A pepperoni pizza delivery to Ter Apel refugee camp in northeastern Holland inspired a Blockchain-powered system that one day may enable millions of people to prove who they are without government documents.
Today, Toufic “Tey” El-Rjula, 34, is founder and CEO of Tykn.tech, a distributed ledger identity system that recently received $1.34 million from investor and Dutch tech entrepreneur Johan Mastenbroek.
In 1990, El-Rjula was a 5-year-old boy living in Kuwait City when Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi Army invaded. His family fled to Lebanon as the Iraqis laid waste to much of Kuwait. The invaders destroyed the national archives, which included birth certificates and other official records of the existence of El-Rjula and tens of thousands of others now housed in cramped, make-shift refugee camps. “I didn’t know it at the time, but I had I become an invisible man.”
El-Rjula’s family eventually established themselves in Lebanon, where he graduated from university. He went on to land a job in Amsterdam with a crypto-currency firm. But when he lost his job — the source of his residency papers — Dutch authorities sent him to the Ter Apel refugee camp in the country’s north east. Unable to produce a birth certificate, he spent two years in the camp.
Dutch authorities let him keep his smartphone, which happened to include a Bitcoin wallet. Not long after his arrival at the camp, a large pepperoni pizza arrived at the front gate, startling guards.
“Through that decentralized Bitcoin technology, I was able to break the financial barriers of the refugee camp,” he said in an interview with Karma. “I was able to order a pizza to the camp and I became the king of the camp because I could get food, cigarettes, socks, anything and no one else could do that. And this was the inspiration for Tykn.tech – a way to break the chains of our physical identities.”
Founding a Company
After two years in custody, he was allowed to apply for asylum and subsequently released. Once out, El-Rjula threw himself into the creation of a digital-identity management system based on Blockchain. Along with co-founders Khalid Maliki and Jimmy J.P. Snoek, they founded Tykn.tech in 2016, began raising money from friends and donors, and working with NGOs as the Syrian refugee crisis spilled into Europe.
The name is industry-speak, for token, and the product has gone on to receive awards from global organizations.
The system requires only a cell phone, common among refugees. Much like a cryptocurrency, users download a digital identity wallet that enables them to store an electronic identifier, which confirms who they are online. This permits secure interaction with national authorities or relief agencies, and is of particular interest for refugees.
While Tykn.tech may be the only app birthed by a Kuwaiti ordering a pepperoni pizza in a Netherlands refugee, distributed ledger identity systems aren’t so unique. The Sovrin Foundation, a U.K. non-governmental organization, has spent the past two years evangelizing the importance of solving this issue and has won support from some major technology firms, including IBM and Cisco. (See Karma Impact’s interview with Sovrin advisor Trevor Butterworth).
Two for-profit contenders, Civic and uPort, have entered the space. Civic, whose core business is a bitcoin smart contracts platform, raised $30 million in an initial coin offering in 2017 but is focused on identity. The ethereum technology behind uPort, another startup, won it support from New York-based crypto giant Consensys.
With Tykn.tech’s system in use by NGOs including Netherlands-based Dorcas International, El-Rjula plans to target governments and multinationals, whose employees are often at risk of kidnapping in remote parts of the developing world. While the company is not profitable yet, El-Rjula says the money raised in May is earmarked for business development and pilots with private sector prospects.
Today, the United Nations estimates that 290 million children under the age of 5 lack birth certificates or other government documents to confirm their age and identity. Many of them are refugees from war and civil conflicts in places like Yemen, Syria, Myanmar and sub-Saharan Africa.
Such children are at high risk, the UN notes, of falling victim to sex traffickers, being dragooned into child labor under appalling conditions, or being kidnapped and turned into child soldiers. In all, the UN says, some 1.2 billion people worldwide are thought to be without a government ID.
“These are people without the basic rights of any country because they can’t prove they were even born,” El-Rjula says. “No one should live like that. No one should die like that. Blockchain offers an elegant solution.”