Sajida Zouarhi: Life saving is the biggest thing to achieve for me as an engineer

Sajida Zouarhi is a pioneering woman in the field of blockchain, the recipient of multiple awards including the Women in IT awards of Ireland, a co-founder of a life-saving blockchain project, a blockchain architect, and much more. What’s more, she will be in Riga speaking at the Digital Freedom Festival on November 14-15, at the invitation of the Ambassador of France and French Institute in Latvia. 

Tell us about yourself.

My background is in engineering. I also worked in research in computer science mostly in the telco and data privacy management domain. I launched a social impact project to help improve access of transplants, called Kidner. I co-founded the Blockfest, which is a pedagogical event, meant to help participants with understanding blockchain and empowering them to use it. It’s about taking these abstract technologies and putting them towards real issues. I joined Consensys, one of the largest companies in the Ethereum ecosystem, I was there for 2 years as an “intrapreneur” working on projects that were interesting to me. 

In early September I joined Nomadic Labs which is an R&D company working on the Tezos protocol. Interestingly, I’m the new head of communications, a post that I’ve never done officially before. This role therefore has its challenges, but it allows me to do what I like – sharing knowledge and helping projects that make sense to be supported, while keeping up with my research in the technical field. 


What was your journey to specifically becoming a blockchain architect?

I started as an engineer and then went into academia. My goal was to bring the best of both worlds together and to work on interesting topics that can benefit people. The engineering mindset is close to an architect’s mindset – in both cases, first, the project you intend to create exists only in your head. Then you need to choose your building blocks to create the foundation, and then you identify what are your next steps. That’s why I use the metaphor of architect. 

Similarly, as an architect that has a request for a building to create, a blockchain architect has to understand the issue and see if a solution based on distributed systems, cryptography, consensus mechanism, game theory, can help solve it.

I discovered blockchain through Bitcoin in 2015, I read the whitepaper and quickly I understood the benefit and potential of this technology. I then focused on learning everything I could about the smaller components – cryptography, consensus mechanisms, peer-to-peer network etc.


What was it about blockchain that drew you to it?

I was always passionate about technology, but when I discovered blockchain, what attracted me to it was its plurality. In one invention you have computer science represented, but also economic theories that you have to understand, and the social concept as well, as it relies a lot on individual behaviour and the behaviour of a community. The real discovery for me was game theory. And I love games. 

It was a great intellectual challenge and let me tap into the skills I already had, and it was an opportunity to learn more about specific fields, such as consensus mechanisms and cryptography.


Tell us about Kidner, your kidney transplant project.

In 2015 I participated in a hackathon in Dublin and that lead to the launch of the Kidner Project.

It was a blockchain hackathon meant to find interesting use cases for blockchain. Of all of the projects, only one project was in another domain (everyone else was doing bitcoin payment stuff), and it was ours, in the domain of healthcare. 

Our idea was simple. There’s a shortage of kidneys worldwide, as well as an issue with kidney trafficking. The market is broken, that’s what we call it when the offer is low and demand is high. 

Now imagine that you need a kidney, and you even have someone who would be willing to give theirs (be that a friend, family member, spouse, etc.). But they’re not a direct match. With Kidner, that mismatched pair of donor and recipient goes into a pool, along with other pairs. Your friend can then give their kidney to another pair, while someone else from the pool might be your match and give it to you in exchange. This is called KPD (kidney paired exchange) and it dramatically increases your chances of receiving a life-saving kidney transplant, up to 50%, which is unheard of. And it’s all just using simple logic and available technology.

For the pool to work, hospitals from everywhere need to collaborate. How do you know a hospital isn’t going to cheat, and push their patients first? This is where blockchain becomes necessary. It ensures that there is no possible fraud. 

And then cryptography, enabled with blind computation (HellHound), can find matches without having to reveal any health data, which is kind of magic. You mix all of that, and you have the ingredients of a solution with worldwide potential to launch at a large scale and generate global positive social impact. Because frontiers and borders don’t matter – your best match might be in Japan and you never would’ve known. You might die waiting on a list for years just because you don’t know, because the information isn’t collaboratively shared today.

Currently, it’s still a volunteer project. After we won some awards, multiple people from the world volunteered to work on the project (doctors, lawyers, students, developers). So now we have a running prototype, and we have a lot of documentation from when we won the social impact decentralized incubator of Consensys. The next step is to find actors to partner with us to develop this further and integrate it with hospitals to deploy it, then scale to more actors. What we need is people that are not necessarily blockchain experts, but people that have experiences with hospitals, integrators, operators and finding funds. The only reason I’m still working on this besides all of my jobs for the last 5 years is because it’s the only project I’ve ever worked on that can actually save lives. For an engineer, it’s the biggest thing to achieve with your work.


Why do you think it’s important in a technical field to work on social good?

I’m a technical person, so I’m going to work on social good from what I know. If I were an artist, I would understand how to benefit social good using artististic skills. Everyone should focus on what they can contribute. They should dedicate their skills to projects doing concrete things benefiting society.

For example, on your own, you can do nothing against a transplant system that is designed in this way. But having a better system can help everyone, because anyone can suffer kidney failure, rich or poor, unknown or famous, old or young, in any country in the world.