5 Questions with Sheldon Himelfarb, PeaceTech Lab CEO

In our “5 Questions” series, we ask partners in the AFTS ecosystem to share about their work and unique perspective on fintech. This “5 Questions” interview is with PeaceTech Lab CEO Sheldon Himelfarb.

What is the objective of PeaceTech Lab?

Our mantra at PeaceTech Lab is “we put the right tools in the right hands to counter violence and build peace.” We do this by leveraging low-cost, easy-to-use tech in partnership with the people best positioned to make a difference: local activists, peacebuilders, and NGOs in some of the most violent places on earth.

Today, conflict is the reason for nearly all of the 68 million displaced people worldwide. Last year alone saw a record 15 million refugees flee their homes and over 9,000 lives lost to terrorist attacks. Low estimates put the cost of violence at more than $14 trillion per year, a number that is expected to increase significantly as displacement from climate change and resource scarcity worsens.

I’m proud that in five years as an independent nonprofit, we’ve been able to bring together engineers and activists, MBAs and conflict experts, social scientists, data scientists, and other innovators to help develop solutions to these intractable problems.

What is your role at PeaceTech Lab? How did you get involved with the organization?

In 2008, the U.S. Institute of Peace noticed that in every conflict situation around the world, there were people using the power of tech and social media to spread and amplify violence. As a result, USIP offered me the opportunity to lead a “Center of Innovation” that would study in earnest how the same tech, media, and data being used for harm could be used for peace.

In 2014, USIP made the courageous decision to spin out their “Center of Innovation” to what is now known as PeaceTech Lab, an independent nonprofit with its own expert staff and board of directors. 

I have been privileged to serve as CEO of PeaceTech Lab these past five years. One of the most exciting things about becoming our own nonprofit is that it has allowed us to work with a variety of partners including corporations like  Amazon Web Services, which fully funded a tech training workshop for refugees in Kakuma refugee camp in Uganda, Orange Telecom, which has supported our work helping NGOs counter violent extremism in Niger, and ChannelsTV, one of Africa’s largest independent news networks, whose Chairman John Momoh serves on our Board of Directors, and with whom we’ve done journalistic trainings on countering hate speech and fake news. 

What tools does PeaceTech Lab use to accomplish its work?

PeaceTech Lab’s programs begin at the local level, where week-long PeaceTech Exchanges (PTX) connect civil society organizations, technologists, and governments to solve complex problems using simple, low-cost tools. PTX participants with promising ideas are awarded micro-grants to further develop their projects. For peacetech entrepreneurs with more advanced business models and proven success, we offer mentorship, training, and an opportunity to pitch high-level investors through our PeaceTech Accelerator program based at our headquarters here in Washington, D.C.

Media also plays a key role in amplifying peacebuilding efforts by providing a platform for youth and other underserved voices. Programs like radio drama “Sawa Shabab” in South Sudan and “Hirka Nabadda” in Somalia combine education and entertainment to engage citizens around topics like coexistence, national identity, gender equality, and youth empowerment. 

The arrival of social media, satellites, and smartphones in fragile countries marks an unprecedented opportunity to do better, earlier warnings of conflict from an increasing array of data sources. In countries in Africa and the Middle East, including Yemen, Cameroon, and South Sudan, PeaceTech Lab leverages the expertise of local teams and social media analysis to understand how online hate speech can lead to radicalization and violence.

How do you see PeaceTech Lab’s work intersecting with the growth of the financial technology sector? 

As the peacetech and fintech fields grow, one thing I think we both have to fight is the stigma around “who creates and uses tech.” People are often surprised when I tell them that we have been in refugee camps that have faster internet speeds than the ones at home, or that I was working with journalists in Iraq to combat fake news on Facebook years before the issue ever took hold in the U.S.

Similarly, you have people who can’t imagine how farmers in Africa could use blockchain or cryptocurrencies in their work, and yet, the fintech entrepreneurs closest to these farmers are designing high tech solutions that rival anything coming out of Silicon Valley. 

You also have places like Lagos, Nigeria — one of the most crime and violence-prone cities on the planet — ranking as Africa’s most valuable startup ecosystem, thanks largely to the fintech revolution. This places a positive, international spotlight on an area more often recognized for what is going wrong than what is going right. It is an exciting new direction, but one that needs to be matched in terms of “peace gains” to make sure these trends continue.

What are some specific fintech developments on the African continent that you are paying attention to as potential catalysts for PeaceTech Lab’s work?

Unemployment, corruption, resource scarcity — these are all problems we know can lead to conflict when left unaddressed. These are also the very issues that I think fintech shows the greatest promise for solving, and Africa is certainly the place to watch. It’s remarkable how in many places, the idea of traditional banking and financing has been “leap-frogged” by mobile apps and cryptocurrencies. That’s why we’ve made a concerted effort to use African-founded platforms in our work around the world.

For instance, the mobile money app M-pesa, which was first created by Vodaphone for use in Kenya and Tanzania, has been a staple of our training sessions to counter corruption in countries like Afghanistan, where people often see large amounts of their paychecks disappear due to “middle men.”

Supply chains are another area where we’re seeing amazing innovation coming out of the continent. Annona (based in Kenya) and Jetstream Africa (based in Ghana) are two startups who participated in our PeaceTech Accelerator and who are using tech to tackle pain points in the logistics/supply chain field in order to better serve African producers. The founder of a third company from our Accelerator, Agromovil, was inspired to tackle the problem of transportation when he met farmers in Nigeria who had no reliable way of getting their goods to market. 

Finally, CovenWorks, a Nigerian-based startup, is helping tackle unemployment by creating a web and video-based platform for technical job training, applications, and interviews. The founder, Olusola Amusan, was particularly concerned with at-risk youth who might be susceptible to joining groups like Boko Haram. His startup is an incredible example of how opening access to employment and financial markets is key in our work for peace.

These are just some of the companies we are excited to be working with right now, and we know there are many more on the rise. That’s why PeaceTech Lab recently teamed up with the award-winning podcast, Global Startup Movement, which highlights new tech from around the world. One recent podcast guest, Akin Sawyerr, shared how the increase of cryptocurrency users in Africa led him to create his company RocRemit, a blockchain remittance company fostering transparency and good governance. RocRemit is the kind of company on the cutting edge of what’s possible in Africa, and we look forward to sharing many similar peacetech/fintech stories in the future through the podcast!

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