Behind the clear blue ocean water and perfect sand beaches of Belize’s tourist resorts, there are countless hectares of farmland growing bananas, citrus, and spices destined for dishes well beyond Central America.
Some of these crops are tended to by the Garifuna people, an Afro-Indigenous group, that has survived centuries of persecution and assimilation. A current challenge for Garifuna farmers is how to bring their crops to market, find new buyers, and make sure they do not lose money as they navigate this complicated and often corrupt process. That’s where a team of seniors from the Department of Computer Science (CS) at Stevens Institute of Technology come in, developing a personalized smart tech system for The Wagiya Foundation, an organization established to aid these farmers: a blockchain ledger.
“This project was gratifying to work on because it has a visible and positive real-world impact,” said Mitchell Brooks, a Stevens student, about the software that he and his fellow team members have built—software that harnesses the latest in data security and record keeping. “It’s nice to build something and see it go from concept to an actual product.”
Brooks is part of a four-person team composed of seniors majoring in cybersecurity. The other team members are David DeLaus II, Thomas Kautzmann, and Michael Snajder.
These undergraduate students constitute one of 19 teams under the supervision of David Klappholz, associate professor of computer science at the Charles V. Schaefer, Jr. School of Engineering and Science. In the CS department capstone course, teams develop software for nonprofits, government agencies, university researchers, early-stage startups, and established companies. That is, they develop software for real clients, individuals or organizations that need the software and will use it once it has been developed. At the end of the academic year they present their projects in Stevens’ Innovation Expo, which will be held virtually this year due to the COVID-19 crisis.
Every year, Klappholz tracks down potential software development projects, projects that are pitched, by their clients, in class, at the start of the fall semester. Students form their teams and choose their projects over the first few weeks of the fall semester. Over the two semesters of the capstone course, each team meets, on a weekly basis, with its client and with Prof. Klappholz. Detailed information about past student projects, and how to propose a new project, can be found here.
“It’s the best preparation for students’ careers,” said Klappholz. “The students go through the entire software development life cycle, gaining valuable real world experience. Our incredible students do great work for their projects’ clients.”
For the Garifuna project, the student team worked with Deborah de Castro, a 2006 Stevens alumna of the master's degree program in management. Castro, an executive in the financial services industry, is also advisor and manager at the Wagiya Foundation, a Belize-based organization that supports the economic security of the Garifuna people and preservation of their unique culture.
Arawak and Carib Indians and former enslaved Nigerians make up the genetic heritage of the Garifuna people. They constitute about four percent of Belizean society, but they are a very visible part of it in terms of their vibrant music and food. They are also one of the poorest.
The Wagiya Foundation started an initiative, the Wachari Project, to support Garifuna farmers in developing a local farmers market and finding international buyers for their crops, with the additional goal of sustainable land management. The initiative has grown beyond Belize to neighboring countries such as Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica.
A common problem that Garifuna farmers, who often till small holdings of agricultural land, is that the bureaucratic infrastructure in Belize and surrounding countries is not secure. In the journey to get their crops sold, unscrupulous people often try to steal money from small indigenous ethnic groups like the Garifuna.
Typically, Wagiya staff members would fly to different locations and negotiate contracts in person and do record-keeping manually, said DeLaus. To bring the Wachari Project to the next level, Wagiya asked the student team to create a blockchain ledger to store important documents and perform other important applications.
“They wanted something that was transparent, safe, secure, and confidential. And introducing automation would be ideal,” said Brooks.
Blockchain is a database storing blocks of digital information, said DeLaus. Blocks can store data on transactions, contracts, and other pieces of important information. Cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin rely on the blockchain platform, and this is what has gotten the lion’s share of media attention.
But for third world and developing countries and marginalized groups, blockchain is an attractive technological tool because it’s decentralized (managed by a peer-to-peer network), so people don’t have to rely on an unstable and corrupt governments, data can’t be altered unless there is a consensus across the network, and any changes are mirrored across the network so all participants can have a record of them.
“It’s tamper-resistant. You can’t falsify information, so it’s secure; and it’s a relatively automated process,” said DeLaus.
For the Wachari Project, the team created a website interface to enter data and a blockchain ledger so that transactions and contracts can be created instantly, authenticated, stored, and made secure. Participants can also store notes in the blockchain. In a clever move, produce can be tracked easily as well with the introduction of radio-frequency-identification (RFID) technology on boxes. RFIDs are basically the same as a chip in a credit card. A worker scans the chip on the boxes, and this information is stored in the blockchain.
The project’s interface is pretty simple. The program has a phone call report log plus a place to take notes; unique user login credentials; different portals for administrators, exporters, and buyers; and an overview of all contracts in use. With this new tool, the Wagiya Foundation can now instantly create contracts that are hard to tamper with and automate certain functions that would have required time and money.
“It’s been a great learning process,” said DeLaus. “It’s been great because you take the process from start to end all in one project, and we have made a tangible difference.”
Learn more about cybersecurity at Stevens: