The Afghan sisters using blockchain and AI to transform girls’ lives

Elaha Mahboob, an Afghan tech entrepreneur and philanthropist in her early twenties, is on her way to a rural school outside Herat, in northern Afghanistan, when her driver points out two men on a motorbike who have been following them, turn after turn.

There’s currently not a single computer at the school she’s travelling to, but Elaha is there to arrange IT classes for the girls, covering the basics, like how to sign up for Facebook, as well as the not-so-basic, like how to buy and sell digital currencies like Bitcoin — and all the way up to advanced programming. But she knows that the local shura – or council of elders – aren’t happy with the initiative, even though she has offered to extend the same lessons to boys.

Afghanistan might be the last place that comes to mind when Bitcoin is mentioned. But Bitcoin has helped Afghan schoolgirls overcome very real obstacles, giving us a glimpse at how these cryptocurrencies — and, perhaps even more importantly, the blockchain technology underpinning them — have the power to transform the world. “Blockchain could open up access to the global economic system just like the Internet opened up access to knowledge,” says Accenture Managing Director Graham Richter, who leads the Blockchain practice in the UK and Ireland.

As Elaha approaches the school, the motorbike is still close behind her car. With no one else for miles around, her driver decides to turn around and bolt back towards the city. “That’s when they fired on our car,” Elaha says.

Access to technology changed the lives of Elaha and her older sister Roya, who both studied computer science at Herat University after taking computer classes through the UN Development Programme. Roya went on to become the country’s first tech CEO after she co-founded Afghan Citadel Software in 2010 with Elaha and two other colleagues.

Now, the sisters are determined to hand the same power to the next generation of girls growing up in a patriarchal culture. With the profits from their software start-up, they founded an NGO called Digital Citizen Fund, which went on to launch computer-science classes for girls in 11 schools and two standalone IT centres in Afghanistan.

More recently, Roya created a robotics team made up of six Afghan girls in their mid-teens, who flew to Washington, D.C. in July 2017 to compete in the FIRST Global robotics challenge, against thousands of other high-schoolers from around the world. By the time they arrived at the competition — after receiving a special exemption from a U.S. travel ban — the girls were celebrities. The competition organisers gave them a special award for courage, and the girls went on to meet global leaders including Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.

None of this progress happened without a fight — Elaha describes the attempt on her life outside the Afghan school as one example of the opposition she and her sister have faced as they fight for girls’ education. Before that, she says, the sisters had received threats from local conservatives, including Taliban members, but from that point onwards, “they really made a huge problem for us. We couldn’t start the programme in that school because it was very dangerous.”

“This was one of the reasons I left Afghanistan. But we never thought we’d ‘shut down’ our programmes. We never will — even if they give us other problems, because we believe we can really make a change for these girls, and we have to do that. We never want to stop our mission.”

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