based business focused on reducing infant child mortality, improving maternal health and increasing livelihood in conflict zones).
Agnieszka Wielgosz: So excited to have you on board, Ashish! You’re the founder and CEO of BanQu, a for-profit/for-purpose blockchain-as-a-service software company solving the toughest global problem–extreme poverty. We would love to hear your story; how was the concept for BanQu born?
Ashish Gadnis: BanQu was born when I got into an argument in DR Congo back in 2014. I had sold my last startup in 2012 and was volunteering in DR Congo for a couple of years to establish a social enterprise to enable agriculture, water and healthcare value chains in extreme poverty zones. I saw absolute abject poverty compounded by conflict and rampant gender discrimination. The argument happened when a local bank refused to bank a very hardworking mother farmer because she was a woman and because she couldn’t prove her existing in the corn supply chain she was participating in. Even though she had multiple identity cards–many from U.N. agencies, Foundations, micro finance orgs, social enterprises–she didn’t exist ! And the guy says to me “I can’t bank her, but I’ll bank you!” I was devastated. This mother was smart and intelligent (women are smarter than men) and every right to be bankable, but the world didn’t give her the dignity or identity to be bankable. I knew then that there was a major flaw in this age-old model of aid, and financial inclusion was not really inclusive. So I decided to start BanQu (as in Bank You) so that the mother would never ever be treated unfairly again and that she would have Dignity through Identity–which has become our trademark mission and mantra globally.
AW: According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, more than 3 billion people–almost half of the world’s population–live in rural areas, and around 2.5 billion people depend on agriculture for their livelihoods. Supporting smallholder farmers is therefore seen as critical to achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, and reducing poverty, hunger, and inequality. Your creation, BanQu App, gives confidence and respectability because harvests can be sold with full traceability and transparency. Would you please share with us how BanQu’s cutting-edge blockchain platform is already being used to support farmers?
AG: We have thousands of [the] poorest farmers (especially women) who are using our BanQu platform via simple SMS-only mobile phones to sell their harvest (crops) to global brands. These farmers can now participate equally in global supply chains in a way that is fully transparent and builds history of every bag of cacao, coffee or maize or cassava etc., from tree-to-cup. The big brands can not only know who the farmer is but also they make their supply chains cost effective, compliant and strengthen local economies. Because of BanQu’s blockchain solution the women (and men) farmers can prove they’re existing in the supply chain right from seed inputs all the way to finished products like a cup of coffee or cacao. Even the middlemen in these supply chains benefit from BanQu as it reduces corruption and helps these SMEs become more economically resilient by growing their businesses.
AW: You made an innovation work for EVERY woman by utilizing blockchain technology to end extreme poverty and to give every woman the economic power needed to create equal gender equity. Now the woman farmers have an economic identity, they can own, access and easily monetize their data. BanQu results show exciting promise of the impact this technology could have on the developing world. Where do you see BanQu progressing 10 years from now?
AG: We are confident that 10 years from now we will have enabled a path out of extreme poverty for 100 million people globally.
AW: We live in an interconnected world; financial inclusion is on the rise globally, accelerated by mobile phones and the internet, but gains have been uneven across countries. Does the technology contribute to increased inequality? Or maybe there is something else?
AG: I think technology contributes to increased inequality if we don’t let the mother farmers or the artisan miners or garment workers own their supply chain data. In the world of Google and Facebook and Equifax and Mobile Money–the mother farmer can never prove her existence, and she’s at the mercy of companies that own her data. She’s at the mercy of predatory lenders. At BanQu we have taken a very different and revolutionary approach. Our platform not only strengthens the supply chains of large brands but also empowers the farmers, the miners, the workers in the last-mile to own and prove their existence in those supply chains. It’s what we call “Economic Identity.”
AG: I don’t know if it will be the most effective, but I know it’s the most empowering when it comes to both the poorest in the world and those companies that believe in the “for profit / for purpose” model. I also know (based on our experience rolling out BanQu globally since March 2017) that blockchain democratizes information in a way that addresses fundamental issues around gender inequality, extreme poverty, modern day slavery and the refugee crisis.
AW: What does it mean to BanQu to be digitally responsible?
AG: It means that we take our responsibility very seriously. It means that we never forget that the mother farmer has equal rights to her supply chain data, that she can “own, access, permission and monetize” without any barriers.
AW: Could blockchain technology be the only solution to social and economic development issues including: poverty, hunger, health, education, global warming, gender equality, water, sanitation, energy, urbanization, environment and social justice?
AG: No. I don’t think blockchain is the only solution. I believe (and we are already seeing this with thousands of farmers and the disenfranchised who use our platform everyday) that technologies like blockchain along with other technologies like IoT, local community, government engagement, employer engagement etc. are keys to success. It’s important to think and act very long-term and take an ecosystem approach rather than a silo approach. For example at BanQu we have an OpenApi that allows us to integrate with IoT sensors that provide accurate climate data, so a mother farmer can not only have better crop yields but she can also now get fair crop insurance that is based on a 360 degree view. That’s a game changer if we want to really accomplish the UN SDGs.
AW: Never before has the distance between imagination and creation been so narrow. In the past, we didn’t have the refined tools to build the world we dream about and aspire to. Now we do; there is imagination in science, no doubt. Ashish, you’re the one of the next generation innovators who took the advantage of the information revolution. What is one area where we can EDUCATE next generation leaders, who are now facing the information overload problem?
AG: I feel blessed and fortunate to have been given the opportunity to serve those less fortunate than me. In my humble opinion the key is to think and act in terms of ecosystems and not just short-term point solutions. Because point solutions are short lived and rooted in pity, especially when it comes to systemic problems in society like extreme poverty, gender inequality and child labor. If you want to end extreme poverty you have to ensure that the mother farmer is treated like your best customer.
AW: The workforce needs to be educated to meet challenges of the 21st century; this means creating a new wave of innovative entrepreneurs who will create new industries and new wealth from these technological innovations via the Internet. The future is wide open for us, so who are the leaders of tomorrow? How can we develop Sherlock Holmes-like leaders?
AG: Again, in my humble opinion the next generation leader is one who is deeply grounded in purpose. One who understands the value of connected economies for those less fortunate. One who can leverage technology but not be enamored by it. One who sees that data democracy is the new frontier, as it will make the world a better place for all of us not just 1/3 of us. We need leaders who truly deliver on “for-profit / for-purpose”.
AW: Please share with us one thing that has INSPIRED you?
AG: The one thing that inspires me absolutely is the resilience of the mothers and farmers and artisan miners in extreme poverty and refugees and children in slave labor. They teach me everyday more than any school or university or business ever taught me. They teach me that even though their circumstances weren’t their own doing they don’t give up. That’s what keeps BanQu fueled everyday.
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