[Interview] UCOLLEX, Freedom Boxes talk about using NFTs to support Ukraine reliefs

Children in an Ukrainian orphanage receive Freedom Boxes. Courtesy of Freedom Boxes.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is heart-wrenching news to read. As Russian troops advanced and the Ukrainian people fled their damaged homes, people from other parts of the world could easily share the shock and pain through television or Youtube broadcasts.

They might be considering doing something to help those affected, however little it might be. Some might have flown into Ukraine to take part in relief efforts; others might even join an international army trying to help the Ukrainian people defend their countries. But for some, there were always practical limitations. They might be tied to a full-time job or study, to their family responsibilities, or they simply do not have related skills or resources.

Shortly after the war broke on February 24, Stuart Watkins, owner of Prague-based software company Zenoo, started the Freedom Boxes project, sourcing different daily necessities and sending them in boxes to the Ukrainian people in need. The project was first launched on a webpage, which accepts traditional online payment methods.

By that time, thousands of Ukrainian refugees had been arriving in neighbouring countries. Over a chat, Watkins and his friend Robert Tran, founder and chief executive of UCOLLEX, a Hong Kong-based company which operates a NFT platform for artists, creators and collectors, came up with an idea, which would use the power of creativity unleashed by Web3 to support humanitarian aid.

Their collaboration saw a total of 1,100 NFTs of colourful illustrations and letters of hope sold on UCOLLEX’s marketplace. The proceeds were used to buy Freedom Boxes to help support Ukrainian people.

UCOLLEX’s platform is open to artists from around the world with a passion to showcase their works online. It is also a hub for collectors to buy, sell and show off both digital and physical collectibles. Thousands of miles away from the war-torn Ukraine and eastern Europe where most refugees now stay, a group of creators from Hong Kong, Japan and Taiwan joined the cause of supporting Ukrainian people through UCOLLEX.

“This is the least we can do to help people on the other side of the continent,” Tran told Metaverse Style Japan during a video call interview. He spread the words about the project on social media, and was pleased about the responses the creators gave. 

“We articulated this project and managed to locate these artists who were very glad to support Stuart and his team, working completely outside of their ordinary tasks,” Tran said. 

For artists pondering the question of what digital art could mean and do, the Freedom Boxes-UCOLLEX project might shed new lights on the subject, he said. An artwork in the form of a jpeg might be something for people to look at and appreciate, but it could also be converted into something real, such as aid deliveries.

“By using their artistic creativity and their knowledge, they can actually contribute back to society, apart from making money for themselves,” Tran said.

UCOLLEX founder and chief executive Robert Tran

From a background quite different from humanitarian aid delivery, Watkin’s company focuses on applications for streamlining verification processes for corporate clients. It was his 10-year-old daughter who inspired him to start the relief effort for Ukraine. 

“My daughter likes to draw and add labels on boxes,” Watkins said during the video call interview. “She suggested that we send sweets to people in Ukraine. That’s how it started,” he recalled.

Watkins said many people wanted to do something to help the Ukraine people but some were not close enough or had no means. Given the proximity of his company to the war-torn country, he took his daughter’s idea further by adding more items in the boxes.

The Freedom Boxes are filled with stationery, medicine, food, bedding, hygiene products, books, toys and other items. There are also messages of hope created by children around the world included in the boxes.

Delivery was handled by a group of volunteers from all across Europe. Around 200 to 300 boxes have been delivered to homes, shelters and community facilities alike across Ukraine every week since the war broke out, Watkins said. Based on intelligence and assessment from their agencies, they would avoid high-risk zones where intense fighting was taking place. But even so, some volunteers still experienced shelling at times.

“The volunteers in Ukraine came under shelling. We dropped off boxes two weeks ago in a village. A few days after it was taken by the Russians,” Watkins said.

Zenoo’s clients include the United States space agency NASA, diamond firm De Beers, consumer credit reporting company Experian, as well as financial services providers and crypto currency companies. 

Its services help clients to verify their customers, for example, people applying for bank accounts, and Zenoo help them conduct all the necessary checks online. The verification used to require customers to go through a series of procedures in person, but with the benefits of technology and due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Watkins’ company offers online solutions to replace them.

“It is basically taking away that front office where you need to keep your passport or sign a load of paperwork,” Watkins said.

Stuart Watkins

As the war goes on, Watkin’s team will continue to send Freedom Boxes to Ukraine. He said he would consider some other type of aid after the war ends, because the Ukrainian people’s needs might become different then.

The emergence of Web3-based and NFT platforms might not fundamentally change the way people donate to charity campaigns. However, at the least, it has offered a new option and possibility. 

“We just want to spread our wings to widen the channel, whether it is physical or digital,” Tran said. “It is part of our global citizenship to do something.”