Startup of the Week: Introducing souvenir culture to Saudi society

Updated 11 June 2019

Startup of the Week: Introducing souvenir culture to Saudi society

  • Saudi Sand Souvenir Co. currently produces staple tourist keepsakes such as passport covers, tote bags, fridge magnets and keychains

JEDDAH: A country’s landmarks, landscapes, culture and cuisine are typically represented by the trinkets that holidaymakers buy to remember their visits. 

France has baguettes and the Eiffel Tower. Australia has the boomerang and kangaroos. India has rickshaws and the Taj Mahal. But avid souvenir fan Maher Khayyat struggled to find themed collectibles for his home country, Saudi Arabia. So he decided to make them himself. 

He quit his engineering job to begin a new career, one that was related to his passion for art and design. “I am a souvenir collector, I love to collect souvenirs from around the world but I used to struggle to find souvenirs from Saudi Arabia, for myself and my friends,” he told Arab News. “Whenever we want to give someone a special Saudi gift, we directly think of Zamzam water or some dates. I wanted to change that in line with the significant changes the Kingdom is going through,” he added, referring to the huge transformation kick-started by the government’s Vision 2030 reform plan. 

One of the plan’s objectives is to put Saudi Arabia on the global tourism map through the development of programs, activities, facilities and festivals. The government has also launched ambitious giga-projects, including the ultra-luxurious Amaala resort and the cultural destination Qiddiya, to help achieve this goal.  

Khayyat formed the Saudi Sand Souvenir Co. to educate local and international visitors about the Kingdom’s true culture through souvenirs and memorabilia. It currently sells staple tourist keepsakes such as passport covers, tote bags, fridge magnets and keychains. There is also a souvenir pack for people who cannot choose between individual items. The plan is to be the country’s leading souvenir firm. 

One of the biggest challenges facing Khayyat and his Jeddah-based team was working out how to best reflect the culture and value of every Saudi region. “The Kingdom is vast and has diverse traditions and customs. We solved this problem after signing an agreement with the tourism authority. It helped us to understand the culture of each region because we were provided with the necessary information we needed about each region and its community.”

Another hurdle was introducing souvenir culture to Saudi society. “People would ask us what use they would make of these products. We would explain their cultural and consumer value, we educated people about the country. For instance, many of them did not know about (the UNESCO World Heritage Site) Madain Saleh or Al-Ula until after the recent festivals that took place there.”

Khayyat said there was greater awareness about souvenirs than before. The company has more customers, marketing is easier and sales are growing. 

“What distinguishes us is the high quality of our products and their reasonable prices, in addition to our innovative designs that combine reality with art. We want our products to be affordable to all pilgrims and tourists. Everyone should be able to buy something for themselves from Saudi Arabia.”

Saudi Sand Souvenir Co. products can be found in stores and airports in the Kingdom. They can also be bought online. The website can be found here:

Two engineers help fight Lebanese farming foe

Updated 3 min 4 sec ago

Two engineers help fight Lebanese farming foe

  • Early-warning system lets farmers know when to protect their crops from fruit flies
  • Mobile app tells them the best time to spray pesticides to halt their advance

DUBAI: An award-winning startup led by two female Lebanese engineers has created an automated early-warning system that allows Middle East farmers to protect their crops against the Mediterranean fruit fly, one of the world’s most destructive pests.

Fruit flies can devastate entire harvests and have infested over 300 types of vegetables, fruits and nuts globally, causing financial ruin to countless farmers in the Arab world.

However, an ingenious system designed by Nisrine El Turky, a computer engineer and university professor, and Christina Chaccour, an electrical engineer, will tell farmers via text messages and mobile app of the best time to spray pesticides to halt the pests’ advance.

“Many Lebanese farmers weren’t able to export apples because the quality of their produce wasn’t good enough,” said El Turky, co-founder of IO Tree.

“So many I met were desperate to sell a crate of apples for $2 (SR7.50), which is nothing. I wanted to help the sector by better integrating technology.”

Farmers were found spraying too much pesticide to try to kill fruit flies. (Shutterstock)

She began by investigating the difficulties that farmers faced, attending workshops and seminars, and visiting farms. She found the main problem was that farmers were spraying too much pesticide to try to kill fruit flies.

“I found a way that could reduce the use of pesticides and increase production.”

El Turky began working on the IO Tree concept in February 2018 and swiftly built a working prototype, which she showed to Chaccour, who promptly joined the company as a co-founder.

IO Tree’s technology is being tested on farms in Lebanon and the Netherlands. There are two prototype machines — one for indoor use and another for outdoor. The machines can be placed in an orchard, field or greenhouse.

“We need to ensure that the prototype functions in all conditions. Outdoors, there is sun, dust, rain and other weather factors that could disrupt its operation,” said El Turky, who still works up to 10 hours a week as a lecturer at Lebanon’s Notre Dame University.

Using machine learning and artificial intelligence, the machine’s sensors monitor indicators such as temperature and moisture, as well as studying plant stress.

The system can detect and identify pests, providing data on the likely scale of an imminent pest invasion and the best action the farmer should take to combat it. Information is conveyed to the farmer via IO Tree’s app.

“If you’re using pesticides, our app will tell you the best pesticide to use to tackle that problem, the quantity you need and when to spray.”

IO Tree’s sensors use machine learning to measure plant stress. (Supplied photo)

EL Turky said her technology had shown over 90 percent accuracy in identifying medflies.

“Machine learning means that every day the system becomes more accurate,” she said.

“We’re also working on identifying other pests, but medfly is our main target. Once medflies arrive at a farm, they will eat everything.”

IO Tree will enable farmers to use fewer pesticides, reducing environmental damage, while produce will be in better condition and can command a higher sales price.

“By using fewer pesticides, farmers will be better able to preserve biodiversity: Spraying kills a lot more insects than just pests,” she said. IO Tree has initially targeted all types of fruit trees, plus tomatoes and cucumbers, and the product will be launched commercially in September.

“We’re aiming at farmers directly,” said El Turky.

IO Tree’s services will be sold via subscription. After a farmer signs up for one year initially, the company will install its machines at the farm. The number of machines required per acre depends on crop type, crop yield, land topography and other factors.

The company’s initial target market is the Middle East, North Africa and Turkey, though it also plans to expand to Europe and eventually worldwide.

The product’s potential has helped IO Tree win a string of startup competitions. It was selected to represent Lebanon GSVC 2019 (Global Social Venture Competition) at the University of California, Berkeley.

IO Tree also joined Lebanon’s Agrytech accelerator, which provided $44,000 in funding, and schooled the fledgling entrepreneurs in how to create and manage a startup.