By Ethan Chorin
Since the 2012 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya’s second-largest city has been known more for darkness, death and violence than any aspect of its rich culture, obscured by years of rule by Gaddafi, Libya’s former dictator.
Gaddafi was killed during the popular revolution that seized the country in 2011, leaving a political vacuum that has been difficult to fill.
But over the last few years, and quietly, the city’s tech community has looked abroad for models that might help address Libya’s core weakness: the absence of fully functioning institutions.
On a recent cold, winter morning I arrived to a fashionable central London collaborative workspace, where banks of high-end coffee machines and modern, ergonomically designed chairs are set against Keith Haring-themed tiles, to meet Dr. Khaled ElMufti, the CEO of a Benghazi-based public company called Tatweer Research (Tatweer in Arabic means “development”), charged with helping diversify the Libyan economy, through technology.
Tatweer Research is a division of the Libyan Local Investment and Developments Fund (LLIDF), itself part of the Libyan Investment Authority (LIA), which is ultimately responsible for some 67 billion dollars of Libya’s sovereign wealth.
Khaled has become known within the Libyan community as a ‘techie with a vision’, the gift of being able to talk to practically anyone, and a plan to help get Libya out of its current, chronic malaise.
An electrical engineer by training, Khaled, 38, sported a slightly unshaven look, and wore a dark blue cardigan sweater. He’d just arrived on a morning direct Benghazi-London flight (an unusual work commute, but also another sign of progress: after four years’ closure due to fierce fighting and damage, Benghazi’s airport is once linked again to the outside world).
“It makes such a difference,” Khaled exhaled lightly, as if speaking of the inconveniences of a shut subway line.
After some pleasantries, Khaled dove into some of the details of his vision for a tech-heavy Libyan future. “We did lots of research on development models for Libya,” Khaled said. “And there was one that resonated with us.”
“Did you know Skype came from Estonia?”, Khaled asked me.
After the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, the young leadership of Estonia, which like Libya, had a small population and a history of mismanagement, thought carefully about how to shape its destiny, starting from a poor resource base. “It is not surprising that Estonia’s leaders focused on technology.” Khaled said. “But its early success has been in the execution.”
Khaled explained how Estonia’s leaders focused on tech-based fields where the country, despite its disadvantages, might be able to develop into a world player. Those included Voice-over-Internet-Protocol (VoIP) communication, then in its infancy, and e-government solutions, i.e., how to migrate basic and more complex government-to-people and people-to-government transactions to the Web.
Skype was but one result of that strategy. So was the fact that Estonia became in 2005 the first country to allow its citizens to vote online in local elections nationally.
Twenty-five years later, Estonia is still a leader in both of these areas. “Estonia’s experience has been an inspiration for us,” Khaled says.
There is some irony in an ‘Estonia model’ for Libya. Libya has been known for decades for its former flamboyant dictator Muammar Gaddafi, but also its great oil and gas wealth (not only does Libya have the largest oil reserves in Africa, but Benghazi sits squarely in the region where most of the country’s known reserves are located).
But today Benghazi, and the rest of Libya is cash-constrained, with two-thirds of its pre-revolution oil production still offline, and most of its sovereign assets frozen by the international community.
This freeze was not punitive, but was made at the request of the early, post-2011 revolution transitional government, then concerned that Libya’s wealth would be squandered if those funds were released before Libya’s fragile new ruling institutions ‘took root’.
The ‘poor rich state’ paradox is not lost on Khaled, who agrees with the initial decision to sequester Libya’s sovereign wealth — but feels the effects of that decision on a daily basis. “I think it’s forced Tatweer to be more creative, and more ambitious,” he says. “Everyone knew the key to Libya’s long-term success was diversification out of oil into new activities. We’re trying to get there along a specific path.”
Khaled is one of those who feel that Libya’s problems – relatively speaking – are not nearly as complex as they appear from the outside.
“We don’t have the sectarian (Shi’a-Sunni) splits that make many of the other regional conflicts so intractable,” he says, counting down three fingers.
“We have a small population, and we have resources. If we pursue a coordinated, regional approach to development, and can offer young people compelling alternatives to gangs and weapons, and we can attract investors. We can start to pick up the pieces.”
Over the next few minutes, Khaled walked me through Tatweer’ Research’s evolving mission. “The core activity,” he says, “is to identify niches within rapidly evolving fields like Big Data, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and e-government solutions, where, within in a few years, and with intense focus, Libya could excel and compete on a global level – as Estonia did.
We want to develop local research and development capacity, and then grow the resulting applications in dedicated areas such as the Elmreisa Free Zone” (a 1300-hectare site located on the shore of the Mediterranean, in the South-West corner of Benghazi).
“We want it to be very clear we are not working just for Benghazi, or any specific region or group in Libya,” Khaled stressed. We’re working for all of Libya. We are operating on a shoestring budget and help from some well-intentioned members of the international community.
We are determined to create the basis for stability and unity in Libya – which deep down, we feel all Libyans want.”
In a short time, and perhaps for obvious reasons, Tatweer Research has become the darling of the relatively few international development agencies currently working in Libya, for its steady progress, its even-handedness and refusal to over-promise.
“It’s hard for people on the outside to understand,” Khaled said. “Benghazinos (using the Italianized word for ‘Benghazi resident’) have always been resilient – whether during the time of Omar al Mokhtar (the leader of a lengthy anti-Italian insurgency, publicly hanged for his trouble in 1931) or after World War II, when the city was flattened by mortar fire. The city has been battered again, but it’s relatively stable, and we’re determined to rebuild.”
Of Tatweer Research’s efforts, one of the most visible is its effort to create a local innovation pipeline. In collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)’s Pan Enterprise Forum, Tatweer recently organized a entrepreneurship competition, using some of the tools MIT had developed for its own use, to create what – elsewhere – might be fairly standard fare.
“It was an experiment”, Khaled told me. “We wanted to know what resources do we have out there, in Libya now, despite the chaos. We knew there was talent –-but how deep did it go?”
“The application is long. It’s in English. It discourages people who weren’t serious. You had to have a team capable of implementing the idea.”
Khaled said Tatweer Research did some workshops in Libya’s East and West to build awareness for the program, to which maybe several dozen came. “But When the online submission period closed, we were amazed, Khaled said.
“There were 130 complete applications, each representing 3 to 5 people. That’s over 500 individuals in total. ”
“What does that tell you,” Khaled asked me, somewhat rhetorically.
“That you’ve a lot of young people who are more aware of the outside world, and desperately want an ‘out’ of a life of violence and social dysfunction”, I offered.
“Exactly,” Khaled said, bringing his fist down lightly on the table, for subtle emphasis.
“We were worried, also, with the fighting and regional fissures, would Libyans from the West and South feel safe in the East, in Benghazi, participating in a program like this? But It wasn’t a problem — the teams from Tripoli asked us if all of their team members could come.”
From the 130 teams who applied, 20 teams came to Benghazi and 10 teams were sent to Beirut– to face off in finals. “Originally, we were going to send the three best teams to Silicon Valley, for the final ceremony – but with changes in U.S. visa regulations, that became impossible, so we did it here, in Cambridge and the London Tech City instead.”
Khaled was clearly proud of the results. “In addition to the other worries, we had no idea what we’d get: would all of these ideas come from the same place – would we have, for example, three winners from Benghazi, or three winners from Tripoli? Would this become, like all else, an interregional contest?”
“But, amazingly – and I swear to you this wasn’t rigged,” Khaled said, “of the three winners, we had one from Benghazi in the East, one from Sebha in the South, and one from Tripoli in the West. The judges were name- and city-blind.”
The finalists happened to be in London to meet with a number of interested organizations, from the U.K. Foreign Office, to the BBC, which has been producing content on Libyan civic and economic leaders, including one popular show called, “Young, Clever, and Libyan,” which profiled Tatweer Research’s London-based activities in 2014.
The finalists also met with the directors and students associated with a graduate program based at Cambridge University, tailored to Libyans. The program was developed by Tatweer Research with Judge Business School and St. John’s Innovation Centre, both parts of Cambridge University.
So far, 23 of Libya’s most promising students have spent a post-graduate year in Cambridge doing a mixture of theoretical training, and assignments with companies such as Jaguar Land Rover and DLA Piper.
“Tatweer Research then recruited all of these graduates.” Khaled noted. “And some of them are now already leading key research programs. “All of these integrated projects,” Khaled says, “are examples of how we are working to create the critical mass of intellectual capital required to move our plan forward.”
Part II: Meet The Unexpected: Libya’s Post-Revolution Entrepreneurs
Top Photo: Tatweer Research hosting Libyan entrepreneurs in Benghazi. Dr. Khaled ElMufti in foreground, on right.
Ethan Chorin is a Forbes Contributor. He is the author of two books on Libya, Exit the Colonel: The Hidden History of the Libyan Revolution (PublicAffairs, 2012), and Translating Libya: In Search of the Libyan Short Story (Darf, 2015), and have spent 20 years working in Africa and the Middle East as a diplomat, executive, and currently, CEO of Perim, LLC.