Next generation

From mapping remote villages to digital banking, meet the social entrepreneurs using technology to change the world  

Mapping the world

Chris Sheldrick - UK

To get humanitarian aid where it’s needed, relief agencies first need to pinpoint the correct location. It is not always an easy job. Off-grid sites such as disaster zones, rural villages and refugee camps rarely have a precise address; and even in cities in fast-developing nations, streets remain unnamed and buildings unnumbered. Long, multi-digit GPS coordinates exist for every place on earth – but are too complicated for most people to remember. 

London-based startup what3words (w3w) has an answer that is brilliant in its simplicity: it divides the world into a grid of 57 trillion 3m by 3m squares, and assigns each one a unique three-word tag. With this tag, anyone can accurately remember, communicate and share any location, anywhere on the planet. 

“We want it to be a global standard to communicate location,” says cofounder Chris Sheldrick, whose previous career in the music business saw him grow increasingly frustrated with suppliers' inability to deliver equipment to the right place.

To avoid confusion, w3w ensures that similar-sounding addresses are located far away from each other. Part of the Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, for example, has the tag ‘tools.chapters.diagram’, while ‘took.chapters.diagram’ is in Venezuela. Expletives, homophones and words with double meanings have been removed from the list of potential tags, and the system currently operates in 14 languages, including Arabic, Urdu and Hindi.

It took Sheldrick just six months to get the first iteration of the product up and running and, after early seed-funding rounds in 2013 and 2014, w3w received an investment of £2.25m ($3.11m) in a series A round led by Intel Capital. Series B and C rounds, led by Aramex and Daimler, followed in 2016 and 2017, although the startup has declined to share exact figures.

More challenging than designing the software, says Sheldrick, was building up a real user base of partner organisations willing to integrate w3w addresses into their car navigation systems, checkout pages, and the operations processes of humanitarian organisations, among others.

The United Nations’ disaster-reporting app has integrated w3w’s system so that photos and reports from disaster zones can be geo-tagged with three-word addresses. W3w has also been used by the rapid-response provider Infinitum Humanitarian Systems in Haiti following Hurricane Matthew, as well as by the Philippines Red Cross and by Gateway Health, which delivers community healthcare in South African townships.

And w3w’s technology was recently used by Saudi Arabia’s postal system – Saudi Post – in their navigation app to help pilgrims visiting Mecca and Medina during Hajj and Umrah to safely navigate their way among the large crowds.   

As autonomous vehicles, drones, and voice-activated operating systems become more widespread, it’s clear that w3w has huge transformative potential. Not only can it help streamline logistics, transport and delivery across every sector, but with 4 billion people lacking a reliable way of addressing their homes, it can also be a tool to create positive social change.

“We look forward,” says Sheldrick, “to showing how better addressing can reduce businesses’ environmental impact, ease pressure on crowded cities, fuel economic growth in developing nations, and save lives."

Serious about play

Saba Saleem Warsi – Bahrain

Bahraini entrepreneur Saba Saleem Warsi has been devoted to playing video games since she was seven, but it wasn’t until she was in her early thirties, working in management consulting and “searching for the meaning of life”, as she says, that she realised that she could devote herself to creating them, too.

“I had this epiphany,” she says, “that all of these skills that I love doing as hobbies – music, drawing, writing – are brought together in game development. Video games are the most holistic form of art out there, and I realised that I could use this art form to create awareness of real-world problems.”

Warsi had already begun dabbling in game development, inspired by a documentary on independent game studios, which helped her realise that game developers weren’t all working for giant corporations. She attended some workshops run by members of Bahrain’s small but active gaming community, and went to a couple of ‘game jams’, where teams are tasked with building a simple game in a short space of time.

“The first time we completely bombed,” she says, but the second time her team won third prize, for a game called Hope-ful, which dealt with depression. Players had to tackle obstacles, but they had the option to play with or without hope. Without, game-play got a lot harder.

The prize gave Warsi a boost. She began creating a new game, Musa, which, like Hope-ful, aimed to raise awareness of another difficult topic; that of the global refugee crisis. In this game, the players’ onscreen avatar is Musa, a refugee child struggling to survive and to look after his younger brother.

After three weeks of prototyping, she showcased the game at the 2017 IGN convention in Bahrain. “People loved the idea and the fact that it was talking about a real problem,” Warsi says, “so it became my mission to finish developing the game and to do this full-time.” 

She’s continuing to make improvements before the game’s public launch, slated for 2019, and plans to work with aid organisations such as UNHCR in order to learn more about what child refugees really go through. 

“I want the stories to be authentic,” she says, “not victimising or demeaning. Musa will be an inventor, and players will have to invent something to pass a level. I don’t just want to show helplessness.”

Warsi has now given up her job as a management consultant to focus full-time on The Stories Studio, the game-development startup she founded to market and launch Musa, and enthusiasm is building. Warsi recently used Indiegogo to raise $4,500 to help finance the game; while her venture's acceptance into the MENA startup accelerator, Flat6labs, saw it receive a further $32,000. 

The studio, she says, will focus broadly on games that highlight and comment on real injustices and struggles happening around the world. Next up is a mobile game, 'Deep Blue Dump', which is currently in testing stages, and aims to raise awareness of plastic pollution. 

She thinks that the immersive aspect of games could help people connect to these issues in a deeper way than books or movies allow.

“In games you become the character, so emotionally you invest a lot more,” she says. “I’ve played games where I’ve cried my eyes out. They can inspire empathy and positive actions.

Social capital

Ahmed Wadi – Kuwait

Kuwaiti entrepreneur Ahmed Wadi was living in Germany, where he had studied for a Master’s in IT while trying to save money for a wedding, when the idea for his fintech startup, Moneyfellows, first occurred to him. At home, he would have simply used a money circle, or 'gameya', to lock himself into the habit of regular savings. These informal alternatives to savings accounts are widely used, not just across the Middle East, but also in India, Africa and other regions where people lack access to mainstream banking services. 

The idea behind the practice is simple: a savings club is formed with regular meetings, and at each meeting, everyone gives a pre-agreed chunk of savings to one person. This might allow them to buy an appliance, pay school fees, or launch a small business. Members each receive a turn.

Money circles work well among small, tight-knit communities where there is a high level of mutual trust. But Wadi was far from home, and he didn’t have a close group of friends in Germany. 

He ended up creating a money circle with friends and family in Kuwait, and using Western Union to send money home. But there were high transfer fees to pay.

“From there,” he says, “came the idea of a digital forum where I could open and find money circles in Germany or outside Germany, with people I do and don’t know.” 

By making it easier for those without bank accounts to save and borrow, he recognised that this tool could play a role in lifting vulnerable people out of poverty.

Wadi decided to launch a platform that would let anyone launch a digital, remote money circle with friends and family. If they proved trustworthy, they would also be able to save in tandem with strangers all over the world. The measures for trustworthiness would take into account a much wider array of information than the usual credit-scoring model. Earnings would come from a small fee incurred when users withdraw money.

In mid-2016, Wadi moved from Germany to the UK to join a fintech startup accelerator in London, and raised around $180,000 in a seed round. This was enough to launch a beta version of the platform, which currently has about 2,600 users. 

In 2017, Moneyfellows won first place at the 2017 MIT Enterprise Forum Arab Startup Competition, and in early 2018, it was announced that the startup had raised a $600,000 investment from a group led by Dubai Angel Investors and 500 Startups. 

Moneyfellows is currently focused only on Egypt, where around 90 per cent of the population are unbanked, although Wadi plans to expand to the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Tackling just one country means that there’s only one currency and set of local regulations to deal with; but even so, it hasn’t been plain sailing.

“We had to wait for a long time to see which legal framework we fall under,” Wadi explains. “There wasn’t a straightforward clear path that we could take to get approved, so we had to create it with [the regulatory bodies]. That took so much time and effort.”

Securing funding was another hurdle. “It’s a chicken and egg problem,” Wadi says. “You need money for the legal fees and research costs of getting regulated, but investors won’t invest in a company that’s not yet launched or regulated."

On the other hand, he adds, “a lot of people are looking to invest in companies that have a meaning and impact people’s lives. The unbanked population are already using money circles. We’re making the model more scalable and efficient."