Meet The Finalists of Dubai Startup Hub's Smartpreneur Competition 6.0: Diwama

Christopher Arida and Aya Hariri are the founders of Diwama, an AI-based image recognition software that automates waste analysis, and one of the 10 finalists of Smartpreneur Competition 6.0.

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Diwama is one of the top 10 startups pitching for prizes worth a total of AED150,000 at the finals of Dubai Startup Hub's Smartpreneur Competition 6.0, which will be staged as part of Entrepreneur Middle East’s Enterprise Agility Forum 2022 at Expo 2020 Dubai on January 20, 2022. Register HERE to be a part of the event.

Christopher Arida and Aya Hariri, founders of Diwama

"When founders pitch for months, they think that their pitch decks are perfect, and we were guilty of that too,” admits Christopher Arida, founder of Diwama, an AI-based image recognition software that automates waste analysis, and one of the 10 finalists of the Smartpreneur Competition 6.0, an annual startup contest of Dubai Startup Hub, the entrepreneurship arm of Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Industry. And now, with the final ceremony of the Smartpreneur Competition 6.0 set to be staged on January 20, 2022 as part of Entrepreneur Middle East’s Enterprise Agility Forum 2022 at Expo 2020 Dubai, Arida’s main piece of advice for any entrepreneur is to be open to feedback. “We applied all the points mentioned in the Dubai Startup Hub’s feedback, and we are now in the finals,” he says.

Arida goes on to say that while we are currently going through exciting times for startups in the field of artificial intelligence (AI), entrepreneurs need to know how to present their businesses to a general audience, who often don't have a full understanding of newly-developed technologies or niche industries such as the waste management industry. It therefore seems as a good moment to test how well Arida’s story with Diwama can be presented to our readers. And it starts with Arida being a civil and environmental engineer and a life-long environmental activist who used to lead beach cleanup events with over 65 volunteers in Lebanon.

“As a business, it all started with a startup named Reseco in 2020, where we invested and operated a small waste sorting facility in three municipalities in Lebanon, recycling over 18,000 plastic bottles every month,” Arida recalls. "In parallel, we operated a door-to-door collection service of recyclables for a monthly fee for over 50 households." Although both business models proved to be unsustainable due to the challenging economic conditions in Lebanon, Arida and his team got an in-depth insight into the challenges faced by different stakeholders along the waste value chain, such as waste sorting facilities, or ordinary people struggling to sort their waste at home.

"So, we came up with an idea of a smart waste container, which was a 40-foot shipment container that could be placed at any street or corner,” he says. "People would just drop off their waste bags and the container would automatically sort the waste, compact, and prepare it for recycling.” Arida’s designs initially had the containers be optimized through an AI-based software that would efficiently detect and sort waste by using robots; however, that required a large amount of capital for research and development. Instead of building this product from scratch, Arida’s market study across the MENA region pointed out to a need for the same AI software for sorting waste that could be integrated into the existing infrastructure of large waste sorting facilities.

"This is when we rebranded ourselves as Diwama, standing for Digital Waste Management, with a mission of introducing affordable AI technologies aimed at increasing recycling rates and revenues for waste management companies,” Arida says. Teaming up with Aya Hariri, Arida founded Diwama in 2021, and soon after, got accepted by the Plug and Play’s End Plastic Waste accelerator in Paris, as well as the Ma'an Social Incubator in Abu Dhabi. “Our product is an AI-based image recognition software called Vitron that automatically analyzes the composition of waste streams,” he says. "Through a camera and a deep learning algorithm, the different waste types, colors and brands are automatically detected and tracked. We then collect valuable data to be used by different stakeholders across the waste value chain to improve the circularity of resources. The hardware component of Vitron is sold at a one-time fixed fee, while the software component which consists of a dashboard displaying the data analytics is sold as a software as a service.”

Vitron has been specifically designed for waste sorting and recycling facilities to help waste managers make data-driven decisions and increase recycling rates by up to 15%, increase the purity and price of sorted plastics by up to 20%, and increase throughput of the facility by up to 10%. "We also sell our AI algorithm as an application programming interface (API) to be integrated into existing mobile applications for waste management companies that collect waste door to door,” Arida says. "We sell this product under the name of 'Widen' to help people sort better at home by simply scanning the waste item, and our AI tells them if it is recyclable or not, and whether it is accepted by the company collecting their waste or not.”

Related: Meet The Finalists of Dubai Startup Hub's Smartpreneur Competition 6.0: Aiotize

Source: Diwama

While their API-based offering has the potential to be integrated into several other applications for waste detection, Arida admits that testing their AI on thousands of waste images with various shapes, colors and brands, revealed a number of challenges in terms of scalability of Diwama's AI detection algorithm. "The same waste item can appear in an infinite number of shapes, and a packaging product can be of the same brand in two different countries, but each produced from a different material,” he explains. "However, we were able to combine multiple AI algorithms and detect brands and written words on the products, in Arabic and English, to accurately predict the type of waste in various countries.”

It is this commitment to hard work and tinkering that has brought international recognition to Diwama and its founders Arida and Hariri, including being named as one of the top innovators on the World Economic Forum’s platform for problem-solving innovators, Uplink and its Global Plastic Innovation Network, as well as being selected as an excellent project within one of Global Top 100 AI Solutions For Sustainable Development by the International Research Centre in Artificial Intelligence under the auspices of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

In solving problems within the waste management industry, Diwama is helping accelerate the transition to a circular economy model, which has been supported in the UAE by its the UAE’s Circular Economy Policy 2021-2031, reflecting the country's commitment to meeting the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and enhancing the quality of life for residents. "However, there is a critical gap in the current waste management value chain, which is source segregation,” Arida explains. "The GCC countries do not follow adequate source segregation, but have efficient collection and transportation systems. Therefore, there is a need for optimizing the segregation process, both at source and material recovery facilities, which is encouraging the adoption of more technology in the waste management sector.” This also presents an opportunity that his Diwama team wants to tap into. "In providing waste analytics and automation, Diwama is closing the recycling loop and ensuring a fully connected waste value chain by enabling data-driven decisions to increase recovery and purity of recyclables and operational efficiency of waste-related activities,” Arida explains.

When asked about the UAE as a place to start up a business, Arida doesn't shy away from praising its entrepreneurial ecosystem. "Our customers here have always shown the urge to adopt our innovative technology, and be the first at it despite the risks that can arise, proving that startups can establish early adopters in the UAE market to increase their traction,” he says. “There are also some of the best global accelerators and incubators that will help entrepreneurs accelerate their ideas to businesses and establish a network with potential customers and investors in the UAE.” At the moment, the Diwama team gears up for raising their seed round which will be invested in research and development, business development, and sales. "We are aiming to increase the accuracy of our AI model and acquire more pilots across the UAE,” Arida says. "In the next three years, we aim to become the go to company for waste image recognition technologies and data analytics in the MENA region.”

Having said all this, it seems that Arida and the entire Diwama team are well prepared for the finals of the Smartpreneur Competition 6.0, and he ends our conversation by sharing some additional tips on pitching for entrepreneurs. "Storytelling is key,” he says. "I always focus on delivering my pitch in very simple, short, and clear messages that tell our inspiring story of how we started, showing how painful the problem is to our target customers, proving why now is the right time to launch our solution, explaining that we are the perfect team to solve the problem, and presenting that investing in our startup is a big opportunity.”

‘TREP TALK: Tips for entrepreneurs from Diwama founder Christopher Arida

1. Become a master storyteller "This will help you sell your idea or product to your customers and investors. You need to practice, listen to feedback, and modify accordingly."

2. Become an expert at the problem you are trying to solve "Ask your early adopters a lot of questions in order to deeply understand the root of the problems they are struggling with."

3. Build the right team "Work with and hire the best people to drive your company to success. Make sure that each person has a different skillset, but that you all share the same passion."

Diwama is one of the top 10 startups pitching for prizes worth a total of AED150,000 at the finals of Dubai Startup Hub’s Smartpreneur Competition 6.0, which will be staged as part of Entrepreneur Middle East’s Enterprise Agility Forum 2022 at Expo 2020 Dubai on January 20, 2022. Register HERE to be a part of the event.

Related: Meet The Finalists Of Dubai Startup Hub's Smartpreneur Competition 6.0: Digital Energy