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Crypto/Blockchain Interviews

Interview with Jiawan Ni (SOM ‘18), Director of Blockchain Charity Foundation

Ms. Jiawan (Jill) Ni is Director of Blockchain Charity Foundation (BCF), working under Helen Hai, the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) Goodwill Ambassador for industrialization in Africa. Ms. Ni is a recent MBA graduate of Yale School of Management (SOM, ’18) who focuses on investing for social impact. She helped to arrange SOM’s first Impact Investing curriculum through the Responsible Investing Club and received first place in the 2017 INNOVATEChina Business Plan Competition for co-designing Pavement, an app that would allow users to sync their credit cards so that they would be able to pay, save, and share as part of an integrated, automated financial experience. Prior to joining SOM, she worked in the financial services sector in China for five years, covering wealth management, credit risk assessment, and product management.

The Politic: Tell me about how you got involved in cryptocurrency and/or blockchain, and a bit about your current work at BCF!

Jiawan Ni: I actually graduated from Yale’s School of Management (SOM), last year, in 2018. Right before the MBA at SOM, I was working in financial services in China. I saw that there’s a huge part of the population, across the world, that cannot be reached through formal banking services. So, I was really interested in seeing how business and finance can interact with the social impact sector– supporting the people who are actually in need. That’s the reason why I went to business school, especially at SOM, which has the mandate of combining business with social impact.

When I got this opportunity to study at SOM, I didn’t understand a lot about blockchain. I joined some workshops and school discussions on blockchain for social impact, but it was just by chance that I was introduced to my current boss. She founded the Blockchain Charity Foundation just last year. I was really fascinated by the idea that cryptocurrency and the blockchain could reach almost everyone around the world, and BCF is currently focusing on the bottom billion of the population. By providing them with “crypto wallets,” BCF was actually able to reach the bottom billion population who were left out from formal banking services. Instead, they could actually get access to these services through crypto/blockchain-based infrastructure. That connected with my previous experience and was also a very good combination of using technology for the purpose of social impact. That’s how I got into the space!

Going back to what I’m currently working on, BCF was initiated by Binance, one of the biggest crypto-exchanges around the world, so it receives a lot of support from Binance itself. My boss worked in Africa for a long time, so our focus is currently on developing countries, mainly in Africa right now. I’m from China, and I see that China has prospered since the 70s and 80s, catching the golden opportunity of the Second Industrial Revolution, getting a lot of factories and creating a lot of jobs out of that. I do believe that currently, in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, blockchain is one of the key technologies that’s leading the revolution. Because blockchain is still a very new technology looking for applications, we think about how to get involved in those underdeveloped economies to help them receive these technological benefits. So, I see BCF has potential to be an industry leader, in guiding where the industry goes, inspiring more people to think about how technology can support those in need, and helping many economies to benefit from the technology.

What’s the actual process for the Blockchain Charity Foundation look like? How do you distribute the funds? 

BCF is solving the lack of transparency in charity. If you’re going to donate to a charity or a non-profit, it’s very hard to track where your money goes. That’s where we think blockchain can be a direct solution. We collect donations and deploy them directly to the end-beneficiaries and the charity projects, instead of through any third party or intermediary. Our donations are in the form of cryptocurrency, so we can trace everything on the blockchain and display that publicly to others.

I’ll give you an example of our current work in Uganda: We help kids get access to school lunches. Previously, if you wanted to donate to a school kid in Uganda, you would have to go through a length and unclear process. Probably only 30¢ of a $1 donation would reach that specific kid. We cut out the middleman by setting up a “crypto wallet” for the kids and their parents who are in need. They are able to use that crypto wallet to buy food locally. Of course, there are still local organizations which support the process by monitoring its efficacy and helping us understand the end-beneficiaries. Part of your donation will go to these organizations, but that percentage is currently capped at 10 percent. If you’re going to donate $1 of cryptocurrency, our website actually notes that 90¢ of your $1 go to the end-beneficiaries in need, instead of the 30¢ by means of traditional charities. Not to mention, since everything is trackable on our website, you can see how much money comes into our foundation, how much we spend, and who our end-beneficiaries are!

If you’re working in emerging economies, how many local food suppliers actually accept cryptocurrencies– is that a problem?

Yes, exactly. For example, we started the Binance Lunch for Children project last February. At the beginning, there were only one or two food suppliers who were willing to accept cryptocurrency because it’s very new to them. That being said, Binance also has a local, regulated fiat-crypto exchange. Suppliers can actually exchange cryptocurrency into local Ugandan shilling (UGX). That’s how we were able to get the first couple of suppliers! We also see that as our projects expand, more and more suppliers are willing to accept cryptocurrency. Our first school-lunch supplier now understands crypto, and they’re talking to their peers and their clients about BCF and crypto more broadly. Binance is also gaining a small crypto community too, so people actually trust it as a brand in that community now. That’s why we think the fiat-crypto exchange/gateway is important in emerging economies, since there isn’t a lot of local crypto usage and the suppliers need local fiat money so the funds aren’t just a number on their crypto wallet. We see that as a general education process.

You started with one supplier who accepted crypto in Uganda– how many do you have now?

I don’t have the exact number, but we’re now offering more than food. In terms of the kids program at schools, we’re now offering textbooks; we have a solar panel provider installing solar panels; and, recently, we’re providing sanitary pads for girls. Apart from the kids program, we’re also supporting refugees. It’s not a big number of suppliers to be honest, but the number of projects is growing!

Trying to understand the fiat process– is there a transaction fee taken on the conversion from crypto to local currency?

That’s the commercial/business side. The suppliers can set up an account on the fiat-crypto exchange. Of course, like going to a bank, there will be transaction, or “gas,” fees throughout the process. It’s a minimal amount, but we’ll also send a small extra amount to cover the costs. That’ll actually be part of the donation sent to our end-beneficiaries. But for our suppliers who exchange currency, we explain the whole process to them.

This is really, really interesting to me, so I’d like to get a bit more granular with details here. If you give $1 to a normal charity, let’s say that only 30¢ make it to the end-beneficiaries. If you factor in the “gas” fees of converting from cryptocurrency to the local fiat currency, does BCF still come out on top of traditional charities by a significant margin in terms of efficiency of giving?

Yeah! So currently, it’s 90 percent (90¢) for the end-beneficiary and 10 percent (10¢) for administrative fees to the local teams. In general, the administrative fees for our own team are covered by Binance, so nothing will be charged to the donors. Since the end-beneficiaries are the people in need, they don’t bear the transaction costs: our donors’ money is really going to them. For the suppliers, we work with them to decide how much it costs for a lunch. They will accept cryptocurrency as a payment, and they have the choice whether, and through which platform, to convert that cryptocurrency to local Uganda shilling (UGX). The conversion rate is the cost borne by local suppliers. They are the suppliers of food and get paid for providing food, so they bear the–minimal–conversion fees.

Switching up the direction. When it comes to “welfare” in the U.S., many people ask whether their taxes or donations are being used by the end-beneficiaries for the right reasons: Are they spending it on food or are they spending it on beer?

Does the blockchain technology allow you to see where the end-beneficiaries are actually deploying the resources?

Yes, exactly. For each beneficiary, we have their public wallet address. Everyone can see the transactions from their wallet; we’re able to see that those wallets are only paying our selected suppliers. We also have volunteers and colleagues on the ground making sure that the process is working smoothly. On the same line-of-thought, we actually just launched a sanitary pad project. We issued a new token called the “Pink Care Token” (PCAT). The token’s use is limited to the charity project and can only be used to redeem sanitary pads. The tokens aren’t tradable. So, we will convert a donor’s money to a PCAT and then give that token to the girls who are in need. That solves the issue of how to make sure that the funds are actually used for the right purposes, rather than being misused by the girls’ parents or someone else. We see crypto as a very good tool for tracking contributions and making sure that the impact of those contributions truly reaches the people in need.

Do you have any idea of how many sanitary pads you’ve been able to provide?

This project was only launched a couple of weeks ago, so we will deliver sanitary pads to 1,500 girls on Monday– this coming Monday! For the first phase in Uganda, we are going to cover 50,000 girls. And for the whole project, we’ve aligned 46 organizations, including industry players like Ripple and Quantstamp, to expand this project to more countries, more regions, and more girls. Most of these organizations are in the crypto industry, but some of them are traditional nonprofits or companies. Our end goal is to support more than a million girls, but we are still in the process of identifying where the needs are and how the process should work. 

Essentially, the idea is to link one token with its real value. We call it a “value-stable token.” Even now that we have stablecoins, those stablecoins are linked to a fiat like the U.S. dollar. But we see that in the local context, especially for these school girls in need, end-beneficiaries don’t care about the dollar amount of what you’re giving; they care most about the goods and the support they’re receiving. Currently, one token is equivalent to a real value of one year’s supply of sanitary pads. This is also important from the donors’ side, because it’s easy for them to understand how many girls they are supporting, and the girls’ side, because it’s easy for them to exchange that token for the goods they need.

So, a certain number of digital tokens will be delegated to these girls corresponding to a certain number of sanitary pads. Do you have a read on how many sanitary pads will actually, physically be received from exchanging the PCAT tokens?

Not yet, since we just launched the project, and the first delivery will happen on Monday. Among several options, we went with a local Ugandan supplier which produces environmentally friendly, reusable pads. Since we’re still testing our model, we’ll actually bring the suppliers to school for our first delivery, that way the delivery will still happen in person.

Let’s talk Yale briefly! From your experience, how would you grade the Yale School of Management (SOM) on providing students with exposure to cryptocurrency and blockchain technologies?

Yeah, I remember the first blockchain session I went to was at SOM, hosted by our FinTech group, which brought in a speaker. That’s where I started to learn a little about the space. Then Tsai City, and the Center for Business and Environment at Yale (CBEY) at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES), organized some “Blockchain for Social Impact” sessions.

I also started gaining more exposure to blockchain and its uses in the social impact sector through student workshops. I wasn’t thinking about it at the time, but I do think SOM offers professional exposure! I just had a personal interest, but those sessions definitely improved my understanding of the technology and its implications. Because of that exposure, I felt more prepared to work in the space when I got the chance to work for BCF. After some research into the foundation, I decided to join.

That’s amazing! Do you think that student-led initiatives at Yale are enough, or do you think Yale, as an institution, should be doing more to educate its students about crypto/blockchain given the technology’s potential?

I felt that those student-led efforts were actually more approachable because they were voluntary, and I wasn’t necessarily interested in blockchain at the time. If the sessions were a course instead, I probably wouldn’t have taken it. [laughing] So for people like me, those student-led initiatives are great because people will discuss more freely, and we get exposure to guest speakers.

That being said, I can hear people who wish there were more faculty- or Yale-led efforts, that way students would get to know the technology better. Of course, I don’t think Yale is a very technology-focused school; there’s not even a very strong focus on other technologies like artificial intelligence or Internet of Things. That’s my opinion. So yes, Yale could do more, but it probably depends on the school. If you’re going to make this into a school thing, you’d need strong faculty to support it as well. I do think Tsai City and other school-led organizations are really trying to lead this process, and trying to get more people to understand the technology. For me, I’m pretty satisfied with what is currently offered.

Last question. Anything you want to add? Anything you want people to know?

Yeah! As I mentioned, I think from my organization’s point of view, and also from what I very strongly believe to be true, many people outside of crypto and blockchain have very negative views about the world of crypto. They think it’s just a world of scammers who are only making money for themselves. For some part, that might be true. Many people in this industry are only chasing profits and/or just speculating on the price of cryptocurrencies. But there are many people like us, at BCF, who truly want to see the industry grow and reach mass adoption. 

Currently, there’s only a small number of people who have adopted crypto, and that’s because they’re doing crypto-related work or are interested in cryptocurrency. For the blockchain industry to aspire, we need to think about how this technology can be beneficial,  not only to people at the top of the pyramid, but also to people across the pyramid, and especially to those at the bottom of the pyramid.

We see that getting people at the bottom involved, getting them to think about what the technology can do for them, is actually good for the development of the whole industry. We’re trying to understand the potential value that crypto can bring to those at the bottom. That’s more of a sustainable way of seeing the long-term development of the industry and the technology.