Financial & Professional Services
As humanitarian teams work tirelessly to respond to crises around the world, one of the most vital issues is making sure funding for relief efforts has the maximum impact possible.
The stakes couldn’t be much higher for the problems that Ben Joakim, of innovative aid finance platform Disberse, are addressing. With a background in international development, Joakim is passionately building an alternative financial infrastructure that means charities and donors can transfer and track where their funds go, ensuring that every penny will count.
“I’ve run charities in the UK that were primarily fundraising entities for organisations in Africa and beyond, and then I ran a multi-million dollar portfolio of projects for a Dutch NGO across the globe,” he explains.
“What I saw across those different roles was recurring transactional inefficiencies. If you’re a charity sending money internationally, you’re subject to upfront banking fees, poor exchange rates and currency fluctuations. Once funds have been transferred, being able to track what happens to that money is very difficult.”
Statistics from the UN show that up to 30% of government spend on aid can be lost to fraud and corruption, and that doesn’t even account for losses incurred through foreign currency exchange. “Money is lost through banking infrastructures that weren’t built to serve the charity sector. Yet fraud and corruption is a complex challenge that manifests both inside and outside of the sector. These stem from systemic failures, rather than individual greed,” points out Joakim.
“If you donate to a charity, how do you know where your donation is going, where it’s being spent and the impact that it has? The reality is we don’t.”
Disberse’s technological ingenuity aims to fundamentally redefine this. Its current projects involve the Start Network, which has managed approximately ￡100 million in humanitarian response funds over recent years on behalf of 42 aid agencies, including Oxfam and Save the Children.
“We’re starting to test with a range of charities and NGOs. We’re still in closed beta testing working to make the process more transparent and accountable, whilst driving cost efficiencies for those organisations. Our vision is to transform how funds are distributed within the sector, ensuring they have the greatest impact for communities and individuals facing poverty and crisis.
“There’s an increasing lack of trust in charities, primarily because people don’t know where their money is going. This growing scepticism is real, and something that the sector cannot ignore.
“I’m a huge supporter of aid finance, but the sector mustrecognise that we need to do more. This starts with how public and charitable funds are managed and distributed.”
A year and a half in, Disberse has been recognised as one of the Digital Dozen leading start-up companies in Wales for their pioneering use of blockchain technology. Whilst blockchain technology is commonly associated with cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, Disberse is deploying it in a different way.
“There is a lot of hype and excitement around Bitcoin at the moment, but it is also surrounded by negative perceptions, both in terms of its volatility, and also the need for regulation. Instead, we are issuing e-money (digital money) onto the blockchain, which is backed by funds held in deposit. Digital funds can be distributed down the chain, and be traced from end to end, from donor to beneficiary.”
Last year, for its first pilot, a girls’ education project in Swaziland, funds were distributed by Welsh charity Positive Women in support of four schools educating vulnerable orphans. The savings enabled an additional three girls to attend school for a year. At scale, they are hugely excited by the potential.
“We’re building the future of aid finance from Wales, harnessing the potential of emerging technology,” says Joakim. “We see ourselves as a global company, but established in Wales. It’s home – it’s where I want to grow Disberse.”
Four local universities and a range of likeminded tech businesses also make south Wales a great base for Disberse. “There’s access to good infrastructure, there’s Cardiff Airport, and although London is only two hours away, Wales provides us with a really good opportunity that’s not London.
“There are a number of upsides to that, from costs of living, access to talent, and work–life balance. It’s a great place to live, especially with young children. I can drive from home or my office and be on the beach in 10 minutes, or head north and be in the mountains in 20. There aren’t many places in the UK where that’s possible.
“We’ve got a really dynamic start-up ecosystem in south Wales, particularly in the Newport, Swansea and Cardiff area. There are lots of different businesses doing exciting things, but which all want to see each other succeed. They see Wales as a great place to start and grow a business.”