Motivated by the desire to revolutionize national government elections on the African continent – and to show the students of African Leadership Academy how the system works, African Blockchain Initiative used the network to run ALA’s recent Student Government elections. Tania Twinoburyo chatted to co-founders Amine Soufaih and Cyril Michino about their motivations and aspirations, and the impact of the first decentralised elections in Africa.
Elections this year were particularly interesting because we used a different method for voting: the African Blockchain Initiative (ABI) voting system a decentralized system which means that no one has access to the results – not even the builders of the website. This system was created by ABI founders: Chief Executive Officer, Cyril Michino (Year 2, Kenya); Chief Operating Officer, Amine Soufaih (Year 2, Morocco); Chief Technology Officer, Gibson Munene Njine (Year 1, Kenya); and Lead Software Developer, Gerry Migwi (Year 1, Kenya).
Blockchain, explains Cyril, basically a decentralised network: “The internet is most centralised. That means all data goes down to a central point; if you’re on YouTube, all those videos are being managed by one central party. If you’re on google or any social media platform, all that information and content you have access to is going to a central party. The problem with this is that power is being centralised to one party – its’ not just on the internet, it’s in banking, it’s everywhere.”
Power to the people
The beauty of Blockchain, he adds, is technology that removes the power from one centralised point to making it accessible to all. “That’s why, when you talk about blockchain you talk about Trust, Transparency – because everyone gets acces to everything –Accountability and Consensus; each and every person has a voice, and you get to have consensus on how to run things in a particular way.”
ALA’s Student Government elections proved the perfect platform to implement Blockchain, says Cyril, who believes that you should “Always leverage your sphere of influence”. “Cryptocurrencies are just a small part of the part to the whole blockchain puzzle piece,” he explains. “Blockchain can transform many things. Our big inspiration was to try to show that blockchain has other applications, other than just the bitware, because that’s what most people are know about it.”
Using the system helped ABI show how the technology worked. “We really wanted to find ways on how to implement Blockchain in the school, because a lot of people have challenged us, saying that ‘this technology may be promising and it looks cool – but how can we actually make sure it is implemented in the school, otherwise there is no no impact?’,” explains Amine.
“We also used to think Blockchain is only used in big projects, and to actually use the technology, we have to think big,” says Amine. “But we really wanted to see how this technology works on a small scale, before going big. If you really want to convince your country to use Blockchain in elections, a simple proposal would be less likely to succeed because you don’t have any proof that this has worked, and no country will actually really trust the system if it has not been used before. So we thought of how we could simulate the experience within ALA, with Student Government. And if it succeeds, it would have huge potential and we could probably convince schools and universities to implement it in their own student government and, moving forward, to reach national elections.”
That, ultimately is ABI’s strongest motivation and inspiration. With all except one of the members being Kenyan, the country’s recent national elections, which was eventually nullified due to questions of accountablity and a lack of transparency, is the example they cite for implementing a secure, transparent voting system on the continent.
The biggest challenge for Africa is transparency. By using blockchain we want to give power to the people; to decentralise the power that the government can have, yet at the same time keeping it secure because everyone has access to the system, but no one has control.’
“The ultimate dream is to see presidential elections on Blockchain – that’s where you have far higher impact and where there is far more is at stake,” notes Cyril. “We were trying to see if this system could be modelled, starting on a compass, to start revolutionising elections on the continent. The biggest challenge for Africa is transparency. By using blockchain we want to give power to the people; to decentralise the power that the government can have, yet at the same time keeping it secure because everyone has access to the system, but no one has control.”
ALA’s student government elections was a small yet significant step in that direction, says Amine. “It played a role in lessening central power and reducing the role of the Electoral Student Council (ESC), who could oversee the process but not affect it any way. So the impact is much less than, say, a president who is being priviledge by an electoral body in a specific country, where it has much more impact on millions and millions of people. So in this simulation the impact may be limited, but it’s a very important first step for us.”
How it Works
The fact that ALA already had a technological voting system in place only made it easier, they say, as they simply needed to improve on the tech that was already there. “The language we use is called Solidity – this is the main coding language used in Blockchain,” explains Amine. “We wrote a Smart Contract that takes into consideration many conditions, and makes it able it voters to actually vote – information is kept confidential, no central party has access.”
The system runs automatically; it opened elections at 7am and closed at 6pm, then immediately released the results. Everyone received the results at the same time: from candidates to the ESC, ABI and student community.
While voting is open, no one can tamper with the system, says Cyril: “Using Blockchain, whenever somone votes, once that vote is in the system it can never be changed – no person in the middle can change it; nobody has power over anything.”
It certainly seems the answer to Africa’s challenge of transparency. “But what if the system crashes?” I asked. “Unlike central techology, where once you attack that server everything goes down, Blockchain saves information in every single ledger in the system,” says Cyril. Like Bitcoin, downloading the application means your computer has to download every single transaction, he explains, adding that this not only makes it hard to attack but, if one system is harmed, the information is readily available on all the others. “It’s also easy to know which one is corrupt and take it off the system – and It’s hard for anyone to crash a million system at the same time,” adds Cyril.
Up next next for ABI is taking their voting system to schools and institutions across Africa – many who have already expressed interest in this transformative initiative – and are determined to make it into national elections. “We know that not everyone has access to the internet, but they can have access to the Blockchain system at polling centres, where everyone can then cast their vote,” says Cyril. “Whether this can be actualized within the next five or 10 years, remains to be seen, but it’s something we will definitely be pursuing in our Blockchain endeavours throughout our whole life.