Popcorn disco dip, pretzel toffee, raspberry-cracker sugar. You might think that Tony’s Chocolonely is all about coming up with unique chocolate flavors. But no, the most important mission is still making chocolate slave-free, according to Lean Goedegebuure and Frans Pannekoek, employees at the chocolate company.
In their constant search for ways to carry out that mission, the two encountered one of the greatest technology hype in recent years: blockchain . “It could not be stopped, it would conquer the world. We had a certain fear or missing out , although we actually knew nothing about it, “recalls Pannekoek, who is responsible for purchasing cocoa beans, at a table in the Jaarbeurshallen in Utrecht. An hour or two later, he and his colleague address a room full of visitors to the Infosecurity technology fair about their blockchain adventure.
Everything started with the desire to trace cocoa, from farmer to shop shelf. Because if you want to be sure that your beans are slave-free, you need to know where they come from. So that no cocoa of dubious origin appears in the chain.
They started four years ago, with a very simple Excel file that they sent to all parties in the chocolate chain, from bean collectors to the chocolate factory. They had to fill in what they received and sent when. Not ideal, regularly nothing came back, so the company developed the beantracker, an easy-to-use system. “We are already a long way. But we are always looking for new ways to improve our tracker, “says Pannekoek.
That is why they listened to the plan that consultancy firm Accenture came up with in the summer of 2017. Wouldn’t it be interesting to see whether cocoa beans can be traced better with blockchain?
Such a blockchain records data entered in a database in such a way that nobody can change it. What is in the blockchain remains in the blockchain, and is visible to all parties that are part of it. No manager is needed who plays the boss and everyone can be confident that what is in it is correct.
The best-known application is Bitcoin, the digital currency. It only works as a payment method because it is impossible to cheat with transactions. The blockchain is unrelenting: no discussion is possible about transactions that have been completed, they are stuck in a public database. That is why no bank is required as a controlling intermediary.
What Tony’s got to do with it? Blockchain would also be useful for the traceability of products. Such as cocoa beans. It guarantees that no one is messing around with how many beans go in and out afterwards. Moreover, involved parties who do not trust each other would be more likely to share data, because not one party controls the system.
Pannekoek: ‘I remember when we were at Accenture and they showed us a demo from a coffee company. I didn’t know that coffee company at all. “No, no, there is no such thing,” they responded. “We came up with a concrete example for you.” The technology was that far back then. There was hardly any practical experience. ”
Goedegebuure: ‘We also had no concrete problem in mind for which blockchain would offer a solution. We were primarily curious. ” In good spirits, the two launched their blockchain last January.
A year later, the perception of the technology was tilted. Critical articles followed each other rapidly, at home and abroad. De Volkskrant took stock of the situation with Dutch blockchain projects: 85 percent failed in the test phase. The technology often added little or proved unnecessarily complicated. ‘Well, blockchain … You can also put a six-pack of beer on the counter with a forklift. But that is just not that handy ‘, software developer Mark van Cuijk summarized sharply against De Correspondent .
“I have rarely seen such a beautiful hypecycle in operation,” says blockchase expert Pieter Verhagen (TNO) on the phone. ‘It starts with overestimation. Then comes the crash, the anti-hype. We are in it now. Eventually the needle ends up in the middle and a realistic image is created. ‘ According to him, the wheat is separated from the wheat. Projects are dying, conceived applications are disappointing. “As it actually always goes with innovation projects.”
Tony’s Chocolonely also stopped his pilot after six weeks. Main problem: the data entered in a blockchain may not be tampering with, it is still possible to enter incorrect data, just like with other systems. “To solve this, completely different technologies are needed,” says Goedegebuure. ‘Such as mobile registration when a transfer takes place. Now, farmers still do that with receipts. ”
Conversely, blockchain projects fail because companies continue to struggle about sharing data among themselves, says Pieter Verhagen of TNO. Blockchain or not, parties must still want to cooperate.
Moreover, blockchain as a technology is not yet mature, he says. The implementation is complicated, ready-made packages are often missing. If something goes wrong, there is still little service available to solve problems. ‘Developers get a container with raw code and are allowed to figure it out for themselves. Although that is starting to change. ”
Deleted, not lost
Yes, the hype of a few years ago was exaggerated, recognizes Dan Morehead, chairman of the American investment fund Pantera Capital, who has put tens of millions of dollars into blockchain. But his fund also invests only in 2 percent of the applications received, he emphasizes. “So 98 percent is not worth it.”
Among those 2 percent are applications in which he believes the technology is an excellent addition. Such as the Chronicled company, which among other things offers services to check whether medicines are transported at the right temperature. An accompanying temperature sensor measures how hot it is and puts its findings in the firm blockchain.
For example, there are more cases where blockchain appears to be a solution, Verhagen emphasizes. In the Netherlands too. He calls Guts, an online sales service for concert tickets. By linking sold tickets with blockchain to a specific smartphone, it is not possible to resell them at extortionate prices. Fraud with second-hand tickets is therefore also impossible: the seller cannot still come to the concert hall with his pdf.
Tony’s Chocolonely continues to follow the technology. Goedegebuure: “If the blockchain world now ensures that technology that is easy to use is available, and we arrange scales that can transmit measurement data, then we can still end up with blockchain in a few years’ time.”