April 04, 2022



This is a special emergency episode of Barefoot Innovation with a call to action for helping to protect Ukrainian refugees from being preyed upon by human traffickers.

As soon as people began to flee the Russian invasion, we knew their vulnerability would bring out both the best and the worst in human nature. Good-hearted people near and far have stepped up to help, offering money, food, clothing, transportation and lodging. This has included many people opening their own homes to shelter families who have nowhere to go, and give them time to figure out their plans. At the same time, the crisis has attracted the world’s human trafficking rings to Ukraine, with criminals looking to trick and trap people to sell into slavery, for work and sex.

Yesterday, I got a message from Stuart Watkins, the CEO of Zenoo, in Prague. I got to know Stu two years ago when AIR ran our first TechSprint on the US Paycheck Protection Program, which provided rescue funding for small businesses hit suddenly by the covid shutdowns. Zenoo, based in London and Prague, worked with the TechSprint teams from a Friday night to a Sunday night, developing tools for banks to use for fast, automated onboarding of PPP loan applicants.

This week, Stu was reaching out for help with a different idea: a plan for protecting Ukrainian refugees by setting up a system to authenticate the identities of people offering them shelter and transportation.

The UN estimates that 90% of the first 3.6 million Ukrainian war refugees are women and children. Most left their homes with almost nothing. Many are traveling without other adult family members to help them. Many have seen their family members killed. Many do not know where their families are – or even whether they are alive. A large number of refugees are young children traveling alone. And in addition to the millions who have crossed the border, there are huge numbers who are displaced inside Ukraine.

Governments and aid agencies are scrambling to organize their resources to process this sudden mass migration. Meanwhile, volunteers and small organizations on the ground are self-organizing, creating online forums matching people who need help with people who are offering it.

That is where the danger lies, and that danger is what Stu is solving for. He says Zenoo and another tech firm, Acuant - a GBG Company, are doing identity verifications to reduce the risks, and they need more fintechs to help.

In the show, Stu explains how he got started trying to help, beginning with his daughter’s suggestion that they deliver Freedom Boxes to refugees. Each box contains a message to a Ukrainian child from other children around the world. If you watch the podcast as a video, you’ll see that the wall behind Stu is covered with them, written in crayon on paper in the yellow and blue colors of Ukraine’s flag. He tells of taking three vans full of Freedom Boxes to the border and offering rides to people – and imagining how a desperate woman must feel as she weighs the decision to accept that offer.

Fortunately, Zenoo is a fintech firm that can help make that decision safer, and that is what they are doing.

Stu’s efforts are being covered by the BBC and Sky News. But he reached out to Barefoot Innovation because our audience is full of fintech and regtech firms and banks that can help.

The Ukrainian crisis reminds us that what we call “compliance” work is not about pushing paper. It’s about achieving crucial goals. In the Ukrainian crisis, AML compliance people are helping search out sanctioned Russian oligarchs, and now AML Know Your Customer solutions are helping protect refugees by preventing criminals from making money off the misery of these poor people, so that there won’t be any profits to launder.

This crisis also reminds us that the work Zenoo does is part of a massive effort emerging all over the world to work toward better forms of identity authentication. We’ve known for years that electronic verification can help with refugee situations, including ones where there is high concern that refugee populations may include significant numbers of would-be terrorists and criminals, and which therefore require detaining people for long periods while they undergo screening. If we had gotten better ID systems in place already, they could be invaluable in today’s Ukraine crisis. This isn’t the time to delve into the larger issue, but we’ll come back to it in a separate show, with hopes that Ukraine’s tragedy may accelerate solutions. Perhaps next time the world sees thousands or millions of people running for their lives, we will have the technology in place to screen, help and protect them well.At this very moment, someone is offering a ride or a bed to a woman or child who has just lost everything, or may be about to. This is a place where “tech for good” can make a life changing difference.

To help with Zenoo’s Freedom ID project, please reach out to Stuart or to me:

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