Jonathan Fennell recently spoke to BlockLeaders about his involvement with the Government Blockchain Association and Genesis Block Africa, how he helps to keep Zimbabwean women fit, and how blockchain technology can help the disadvantaged in his country and elsewhere.
The notion of fairness is not particularly widespread among Zimbabweans, who regularly see the Government pilfering resources earmarked for the good of others.
Distrust and open disdain for the political class is rife in the African country, as successive popular elections change little but the faces of those in charge.
The roots of this dynamic are now deeply entrenched in the country’s fabric, and this leads to ongoing civil unrest.
Yet, there are glimmers of hope for Zimbabwe and also for those countries in similar situations, through the adoption of blockchain technology to promote fairness and reinstate trust.
Jonathan Fennell finds himself at the leading edge of the blockchain movement in Zimbabwe.
“I first heard about Bitcoin around 2010, while looking at different investment options. I didn’t particularly have any faith in Bitcoin at the time, so I made an investment in silver instead. Fast forward to 3 or 4 years ago, a friend of mine came to me and said that he had purchased some Bitcoin mining equipment. Which is where I began my journey, helping him set it up, and I stayed within the mining environment for about a month before quickly moving into trading crypto. This is when I sold up shares in a few of my companies, the bug had got me. Spending days and nights, often not sleeping for over 48 hours at a time, (much to my wife’s disdain). Scrutinising hundreds upon hundreds of whitepapers, ‘investing’ in projects, chasing the “pumps””
“I did relatively well in the crypto trading environment, however, I have always been more business oriented. The trading wasn’t really fulfilling that passion for business, so I decided to become more involved with actual projects, advising on a few officially and unofficially whilst dreaming up my own”
“I was deeply entrenched in a capitalistic, self-serving mentality at the time when it hit me whilst thinking about what’s happening in Africa, my home, in terms of the new face of ‘colonization’, which is happening today and how deeply, fundamentally flawed all of our systems are.”
It is worth elaborating on the colonization issue. Zimbabwe (then known as Rhodesia) became a colony of the British Empire back in 1923 and remained so until the country gained its independence in 1980. The colonized Zimbabwe saw a stark contrast between the predominantly white settlers, who quickly established themselves in the more affluent class, and the indigenous -mostly black- population. This segregation would ultimately lead to violent uprisings, and to a social divide with far-reaching repercussions that still resonate today.
Nevertheless, today’s modern colonialism is not so much marked by social and class division, but rather to the appropriation or exploitation of a country’s resources by another country.
This is a key issue which has led directly to social unrest in Zimbabwe and elsewhere in Africa time and time again. So how can blockchain be a part of the solution?
“It was like a slap in the face when it hit me. It was about two years ago when I had the realization of how I believe we could truly change the way the world works. Ever since then, we have been building a variety of projects across different industries and sectors across Africa, with the vision of creating a cohesive whole built on blockchain technology driven by a decentralized, semi-autonomous governance system which we hope to become completely autonomous eventually.”
The African continent is somewhat of a bittersweet contradiction. From a rich history and culture that spans millennia, to some of the most beautiful natural locations in the world, Africa boasts of an expansive environment somewhat marred by the inefficient or downright corrupt ruling elites.
UK-born Jonathan is well aware of such issues and hopes to address them through Genesis Block Africa and the projects being formed, joining and merging within it.
He said that “obviously, one of the key uses of blockchain is voting. A lot of manipulation happens in our presidential elections, for example. We have seen a lot of election rigging across Africa, (as does much of the world) so blockchain technology would be a game-changer in that aspect.”
“Needless to say, the problem is, those in power will attempt to block the adoption of these technologies because it often plays against them. So I don’t currently see any time in the near future when this particular blockchain use case may be put in place. For example, we began engaging with various Government representatives back in 2017 about a project for underlying technology that we could move our currency into. The problem was, they (the government individuals we were dealing with) wanted a kickback, so I immediately walked away from the deal despite them wishing for the proposed solution to go ahead. With all the international heat on Zimbabwe and crypto at the time, attempting to do anything of the sort (regardless of heat or not), would have destroyed trust in the project immediately. I felt deeply disheartened, so I decided that would be the last time I would be dealing with Government elements.”
“However, there are roundabout ways, and that’s what we are trying to achieve now.”
On heritage, and a future of mainstream blockchain reality
Though born in the rainy UK, Jonathan was raised in Zimbabwe. He has lived most of his life there, bar 6 years between the UK and the Netherlands.
Jonathan comes from a long and distinguished colonial background that goes back five generations, so he enjoys a rich cultural heritage that has opened his eyes to a lot of things. His father was British but raised in India, for example. The family history is rather interesting, and it goes like this.
The 60s would prove to be a momentous time for both Jonathan’s family and the country as a whole. The ZANU-PF party would be created in 1963, for instance, and Rhodesia would declare its independence from Great Britain two years later, thus ending long colonial strife.
And the 1960s meant a lot for Jonathan’s family too.
“My family comes from a long lineage of tea and coffee growers. When my father’s brother moved to what was then Rhodesia after attending Stoic in the UK, he started growing tea and coffee there. The business did well, so he invited his brother -my father- to join him. This would have been in the early 1960s.”
The end of the second decade of the 2000s is also proving to be a landmark time in Jonathan’s life, as he recently became a first-time father to a beautiful little girl.
So this life-changing event got me thinking about the future of that child in a world where blockchain has entered the mainstream.
Jonathan said that “the world as a whole is stuffed. There exists, these massive chasms of inequality, for example. The whole system is fundamentally flawed. I am afraid for my daughter, to be honest, and if we don’t do anything about this now, if we cannot find solutions to the problems we face, and if we cannot disrupt the entire system, not just the banks and financial institutions, the world my daughter and all of our children will live in will be too far gone to save”
“So this falls into what we’re trying to achieve with blockchain, which is the creation of a democratic, anonymous, meritocratic system of trust.”
“We’re building a number of projects, and if they all plugged into this system through blockchain, I truly believe that we can really change things.”
On the Government Blockchain Association and Genesis Block Africa
Jonathan is the President of the Government Blockchain Association (GBA) in Zimbabwe, which is a US-based, non-profit membership organization that consists of individuals and organizations that are interested in promoting blockchain related solutions to government requirements.
And he’s also the founder of Genesis Block Africa (GBA), which aims at the creation of a distributed ledger solution through blockchain.
He explains his role.
“So we’re creating a number of different businesses, for a number of different industries, sectors, etc. It’s still early days though, but we have people and organisations from 25 different African countries working on this enterprise. GBA is sort of a business aggregation/knowledge sharing platform built into a centralized system which will feature a self-liquidating trust. The idea is to eventually turn it into a DAO.”
On fitness and blockchain
One of the things that stands out in Jonathan’s altogether impressive resume is Curves, a chain of fitness centers located in Zimbabwe.
It struck me that blockchain and fitness regimes make for unusual bedfellows, so I wanted to learn more.
“(laughs) Actually, my wife and I co-own the Curves franchise for Zimbabwe. The whole thing comes from my wife really, she was employed by Curves in the past, and the previous owner of the Zimbabwean franchise decided to sell”.
“The business was running at a loss at the time, but we have managed to turn it around substantially, well, that is until our recent ‘de-dollarisation’.”
The trouble with Zimbabwe is that its society is marred by deep inequalities, for a variety of reasons. From the colonial aspect to political issues, etc. So the question is, how a business like a fitness center can thrive in such an environment, where many people would struggle to acquire the fundamental means to live.
“Curves has garnered a good reputation over the years. We have always maintained fair prices when our competitors have hiked theirs dramatically, so we were able to build a lot of loyalty as well as attract new members whom could no longer afford to attend other fitness centers. Also, as a business, you sometimes need to make concessions, so some long-standing members who may be struggling at a particular time would be able to pay later or will work a barter trade system with them.”
Entrepreneurship means something different for everyone. Jonathan would fall into the entrepreneurial category, given his professional trajectory, so I was keen on finding out more about his view on entrepreneurship.
“As long as I can make a better, fairer, and more balanced world for our children, that’s all I really care about anymore.”
One thing I always try to find out is what motivates people to do what they do and though answers naturally vary from individual to individual, the desire to make a significant change features in one way or another.
“Is it (the project) going to have a meaningful impact on the world? If it’s not going to do that, I’m not interested. I just won’t have the passion to get involved.”
But what is the definition of meaningful impact?
“Something that will fix a deep flaw in the world, for example, how much of the world operates on a ‘who you know’ basis as opposed to an individual’s actual contributions to society. This should far outweigh those of social standing, wealth, whose son you are, what colour your skin is, etc.”