5 lessons from leading a blockchain social innovation project

Image credit: Meridia

Time has moved fast. It’s been 14 months since l left my consulting life at KPMG to move to a purpose-driven, tech start-up called Provenance. I was attracted by the opportunity to lead a multilateral innovation project called Trado that had an amazing vision and potential for massive impact –working with companies such as Unilever and Sainsbury’s. These are the lessons I learnt:

1. Being in a start-up and working with corporates requires patience and time

Having spent a large part of my career working either in corporates such as GSK or for them as a management consultant, I appreciated decision making can take time and innovation is difficult. This was no exception. Just to get the project signed off took nearly two years and during the project I worked with over fifty employees from Unilever alone.  On balance, it was definitely worth it (the learnings and experience were invaluable) – but as a start-up with limited time and resource, this is an ‘opportunity cost’ every start-up should be prepared to pay.

2. Innovation relies on leaders taking big visions for a bigger purpose

Trado was devised after a dinner in Buckingham Palace when a number of ‘influential thought leaders’, from Prince Charles to the Chief Marketing Officer of Unilever, came together. After speaking to Jessi Baker, the founder of Provenance, on potential use cases of blockchain in transparency, they decided to test how it could increase smallholder living incomes. People like me then had to work out the ‘how’.  For any big innovation project, you need leaders with big visions, open minds to relatively untested technologies (such as blockchain) and a passion –in this case, around sustainability. If you purely took the short-term ROI view from a project like this for an organisation, it would never be signed off. We need more Prince Charles, Keith Weeds and Jessi Bakers of this world who dream big and are prepared to take a risk for the much bigger reward.

3. The problems of smallholders’ living incomes are huge – much larger than I as a Western consumer ever realised 

Ignorantly, in my Western bubble, I never realised:

  • How many smallholders there are in the world (circa 500 million globally)
  • Their significant role in supply chains. They’re stated as being responsible for 70% of agri-food production
  • How poorly paid they are – meaning they are trapped in a cycle of poverty.  So when you buy that $2 dollar ice-cream or $3 dollar coffee – accept you’ve just handed over more than a typical smallholder earns in a day…

4. We can achieve far more by being open to learning from partners

There was a really diverse group of members in the project – from Cambridge University to banks, such as Barclay’s, as well as corporates.  The most impressive people I dealt with, though, were people such as Daisy from IDH who’s positivity and smile in Malawi always inspired me to focus on impact; the start-up Meridia who mapped out smallholder land-rights; Heleen from the Ethical Tea Partnership, whose intimate knowledge taught us about smallholders’ lives; also,people like Erwin and Roni from Unilever who spoke with passion and spent hours on the phone educating us on the supply chains and why purpose matters for them. 

For every visionary leader, you need the people that make it happen  – and these were inspirational to me.

5. We had a successful pilot but ultimately we failed to move the dial

This is probably the hardest lesson to admit, but maybe the most important.  The project set out to see if we could make a positive change in sustainability.  Yes, we proved that there is a new way of doing things. Yes, we re-directed money back to sustainability initiatives and scaled-up the numbers look positive (e.g. the outcome could be thousands of more smallholders being educated). 

However, is a change in living income of 3% good enough for a smallholder?  No, it needs to be radically more.

In summary

Did blockchain solve sustainability?  Absolutely not. It increased transparency, accountability and incentives well.  Did we do something which can be immediately scaled? No, more research should be done.

What I would like to think, however, is that the opportunity given to us by those visionaries in Buckingham Palace shone a light on new possibilities for the future.  Namely that, when you drink your tea, you know that the smallholder who plucked the tea leaves was fairly paid, financing rates will be based on sustainability data (as, ultimately, sustainable supply chains will be the most resilient and profitable), that transparency will drive accountability which will incentivise more projects like this one, and that bit by bit – social innovation will become the norm.

If you are interested in learning more, agree or disagree with the points above, please get in touch and do leave comments below. 

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