The refugees who became tech entrepreneurs

Q&A with Rashad Sinokrot, CEO of GCC Services

According the UN Refugee Agency, there are 68.5 million forcibly displaced people and more than 25.4 million refugees worldwide. Many face significant risks to their safety, health, education and employability, which is why the Innovate for Refugees competition is helping to address these problems.

This global initiative is run by the MIT Enterprise Forum Pan Arab — an organization affiliated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) that is dedicated to supporting those in the entrepreneurship ecosystem across the Arab world. It searches for the most innovative tech-driven solutions that improve refugees’ lives by providing access to education, shelter, sanitation and much more. Every year, it awards over $240,000 USD in grants to help these startups grow — without taking any equity from the businesses.

Rashad Sinokrot,
CEO of GCC Services

What makes the competition unique is that a quarter of the entrants were once refugees. We spoke to Rashad Sinokrot, CEO of GCC Services, and one of last year’s judges, to find out more.

  • In the second edition of the Innovate for Refugees competition, each of the five winners was awarded $20,000 USD to help their businesses grow. They are:
  • Akyas: producing single-use biodegradable toilets and sanitizer kits.
  • Hope In Sand And Pipes: helping refugees build a transitional shelter using locally available materials.
  • More Than One Perspective: facilitating an advanced training program that offers workshops, training and mentoring to prepare highly qualified refugees to enter the labor market.
  • Paper Airplanes: providing free, mobile-friendly video technology which connects refugee teens and adults with a course of individualized 12-week sessions from a personal instructor.
  • Tech For Food: providing digital skills trainings which take people from having never touched a computer to employable in the international digital economy in 8-16 weeks.

Can you tell us more about your experience of the Innovate for Refugees program?

Judging the Innovate for Refugees competition was an uplifting experience. I found out about the initiative because Agility is a consortium member of MIT Media Lab, and co-sponsors the Innovate for Refugees program. GCC Services is part of the Agility group and our work in remote site services with United Nations peacekeeping missions made me well-suited to judging the entries.

The judging panel saw some fantastic solutions. Many focused on providing access to education and the labor market, which both have a high impact on livelihood once people have resettled in host nations. Paper Airplanes uses virtual learning technology to help children continue their education while they are living in camps, and MTOP connects refugees with employers in Austria who can benefit from their diverse perspectives.

How is the competition affected by the fact that 25% of entrants were once refugees themselves?

With so many entrepreneurs who have lived as refugees, there is a huge amount of passion in the air. People are engaged and they really care about making a difference.

All of the projects with former refugees on the team are very practical. That personal understanding of the real issues people face means there are no fairytale ideas or unworkable concepts. It’s all things refugees need and would want to use. Of the five winners last year, three had team members who were former refugees, so having that direct experience really adds value.

It also means there are some touching personal stories. In one team, a Syrian woman who had been a refugee was working with a German man to help people from Syria integrate into German society. While they were working together on this venture they certainly put integration into practice, as they ended up getting engaged!

What role does technology have in ensuring these innovations make an impact?

Technology is crucial. Like the impact of digitalization in business generally, it allows these solutions to carry further, faster — and to reach far more people than traditional products can.

Most of the entrepreneurs are young and tech-savvy; they are familiar with the latest platforms and want to keep learning more. Over half of the refugee population worldwide are under 18, so it’s great to see them designing solutions for other young people.

With that said, of course any viable solution needs to be accessible and not have too many requirements from the end user. The most successful solutions were presented in a simple way so that they could be used by people with few means. Not all refugees live in camps, and some have access to the internet via a cell phone, or laptop. But they may not have 4G or 5G, so making the requirements as low as possible is really important.

Some refugees do struggle with tech skills, and limited access to computers is a significant disadvantage in today’s labor market. Tech for Food, one of the competition winners, is addressing this problem by teaching Syrian refugees digital skills through intensive vocational training.

But not all of the products need the user to have access to any technology; some simply use technology in innovative ways to create a product that can then be distributed to those who need it.

Which projects were particularly impressive in terms of their innovation, scalability, team, financial sustainability and impact?

One startup that impressed me on many factors was Akyas, led by Bara Wahbeh. She has produced a single-use biodegradable toilet bag which tackles hygiene problems in areas without sanitation infrastructure, such as refugee camps, war zones or impoverished areas. The bag biodegrades and integrates with the environment to become safe, disease-free soil.

This combination of manufacturing and biology was innovative and very impressive. The product is environmentally and financially sustainable, and addresses multiple problems at once. As well as providing a sanitation solution, it prevents gender-based violence by allowing women to go somewhere private to go to the toilet. It’s an impressive product, and has huge potential for scalability.

Will Agility and GCC Services continue to support the Innovative for Refugees competition?

Absolutely. This is exactly the kind of innovation that we love to support — it makes a difference to people’s lives. We’ll be co-sponsoring and judging the competition again this year, and will undoubtedly be just as inspired by this year’s innovations.

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