Sitting on the Gulf of Guinea, Ogoniland is Nigeria’s most polluted region. With an estimated 13 million barrels of crude oil spilled in the Niger Delta since 1958 from over 10,000 oil spill incidents – and no cleanups – one of the most biodiverse places on the planet has been devastated. With surrounding mangrove and freshwater swamps contaminated, vegetation decimated, and fish numbers diminished, the livelihoods of fishermen and farmers has also been, unsurprisingly, destroyed.
While in 2011, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) said that it could take up to 30 years for full environmental restoration to be achieved in Ogoniland, the lack of accountability from oil giants, corruption, violence and mistrust between the Nigerian government and locals have halted any progress.
Chinyere Nnadi, a local entrepreneur, however, has a solution — blockchain, a digital ledger that provides transparent, instantaneous and indisputable record of transactions. With $1.4 billion invested into blockchain in the last nine months, enthusiasts, like Nnadi are hopeful it could be the next big development disruptor due to its potential to remove corruption and provide transparency and accountability.
VICE Impact spoke to Nnadi, founder and CEO of Sustainability International and blockchain platform SELA, as he launched his first pilot project in K-Dere village, Ogoniland, about how leveraging blockchain to clean-up the Niger Delta is the region’s long-awaited solution.
VICE Impact: You’ve just launched your first-pilot project in K-Dere village in spite of a very tense political and security context. Can you tell us more?
Chinyere Nnadi: The situation is incredibly fragile. Currently, the National Armed Forces are occupying the Niger Delta in an attempt to put down the militant groups. The national government lost control over the area in early 2016 but they are now trying to regain control in order to protect the nation’s oil assets.
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We are allowed into K-Dere because since 2010, we have built close ties to the Niger Delta communities. And of course, it is very helpful that I’m from there.
How did you come up with the idea of using blockchain to clean up the lake?
Lack of accountability in the Niger Delta is systemic. In order to change this behavior, you have to revalue trust and credibility. Blockchain is a protocol built for an environment where trust is scarce.
I spent my childhood in Nkwerre, a village in the Niger Delta. My roots are in the Niger Delta. Both of my parents were born there and grew up amidst the violence from the Nigerian Civil War, an atrocity that left more than 1 million people dead. Big oil moved in not long after the war, spurring the oil pollution disaster we have today. Traditional approaches to solving the problem had proven ineffective time and again. Solving the oil pollution problem in the Niger Delta is not just an environmental issue. We’re hitting many parts sewn deep within Nigerian society (corruption, lack of accountability and transparency) — the results of the resource curse.
Moving from a place where people naturally distrust each other to a place where you’re rewarded based on credible actions will re-incentivize trustworthy behavior, which is why we are using blockchain.
In practice, how will it work? How will you be leveraging blockchain technology to overcome corruption?
First, we have hired local boys/ex-militants to restore and clean up the polluted fish farms and local women to serve as monitors of the work so that in one month, fish can be harvested there.
The workers and monitors will check on a weekly basis the progress of the pollution reduction. Each time, the workers and monitors will take a picture of the fish farm and send it via Whatsapp to our team of engineers in New York. After four weeks, we will have real-time data showing the project has been completed. The fishermen will then be able to fill the farm with fishstock. This real-time data collection will flow into our blockchain-based platform providing real-time distributed accountability that will ensure the effective, efficient execution of development.
Second, the monitors and workers will be paid through the platform. The track record of credible and honest data submission by the monitors and workers is rewarded with our SELA token, basically a unit of trust earned. That credibility token can then be turned into crypto-currency through our secure, non-corruptible, payments platform.
With the SELA platform, we give each citizen the choice to put down their guns and pick up their cell phones - giving up bullets and picking up ‘Bitcoin.’ This transforms each person from an economic prisoner into an entrepreneur, who earns a living by doing good for their community and their local environment.
Ultimately, by using blockchain we can create a trust economy that will bring visibility to credible people at the bottom of the pyramid. The trust that they earn by helping to build their community will become the track record they leverage to attract outside philanthropic and impact investing capital to their village.
Are cryptocurrencies, such as Bitcoin, currently being used in the area?
Cryptocurrencies are well-known within Nigeria. Nigeria consistently ranks at the top of search lists for Bitcoin. However, outside of the larger cities like Lagos and Abuja, the locals in rural communities are more likely to fall into the unbanked category. Being unbanked means much more than just not having a bank account- it also means that if you have a bank account, it’s likely to have been dormant for many years.
UNEP said it could take up to 30 years for full environmental restoration in the region. What kind of technology are you using to clean up the lake and how long will it take?
The locals are using a biotechnology that finds hydrocarbon at the molecular level and destroys its bioavailability, killing the oil, and leaving behind nutrients that catalyse the regrowth of the ecosystem. In areas where wildlife, water and vegetation have been polluted, within 30 days- the ecosystem will be clean and fertile again.
What lessons are you hoping to learn through this first pilot project?
Many people talk about the 2.5 billion unbanked population, but the reality is that most of these communities are highly tribal with their own cultures. If we seek to help these communities we must build for them. Instead of forcing the perception of what we believe the solution is, learn from the local village women, for example, what she needs- and build for that.
Throughout this pilot, we are interviewing the locals to obtain human-centred design learnings that will direct our team of MIT engineers in their development of the SELA Platform. And in January, we will use the SELA Platform to restore and clean three other fish farms in separate locations, showing that technology can bring the transparency and efficiency needed to build communities and lessen corruption.
Our five-year goal is to help catalyse large scale development in the Niger Delta.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity