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Yomken Crowdsources Solutions To Fuel Egyptian Industry

15 March, 2016
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Just imagine: your standard okra sorting machine isn't properly sorting the infected okra from the healthy okra. It doesn't detect the tiny marks that indicate infection, and sorting by hand isn't much better. Lower quality okra is making it into your produce and sales are not what they should be. We've all been there, right?

Ok, your main problem in life may not actually be infected okra. But if you're a small producer, or if you run a small industrial workshop, you are looking for workarounds to problems like this on a daily basis: flaws and inefficiencies in the processes you depend on, or dated systems and designs that hold back your business. But unlike the major multinationals, you can't afford to commission a proper research and development process.

Yomken beg to differ. Thanks to them, right now 5 different engineers are battling it out to solve the okra dilemma; and another 23 projects looking at anything from wicker basket design to wind turbine generators are being solved as we speak. Yomken's online platform is there to connect these problems to the wealth of R&D expertise that is out there in the form of graduate engineers, designers, artists, product designers, researchers, who may be able to contribute solutions. 

Yomken was launched in 2012, when founder Tamer Taha, an economist, was in France doing his Masters degree and working for the World Bank on its MENA-region innovation and education programs. "I realized that in the Arab world most of the funds are supporting high-tech inventions or development, that did not specifically cater to the needs and challenges of the actual people," he told BECAUSE. "While on the other hand, all the labour-intensive industries need new innovations to enhance and solve their daily challenges to be able to produce high quality products at a good cost, in order to compete in China and South East Asia."

Either through open call or through collaboration with NGOs and companies, Yomken's site invites people to submit challenges for consideration. After selecting the most realistic challenges, they go on the website to crowdsource solutions by a set date in a competitive process, offering a reward towards the costs of creation, design, theory, or prototype. The reward is crowdfunded or provided by the solution seeker, CSR, or donors.

 After a period of time, Yomken sends all the submitted solutions to fellow experts to review them confidentially and pick a winning solution. Successfully implemented projects are later showcased on the platform so that anyone who has the same challenge can contact the inventor directly. 

Yomken work to ensure the process is as accessible as possible, offering outreach and help with defining challenge issues, and reformulating the submitted challenges into a language that researchers and investors can identify with.

"This is a great chance for innovators to do something meaningful and benefit the lives of many people on daily basis," says Taha. So far Yomken have received 75 challenges, of which 45 were approved and uploaded to the platform, and 37 of which got real, implemented solutions.

 This has directly or indirectly helped to create over 175 jobs.

The benefit is as much to innovators as it is to industry. "Innovators are out there just trying to create and spread their inventions, but through Yomken they can have a specific goal for their inventions or a specific problem to solve." 

Currently Yomken is connected to over 2000 innovators who are experts in anything from nanotechnology to product design.

"Currently, we have over 150 partners, including companies, NGOs and universities, so through our network we can reach more people," says Taha. "Also the academy of scientific research in Egypt is supporting us massively through sending us challenges, sometimes solutions, and sometimes sponsoring some challenges."

The process addresses a huge need to leverage Egypt's abundant local expertise. In fact, "… the innovators and solution seekers come from everywhere in Egypt, as over 50% of both come from outside Cairo," claims Taha. One of the problems Yomken helped solve was in Egyptian cotton harvesting. Taha relates: "All the other international [harvesting] machines weren't compatible with Egyptian cotton or with the farmers' mentality, and resulted in a lot of cotton waste during the harvest process." Factors like this have led many farmers to stopped planting cotton at all, and today, Egypt is at only 5% of the cotton production that existed 100 years ago.

"This was a national problem, because other industries depended on them," says Taha. "So the Cotton Research Institute approached us with the challenge of wanting to computerize or machinize the cotton harvesting process." The challenge was put online, receiving many proposed solutions, and the winner was a team from the university of Assiut, who redesigned the machine that is compatible with Egyptian cotton. "Our fund of EGP 10,000 went towards the design process and they are now applying to different funds to help start manufacturing it," says Taha. 

Projects can be highly technical like the cotton one, or be more socially and artistically based. Negada, a company in Qena making scarves and abayat had all the production skills, but their products weren't selling well. According to Taha, all they needed was some new designs to be able to market their products better. "So we uploaded their problem, and a designer called Abdullah Ragab created some new designs and got the award of EGP 5,000." Ragab then travelled to the company and trained ten women to make them, and sales have improved. 

"This challenge is actually special to us, because by solving the problem very simply, it created jobs for so many people through using their same equipment and talent."

At the beginning, spreading awareness and understanding about what Yomken does was very hard. "The Egyptian customer in general is not an online customer, so we had to walk them through the whole processes step by step which is not easy, but we try to simplify it as much as we could." Making the website usable in Arabic has helped a lot.

At present Yomken covering their expenses through keeping 10% of the project award towards running costs. Sustainability is not easy, and they supplement their income by offering consultancy work to the field of innovation.

They are keen to expand across Egypt and the Middle East.  "We would also like to expand to reach all the Arab and Middle Eastern countries that are trapped in the middle income sphere and connect them all to each other, as this way each problem will have hundreds of different solutions to pick the best from."

Tags innovation crowdsourcing research and development R&D cotton research institute crowdfunding small to medium enterprise SMEs

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