Zeena Qureshi is a young woman with a mission. Last April she became CEO of the Ananas Foundation, a non-profit organisation she co-founded with her brother-in-law, Emad Mostaque, with the aim of promoting peace through technology. Together they are creating a platform which allows every community to map and make accessible its own beliefs.
What first got you interested in cryptocurrencies and blockchain?
I come from a very entrepreneurial family with a strong interest in technology. My brother-in-law is my co-founder for the Ananas Foundation and my sisters also have a blockchain startup called Symmitree, which is aimed at helping refugees. Our first investor gave us the seed funding to get our research started back in 2014. At the time I was working on another project at Stanford and got involved in working on this project alongside it. Through our research, we realised blockchain was the missing link for what we were trying to do. We needed the cryptocurrency element in order to be able to provide an incentive to contribute to the project and also as a way to align disparate groups.
What is the problem you are trying to solve with the Ananas project?
Our aim is to democratise information and bring it to a wider audience. More specifically, the Ananas Foundation’s goal is to spread the message of a more peaceful world by building up what we call “an ontology of ideologies”. That is a phrase – a bit like the word blockchain – which is hard for average person to break down. What it really means is that we are filling in knowledge gaps and fostering the understanding of belief systems in order to help people understand one other. This is especially important in our current era of fake news. Through using our project, we believe that people can figure out the truth for themselves and break through the online filter bubbles that cause polarisation. Our first project is the Living Quran, which we are launching in response to the rise of extremism and Islamophobia.
Last year I found it quite depressing when I sat down to write an updated version of our business plan with the latest statistics only to see that there were already more than 700 terrorist attacks which had taken place around the world by in 6 months of 2017.
One basis of the problem is misinformation, when literal translations of religious texts are taken out of context for political gains. Extremists target isolated individuals – usually individuals who don’t come from a background with a firm understanding of faith – and they use these misrepresentations to radicalise vulnerable people. This is why we set up the project as a UK registered charity. We want to provide the proper information for the public for free, – using the funds we raise to give more context and richness to the public understanding of religious texts like the Quran. We have also made it possible that after the Living Quran, we can create a resource like this for the Bible or the Torah or even other important documents like the US Constitution.
If you look at something like Logos – a type of bible software – it’s very expensive and only exists for the Bible. For those that simply want to use an app, like the Living Quran, our service will be free to access. Later expanding to other base texts, that will also be free and easy to access online or via an app.
We what we have created with Ananas is a 3-part platform which consists of the following elements:
- A community forum for constructive dialogue
- A data platform using ANA coins to stake that information to prevent trolling
- Consumer applications like the Living Quran – a mobile app anyone can use to help understand how different parts of the text are interpreted from various perspectives or different schools of thought
What is it specifically about blockchain and cryptocurrency that make them suited to this type of project?
One of the key characteristics that blockchain technology is known for is its transparency – we can use that transparency to keep track of who is submitting entries to the data platform, similar to a subjective Wikipedia from all angles, and then be able to reward them for contributing in a frictionless manner.
Since we are operating part of our data platform with a cryptocurrency token called the ANA token, and we are aware that blockchain is a fairly new topic that most do not understand right away, we tried to make it as easy as possible to participate in our token sale. Making the barrier to entry as low as possible by accepting both fiat currency (USD, GBP, etc) and cryptocurrency. We also helped educate our participants about cryptocurrency whenever they messaged in, and helped them set up cryptocurrency wallets. Additionally, we spoke at a number of events, particularly in the Muslim world. What I found is that people want to understand the workings of the technology but they also have faith-based questions such as asking whether using cryptocurrency is considered to be halal and how it fits with their religious belief. I mostly try to clear up misunderstandings about bitcoin and its past links to drugs, the dark web, illegal activity and so on, as well as explaining the broader implications of blockchain and cryptocurrency for the future of society.
Wikipedia gets a lot of criticism for its lack of accuracy and/or subjectivity – how would Ananas deal with that given that the topics you are dealing with are so ethically and politically sensitive?
The Ananas Foundation is run by an inter-faith team from diverse cultural and professional backgrounds who all share a common aim to fight hate by building and supporting communities. We plan to make sure every community’s viewpoint is represented regardless of numbers. Every opinion will be shown and you can see them all, since there is no ranking of views – it’s a non-biased structure with both breadth and depth. In fact, it is not always well known that Islamic scholarship is partly based on consensus – a lot like blockchain! Our project will be comprehensive, up-to-date and authoritative and we are now building up a peer-review process based on a similar model used by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
In addition to simply accepting contributions from those who actively want to take part, we will also go out and seek contributions from neglected voices or communities. We plan to do a gap analysis and then donate tokens to the relevant people or missing groups in order to encourage a wide range of contributions.
How is the project funded?
At the beginning we were reliant on seed funding in the form of donations from angel investors or corporates. We recently completed our token sale and raised enough to build our MVP which will really get this Living Quran project off the ground. We are now also seeking grant funding from foundations and other grant-making bodies that we feel are aligned with our objectives.
How can people get involved?
Our token is listed on a couple of cryptocurrency exchanges if you’d like to buy some. If you wish to contribute content, you would first have to buy some tokens and then when the platform is built you can use the tokens to stake information (in other words, when you submit an entry you use your token as a deposit or gesture of good faith which allows us to prevent trolling or frivolous entries). If your information is verified and accepted, you also receive tokens as a form of incentive or reward for your effort. Those tokens can be sold for other cryptocurrencies/fiat or else can be held onto to later be re-submitted back into the project, for example, by sponsoring additional content on verses of your choice.
People are also welcome to sponsor research for chapters of the Quran, giving them named sponsorship that they can later resell if they choose to – but when they sell their sponsorship, half the value goes back into the project and the other half they get to keep.
What other ‘blockchain for good’ projects are you inspired by?
I feel like there’s only a handful of projects in the blockchain space that are truly interesting and made for true impact. I’m a big fan of my sisters who started Symmitree, a platform to help refugees and the displaced. I am also inpsired by a number of other projects both in the non-profit and for-profit sectors. In the non-profit sector, I’m impressed by projects such as Alice, which is a blockchain-based platform bringing transparency to philanthropy. I also like Sovrin – I’m not sure if it counts as ‘blockchain for good’ – but what they are doing puts data ownership in the hands of the individual, changing the basis of how we all operate online. On the for-profit side, Gems is doing interesting work and aiming to disrupt Amazon’s Mechanical Turk through transparent matching of jobs using blockchain, which allows them to take a much lower fee than Amazon. And Rivetz is also working to improve mobile phone cyber security and protect your data. Last but very much not least, I’m also a big supporter of blockchain projects trying to use technology to identify fake news like Publiq and others.
Last but not least, why do you have a pineapple in your logo and name?
Ananas is an almost universal word that means pineapple in most languages. Pineapples also happen to be a symbol of welcome and inclusivity. This is why it is often found in places like door handles or gateposts. Since our platform is designed to build stronger communities by countering misinformation we thought the pineapple was a great symbol to encapsulate the type of world we want to represent: a world of harmony through understanding.
For more information:
Zeena Qureshi is Chief Executive officer and co-founder of Ananas. Ananas is a UK registered charity building a decentralised platform of knowledge to defuse hate and promote understanding, starting with Islam and the Living Quran project. The Living Quran will contextually outline every verse of the holy text from the various schools of thought in a language geared to today’s readers. The app will be an authoritative, comprehensive, and up-to-date resource of Islam aiming to reduce extremism and Islamophobia. In her unwavering commitment she ensures that Ananas will fulfil its visionary mission, and coordinates the many resources and individuals that make Ananas possible.
Zeena was previously co-founder of Bespecular, a startup that uses technology to solve the problems which visually impaired people around the world face on a daily basis, all the while bridging the gap between the sighted and visually impaired communities. Zeena studied History of Art and Material Studies at UCL and Technology Entrepreneurship at Stanford.