Young, engaged and giving

From smartphone apps, to green packaging, to insurance for the Arab world’s poorest, meet the young entrepreneurs bringing a triple-bottom-line approach to doing business in the Gulf

Upwardly mobile

Name: Moussa Bedas, 30

Where: UAE

Smartphones have been hailed as the democratising device of financial inclusion but when it comes to daily transactions there is a catch. Data services are still too pricey for many in the developing world, even assuming there is a network operating reliably enough to deliver them. Despite the mass of smartphones and digital payment options then, cash is still king when it comes to the local shop.

“Cash just works,” says Moussa Bedas, the UAE-based entrepreneur behind Bridg, a payment app that can work offline. “Unlike phones, it doesn’t matter if cash is wet, connected or if the holder is literate; it just works. That’s what we’re trying to do with smartphone payments.”

Cash is a liability, particularly for big-ticket payments, adds Bedas. “People want the safety of [an app] while still knowing they can cash-in and cash-out in any corner store, that they can always have it on them and they can use it even if they are not connected.”

Bridg aims to plug this gap. Using some clever proprietary technology called OneConnect, it allows smartphones to process transactions without an internet connection, using Bluetooth – wireless technology that connects devices over short distances – to move credit from one device to the other. While markets such as the UAE offer highly commercial opportunities for the application, such as tackling cash on delivery, the app has big potential for those at the bottom of the pyramid. In a market like India, where few people are banked and card penetration is miniscule, there is a huge opportunity to sign up users who were previously unable to rely on their smartphones as a payment method because of data cost barriers.

The business will have a standalone application branded Bridg wallet. It will also offer software integration allowing a virtual wallet component to be added to any existing applications. A third and final approach will be a ‘white label’ or closed loop system that Bedas says will work well when it comes to building a system for a large firm or even an NGO.

“In refugee camps, for example, it would be a good way to get money to people who have smartphones,” he says. “The value is in being able to adopt the app overnight – not specifically when it comes to pushing our own brand, but more in enabling existing brands that already have some clout in the market to really scale.”

The last straw

Name: Lamis Harib, 30

Where: UAE

Every day, consumers around the GCC unwrap tonnes of plastic to get to their lunch, fork their way through dinner, or slurp up a soda. The resulting waste is rarely recycled, finding its way into landfills or, worse yet, dumped on the spot. Plastics used to package food pile up as garbage and pollute oceans, with many taking hundreds of years to degrade for just minutes of use.

“I wanted to fix that. I am a huge believer that we can cut this influx of plastic pollution every day by using plant-based materials,” says Lamis Harib, the founder of BioD, which designs and supplies biodisposable products and packaging.

“Biodegradables aren’t the solution to all packaging. But for the few minutes you’ll drink a coffee, eat something, or wrap something, you really don’t need packaging that will last 700 years.”

With a background in structural packaging design and experience of branding, the Emirati entrepreneur set up BioD in 2013 to tackle the issue of plastic waste through design. “I look at environmental problems as a design issue,” she says.

Her solution is plant-based compostable polymers that do the job of plastics without the long-term impact on the environment. Harib began as a distributor for Italian brand Ecozema, before investing savings, time and energy to get her business going. With advice and support from Ecozema, she built her knowledge of bioplastics – “a different world” – and business, before setting out to crack the tough GCC market.

“No one was talking about compostables,” she says. “I go to schools and give lectures to really push the community aspect. You can’t just put products on shelves and expect people to know what they are.”

Smartly designed packaging – including a cartoon character version of Harib herself – with labels in Arabic and English, target consumers with everything from ziplock bags and cutlery, to disposable plates made from pressed palm leaves. A range of reusable products also includes bamboo coffee cups, jute shopping totes and stainless steel drink bottles. “It’s important to be in people’s homes,” says Harib.

BioD’s primary target is the food and beverage industry. There, Harib hopes to have the biggest impact on reducing the use of nonbiodegradable plastics through a lean business model built around a 24/7 depot for business clients.

Her most visible success to date has been a contract with a hotel chain in the Maldives to supply drinking straws, one of the ocean’s most persistent pollutants thanks to tourists.

“The hotels solved an immediate issue,” says Harib. “Biostraws degrade a lot faster. They are not a pollutant even if they are in the water, where they break down as starch.”

Risk and reward

Name: Michele Grosso, 29

Where: UAE

For millions of people in the Arab world, insurance is an unheard-of luxury. Either they cannot afford it, or they have no realistic channel to reach it. Those without health cover or insurance are vulnerable to accidents, misfortune and what the industry labels ‘acts of God’.

Entrepreneur Michele Grosso, an Italian based in the UAE, wants to change this. His startup Democrance is a for-profit business aiming to make insurance affordable and accessible to low-income populations in the Middle East and North Africa. Like many models trying to drive financial inclusion for the economically isolated, it relies on the smartphone. 

“We’re not an insurance company,” he explains. “Our product is a technology to cut down the distribution and administration costs of traditional insurance policies. That’s how we make insurance affordable.”

“Life insurance can be a safety net for low-income people and their families” Grosso believes delivering insurance through the only channel many people have open to them – their mobile phone – is the fastest way to build inclusion. Premiums will be collected through phone airtime charges and could be in the region of $2 per month says Grosso; no bank account or credit card needed. Tie-ups with the region’s mobile operators may offer the chance to scale rapidly, introducing insurance companies to a new market numbering in the millions.

“The beauty of our model is that once we have one mobile operator on board, we can potentially reach millions of people,” he says. The startup is about to roll out its first partnership with an insurance provider in the region.

Similar models have been successful in Latin America, some parts of Africa and in Asia, but they have yet to find a firm hold in the Middle East. A big part of the challenge will be driving awareness among consumers. “Most of our target audience don't even know what insurance is,” admits Grosso.

Once insurers are in place to underwrite policies Democrance – which will be provider agnostic – will take care of everything else, including distribution, policy research, customer service and case management. Policies will look to address basic needs, offering life cover and simple health insurance.

“Life insurance can really be a safety net for these low-income people and their families,” says Grosso.

Illustration credit: Mohammed Khalafalla