Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 22 October 2019

Tapping into tech: one Syrian refugee's mission to take Jordan to the world

Entrepreneur Ehab Kahwati tells us about his plans to use the Internet of Things to help his compatriots pursue their dreams in the tech industry

 Ehab Kahwati explains how to create remotely controlled technology using his Drag IoT kits, which contain a variety of gadgets and wires. Courtesy Moataz Al Smara
 Ehab Kahwati explains how to create remotely controlled technology using his Drag IoT kits, which contain a variety of gadgets and wires. Courtesy Moataz Al Smara

A group of budding entrepreneurs in Jordan watch avidly as Ehab Kahwati, 26, demonstrates how the colourful array of gadgets and wires laid out in front of them can be used to create remotely controlled technology. He is hosting a free weekend workshop, presenting the same components that can be found in his high-tech teach-yourself-at-home programming kit, Drag IoT. The name signifies the simplifying of Internet of Things technology – the kind of technology used to connect devices via the web. This can be used to create “smart homes” through remotely controlled thermostats and lighting, or “smart farming” through remote monitoring of temperature and humidity, for example.

Life as a refugee in Jordan

Kahwati is a Syrian refugee living in Amman who has chosen to dedicate his time to empowering young people who aspire to enter the tech industry, while simultaneously pursuing his own entrepreneurial dreams. The global IoT industry is forecast to be worth $922.62 billion (Dh3.39trn) by 2025, according to a report by market researcher Million Insights, and Kahwati says he wants to help people tap into that opportunity. “My dream is to be successful enough that I can launch my own tech incubator for people working on IoT projects,” Kahwati says. “I’ve seen a lot of cases of people having epic ideas but no one to support them.”

His is a brave venture. Not only is funding for start-ups hard to come by, but in Jordan, where there is often a cultural expectation among families for men to secure reliable income, the idea of taking financial risks can face stark opposition. Kahwati says his family have found it difficult to understand his entrepreneurial goals and gaining their support has been a struggle. Not only is he battling this societal pressure, but he must also overcome all of the challenges that come with his refugee status, making his move much more of a gamble.

Ehab Kahwati provides free business and technology workshops to students in Jordan. Courtesy Ehad Kahwati
Ehab Kahwati provides free business and technology workshops to students in Jordan. Courtesy Ehad Kahwati

Born in Idlib in north-west Syria, Kahwati has spent the majority of his life in Jordan, moving between the two countries as a result of his father’s work in the construction industry. However, when the war broke out in 2011, it was not safe for him to return to Syria and he was forced to register as a refugee in his second home.

The UN Human Rights Council says there are more than 753,000 refugees registered in the country, and the majority are Syrian. They are not able to open businesses in their own name, travel outside the country is incredibly difficult and expensive, and there are even restrictions on obtaining driving licences. While the Jordanian government has provided refugees with access to healthcare and education, and the UNHRC says that more than 125,000 work permits have been issued to Syrian refugees since 2016, it can be difficult to be in business.

Sharing his passion for technology

Kahwati has not let any of this deter him, though. After all, his passion for technology started long before the conflict in Syria. He says that as a boy he enjoyed taking things apart, dismantling items such as TV remotes. At school, he even created a model elevator, complete with an engine, which was lauded by his teacher at the time. Kahwati also created his own automatic cat feeder during his final year of an IT degree at Ajloun National University in Jordan.

“The support I received from my teacher made me realise this could be more than a hobby, it could be a career,” he says. “I began saving money to invest in my experiments as I taught myself from online tutorials.”

Once he graduated, Kahwati got involved with social impact work and then began working with Kiron Open Higher Education, an NGO that provides learning opportunities to refugees across the world. In 2017, he launched IBTKR GO, which provides free workshops to about 30 students twice a month at the Zain Innovation Campus in Amman, focusing on topics related to business or technology.

Jameela Salkini, 30, a Syrian who lives in the UAE with her husband and two children, attended one of his workshops. She says having access to this kind of support is invaluable. “I wasn’t able to finish my chemistry degree in Syria because of the war,” she explains. “In the UAE having experience in IT is highly valued, so I’m focusing on that to increase my chances of being able to pursue a career.”

It’s people like Salkini whom Kahwati is determined to help. “Access to education is one of the biggest issues faced by Syrians as a result of the war,” he says. “Now that we are living in Jordan we are a part of that community, so I want to provide equal opportunities for both Syrians and Jordanians.”

Drag IoT kits contain a variety of gadgets and wires. Courtesy Ehab Kahwati
Drag IoT kits contain a variety of gadgets and wires. Courtesy Ehab Kahwati

'I feel I have a responsibility to the community'

Thanks to the Drag IoT kit, he is now able to extend his reach even further. He designed it after realising that many of the participants at the workshops, particularly the women, were struggling to attend due to study or work commitments, or because they were simply unable to afford the travel costs.

“I came up with this idea of providing tech tutorials in the home using the IoT box,” he says. “I understand the importance of having someone believe in your ability and I feel I have a responsibility to the community, to help other young people obtain the skills they need to find better job opportunities.”

I understand the importance of having someone believe in your ability and I feel I have a responsibility to the community, to help other young people obtain the skills they need to find better job opportunities.

Ehab Kahwati

Each kit contains sensors, circuit boards and a manual providing step-by-step instructions about programming. Anyone who purchases a Drag IoT kit is also eligible for one-to-one help and access to online tutorials created by Kahwati. They cost $70 and he has sold 15 so far, garnering rave reviews, he says. But he still wants to find more ways to reduce the manufacturing costs to make his product more accessible to all.

“The biggest challenge is funding,” he says. “Typically for a venture like this, you need to travel abroad to places such as the UAE, where there are plenty of incubators and people looking to invest in ideas like this. But being a refugee, trying to secure permits to travel to those places is a lengthy and expensive process – it’s simply not possible.”

He says he is determined to carry on, however. “This is my passion, both the tech side and in terms of social responsibility. I’m doing this because I want to make a difference, I want to ignite the careers of aspiring tech leaders of tomorrow, and I want to show that you can be successful when you follow your own path.”

In that case, he is the perfect role model.

Updated: August 4, 2019 02:53 PM

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