Interview: Ben Joakim, CEO of Disberse

In the latest Tech Dragons interview, we speak to Ben Joakim, the co-founder and CEO of Cardiff-based fintech start-up Disberse. The company has developed a fund management for global development organisations, based on Bitcoin technology.

TD: What’s your company, and what does it do?

BJ: If you have ever donated to a humanitarian cause, you may wonder what happened to your donation, where the funds went, how they were spent and the impact they had.

Disberse is a fund management platform for the global development sector, built on blockchain technology. It drives the transparent, efficient and effective flow & delivery of development and humanitarian aid.

We enable donors, governments and NGO’s to transfer and trace funds through the whole chain, from donor to beneficiary, via intermediaries. We ensure vital resources reach those they are intended to serve, for the greatest impact. 

TD: Why did you set the business up?

BJ: Having worked in the international development sector for a number of years, I became increasingly aware of the number of inefficiencies relating to financial transactions within the sector, and how they were limiting the impact that funds could have to tackle poverty.

TD: What problem is it solving?

BJ: Distributing and tracking funds to ensure they have maximum impact remains a challenge for the international development sector. The current systems for transferring funds internationally is inefficient. It takes too long and is too expensive. Organisations lose out to upfront bank fees, but also hidden exchange rates and commission fees.

There is also an inability to trace funds as they flow down the chain to beneficiaries. This lack of transparency makes it impossible to fully measure the efficiency and effectiveness of these funds. It also increases opportunities for the misappropriation of funds, through fraud and corruption. The result of this is less funds being available to beneficiaries.

TD: What makes your business unique?

BJ: There are a few unique elements to our business. Firstly, the problems that we are trying to address for the sector – the inefficiencies of aid distribution. And secondly, the technology that we are using to solve this – blockchain.

Blockchain is emerging and surrounded by a lot of hype, but we believe that our use case is very much aligned with the essence of the technology. Finally, I think our team is actually our strongest USP. As founders, we bring together expertise from international development and social enterprise sectors, finance and regulation, and cryptographic technology.

TD: What’s been your biggest success and biggest obstacle?

Disberse was founded in September 2016 and since then, we’ve moved quickly. We have built the initial version of the platform, engaged a number of donors and NGO’s and are now ready to pilot in the new year. Our initial pilots will be launched in Swaziland, Uganda and the Philippines.

However, there have certainly been some challenges we’ve had to address. One of the key obstacles is the need to educate organisations on what blockchain is and how it actually works and how our process of fund distribution. This can take time, but once they see the value and benefits the technology can provide, the platform almost sells itself!

TD: Where do you see your business in 5 years’ time?

BJ: In 5 years’ time, we will be the leading fund management platform for the international development sector, distributing and tracking billions of pounds of funds, tackle global poverty. But our vision is bigger than this.

We want to see a fundamental shift in how development is distributed, from a centralised model where donors define the agenda, to a model where local NGO’s, communities and beneficiaries are able to ‘procure their own development, and define their own futures.

TD: What do you think of Welsh tech?

BJ: The tech scene in Wales is in a really exciting phase at the moment. It’s a dynamic community that is growing incredibly fast. There is a strong sense of collaboration and support through some collectives like Cardiff Start, and co-working spaces including TechHub and Welsh Ice.

Wales is a great place for a company like Disberse to establish itself. Beyond the tech scene, it has an active international development community, through initiatives like the Welsh Government Wales for Africa programme and the Welsh Centre for International Affairs, plus international NGOs doing some great work, such as United Purpose (UP).  These offer great opportunities for us.

TD: Do you have any advice for budding entrepreneurs? 

BJ: If you’ve got an idea, just go for it. It’s going to require vision, balanced with focus and determination. It gets tough at times, but it’s not meant to be an easy ride. It’s the journey that is the exciting part.