By Ethan Chorin
When Dr. Khaled ElMufti, CEO of Benghazi-based Tatweer Research, asked me if I would like to meet with the winners of the Enjazi Start-Up business plan competition, organized in partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), I was interested.
I have spent most of the last decade working in or on Libya. And I have seen my fair share of business plan competitions. But I was not necessarily expecting such blatant originality.
Since the Lebanon War in the 1980s, there has been an academic debate over the impact of war on the quality of literature. If so, I asked myself, does this also apply to other forms of creativity? I was about to be engrossed.
I showed up to a Lebanese restaurant in London’s predominantly Arab district along Edgeware Road around 10 PM, walked passed a brightly-lit aquarium, and waded into a cacophonous gathering, in which dialects from the two major cities, Tripoli and Benghazi, each with its distinctive lilts and slang, commingled.
At the center of the group was rotating service table, set with dishes of Lebanese mezze – appetizers – fattoush, hummus, muhammara. Many of those present looked like they were teenagers. Several of them clearly were teenagers.
In a voice that cut through the background noise, Khalid introduced me, then sat me down with members of each of the three teams, round-robin.
As a group, they spoke energetically. Most in Arabic, some in English. They smiled a lot. Libyans, for all their troubles, do tend to smile. Over the next hour, it struck me that these Libyan millennials were different from the younger Libyans I interacted with when I was a U.S. diplomat posted to Tripoli back in the early 2000s.
That was the start of a scripted U.S. rapprochement with Libya’s dictator, Muammar Gaddafi. And those individuals were often people with political connections. Their desire for change and reform was often sincere, but their activities were not overtly ‘radical’ — by design. International politicians then spoke of reforms, and certain freedoms. But within Libya there were clear limits.
The young people around me now, more than 12 years later, were also privileged, if less overtly so: some of them had been at least partly schooled abroad. But there was a major difference: these individuals had lived through an extended period of war.
Many of them – perhaps even all of them – had pushed themselves independently to learn some significant skill over the Internet, whether English, or coding, or principles in marketing, using free or low-cost course providers like Udemy. And despite the fact that the competition was geared to identifying viable business concepts, all of the ideas at there core had a clearly discernible social benefit.
The first group was called Yummy. It was the brainchild of two women: Fatemah, 22, from Sehba, Libya’s largest Southern city at 97,000 people — and Aziza, in her in her 30s, from the coastal city of Sirte, Gaddafi’s birthplace. The biracial duo met at a civics training course in Tunisia, put on by one of the international aid agencies.
“We got the theory” Fatima, the more obviously outgoing of the two, told me. “Empowerment yes. Women’s empowerment, ok. But how? We wanted action.” I asked how the idea came for a business that linked private women’s’ kitchens to delivery services.
“It sounds silly, perhaps, but we got hungry,” Fatima told me, as she smoothed the leading edge of a bright-pink headscarf along the top of her forehead. “We were sitting in an office in Sebha. We couldn’t just walk out, the two of us, into a restaurant.
First, there aren’t many public restaurants, second, there are certain social norms. So, we started thinking about how to create an efficient delivery business that fed us, enabled women was respectful of our local culture. And it had to make quality, local food sources accessible to those who made the food.
“Having grown up in Berkeley, California, I was reminded of celebrity restauranteur Alice Waters’ now beyond-trendy movement to source high-quality ingredients from local producers – if one transported that idea back to where it might have originated. In the middle of the Sahara desert.
Fatima, who has never been outside of Libya, speaks fluent English – which I gathered, she learned mostly from BBC podcasts. She spoke fluidly about emotional intelligence and complementary temperaments as key elements of the success of her partnership with Aziza, who added some clarifications in Arabic.
Most interesting to me was the integration of technology with local cultural sensitivities within their plan. There was more here than met the eye. Yummy was designed not to subvert, but to innovate within a social context where many women – particularly in Libya’s South – have limited interactions outside the home.
“We anonymize the transaction, and quality ratings are generated for the cooks and the suppliers. The woman’s husband of course knows she’s working. But she’s working in in the home, and her identify is concealed, so it works.” Fatima says Yummy got 67 orders in the first month, via its Facebook site, and it’s been growing steadily since. “We’re working on the mobile app now.”
I asked Fatima what was the best thing about her experience with Yummy so far. “I love waking up in the middle of the night with a new idea, and not being able to sleep, because so many ideas are flowing through my head.”
Next up was a team that I had been particularly interested to meet, since hearing summaries of the plans earlier in the day, because of the seeming improbability of their proposition.
“Lisan” (“Language”) was made up of four recent electrical engineering and marketing graduates, who created a prototype of a device that can translate elements of sign language into speech. This was astounding to me.
The lead, Omar, is a Benghazi native, in his late 20s. He explained to me how he and the other members of the group had been hanging out in a café, observing hearing-impaired clients ordering various things. “The waiters did not understand sign language. It wasn’t working,” Omar said. “We thought there must be a better way. We’re engineers, so we thought about it, and experimented.”
I pressed them on this – “So you didn’t have any family member or friend who had a disability?”
“No”, Omar said, “it was something to do, a challenge, something specific we could do to help.”
“We started by building apps that tracked hand movements in two dimensions, then incorporated a gyroscope to measure rotation. And then integrated this into a glove-like device that measures the signers’ movements.
Then we dropped the glove as unwieldy, and replaced it with a kind of bracelet. We made these things from parts we cannibalized from old electronics and sensors from children’s’ toys, and open-source code.”
Omar explained that one of the challenges in creating a usable “signing” app, is that the language requires two free hands. “Most of the existing applications,” he said, “allow for tracking one hand’s movement at any given time.
The other hand is needed to adjust the video. Or else the device had to be set up in a controlled, static environment somewhere. We found an initial fix, and it worked, sort of… but then we found an off the shelf product that we could customize, that made a big difference.”
“And it worked?” I asked.
“Yes it worked. Not perfectly, but almost.”
In the United States, other attempts at signing tools — mostly glove-based — have been criticized for their unfriendliness to actual users, and inability to capture nuance (such as facial expressions, and ‘dialects’). According to a recent article in The Atlantic, Big Data could be the key to making glove-based signing technology workable, by incorporating large sets of video samples to “teach” the application — as has been done with conventional computer-based translation tools (also with uneven success).
By moving beyond the glove, Lisan seems to have taught itself — without the benefit of direct access to the broader research community. Lisan is (presumably not by accident) an example of an application for which Tatweer Research’s own research into areas like Big Data and Artificial Intelligence, could make the difference between something that fails, and an application that is broadly usable.
Lisan might become the next “Skype” for the hearing impaired, within a cluster of data-driven medical innovations.
Lisan is aware that there is more to do, and more angles to explore.
“The space is getting more crowded,” Omar said. “We’re hopeful. If this doesn’t work, it’s still been an amazing experience. We’ve got the confidence to try again.”
The third finalists were a group of gamers and programmers from Libya’s capital of Tripoli, in the country’s West. The group had created a mixed board game-and-app, called Sinbad, to teach players basic principles of entrepreneurship. One of the coders, who wasn’t present, was 14 years old. The kid apparently taught himself coding on line, after teaching himself English.
Mahmoud, bespectacled and charmingly deferential, was clearly the game’s energy source. He explained that “we had all been working with some international organizations that told us about business principles generally” (this appeared to be a theme, an experience shared by two of the teams, and suggests that at least some of the post-revolutionary foreign training directed to Libyans had some impact).
“And we were bored. With schools closed, we were fed up with just sitting around looking at our phones all the time. So, we had the idea to create an interactive mixed ‘virtual – and reality game’ that involves you and your friends, and challenges them to create new business ideas.”
After a second of thought, Mahmoud said, “it’s like Monopoly come to life… “But of course, it’s still a bit fake. It’s really a social exercise. In Libya our time is also consumed by gadgets.”
What was impressive was the absolutely single-minded drive to succeed that these kids managed to feed and maintain. The ideas came before the competition, not the other way around.
Which brought me to another question, that had been nagging at me. I asked members of the three groups if they any animosity towards Americans, or the Europeans, or others, in the course of the Arab Spring – either for intervening militarily in the Libya in the first place, or failing to finish the job. Khaled, Tatweer Research’s CEO, who had come back to listen to part of the conversation, said under his breath, but audibly, “I do.”
But the young entrepreneurs’ responses were more ambiguous.
Mahmoud jumped in. “Not really. I was a bit of a spoiled brat before the revolution. I wanted to go play with my friends, and I couldn’t. There was constant fighting. I was angry at my parents, the constant crises, lack of light and food and water. But I got over it.
I honestly don’t think I wouldn’t be the person I am today if I hadn’t had to find some purpose.” One of his friends and team members, looked at him admiringly throughout this conversation, as a sibling might look up to a big brother, in between smiling back at me. It was clear these young people had formed bonds that would last a long time.
In all my trips back to Libya since 2004, I had grown to appreciate – greatly – the closeness and resilience of Benghazi residents. But again, the resilience of those who have experienced trauma is often surprising, particularly for those who cannot relate to the experience in the first place, let alone imagine routines in such an environment.
I knew that these young people with whom I was speaking weren’t a random sample of all of Libya. They were the lucky ones. Libyan young people, many of whom are jobless and without hope, have been prime targets for recruitment by gangs and radical groups, which for the most part did not exist in Libya prior to the revolution. But there seemed to be enough energy present to infect others.
The night ended on a familial note. A pod of Tatweer Research directors, their mentors and staff and the young Libyan ‘medalists’ stood outside the restaurant entrance in the cold, their hands in their coat pockets. Most of the younger Libyans had never been out of the cities of their birth, let alone the bustling, light filled street of central London. But they weren’t on their own.
Tatweer Research was a community. Not from one city, but all of Libya. And with Libyan expats from London, Beirut, Dubai all helping. This wasn’t Benghazi against Tripoli or Misurata, or “progressives” against “Islamists.” This was Libyans helping one another figure things out, for the long term.
Two of the older, London-based Libyan mentors – one recent Libyan emigré, another with an English accent and a mid-length beard — patted their young compatriots on the back and told them: “We are your fellow countrymen. We are here to help you, as you will help all of us.”
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Top Photo: Winners of the Tatweer-Enjazi Business Plan Competition. Dr. Khaled ElMufti at center.
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.