Exclusive short story: In Blocked Chains We Trust

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It is 2080. We are on a farm somewhere in Africa. Everything is digital. The blockchain is an omnipotent point of reference, and the farm is flourishing. But then, everything goes wrong. A dystopian short story, written exclusively for SEWOH.

Ich bin ein Alternativtext
Foto: GIZ

By Solomon King Benge

Solomon King Benge is the founder of Fundi Bots, an education non-profit with a mission to accelerate science learning in Africa. Fundi Bots uses high-impact learning tools like robotics and enhanced science curriculum material to promote better learning outcomes, improved career prospects and real-world technological advancement in African schools and communities.

In addition, he is a 2014 Echoing Green Fellow, 2014 Ashoka Fellow and a 2017, Segal Family Foundation African Visionary Fellow.

Solomon also enjoys art and storytelling through various media.

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March 20th 2025. Kwame Nkrumah University, Ghana.

On the night of March 20th 2025, in a hostel room at the Kwame Nkrumah University, a woman typed furiously away at a computer. The harsh light from the computer screen lit the darkness of the room, illuminating the sleeping form of her room-mate. The woman paused, squinting intently at the screen. She adjusted her glasses slightly, frowned and continued typing.

 

“For farmers, by farmers.” Its slogan was simple, concise and no-nonsense.

 

Her name was Fadi Donkor-Adjaye, a fourth-year student of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources and she was writing the last few lines of code for what she called the NotreAger project. It had consumed the last three years of her life and now, it was done. At 2:26AM, Fadi clicked the “Upload” button and five minutes later, NotreAger was live.

Her desire, she told the Student University Blog the next morning as she started her carefully crafted marketing campaign, was to create a centralized marketplace for African farmers. “For farmers, by farmers.” Its slogan was simple, concise and no-nonsense.

“Fadi Donkor-Adjaye’s NotreAger project is a big and bold initiative,” the University Blog gushed. “At its core lies blockchain technology, which ensures that all transactions along the agriculture value chain can be monitored, managed, enforced and traced efficiently and securely, from the purchase of seed for planting to the final check-out by a customer in a supermarket.

“For example, a farmer can know, from the comfort of their mobile device, which final product their coffee, beans or rice ended up in, right up to the store that sold it. This gives the farmer stronger negotiating power and higher income because they can provide proof-of-quality while studying the supply and demand forces that drive the sales and prices of the final product.”

The blog went on to boldly declare: “The middle-man is officially dead!”

 

***

 

Fadi’s parents were smallholder farmers, and her entire life, she’d seen and experienced the struggle they went through, trying to keep her and her three siblings in school. She was especially devastated when her father passed away during her second year of university and her mother informed her that they had only one year of finances saved before they would go totally broke.

 

Fadi couldn’t allow this to happen; she had vowed to be the first girl in her family to finish university as an engineer.

 

If that happened, her mother had said, Fadi would have to drop out of school to enable her siblings – all boys – to continue education. Fadi couldn’t allow this to happen; she had vowed to be the first girl in her family to finish university as an engineer. Agricultural engineer, yes, but still an engineer.

 

Fadi knew that there were many ways you could make money on the internet, but hadn’t really had the need to explore until now, so she started doing research on online marketing, social media influencing and so on. But the years working with her parents on their family farm had sown the seed for hard, passionate work tilling the earth. And she had been obsessed with why her parents always struggled to find good prices for produce, especially as harvest seasons peaked. She also wondered why it wasn’t possible to store food to sell during the off-season when prices were better.

 

Her curiosity drove her deeper towards famer-focused solutions. She started gaining an interest in online markets for farmers like her parents and she soon discovered hundreds of apps that were doing exactly that, with varying levels of success. But she noticed a pattern: all these apps were developed by techies who didn’t know a thing about farming. None of them had grown up on a farm or had any experience farming; all they had was the “market research.”

 

Fadi was ten years old then, and didn’t understand, but nodded her head grimly and mouthed “global warming.”

 

As she kept researching, Fadi grew more and more confident. She had the experience, decades of it: toiling on the farm night and day; going to the market and haggling with buyers and middle-men; watching in dismay as crops failed because the weather patterns were changing.

 

“It’s global warming”, her mother had told her once, staring at the sky and shaking her head grimly. Fadi was ten years old then, and didn’t understand, but nodded her head grimly and mouthed “global warming.”

 

Fadi couldn’t code, but she vowed she would learn, because she wanted to make the product her way. It took her three long, excruciating years, juggling school and working online so she could stay in school and pay tuition for her siblings.

 

As it turned out, Fadi was an exceptional programmer, and her online marketing skills paid off in unexpected ways: when NotreAger launched on 25th March 2025, it had 0 users. Two weeks later, she had recruited 500 farmers to the platform.

 

NotreAger celebrated its first-year anniversary with 100,000 farmers from 30 countries across Africa. With $500,000 in annual profit in its second year, NotreAger was a runaway success.

 

Five years later, Fadi accepted an exceptionally large venture-capital-backed full buyout and retired to live on a large farm in Southern Ghana.

 

Terra Vertus, the company that bought NotreAger rebranded it to NeoAgro after three years. By 2035, ten years after its creation, NeoAgro had 35 million farmers in its network, coming from nearly every single African country. NeoAgro controlled 85% of the total African farming market, the majority of whom were smallholder farmers.

 

***

 

February 18th, 2080. Lamwor District, Northern Uganda.

7:15AM

Jackson Oloya tapped the small button on the side of his head, ending the call. He had been pacing the room, agitated and now he stood facing his FarmStation, a formidable but sleek computer unit on his desk. He looked at the holophone dock on the desk and shook his head in disbelief. The image fading away from the projected display was that of his farm manager who had just delivered some pretty bad news.

 

Still standing, Jackson switched on the FarmStation, and the multiple screens blinked to life one at a time. He connected to the internet and logged onto his NeoAgro account and opened up his dashboard. His quickly scanned the monitors, his heart sinking as each update came online. When the last one came on, he slowly sat down on his chair.

 

His farm manager was right: every single service was blinking red. Status: Offline.

He scanned the screen again, slowly this time. Robotics, Nutrients, Water, MarketPlace, Silo, Transport, Weather, Sensors... Everything was offline. Unavailable. No Access.

His FarmStation was no longer permitted to connect to NeoAgro, which meant his farm was officially a blacklisted farm, and he, Jackson Oloya was a rogue farmer.

He was in full panic now. If he wasn’t able to restore services quickly, his crops would start dying, his animals would not be fed, he would miss his daily NeoAgro targets and his ranking would start slipping. Fast. Within days, he might find himself back at the bottom of his cluster, erasing decades of hard work and then things would start to get really, really bad.

There was a bigger problem, however: Jackson had no idea why his services had been terminated. He was on track with rental payments for the NeoAgro services, the hardware maintenance logs were in perfect shape, he had no negative balances. But above all, his farm was a beacon that demonstrated the exponential impact of precision farming available to farmers who signed up for NeoAgro’s FarmStation service.

So why on Earth was his farm offline?

 

4PM

Jackson stood in the middle of the farm, with a deep frown on his face. He was expecting a call from a NeoAgro Customer Satisfaction Representative. He had been waiting for almost three hours.

His farm was a modest 3-acre piece of land, split into three parts to cater for: indoor crops, which were housed in the greenhouse; outdoor crops and; a large livestock shed where Friesian cows bellowed and chickens clucked loudly. The animals hadn’t been fed for almost ten hours now and they were getting extremely agitated.

 

Failure to pay salaries at the end of the month was the kind of nightmare he did not want to even think about.

 

The farm was eerily silent. Normally, at around this time of the day, you could hear the whirr of motors as the linear robots in the greenhouse moved from plant to plant testing soil moisture, acidity and nutrient values as they simultaneously planted, watered, weeded and harvested, depending on the crop and the cycle. The milking machines were also offline, which meant some of the cows were starting to get very restless. Towards the back of the farm, the autonomous transportation drones were neatly lined by the silo, which was firmly shut with a red “Access Denied” sign on its lock.

 

His workers – most of them maintenance engineers - milled about, idly chatting to one another as they waited for solutions from the boss. They all had worried looks though, Jackson noted. And he knew why: FarmStation had a reputation ranking system for farm employees, which allowed outstanding engineers and workers to get better jobs and wages. And since FarmStation also managed salaries… Jackson shook away the thought. Failure to pay salaries at the end of the month was the kind of nightmare he did not want to even think about.

 

The workers teased a younger-looking boy for being clumsy around the robotics unit and he laughed awkwardly, stating proudly that he will learn slowly.

Jackson’s holophone trilled in his ear. He quickly put on the projection glasses and looked at the caller. He frowned. It was an old friend: Clare Nassonko. His frown deepened. This wasn’t good. He hadn’t seen Clare in...

My goodness, he thought, it has been forever!

Jackson had met Clare during a farmers’ cooperative union meeting nearly twenty years ago. Back then, she was the East Africa Customer Acquisition Lead for NeoAgro and was on a product engagement trip, talking to farmers and cooperative unions about the new full access package NeoAgro was developing for farmers like Jackson.

 

“This is a day I've been looking forward to for a long, long time," Clare had said, slowly pacing back and forth in front of the hall.

 

Clare was a natural salesperson, and her presentation skills were incomparable. In a moment of weakness, she had whispered to Jackson that she relentlessly watched the videos of the greatest speakers who had ever lived, specifically the legendary Steve Jobs.

 

“Today… is a day you will never forget.” Clare smiled.

 

The farmers in the hall clapped. They were all NeoAgro users and they all had only good things to say about the service. Many of them had increased their income tenfold because NeoAgro provided them with full control and full access to the market. Of course, it came with fees, but, of course, they were more than happy to pay the fees. Over many decades, the traditional middle-men had lost all their power, as the farmers happily handed the power over to Terra Vertus’ crown jewel- NeoAgro, which now managed services for over 97% of African farmers.

 

With NeoAgro’s blockchain-based services, we didn’t just improve the way farmers accessed markets; we transformed the entire agriculture value chain. We gave you more value. We gave you control! We gave you…POWER!”

 

That day, Clare was there to convince them to trust NeoAgro a little bit more.

 

"Every once in a while, a revolutionary product comes along that changes everything.” Her gestures as she spoke were grand, but controlled like a military general inspiring troops before a battle. “NeoAgro didn’t just change farming; it changed the African continent. With NeoAgro’s blockchain-based services, we didn’t just improve the way farmers accessed markets; we transformed the entire agriculture value chain. We gave you more value. We gave you control! We gave you… POWER!”

 

The hall erupted with shouts and whoops. It took a while for the crowd to become quiet again. Clare basked in her audience’s adulation. She had them sold even before they knew what exactly they were buying.

 

“Well, today, I would like to introduce the most revolutionary product we have ever created.”

She paused for emphasis, scanning the room. The farmers were all leaning forward, Jackson more so.

"Today, we're introducing three revolutionary products. The first one is a new, real-time updated version of NeoAgro. We call it Version X, and it will provide access to marketplaces, weather services, transportation services, land management and credit facilities. The second is a breakthrough, fully automated farming system, complete with micro-robots, crop sensors, irrigation, harvest management and silo storage. The third is the most powerful farm management computer system ever built. And it ties all of this together, giving you a secure and efficient way to manage your entire farm.

 

“Three products… NeoAgro X… an automated farming system and… a powerful farm management computer.

 

“But… these are not three separate products.”

 

Clare stopped pacing. She looked into the audience, making strong eye-contact with several people, and waited for the implication to sink in. She could sense the tension and then the release as one by one, the farmers started making the connection.

 

“These are not three separate products.” Her voice was strong and firm, with the confidence of a speaker who knew she was in complete control. The air in the packed hall was electric.

 

“This is one unified, comprehensive product, and we’re calling it… FarmStation!”

 

And with a flourish that she had clearly practiced meticulously for months, she unveiled the sleek new FarmStation system. It looked incredible.

 

The applause was deafening. Everyone was standing up, high-fiving each other and chanting, “Long live, NeoAgro! Long live Terra Vertus!”

 

***

 

“Jackson!” the voice in his ear shook him out of his reverie, bringing him back to the present. He could still hear the chants in his memories, including his own joyful whoops.

 

But now, Clare was now VP of Customer Relations. Her successful sales push with the FarmStation had propelled her very quickly to senior management. She had personally overseen its adoption in East Africa, often travelling long, weary days with the technical teams to ensure the farmers were satisfied with the product. She had actually been with the team that installed his FarmStation.

 

“Clare! Thank goodness! I need your help!” Jackson was back in full problem-solving mode, the memories pushed to the back of his mind.

 

“Jackson, I know. Your name popped up on the blacklist and I decided to check for myself. You know I like to keep tabs on my farmers.”

 

“I have no idea what’s going on, Clare. I woke up this morning to a frantic and panicked holocall from my farm manager. All my systems are offline and I can’t seem to get a straight answer from anyone in NeoAgro’s customer support. The only responses I keep getting is that the issue has been escalated to another level. Clare, my cows haven’t been milked all day.”

 

“I know. I can see all of that from here. But there’s a big problem, Jackson. You… your farm violated our supplier integrity code.” Her voice was firm and even through the poor holocall connection, he could see that she was watching him intently.

 

“I don’t… I don’t understand,” Jackson responded, hesitantly. He was frantically scouring his mind, looking for where he could have messed up. Maybe it was one of his workers… No. He dismissed the thought. His workers were well-trained… the very best. Their rankings were at the top of their cluster. There was no way they could be at fault.

 

“Jackson…” Clare’s voice had gone down a note and sounded deadly serious. “The digital signature of the fresh beans harvest you submitted last week does not match the signature of beans you should be harvesting from your farm.”

 

“What? That’s not possible!”

 

“But it is what we’re seeing.”

 

 “Clare, are you accusing me of tampering with the seed?”

 

“I’m not accusing you. But NeoAgro is foolproof and the ledger is incorruptible. Someone did something illegal on your farm. The data from your FarmStation shows an unapproved input from the planting stage. Someone provided the robotics unit with illegal seeds.”

 

“Hang on a second. Isn’t the FarmStation supposed to block all access and stop activity if there’s an error at that stage?”

 

“Yes, it should. But not if it assumes you’re adding a new crop to your garden or splicing a new strain of an existing crop. We can see the proof-of-work from your farm, and the smart-contracts kicked in at all the appropriate stages. However, someone did something illegal, at the most vulnerable point: seed storage. Unfortunately, the first stage of the NeoAgro blockchain system is based on our trust in you, the farmer. And that trust has been violated.”

 

Violated. Such a heavy, ominous word, Jackson thought.

 

“So what so I do now? Can this be traced? You know me Clare. You know I wouldn’t do this. My team also wouldn’t do this. I trust them completely, and besides, they have a lot to lose.”

 

“For now, you’re blacklisted, Jackson.” Clare’s voice on the other end of the holocall was cold and distant.

 

Jackson felt the world shrinking around him. A cold sweat trickled down his back as Clare continued talking.

 

“NeoAgro does not make any exceptions for farmers who violate the integrity code. The very fabric of NeoAgro depends on our farmers doing exactly as the system tells them, when it tells them and where it tells them. Down to the microsecond. A farmer breaking this rule destroys the trust and could easily lead to an integrity infection within the entire network.”

 

Jackson was speechless. This wasn’t Clare speaking. It was the voice of NeoAgro’s power. The same power he and other smallholder farmers had handed over decades ago.

 

They cared only for the cold, harsh, incorruptible data that came from the millions of FarmStations that ran every single farm in Africa.

 

“I’ll see what I can do.” Clare’s voice had become just a little bit sympathetic, but there was a cold edge to it. “I have to warn you, though, my hands are tied. This can take a long time to resolve.”

 

They had become close friends over the years since they met and had stayed in touch until she had been transferred to another country, where her increasing workload had made it harder for her to make time for a call, or a coffee when she was in the country. But NeoAgro’s rules, policies and frameworks no longer cared for friendships, un-milked cows, wilting crops or starving farmers saying a prayer around an empty dinner table. They cared only for the cold, harsh, incorruptible data that came from the millions of FarmStations that ran every single farm in Africa.

 

After a silence that seemed like an eternity, Jackson asked, “How much time are we looking at before I get a response?” He wasn’t sure he wanted to hear the answer.

 

“Five weeks, and even then, I’m still not sure.”

 

Five weeks?!! F***! Just one week off NeoAgro would cause unimaginable chaos. Five weeks was a death sentence.

 

F***!

 

6:32PM

Jackson walked through the greenhouse. He’d turned off the non-essential power supply to the entire farm, leaving just the lighting. There was no point keeping the power on now; his farm was doomed and his cluster rating was going back to zero. He had built his entire life around NeoAgro, and now… just like that… it was gone. The NeoAgro Legal and Compliance team wouldn’t even listen to his pleas for lenience based on his track record. Broken trust was broken trust, they had said. The blockchain doesn’t lie, they had muttered. Our data is incorruptible, they had insisted.

He reached the exit of the greenhouse and waved at one of his workers who was just entering; the same worker who was being teased earlier in the day. The worker was new, a fresh-faced kid, barely out of his teens, from another village across the country. He had been sent for training by a distant relative of Jackson’s wife.

The worker waved back, and continued on his way.

 

As Jackson fired up his motorcycle and drove back home to break the bad news to his family, the worker reached the seed storage unit, where the robotics system picked seed for planting.

Opening the packet in his hand, he carefully inspected the contents.

When he had just started working here a few weeks ago, he had noticed that sometimes the container that stored seed was not as full as it needed to be, and, eager to please his new boss, the young worker had been collecting seeds from the market across the road to fill up the container. He’d spent the idle afternoon today collecting more seed from the market and had carefully wrapped them in the packet he now held open before him.

Satisfied that the seeds had no stones – the robotics systems didn’t tolerate foreign objects in the seeds – he smiled and poured them into the container and closed the seed storage unit.

The worker left the farm and started walking home, as the sun was setting. He was happy. His boss was going to be so proud of him for being so proactive…

 

As the night came, the neighboring farms hummed and buzzed along, business as usual. Robots planted, weeded, irrigated and harvested. Milking machines tugged and squeezed, filling carefully labeled containers with fresh milk. And transportation drones zipped across the dark, moonless sky, landing, loading and taking off with extreme precision.

 

And in the darkness, a red halo appeared over Jackson’s farm, illuminating the night sky with pulsing words…

 

Access.

 

Denied.

 

Access.

 

Denied.

 

Access.

 

Denied.

 

Über den Autoren

Solomon King Benge

Solomon King Benge is the founder of Fundi Bots, an education non-profit with a mission to accelerate science learning in Africa. Fundi Bots uses high-impact learning tools like robotics and enhanced science curriculum material to promote better learning outcomes, improved career prospects and real-world technological advancement in African schools and communities.

In addition, he is a 2014 Echoing Green Fellow, 2014 Ashoka Fellow and a 2017, Segal Family Foundation African Visionary Fellow.

Solomon also enjoys art and storytelling through various media.

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