Young, engaged and giving

From Beirut, to Cairo, to Riyadh; in the second of this series, meet the young Arabs tackling the challenges of social enterprise and daring to do good

Listen up

Who: Mohamed Elwazer, 26

From: Egypt

Mohamed Elwazer’s light bulb moment came from watching kids play a Nintendo Wii, using their movements to manipulate the video game rather than a controller.

The game reminded him of a scene from the streets of Cairo, where he’d watched a young deaf boy try to make himself understood by a policeman. Here was somewhere that such movement-sensing technology could be put to good use, thought Elwazer.

The Egyptian, now resident in the UAE, has developed KinTrans, a device comprising a computer, software and cameras, which translates sign language into audio and on-screen text, in real time. Elwazer’s idea could be game-changing for communication between deaf and hearing people, particularly when it comes to essential services. He envisions the device being used in airports, hospitals and police stations.

“There is a big need for such technology,” says Elwazer, citing United Nations data that estimates 360 million people globally have disabling hearing loss. “Human interpreters are very costly and are not always available. There is also the issue of privacy, for example, such as when accessing medical care.”

KinTrans is being tested at Dubai’s airport, police headquarters and Roads and Transport Authority. Elwazer moved to the emirate two years ago to leverage $30,000 in seed funding and support from local startup accelerator, Turn8. KinTrans is currently on track to raise a further $90,000 in funding, Elwazer says, and is seeking a further $750,000 to bankroll the official launch of the product in October and develop a mobile app “so the deaf can have access anywhere, any time,” he says.

Elwazer hopes to sell each KinTrans device for around $10,000 “to provide a better service for deaf people and expand a new customer segment for [each] business”. If all goes to plan, KinTrans aims to sell 300 to 500 units in the UAE over a two-year period, and possibly 1,000 in the US and Europe.

Elwazer, a computer systems engineer and image-processing expert, always hoped to invent something with a social purpose. He believes the rising number of social enterpreneurs seen in the Arab world reflects a change in the way younger generations view giving back.

“[Social enterprise] seems to appeal more to the younger generation than the older one. Before, you gave to charity if you wanted to help society. Now if you want to help society then you make something valuable you can sell, and sell in such a way you don’t exploit the people with the problem,” he says. “We don’t believe in charity. Charity is unsustainable.”

The entrepreneurial path is one many of his peers hesitate to follow, often facing pressure to find a stable job. For Elwazer, the chance to show a social business can succeed is perhaps even more important than solving this particular issue. Disrupting the market “would be the biggest success of KinTrans,” he says.

The real deal

Name: Ahmed Rashad, 27

From: Egypt

Ahmed Rashad is a man with a plan. And it’s a big one. The graduate wants to solve a problem that threatens every person in Egypt, but which many never know is there: counterfeit medicines.

Fake drugs are pervasive in the North African country. The Ministry of Health estimates between 10 and 30 per cent of all medicines in Egypt are counterfeit. Consumers are at risk of buying a product that doesn’t treat their ailment or – worse – one that is dangerous and potentially life threatening. On the part of pharmaceutical firms there is fall-out too, from lost income to investing in costly fixes.

Rashad and his team of software and IT developers came up with a tag and scan technology to determine whether a product is real. Aslya (meaning “genuine” in Arabic) sees customers scratch off a sticker on the product to reveal a QR code they can scan, using a free app downloaded to their phone. The QR code is a complex encryption of letters, numbers and symbols, which tells consumers in an instant whether the product they are buying is the real deal, or not.

Firms can get Aslya to print the tags, or buy a licence to print the tags themselves. Either way, Rashad puts the price of the technology at less than $0.01 per unit.

The system can be used with any product, but it is the pharmaceutical industry that Rashad has in his sights. He hopes to win over 3 per cent of Egypt’s pharmaceutical market in the next two years, before moving on to cosmetics, another victim of knockoffs.

Aslya plans to relaunch an improved mobile app in September and continue trials: so far, the startup has tested more than 1,500 units and detected 480 fakes.

Aslya has attracted around EGP65,000 (about $8,277) of investment and is in talks with several multinational drug firms in Egypt. “Investors are looking for projects that create money, very fast,” says Rashad. “But we try to put society first and I hope [our success] creates awareness of giving priority to such projects.”

Hungry for change

Name: Maya Terro, 29

From: Lebanon

“A lot of people expect an old lady to be running FoodBlessed and they’re surprised to see me,” says Maya Terro, 29, founder of the Beirut-based enterprise. “I tell them age doesn’t matter as long as you have the passion to do what you love.”

Terro set up FoodBlessed in 2012 in her native Lebanon to tackle the twin evils of food waste and hunger. Her entirely volunteer-run organisation pairs with restaurants and catering agencies to distribute leftover food to the homeless and poor, via local nonprofits. Around one-third of all food grown for human consumption is lost or wasted globally, according to the UN’s food agency.

Nearly a third of those helped by FoodBlessed are Syrian refugees, estimates Terro. In a bleak reflection of the crisis wrought by the ongoing conflict in Syria, UN figures show there are 232 refugees to every 1,000 inhabitants in Lebanon. The vast majority live on the poverty line, unable to work or support their families.

The organisation has also worked with Palestinian refugees and female prisoners from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and India, in addition to Lebanese citizens, she adds.

“FoodBlessed was set up to fight hunger in Lebanon,” says Terro. “We provide meals to those in need, regardless of nationality, age or race.”

Growing from 10 to 100 food partners, FoodBlessed has helped feed 221,000 people in Lebanon in the three years since its launch, through soup kitchens and collecting and distributing 1,400 boxes of dried food goods. Still, the organisation needs money to operate – around $1,000 a month – and has raised $50,000 in in-kind donations and $15,000 cash in three years. Now Terro hopes to raise enough money to buy a food truck for her latest venture: Souper Meals on Wheels. Once purchased, the “soup kitchen by day, food truck by night” will be self-sustaining and will target the needy in rural areas where little food aid is available.

People’s willingness to gift their time is at the heart of the organisation. Terro works part-time jobs to make ends meet, and FoodBlessed relies on the hard work and good humour of its many regular volunteers. “Volunteering is not a hobby, it’s a lifestyle,” says Terro, who first volunteered at the age of 16. “People who volunteer are active change makers, individuals who lead by example. I believe every generation needs them.”

That FoodBlessed can call on so many people to give freely of their time to help others may surprise many, but not Terro: “All our volunteers are hunger heroes in disguise.”

Bright spark

Name: Maha Al Otaibi, 19

From: Saudi Arabia

Ask what most 19-year-olds do in their spare time and the answer is likely to be hanging out with friends rather than inventing a device to help the hard of hearing. But Maha Al Otaibi is definitely not your average student.

Last year Al Otaibi entered, and won second place, at the Emirates Award for Arabian Gulf Youth (EAAGY), a competition hosted by the UAE’s Emirates Foundation. The award is aimed at encouraging young GCC venture philanthropists to come up with solutions to important social issues.

Al Otaibi’s invention is a more robust hearing aid that can withstand moisture. Waterlogged devices are one of the most common reasons for them to stop working. Using nanotechnology, Al Otaibi's hearing aid continues to work when it gets wet.

It was her 14-year-old brother, Faisal, who inspired Al Otaibi to invent the waterproof hearing aid as she saw how he struggled when performing wudu (washing before prayers), swimming or going to the beach. “I wanted to help him overcome his fear and stress when it comes to being in the water,” she says.

The young inventor won AED70,000 ($19,000) from EAAGY to further the project and the next steps are to test the device with multiple users and take it to market. In addition to the technical barriers, Al Otaibi has had to overcome social hurdles too.

“Universities weren’t very accepting of the fact I was young and wanted to invent something,” she admits. “They couldn’t fathom the idea I wanted to start a project – to invent – as a young Saudi, Arab, woman. But I believe if you have determination this will not deter you.”

But the positive social impact her device could have has given her the determination to persist. “I want to say to anyone who has an idea or an invention to not be deterred by challenges,” she says. “[My] project started out, and continues, with the goal to serve society.”

Al Otaibi believes her university friends and peers share her socially conscious mindset: “We know we need to have a social impact and make a difference.”

Photo credit: Verko Ignjatovic