Ashish Gadnis is CEO of BanQu, a blockchain company working to make supply chains transparent and give access to proof for 100 million people so they can escape from poverty.
How easily could you prove that you are, indeed, you? For most of you, it would be no sweat. In fact, you've probably done it hundreds of times. As a result, you can do things like get a bank account, rent a car, or buy an apartment.
In much of the world, proof is harder to come by. Many people don't have a way to prove things like their income or identity. And yet companies that rely on these workers claim to have sustainable supply chains while leaving behind the people who make them possible.
My guest, Ashish Gadnis, runs BanQu, a blockchain company working to make supply chains transparent and give access to proof for 100 million people so they can escape from poverty.
About Our Guest
Ashish Gadnis is the co-founder of BanQu, the first ever blockchain supply chain and economic identity platform for refugees and people in extreme poverty.
Growing up in poverty in Bombay, Ashish never forgot how it felt to stand in food lines to survive. He went on to build a successful career as a serial entrepreneur, serving as founder and CEO of multiple technology startups. In 2012, he sold his last tech company to a multi-billion-dollar consulting firm and soon after, BanQu was born.
In addition to his role at BanQu, Ashish is also a senior strategic advisor to the United Nations on the Sustainable Development Goals 2030 agenda.
(Adapted from https://sustainablebrands.com/is/ashish-gadnis)
Ashish's TEDx Talk, "Do You Know the Farmer?": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PBKOzJPazNM
Follow Ashish on Twitter: https://twitter.com/agadnis
Follow Ashish on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/ashishgadnis/
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[00:00:00] Ashish: And when I landed up in Bogota, I was just like, "Wow, I have my own toilet." You know, if you've not had that freedom, most people in America can't relate to this. But for me it was like this aha moment. I'm like, ah, that's what freedom feels like.
[00:00:14] Aaron - Narration: Hi, I'm Aaron Miller. And this is How to Help, a podcast about having a life and career with meaning, integrity, and impact. This is season two, episode seven: Expanding Access to Proof.
[00:00:32] This episode of How to Help is sponsored by Merit Leadership, home of The Business Ethics Field Guide.
[00:00:40] Before we begin, I just want to say thanks to all of you who are listening. The other day, someone shared this lovely compliment. They said, quote, "By the way, I loved the podcast episode with Walter Shaub. Definitely my new favorite episode. I think I've shared it with a half a dozen people already." You know, knowing that you enjoy the show and that you take the time to share it, it just means the world to me. So thank you for listening. Thank you for leaving reviews. And thank you especially for sharing the podcast.
[00:01:13] How easily could you prove that you are, indeed, you? For most of you, I think it would be no sweat. In fact, you've probably done it hundreds of times. You'd show me your driver's license or maybe your passport, and it's as simple as that. Other than waiting in line, maybe paying a fee or taking a test, you didn't have to do too much for this incredibly useful little card.
[00:01:40] Many of us are swimming in proof we didn't have to work to earn. We get a birth certificate just for being born. The same goes for a social security card if you're in the United States. As we get older, if we don't want to take the test for a driver's license, we can still get a government-issued photo ID just by showing someone a few utility bills and that same birth certificate that we got for free.
[00:02:07] When you want to open a bank account, a government-issued ID is pretty much all you need. You can then call the bank whenever you want and do business over the phone just as long as you can share something simple like part of your Social Security number and the name of your childhood pet. Or you can just log in on the web with your password. Thanks to programmers and encryption, you have all the proof you need.
[00:02:32] Now think of what all this proof does for you, because it does a lot. You can get a job more easily because of it, or rent an apartment. Quick and simple access to proof makes it easier to get on a plane, to borrow money from a bank, or to rent a car.
[00:02:50] Proof, if you think about it, is like grease that makes the gears of the economy turn more freely and it makes your life so much easier.
[00:03:02] Like most things we have in abundance, it's easy to take proof for granted. In much of the world, proof is much harder to come by. The government agencies that provided are slow or the process is expensive. You might be at the whim of people who cancel appointments on you or give preference to people with more money. And you might just not have a way to prove what's being asked for, like your income. My guest this week, Ashish Gadnis, has two stories that powerfully illustrate this difference.
[00:03:39] Ashish: When I came to the US I had $240, but at the end of the first week, I was able to open a bank account.
[00:03:46] There's a couple moments in life, at least for me, that have really shaped my understanding and I'm still learning. But it was a shock. It was a shock because you know, here I was a kid with nothing, but I was able to open a bank account because I was able to show my employment letter. I was able to show a copy of my passport and I was able to show that I had a pay stub, right?
[00:04:10] And I was able to get a bank account, and that was kind of this massively shocking aha moment for me because I didn't kind of exist up until that point. If you fast forward, and this might seem disjointed because I have adhd, but I'll make sense in a second here.
[00:04:25] But this happened in 1994 and 2014, you know, 20 years later, almost to the same date, I was retired. I sold my last startup. I'd spent a couple years in and out of the DRC in Congo. And the women farmers that I was volunteering with as a part of the USAID program wanted to open a bank account, right? And, and a lot of people have heard the stories that the local bank refused to, to let that mama farmer open a bank account.
[00:04:56] And 20 years apart, right? Two incidences, same incident, almost extremely different outcomes, right? So I got a bank account and there was no issue. I got it in 1994, began a great career, made money, blah, blah, blah.
[00:05:13] Fast forward, here's this mama farmer who was not able to open a bank account because she couldn't prove her harvest information. She could not prove the land that she was using. She couldn't prove that she was a farmer for the last 15, 20 years, and the horrors of, you know, death and rape and violence that she had seen, yet the bank said no.
[00:05:38] And, you know, I got in an argument and the guy finally said, look, I can't bank her, but I'll bank you. Right? That's where the name comes from. And that is kind of the bookends of, if you see, you know, where kind of my life bounced around is here's 1994, where, you know, even though I'm not white, I got a bank account. Right. Walked in. Got it. And fast forward in, in, in 2014, a woman who worked so hard is not bankable.
[00:06:05] And, and you don't even have to think about 2014. This happened to me two weeks ago. I was in Tanzania with the Maasai farmers in a place called Monduli, about a hundred kilometers south of um, Kilimanjaro. And the local banking system doesn't let them open a bank account without charging a 16% interest rate on a loan.
[00:06:29] Forget 1994, forget 2014. This is 2022 October of this year where smallholder farmers, especially women, are still refused a bank account even though they do the most important work in our supply chains, which is grow our crops. The hardest working people in our global supply chain are our farmers, our workers, our waste pickers, our miners, yet they are invisible, unbanked, and cannot prove their existence.
[00:07:02] Yet you and I, you know, we are claiming sustainability. We're claiming this climate, romance, we're claiming suddenly this ethical radar that we have trying to save the planet. But I'm like, but wait a minute, you know that mother in Zambia and Uganda and Tanzania is still unbanked .
[00:07:23] Aaron - Narration: Ashish is the CEO of BanQu, spelled B-A-N-Q-U. It's a blockchain company helping bring the power of proof to those who need it most, and it does this by adding transparency and simplicity to everyone in a supply chain. From the cocoa farmer in Ivory Coast to the waste picker who's recycling your bottle of chocolate milk. With BanQu, the mama farmer whom Ashish mentioned can finally have proof of the success of her business. BanQu is replacing a broken system where what proof there is can be easily destroyed.
[00:08:01] Ashish: In 2019, you know, when we were like growing crazy and everything, we were just starting to roll out BanQu for barley farmers. And we hadn't yet gone to this one mama farmer, Agnes, her name was. And we kind of overheard a conversation where the previous month she had been given a paper receipt because they didn't have cash.
[00:08:20] So she went home. By the time she got home, it rained, the receipt disintegrated. Think about that. It disintegrated. So she comes, four days--I'm not making it up--four days she waited for her money because the receipt had disintegrated. Now, fast forward, right? She is on BanQu today. She sells it.
[00:08:43] But the point I'm trying to make is that that is the power of restoring their rights. It's not even pity. It's not even help. It's just they, we owe the mother a receipt, right? Yeah. And that's what blockchain does.
[00:08:57] Aaron - Narration: Now the mere mention of the word "blockchain" might make your eyes glaze over like most technical mumbo jumbo. Or instead it makes you think of the scams that are perpetrated by Miami Crypto Bros who brag about their bored Ape Yacht Club NFT.
[00:09:13] If you don't already know how blockchain works, then I am not the right person to explain the technical details. What I can say is that at its core, blockchain is a technology that allows computers run by different people to all have verified copies of the same data. Because of how it works, it's impossible to make changes to the data without every other computer knowing what changed and how. In BanQu's case, blockchain becomes a transparent way of documenting the sale of things like cotton and cocoa.
[00:09:48] Ashish: So now put yourselves in the shoes of that farmer who has been growing cotton for the last 10 years, or coffee or cacao, or picking up the bottles and selling it in this unfortunate dance of buyer and seller, but cannot prove anything. You are never gonna break that cycle, right? And this is where the solution matters of blockchain, right?
[00:10:11] So in the non-blockchain world, when that--staying with cotton, right--when that bag of cotton changed hands, the person who buys it may have an Excel spreadsheet, may have a smartphone, may have a database. In that example, it's a one-sided transaction. All the data goes into a repository, Excel, or whatever, right?
[00:10:38] But that farmer did not have any say in terms of what was recorded on that centralized system. So that's the current world we live in, which is what I call the world of data dictatorship, right? Where somebody who owns the data controls, the data, dictates the data. And then if you are in that base of the pyramid when it comes to poverty, you don't have a say.
[00:11:05] Blockchain. What's the difference? The very basic premise of blockchain is that if two parties participate in one transaction, then both parties are owed a copy of the same transaction in a way that it cannot be changed. If the farmer sells a bag or a bushel of cotton, if I used blockchain, then a copy of that transaction of 40 kilos of bushel at 16% moisture and 400 kwacha, price quality and quantity. Both people should have a copy of the transaction in a way that nobody can dispute.
[00:11:49] And how do you do that? If I use blockchain, the mother has an SMS phone. And she's smart. She knows how to use SMS. What if, and this is kind of the premise of BanQu, right? What if we could deliver that same history through SMS, write it on blockchain so all parties have the same copy, but deliver it to her via SMS.
[00:12:10] If I can do that, then she can interact or react with it and say yes, no, or otherwise. And that for us was the aha moment. You know, when we started BanQu in 2016, we said, ah, why blockchain makes sense? Because for the first time, this farmer or this waste picker will be given their own copy of their data that they have always been owed for the last 300 years. And that same copy will then propagate all the way upstream so that nobody can deny it. It is extremely simple, yet extremely powerful, and never been done before. And that's the solution.
[00:13:00] Aaron - Narration: By now, you're probably wondering about Ashish himself. As is the case with my other guests, he has a remarkable personal story that brought him to this point.
[00:13:11] Born and raised in poverty, Ashish learned to code, worked around the world, built and sold multiple companies, and is now dedicated to spending the rest of his working years on this problem: helping 100 million people out of poverty. His story begins in Mumbai, India.
[00:13:32] Ashish: Growing up, uh, late sixties, early seventies, you know, we didn't have much. Right. You know, poverty was just what it was. Me and my brother, we broke up the week in terms of who got to stand in the ration line, and it wasn't, you know, it, we didn't know anything better, right? So I stood in last line for three days and my brother got the other three days, and it was for basic commodities, right? Wheat, rice, and oil. So we could eat.
[00:13:56] And it left this tug in my heart or a punch if, depending how you look at it, around poverty. And that kinda shaped my thinking at an early age. That was kind of like, someday I'm gonna get out. And then someday when I do get out, I wanna find a way for other people not to be a number standing in a ration line just to eat.
[00:14:19] Aaron - Narration: As a teenager, Ashish found that he had an interest and ability for software coding, something he shared with a lot of kids around that time. It was a skill that promised an escape from poverty.
[00:14:32] Ashish: You know, in those days you could learn programming and my dad said, you can beg or code. And you know, here I am. Pretty stereotypical, nothing, you know, smart about me. It just, everybody else had the same choices and I fell into that same bucket.
[00:14:47] Aaron - Interview: Learning coding and then sort of seeing the path, what was your vision like as you were first picking up this skill? I mean, what were you seeing ahead of yourself that way as you were learning how to code?
[00:14:56] Ashish: To be honest, nothing. You know, I'm lower than the doormat kind of guy, and no, I didn't have any vision, nothing grandiose.
[00:15:02] I was just like, I just don't wanna be poor. And you know, if the word on the street was, if you could code, um, you'll make money. And hopefully with coding you'll be sent overseas. So, you know, I was just like, oh, I wanna get out. So gonna code and that's it.
[00:15:21] Aaron - Narration: You might have noticed the way that Ashish hesitates taking credit for being especially smart or ambitious. He really doesn't see himself that way, as being smarter or better than any of those in his same circumstances. Mostly he sees himself and his path as fortunate.
[00:15:40] Ashish: It's a straightforward path. I think a lot of people, and I'll just speak for myself, right, give people like me a lot of credit, and I don't, because it's not, it's nothing special.
[00:15:48] If you were born instead of me in Mumbai, you would be in the same place. It has nothing to do with intelligence, in my humble opinion. So the path was simple, right? You, if you learn how you, if you're decent at programming, a good chance you'll get a scholarship to go to college, which I did. And when I finished my university, I was hired, you know, I was hired by Tata.
[00:16:09] Tata was all the rage. You know, they were the largest software offshore company in those days. I think they still are. I graduated with an engineering degree with software programming as one of my core skills, and next thing I know, I'm, you know, sitting in a basement and writing code, and in early nineties, got a passport and then landed up in Colombia as a coder?
[00:16:31] As an offshore coder, I didn't speak Spanish. I mean, it was nothing. You know, it was no slum dog stuff. It was just pretty basic. Everybody did the same thing and so did I.
[00:16:41] Aaron - Interview: Yeah. So Colombia, maybe you could tell what that was like going from India to Colombia.
[00:16:45] Ashish: That was a big one. Right? So that I think, you know, that, uh, had nothing to do with coding. I mean, honestly, that was kind of the first time I experienced freedom, right?
[00:16:52] I had my own toilet. I mean, you know, not to be crass or anything like that, but that's a, you know, it's a big thing. It's like, you know, I had to share a toilet growing up in India, and when I landed up in Bogota, I was just like, wow, I have my own toilet.
[00:17:04] You know, if you've not had that freedom, most people in America can't relate to this. For me, it was like this aha moment. I'm like, ah, that's what freedom feels like, right? To sit on a toilet seat and not be yelled at to vacate. It is freedom. That for me was this, oh, I am never leaving, right?
[00:17:20] Aaron - Interview: So, and when you say sharing a toilet, you don't mean with your family?
[00:17:23] Ashish: Oh, I'm not talking about, you know, like...now my kids have their own toilet. One human being per toilet. Right. This is America, which is insane. No, I'm talking about like other families. My grandmother used to live in a, you know, where you have like 16 other families, these are these little boxes or homes or whatever you want to call it.
[00:17:39] And then all the families have a common toilet. Well, it's like a public toilet, right? And that's a big difference, right? And, and for me, that kind of shaped kind of my thinking around freedom and my thinking around, uh...you can or cannot take for granted.
[00:17:57] I ask people like, what was their first experience of freedom, and most people can't answer it. I can. I can tell you the minute and the moment because I sat on a toilet seat and didn't get bothered. You know, I was 22 years old. So it's , you know, it's, it's what it is, right?
[00:18:15] Aaron - Narration: After working in Columbia for a few years, it was in 1994 that Ashish moved to the US to take a programming job in Boston, which then led to work in other parts of the country. And the timing was just right exactly as the internet boom began to take shape.
[00:18:34] Aaron - Interview: How did you pivot from just being a programmer, working for paycheck, to becoming a startup founder?
[00:18:41] Ashish: So again, nothing crazy. Pretty stereotypical, right? It was the late nineties, it's 96, 97. You know, internet was just coming to be, I wasn't poor anymore, but now I wanted to be rich.
[00:18:53] Right? So kind of the, you know, , the pride and greed, you know, kicks in, right? It's just, you know, we're all flawed. I'm probably more flawed than most human beings.
[00:19:02] And it was the right place at the right time. I took the leap. I knew there was a need for technology solutions that people were willing to pay a premium on. You know, developing a website, you could make 20, 30 grand. You know, today you can do it for free.
[00:19:17] And that's it, right? So again, I'm being, being very honest with you, right? I wish I could add a better story. It like, I'm just, I didn't have any this great aha moment. I'm just like, Hey man, you know, I can make some serious money and, and be my own boss.
[00:19:33] So I started a couple of companies got into the whole supply chain side of things, you know, that that's kind of where I spent most of my time in that period. 1994 through 2012 is kind of when I sold my last startup, and that was the, the ticket out of not just poverty, but you know, this is kind of where you start making money.
[00:19:57] Aaron - Narration: In my experience, successful startup founders also have plenty of failures. We don't often talk about these very much, so I made sure to ask Ashish about his. I anticipated a story or two about a business idea that fell apart, or that was too early for its time. But instead it prompted a story that tells about how Ashish came to the world of social impact. This experience almost derailed him entirely from his ambitions to do good.
[00:20:26] Ashish: It's interesting you asked about failure. One of my biggest failures was when the Haiti earthquake happened, and this has kind of shaped my path out of the startup world.
[00:20:38] If you may, you know, when the Haiti earthquake happened in 2010, we were doing really good as a business. I was running a company called Forward Hindsight, and you know, I always wanted to do something in poverty, right? Just going back to where I was born and everything. So I was doing, you know, cutting checks for NGOs and everything.
[00:20:53] But when the Haiti earthquake happened, my founder and I, and he's even my founder today, Jeff Kaiser, I think you've met him, we decided that we wanted to do something. You know, basically shut down the company for two weeks and we raised 48 tons of supplies, you know, using our business network, right?
[00:21:12] We leaned on our network and for Haiti in two weeks and man, it was an ego trip. Amazing. I mean, I was on every news cover, local channel, NPR. I mean, I have a big head, and my head was like, 10 times its size. It's this massive ego trip, right? Like CEO of a company does this, this, and that.
[00:21:31] Yet it's my biggest failure in life by far compared to anything else I've done is because yes, we got all that into Haiti, but six months later, what we found out was none of the stuff had moved. And Haiti was worse off financially, even though $8 billion had poured into Haiti.
[00:21:51] And people like me had taken a lot of credit for doing good work, yet I had nothing to show for it, right? And that's kind of when I realized that this whole notion of not really understanding the last mile is bad. You just take a philanthropy approach, which is what I had done.
[00:22:10] It was a great ego feeder for me, but it was a complete disaster. It was driven with so much pity and almost no dignity. That, that's kind of when it really bothered me that I'm like, oh my God, I failed so badly.
[00:22:25] Aaron - Narration: Ashish, around that time, sold his last company and found himself wondering how he could really help in a way that actually made a difference. It turned out the Haiti experience, as disappointing as it was, propelled him to a better understanding of how to help.
[00:22:41] Ashish: Kind of that oh, oh no moment in life, right? And I was just like, wait a minute. You know, all the money and effort is just wasted, right? It's, it's all driven by our need for pride and greed. Yet, at the end of the day, we are not solving problems.
[00:22:58] So when I sold the last startup in 2012, I always wanted to do something, but I didn't want to give away my money or any of that. I didn't wanna do an NGO thing. Definitely wasn't doing a Haiti 2.0 again, right.
[00:23:11] So I happened to know some friends who had mentioned to me about this USAID guys, and I know about USAID obviously, and that they were looking to start a social enterprise in the Congo and they were looking for a business CEO. But they didn't have a lot of money and it was a thing that they wanted to try and I didn't need the money, so I said, "Hey, you know, I'm, I'm happy to be CEO, but I don't want to get paid. So I'll be your volunteer CEO. I'll sign up for a couple years and see what happens."
[00:23:45] So one thing led to another, and I'm on a plane to the DRC as a, and they don't actually call it CEO. You know, it's like a goofy title. It's called Chief of, Chief of Party, right, which is like an official title that USAID uses for the guy or the woman who's in charge.
[00:24:02] So I was the chief of party for the social enterprise. So it was a public private partnership where, you know, USA puts an X amount of money and then private enterprises put an X amount of money and then, you know, you have somebody like me run it.
[00:24:18] Aaron - Interview: And what was the, what was the venture idea?
[00:24:20] Ashish: It's, it's a platform called Asili, A-S-I-L-I. And the idea was to create opportunity linkages for farmers and healthcare workers in a way that creates a job economy. But you know, has a direct impact on reducing infant child mortality, because of very high rates, right, in those parts of the world.
[00:24:43] I had this massive giant ego. I still do, but I'm much lower than the doormat today. But in those days I was just like, Hey, sold a startup. You know, how hard can it be? I've always wanted to end poverty, so let's do it. Right. So stupid. I mean, God, I look back at myself in 2013 and I'm like, you know, "idiot" would not even begin to describe who I was, but it's what it is. Right?
[00:25:04] And, and so I jumped with both feet in, and honestly, it just, it kind of destroyed me, you know. Because I think most people are able to separate what they see, and then they take this approach around charity and pity. You know, it's kind of...I talked to a lot of people, I'd read a lot of books on Congo and everything, and everybody had this kind of badge of honor of going and doing work in Africa and then coming and telling their friends and family about it.
[00:25:31] I couldn't do that. I, I just went toe deep and deep and deep and deep that I just, it kept eating at me. That we live in a world where there is disparity, but disparity to this extent that's intertwined with supply chains. That's the motivation that drives me today and, and then the live examples are the child labor that happens in places like Congo, even today.
[00:25:59] Yet, we would use a smartphone for $800, right? I'm guilty. I'm one on one right now. You know you'll pay $12 for a latte that says a hundred percent ethically sourced Congolese coffee. It's not true. Right, right. Uh, you know, or you will, you will basically buy a bottle of water that says a hundred percent recycled PET that I know is being picked up at a landfill outside of Lusaka, Zambia, right?
[00:26:27] And I think the, the two years, honestly, I did not do any good in my humble opinion. I just unlearned everything that I thought I knew and kind of really when that incident happened with the mama farmer, it was the lowest point in my life because I was just like--and I get emotional about it because I was just like--it just does not make any sense here is that if, if we cannot even let this mother have a bank account that establishes her existence as a human being, who is actually the most productive person of this supply chain at the end of the day, right? Right. And her children are being forced into child labor, then all of our, you know, victory that philanthropists or corporations claim of progress we've made...
[00:27:25] Yes, we've made progress. But man, if you're standing next to that mother, you will feel that you are in middle Earth and you have made zero progress. And that's the piece that kind of hit me. And then I quit. You know, I'm, I'm not a quitter, but I quit. I just, I couldn't deal with it. I just quit at the end of 2014 and I said, um, I just can't look these people in the eye. Because we were getting awards. I mean, we won awards. I mean, we won the Battery Ventures Award, we won the Design Thinking Award, and I won the Clinton Global Initiative Award, and I'm like, man, I, I feel ashamed here.
[00:28:04] Aaron - Interview: Your story about Haiti and your story about working in the Congo too. It's the same, it's the same story in the sense that a lot of resources and a lot of good intentions are not enough. We need better and deeper understanding of the problems we're trying to tackle.
[00:28:18] And it sounds like your time, there was just a really intense sort of like advanced degree, right, in what the issues of poverty are really about.
[00:28:29] Ashish: Yeah. And it turns out it was never about resources, right? And for me, that is the piece that I struggle with even today. It's like, you know...you hear a lot of these commitments and pledges. And I'm honestly like extremely vanilla, right? I try to de-complex everything. I just ask a very, very, very basic question. If that sweater is 100% ethically sourced then the CEO of the company that made it needs to sit down with me and show me the one or two or three farmers that grew the cotton, show me their last three years worth of income and that it has gone up.
[00:29:09] That's it. I'm not asking for anything more.
[00:29:12] Aaron - Narration: Let's take a break here for a word from our sponsor.
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[00:30:10] The problem that BanQu is tackling today is not hard technologically. By that I mean to say that we have all the tools we need for truly transparent supply chains. We could, for example, know the name of the farmer who grew the cotton in the jeans that we wear, or the cocoa in the chocolate bar that we eat.
[00:30:31] The problem instead is that opaque supply chains serve the people who control them. It allows them to hide what they don't want us to see. This is what BanQu is working to change.
[00:30:42] Aaron - Interview: So supply chain issues are fascinating because they become really murky and blurry really quickly. Companies will buy massive amounts of inputs into their business, right? Whether it's like cobalt to go into cell phone batteries or, or cotton to go into the the sweater that you're wearing. But they don't even necessarily know where that comes from. Why don't they know?
[00:31:04] Ashish: So I think why they don't know the simpler answer is that they are accustomed to not knowing and making a lot of money on not knowing.
[00:31:15] So let me unpack that. Okay? Yeah. And this part is important. I'm a big believer, right? If you, if you really cannot explain the problem, then the solution is useless. Okay? So, so let's unpack the cotton piece. A smallholder farmer in Ghana, Uganda, Zambia, Pakistan, Uyghur region in China, wherever, right. When a smallholder farmer brings the first bale of cotton and gives it to a cooperative, or a trader, or a buyer--chain of custody, classic supply chain 101-- the problem is very simple to define, articulate, and pinpoint, which is: that farmer has no ability to prove their existence when it comes to quality, quantity, and price in a way that both parties have agreed, and in a way, everybody upstream agrees that that happened. Okay.
[00:32:18] And nothing to do with technology. It is basic human trade 101 going back 500 years. Right? And now the, the black box begins. Okay. Yeah. The black box begins when that middle man then says, I'm gonna buy from five other farmers at different qualities, commingle it and it sell it upstream where now there is no transparency of price, quality, and quantity.
[00:32:49] So then what happens? A certifying agency shows up, you know, fair trade or whatever, right? Everybody shows up and they start certifying saying It's ethical cotton, it's sourced good environmental practices and things like that. And everybody's looking at that black box.
[00:33:06] The problem with the black box is that that black box cannot tie back to the individual farmer, right? So if I have five farmers that are coming into one cooperative or one aggregation point, these farmers crop is co-mingled. So if I'm the middle man, I can squeeze them and because they have to feed their child. What leverage do you have as a farmer in that conversation on the Zambia/Congo border on the Uganda/Tanzania border? Your leverage is zero. If you're Uyghur Muslim in China, your leverage is zero. Okay? But then everybody shows up in the middle. They certify it. You walk into a store and buy ethically sourced cotton, feeling really good about it as a consumer, right?
[00:33:59] So the problem now is very simple to describe, which is that there are at least a billion people, maybe 750 million people in the world today, who are those farmers, who are those waste pickers--it's the same thing when it comes to recycling, no different on just on the other side of the supply chain--who on a daily basis are providing the raw materials for global supply chain, yet cannot prove their existence in that global supply chain beyond the measure of doubt.
[00:34:32] And, and that is why these people continue to be unbanked and in extreme poverty and no rights, human rights violations and everything, because they have no proof.
[00:34:48] Aaron - Narration: I called this episode Expanding Access to Proof, but it really is referring to two kinds of proof. One of them is the proof that the mama farmer deserves to show how much she made and why she deserves a bank account.
[00:35:01] But the other way that BanQu expands access to proof is providing proof to customers to know that the products they're buying really have the impact that they claim. BanQu is essentially offering a product to companies that helps them to prove it.
[00:35:18] So with this explanation of the problem, how is BanQu going to fix this? Humanity creates black boxes because somebody uses them to profit. What are the incentives for those running our supply chains to start adding transparency in a way that allows everyone to be treated with dignity?
[00:35:35] Ashish: Great question. In my opinion, the way to disrupt the black box, it relies on the shoulders of CEOs, boards, investors, and corporations.
[00:35:46] I love NGOs. I love government agencies, but the commerce piece, which is directly tied to the last mile, at least 75% of that is moving through global brands of their everyday products. Coffee, cacao, maize, corn, wheat, rice, plastic paper, cardboard, cobalt. Right? So the CEOs of these companies who are at the top end, right?Tier, tier zero, and the tier five is downstream.
[00:36:15] They have to have the courage to tell the black box that I won't buy from you if you can't show me the visibility. Look, 20% of the middlemen are gonna be horrible. I've had a couple of death threats, but I think 80% in my opinion, like I always look at the good side, 80% or 75% of the middle men are also poor people. They're just, you know, do a good living.
[00:36:38] The gap is that the CEOs are not really enforcing this level of traceability because they're getting away by saying, I'm gonna make a pledge for sustainability. I'm gonna say everything is gonna be great by 2030. Have an awesome brochure. Go to COP 27, tell the world a hundred percent of my farmers are gonna be regenerated by 2030. Get a awesome pat on the back. Nobody's really asking the question "But how?" So this is, disruption has to happen at the leadership level.
[00:37:12] Aaron - Interview: Are there examples of CEOs that are doing it right? I know you work with some. Are there examples that come to mind that illustrate the right way to approach this sort of transparent supply chain?
[00:37:23] Ashish: Oh, absolutely. I mean, you know the one second share with you publicly, right? So like you look at Solvay. It, it's a big chemical company, and their CEO, Ilham, their Chief Sustainability Officer, Lynn. You know, we started working with them a couple years ago and they're like, "Hey, you know, we sell gum to L'Oreal, right?" The shampoo company and the cosmetic company. "But we wanna be able to prove that the farmers that we buy, the base seed," It's called guar, that makes it gum. "We wanna know who they are. We wanna know if they're being paid. We wanna know if their income's growing up."
[00:37:56] And they have now rolled us out in India, right? For thousands of farms. So you have a CEO of a chemical company who is a for-profit company--so is BanQu right, we're a for-profit company--but recognizes that I wanna actually do what I'm gonna tell the world I'm gonna do. Right. You know, we work with Coca-Cola, we work with Wilmer, AB and Bev, right? But honestly, I also tell people, right, look for every Solvay that we run, there's 15 of them out there that will tell the world that they're gonna have a hundred percent of their farmers, uh, doing regenerative agriculture, but they couldn't name one farmer and show their income history right? And that's the piece that unfortunately hasn't happened. The scale hasn't happened.
[00:38:42] Aaron - Narration: There are forces at work to incentivize companies to be more sustainable. The ESG movement is part of this. ESG stands for "environment, social and governance," and it describes efforts to account for the impact that companies have outside of their financial returns.
[00:39:00] But ESG has a long way to go.
[00:39:03] Ashish: So I think, I think honestly the ESG trend is the right thing. It's the right, you know, wake up call. Where it is headed in my humble opinion is in the absolute wrong direction. And, and that's why, you know, I call it this unfounded climate romance where yes, we wanna save every plastic bottle, but oh, by the way, a poor mother on the shores of Port-Au-Prince in Haiti is picking up the bottles and not gonna make $1.90.
[00:39:29] People are like, oh, I don't wanna worry about that right now. I am saving the planet because this bottle is 100% recycled. That's an absolute lie, right? What happened to the families? Were they compensated? If you are saying 100% of our cacao farmers in Ghana are gonna be regenerated farmers, and you are gonna charge me 14% premium at a Whole Foods on a bag of cacao that says that, then show me the income rise of those smallholder farmers in Ghana has not happened since 2018.
[00:40:06] So yes, you can put out an awesome ESG brochure that says region regenerative agriculture, water conservation, carbon credits, but if you can't back it...I'm yet to find one.
[00:40:20] You know, we've lost clients, right? We've lost clients because they'll say, "Hey, you're opening a can of worms that I can't handle." And that's the piece that, that what I call is the green washing, which is a danger, right? Because we are not solving the actual problem....
[00:40:37] Recycled batteries. Here's another one. Look at the amount of ESG press we're getting for recycled batteries because cobalt is going, you know, low. But where are these batteries being picked up at? They're being picked up at landfills across India and Nigeria by children under the age of 10!
[00:40:57] Aaron - Narration: As consumers, we also benefit from the black box supply chains. It's because we can buy what we want without having to know the consequences of our choices. There's a movement pioneered by companies like Ben and Jerry's, Method, Allbirds, and others to change this, to make us all more ethical consumers. Ashish is a skeptic though of both the power and the behavior of consumers in wealthy countries.
[00:41:22] Aaron - Interview: Consumers want to live ethically. I mean, you talk about the example of buying a, you know, an ethically sourced sweater. Ethical consumption, today in the modern world with supply chains the way they are, feels nearly impossible because it feels like every time you buy a product that makes a promise of some kind, you really have no way of knowing if that promise is being kept.
[00:41:44] So what thoughts do you have for the people who want to be ethical consumers? What are the things that you wish they were focusing on, the questions they were asking, the benchmarks they were looking for to add more pressure to the brands and the suppliers to improve this?
[00:41:59] Ashish: Man. Great question. I'm gonna give you unpopular answer. I think the, the, there's a misnomer that the consumer has a voice.
[00:42:08] Um, and this is gonna piss off some listeners here, uh, and I, I'll give you a simple example, right? If you ask a group of teenagers, right, "Here's a hundred dollars, and go purchase a ethically sourced pair of jeans or lipstick in Provo, Utah, right? Or you can buy four pairs of jeans at H&M." Okay. What do you think they'll do?
[00:42:31] Right? And, and yes, there's a lot of noise around, you know, the consumer's voice. Consumers are buying ethically sourced. But you know, I, I ask myself or ask anybody, you walk into a Whole Foods, you see a bag of coffee that says ethically fair-trade, organic source, right?
[00:42:47] Do you actually just buy it and go feeling good about it? Or you say, wait a minute, right? I'm gonna take the next three days, start calling and find out "What's the income stream of the Guatemala farmer that is on this bag of coffee?" You're not gonna do that, right? So, so I'm not saying...I love the consumer angle, right? But I don't think the consumer has a strong enough voice. It's just because our, our buying habits are tied to shiny objects.
[00:43:20] Aaron - Interview: Yeah. And we don't have the three days to go do the research to make sure the farmer in Guatemala has been paid well.
[00:43:25] Ashish: Exactly. I'm just trying to shine a reality light, right? The problem needs to be solved at the CEO purchasing and, and corporate governance and the board level, right? If, if CEOs can stand up and say, "If I said that 100% of my plastic is recycled and my packaging, then I need to know over the next five years, every single landfill where my plastic's coming from, and I wanna know if the waste pickers are getting out of poverty."
[00:43:54] Aaron - Narration: BanQu is now operating in 58 countries and 13 languages. It's also won awards or praise from the UN, the International Finance Corporation, Fortune Magazine, and host of others. Its clients include Coca-Cola, Anheuser-Busch, and Mars. So what's next for the company and for Ashish?
[00:44:16] Ashish: I, I think the unique problems we are wrestling with right now is getting people to recognize that ESG and supply chains are intertwined and the blind spot is at the source, not upstream.
[00:44:34] So that's a big challenge, right? I mean, I mean, I have emails from CEOs who say, "Love what you're doing, but you know, right now we're focusing on our ESG commitments." I mean, think about that for a second. I have emails from CEOs saying that, and I'm like, "Am I like completely losing my mind?" Right?
[00:44:52] But, but in, in their mind, the ESG commitment is the end game, not the work. Okay. So that's, that's a challenge. Uh, the second challenge is that, you know, in a, in a recession economy, right, do people really follow through, right? In a recession economy, you are going to hunker down and squeeze downstream your suppliers. And the minute you do that, the suppliers are gonna say, "Hey, they're not really gonna care if I bought it ethically or unethically." Right? So that's, that's a challenge.
[00:45:24] And then the last challenge I always run into, which is this personal to me, is that oftentimes I find myself in conversations where people will go, "What are you talking about?" Right? Because they have not taken the time to understand their own supply chain. So when I say there's a farmer on the Zambia/Congo border who reads SMS uses mobile money and wants to prove that this is the cotton she sold her, they're like, "That's not on our radar for this year." And I'm going, whoa, whoa.
[00:46:00] So that's the challenge. I think. What's next? Is in my humble opinions, continue the fight, right? It's, you know, our goal is a hundred million people and a hundred million business. We're coming up about 15 million people by the end of this year, about 4 million in revenue. So it's still a long way to go, right?
[00:46:18] But a hundred million is a drop in the bucket, man. I mean, it's like, you know, we'll get to a hundred million. That's not an issue. The bigger problem is, you know, we need, we need more BanQus out there.
[00:46:28] Aaron - Interview: What advice do you have for the people out there who aspire to tackle the big, complex problems like you are?
[00:46:34] Ashish: Man, I'm nobody to give any advice. I'm a big believer in the power of one, right? Which is that no matter how complex your supply chain is, right, if you can go all the way to the one waste picker, or the one farmer, or the one worker, and ensure that over the next three years that you have step changed without any pity, with all dignity and commerce, right?
[00:47:08] That's the power of one. Help if it has an undertone of pity is the worst thing you can do to somebody. Help without pity is really dignity, and I think that's, it's a hard, hard thing to do, right? Because we were all raised with this, you know, "Let's help somebody." But it comes from this place of pity, and that's, in my opinion, pity then ties to your own pride and greed, and it's very hard to unwind.
[00:47:37] Aaron - Narration: What is it that keeps Ashish and his team motivated to reach a hundred million people? What is it about BanQu that makes all of these people wake up and work so hard at this every day? Well, it's stories like this one.
[00:47:51] Ashish: About three or four years ago, I met this young woman in Colombia, in Colombia. And she had a little child, maybe three or four years old. And she's a waste picker. And we were rolling out, you know, same software except on the recycling side. And I saw her at the corner, she was sitting, she had a book in her hand. And I walked up to her and I said, "Hey, what's in the book?" Right?
[00:48:12] And it was a notebook. It was a very neat leader in handbook. And it had three years worth of every single kilo of every single material that she has sold at that buyback center, the landfill. And you know, I still get the chills and I'm like, "You know, you are so smart." Right? She's like, "But it's useless because no bank is willing to give me a decent loan so I can take my kid out of the slum and we can buy a, you know, one room place. Because this book doesn't really validate who I am." You know? Now fast forward, she's on BanQu and everything, but I think the point is that I think that is the inspiration.
[00:48:58] Aaron - Narration: Ultimately, this is what it means when we have the luxury of proof. We can prove that we're a person who matters in this huge complex world that we navigate. We can get the loan, or rent the car, or buy the apartment because we can prove that we belong.
[00:49:15] When Ashish describes the power of the one, he's saying that nobody should be denied the right to proof. Blockchain for BanQu is just an efficient way to make that happen. But all the systems, tools, programs, or strategies we deploy in making the world a better place will fail if we don't make everyone count.
[00:49:38] I am so grateful to Ashish Gadnis for his time and for sharing his experiences. Talking with him is energizing, and I hope you felt the same thing listening to him. In the show notes, you can find links for all the things that we discussed, and there's also a transcript on our website.
[00:49:56] Next episode, we'll hear from the veteran science and tech journalist David Pogue. He's been reporting on human innovation for decades and has won multiple Emmys and other awards for his work. You've seen him over the years in programs and outlets like PBS's, Nova, CBS Sunday Morning, The New York Times, and his new podcast, Unsung Science. Our discussion will be on science and tech for good. We'll be talking about everything from AI to climate change, from sharks to space travel. It's going to be a fun and enlightening episode.
[00:50:31] If you enjoy How to Help, please take a moment to give us a positive review in your podcast app. This helps us immensely to reach more listeners. And the other thing that helps is to share. If you have a favorite episode, please put it on social media, send it to friends. It means a lot to us.
[00:50:49] If you want to stay up to date with the podcast and my other work, subscribe to the How to Help email newsletter where I share ideas for how to have more meaning in your life and in your work. You can subscribe or read the archives how-to-help.com.
[00:51:04] This episode is written and recorded by me. Our production team for this season has included Ty Bingham, yours truly, and Joseph Sandholtz, who also mixes our audio. Our amazing music comes from the Pleasant Pictures Music Club, and if you want to use their music in your projects, you can find a link and a discount code in our show notes.
[00:51:24] Finally, as always, thank you so much for listening. I'm Aaron Miller, and this has been How to Help.