Meet two young Saudi entrepreneurs with sustainable solutions

Updated 11 March 2019
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Meet two young Saudi entrepreneurs with sustainable solutions

  • Muhannad Al-Hamed helps homeowners set up solar panels, while Suhaib Amer’s tech start-up will allow farmers to monitor livestock
  • Both were chosen to present their start-ups at Abu Dhabi’s Climate Innovation Exchange (CLIX) event earlier this year

DUBAI: From solar energy to helping Saudi farmers improve their livestock, the Kingdom’s young entrepreneurs are contributing in their own way toward the country’s Vision 2030 reform plan with sustainable solutions.

One of them, 25-year-old Muhannad Al-Hamed from Riyadh, aims to bring solar products to Saudi households by cheaper and more convenient means.

His e-commerce platform Dhwa sells solar products to homes across the Kingdom, to ease the process until installing rooftop solar systems becomes more feasible. 

His software also helps homeowners determine the feasibility of installing rooftop solar photo-voltaic (PV) systems by sharing their home’s location then linking them with certified PV installers. 

“I work in the renewable energy industry, and I get a lot of emails and calls from people asking me how to install solar PVs, and how to know if it’s feasible,” Al-Hamed said. “I did some research and found that there isn’t one solution in Saudi Arabia that’s free. You have to hire someone to come to your house to see if it’s feasible, unlike the US, where they have a lot of software solutions, such as Google’s Project Sunroof, and you can determine the feasibility while sitting at home for free.” 

His research revealed that solar energy had become a lot cheaper in recent years thanks to its simple design, installation and maintenance. Yet determining its feasibility in Saudi households had not. 

“So I thought I needed to complete that circle by coming up with a solution where users can determine the feasibility with a high accuracy rate and without having to waste a lot of money,” Al-Hamed said. “I developed software that uses Google Maps to select the location and scan the area. From there, it says how many panels you can install, the capacity, the cost to maintain it, and monthly savings.” 

Once residents are satisfied with the results, the software connects them to top solar PV installers in the Kingdom. “We connect them with the right people,” he said. “Because not everyone is qualified to do this job, we direct them to the right companies.”

Al-Hamed spoke of much uncertainty in the market. A policy called net-metering governs how users can benefit from installing solar panels, but requires approval from the grid owner. 

“So it’s a process, and there are many companies that work in solar panels,” he said. “So the next step that we’re working on developing is a database of major companies that are certified to do the job and will be added to our software.”

Users will receive an answer within seconds thanks to the fully automated system, providing them with the approximate number of solar panels they can install and the energy yield. 

Muhannad Al-Hamed. (Masdar photo)

A feasibility report is immediately sent over, and a professional reaches out to them within a few hours or days at most.

Widespread interest in the start-up led Al-Hamed to take part in Abu Dhabi’s Climate Innovation Exchange (CLIX) event in January to showcase his company, which he started with two colleagues less than a year ago. CLIX, the region’s first sustainability-focused start-up accelerator, gives emerging entrepreneurs and innovators the chance to forge partnerships with leading global investors at Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week in January.

“It was a great opportunity, and we met a lot of people interested in investing or being a customer,” Al-Hamed said. 

“A country such as Saudi Arabia, which depends heavily on fossil fuel to power its grid, needs to move away from these resources to something more sustainable, economical and environmentally friendly, like solar,” he added.

“It also enables us to spare oil and gas, and helps the Kingdom make money. This is the case for many oil-exporting countries, such as the UAE too.”

Suhaib Amer, a 24-year-old from Jeddah, is another entrepreneur coming up with innovative solutions for his country. 

Along with two other Saudis from Madinah and Riyadh, they created Al Maha Systems, a tech start-up focusing on the Internet of Things (IoT) and animal health care. 

“We provide services that monitor and analyze vital data for livestock in order to increase production and efficiency on the farm,” Amer said. “We utilize the latest technologies in the fields of sensing and communication in order to guarantee continuous and effective monitoring of the herd.”

The team members started their journey as master’s students at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), where they took part in an entrepreneurship class that led them to the idea. 

Further market research and communication with potential customers unveiled massive potential. 

“The market is ready for such an idea,” Amer said. “We came up with the prototype, showed it to our potential customers, and we’re currently testing some of the technology we have on our farms.”

Sensors, which are placed all over the farm, monitor the vitals of livestock and other relevant information. The data collected is used to generate insights for farmers and owners, to help increase their production, growth and efficiency. 

“We tackle multiple elements. We start with health issues, where we detect illnesses earlier than conventional ways, and we detect optimal breeding and fertilizing time for cows,” Amer said. 

“We also get other insights by collecting and analyzing data in ways that aren’t currently available, which means cows can produce more milk, with more time to produce, and they can breed faster and more efficiently.”

The group started developing the system two years ago, with a first system currently installed for testing. It should be complete this year.

Amer was the second Saudi to showcase his work at CLIX this year. “We believe it will shape the future of the food and agricultural industries,” he said. 

“At CLIX, we listened to other entrepreneurs who came from around the world, and we learnt from them,” he added.

“We also had the chance to learn about the start-up scene and opportunities in the UAE, and the connections and experiences we made were invaluable.”

From the technology to the market research, Amer and his co-founders discovered a huge industry that needs to be served. 

“There’s a lot of potential for our idea, and at the same time we didn’t want to be working from the outside,” he said. “So we involved people in the industry such as veterinarians, farm owners and people from the dairy industry, such as Almarai, Al Safi Danone and Nada Dairy, because we didn’t want to work in a vacuum.”

He spoke of the significance of Al Maha Systems for the Kingdom due to a somewhat “unsuitable” climate for many agricultural industries. 

“So you want it to be as efficient as possible,” he said. “Because the agricultural industry is very industrial in Saudi Arabia, it gave us the opportunity to implement our system on a large scale, which we can’t do in other countries where there are smaller farms. We have to be efficient (and) innovative; this is what we’re trying to get to.”


How Saudi women are getting ahead of men as STEM graduates

Dr. Fatima Alakeel, cybersecurity expert. (AN photo)
Updated 45 min 55 sec ago
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How Saudi women are getting ahead of men as STEM graduates

  • ‘Securing a job after the degree remains the challenge,’ says Dr. Fatema Alakeel of King Saud University in Riyadh
  • ‘Saudi women are ambitious,’ says one graduate. ‘We are acquiring high degrees and seeking successful careers’

DUBAI: More and more girls in Saudi Arabia are opting for an education in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), and now the challenge is finding them employment, said Dr. Fatima Alakeel, a cybersecurity expert and faculty member at King Saud University (KSU) in Riyadh.
“In the Kingdom, STEM-related jobs are limited at the moment, as the economy is primarily oil-based and there are few technical jobs available,” said Alakeel, who is also the founder and CEO of the non-profit Confidentiality, Integrity & Availability Group (CIAG), which focuses on information security training and research in Riyadh.
According to a government report on the labor market situation in the third quarter of 2018, more than 30 percent of Saudi women aged between 15 and 65 are unemployed.
Among them, the highest rate of unemployment is among 20-24-year-olds (more than 70 percent) and among 25-29-year-olds (55 percent).
According to the report, there are 923,504 Saudi jobseekers, of whom 765,378 are women (82.2 percent).
“We have more girls in STEM education compared to Western countries,” said Alakeel, who completed her doctoral degree in computer science in the UK at the University of Southampton in 2017.
According to a report prepared by the Saudi Education Ministry, girls accounted for 57 percent of undergraduates for the year 2015-2016 in the Kingdom.
That same year, women outnumbered men in graduating with a bachelor’s in biology, information technology (IT), mathematics and statistics, and physics.
According to a survey Alakeel recently conducted on social media, “almost 80 percent of (Saudi) girls were keen to study STEM, but securing a job after the degree remains the challenge,” she said.
Maha Al-Taleb, 22, graduated earlier this year with a degree in technology from KSU, specializing in IT networks and security.
“It’s common for girls in the Kingdom to opt for STEM education,” said Al-Taleb, who now works in a public sector company in Riyadh as a junior information security analyst.
“Saudi women are ambitious. We’re acquiring high degrees and seeking successful careers. I don’t know why the world assumes that Saudi women are a backward tribal species who have no say in these matters. This entire perception is flawed.”
Al-Taleb got a job offer immediately after university, but realizes that not all her peers are as fortunate. Women “are facing problems in securing jobs, not because companies don’t want to hire us, but because employment for Saudi youths is a major challenge,” she said.
“In today’s Saudi Arabia, parents are encouraging their daughters to get a degree not just in the Kingdom; they also want them to go to Western universities. It has become a common phenomenon. Things have changed. Women are a crucial part of the nation’s development process.”
Not all women graduating in the Kingdom are as lucky, among them Razan Al-Qahtani. “It has been several months since I graduated, yet I haven’t been able to find a job. It has been a struggle so far,” said the 25-year-old IT graduate. “We have more talented and qualified girls, especially in the field of technology, but there are few jobs available. It’s a difficult situation, but we’re hopeful things will change very soon.”
Al-Qahtani expressed confidence that the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 reform plan will bring opportunities for qualified Saudis.
As part of Vision 2030, the government has committed to raise employment among Saudi women.
Alakeel said the government is working hard to find a solution, and it is only a matter of time until more such jobs are on offer.
“As per Vision 2030, there will be more jobs, including technical jobs, available in the country. Once we have more jobs, women will eventually get their due share,” she added. According to Alakeel, female empowerment and promotion to leading roles have made huge progress in Saudi Arabia, and this may affect existing STEM job opportunities.
“We’re glad to see Her Royal Highness Princess Reema bint Bandar Al-Saud becoming the first female ambassador of the country. It only suggests change is on the way,” Alakeel said.
Al-Taleb expressed pride in the way her parents have supported her, saying: “My father isn’t educated and my mother has basic literacy, but both provided me with the education I desired. They want their daughters to be as successful as their sons.”
Like women in any country, the transition from university to the workplace is not always easy, even for young Saudi women with technology degrees. Yet they are not losing hope.
“We realize these are difficult times in terms of employment, especially in technology-related fields, but things will change,” Al-Taleb said. “Saudi women will soon be ruling the fields of STEM all over the country.”