How Expo 2020 Dubai will live on in countries around the world

Powerful pioneers are transforming the lives of millions of people through Expo-backed programmes

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Long after the temporary buildings on the Dubai South site are dismantled, Expo 2020 Dubai will live on by bringing hope to farming communities and underprivileged families all over the world.

For more than a century, world expos have captured the imagination with extraordinary pavilions and brilliant minds seeking to address the pressing challenges of the time.

Since the inaugural Great Exhibition in London in 1851, millions have gathered to witness groundbreaking inventions from the telephone at the 1876 fair to the first live television broadcast in 1939.

For Expo 2020 Dubai, planners strove to go beyond physical structures to create the legacy of the six-month celebration.

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We had this very emotional ceremony where the widow received the property title and spoke of how much it meant to her husband
Mathew Alexander, founder of start-up Suyo

In a first for a world's fair, when presenting the bid in Paris way back in 2013 Expo Dubai organisers committed to creating a $100 million fund to support projects that deliver lasting and positive effects.

Financial support from Dubai’s Expo Live programme granted to start-ups and entrepreneurs proved crucial during the Covid-19 pandemic, helping put food on the table and keep children in school.

The ambitious Expo Live programme set out to improve the lives of marginalised groups across national borders.

After rigorous evaluations of more than 11,000 applicants in 184 nations, 140 projects were selected.

Grants of up to $500,000 now support more than 5.8 million people, help to educate another 611,000 and benefit 760,000 farmers in 76 countries.

Reem Al Hashimy, Minister of State for International Co-operation, said Expo Live was a mandate, “a pledge that the United Arab Emirates has made to the world – to inspire future generations, create positive impact and build a more prosperous future for everyone.

“We wanted to empower all problem-solvers – those from the region and around the world, regardless of their background, resources or social status.”

The Expo 2020 Dubai director general described it as "a matter of great pride" for the country to empower millions of people over the years.

Yousuf Caires, vice president of Expo Live, has been the mainstay in the hunt for change-makers that began in 2016.

“Post Expo, we want Expo Live to keep the fire going,” he said.

"We searched the world for people doing something great.

“We want people to hear these stories and believe they can also be change-makers. That is the power we want Expo Live to deliver.”

For many, the Expo Live grant was a turning point. It was often the first major investment that gave projects legitimacy, opened the doors to additional financial support and helped increase the number of communities reached.

Here, The National looks at one project on each continent that has ignited hope and triggered change thanks to Expo Live backing.

1. Helping farmers in Ghana and Nigeria predict the weather

Small farmers in Ghana receive accurate and easy-to-understand weather information that helps them plan when to plant and apply fertilisers due to the work of an Expo-backed Swedish company working in West Africa. Photo: Ignitia

A team of scientists worked for years to produce reliable tropical weather forecasts that give small-scale farmers accurate information so they can better plan for rain and storms.

Liisa Smits, chief executive and co-founder of Ignitia, said losing crops can be disastrous for small farmers, who are often then forced to take their children out of school because they can no longer afford tuition.

Headquartered in Sweden, the scientists developed a system that predicts weather specifically for the tropics, ensuring it is accessible to poor farmers.

Farmers in Ghana and Nigeria receive Ignitia’s high-precision localised 48-hour forecasts delivered through a text message to their phone.

Accuracy of the predictions shot up from 39 per cent to 84 per cent with the artificial intelligence-aided algorithm her Ignitia team devised.

“This can help farmers break out of poverty,” she said.

“Knowing when to plant, harvest and apply expensive fertiliser well-timed with weather can increase yields.”

It has helped increase crop yield per hectare by 60 per cent.

“For a small-scale farmer, it means that somebody living on $1.9 per day moves to $3.1 per day,” Ms Smits said.

“It is a shift from extreme poverty where you have to think of food for the next day to the point where you can fix a leaking roof, send your children to school, start investing in agriculture and get hope for the future.”

The service uses simple images and voice messages for people who cannot read and is an inspiring example of how mobile technology can be used to increase agricultural productivity in low-income and low-literacy markets.

The company was among three organisations to receive a $500,000 grant from Expo 2020 Dubai.

Ms Smits said the funding helped Ignatia enter the Nigerian market and was vital to the company's growth.

“Through this funding, we empowered small-scale farmers with a decision-support tool on timing, to manage shrinking resources and changing weather patterns,” she said.

Ignitia now serves 1.9 million farmers across seven countries in West Africa and is expanding into Brazil.

2. Colombian families find long-term security by registering their homes

Securing a property title is critical for families in Colombia as it gives them access to loans, protects against eviction - this is within reach of thousands of low-income families due to the technology platform of start-up Suyo, funded by Expo. Photo: Suyo

Suyo helps people in marginalised communities to register claims on family land in Colombia.

An estimated 70 per cent of families in Latin America do not formally register their property, the UN estimates, or have given up due to time-consuming, complicated and expensive processes.

The organisation serves more than 11,000 low-income people in Colombia to secure property rights and aims to benefit more than 500,000 families across Latin America.

“A man came to us [and] said he had a terminal illness and only had a few months to live. His one desire in life was to ensure his home was formalised so his wife and children could benefit from that property in the future," said Matt Alexander, founder of Suyo.

The company helped the Colombian family secure the title to their small farm after the man died.

"We had this very emotional title ceremony where the widow received the property title and spoke of how much it meant to her husband," he said.

“It kind of symbolised everything he had worked for and hoped to provide his family in having the official title of the home.

“That was the biggest indication of how important this is for families.”

Suyo works with farm and factory workers, low-income families and large companies on properties in urban and rural areas.

A land title is critical as collateral to access loans, protects against eviction and ultimately gives the owner the power to transfer rights.

Once a property is finalised, families can focus on keeping their children in school, making home improvements and investing in small businesses.

Funds from Expo gave the group monetary stability and were channelled into technology systems that use intelligent automation and machine learning to simplify portions of the process and drive down the cost.

“The Expo grant and support catalysed our technology development and sales growth, which ultimately positioned us for long-term financial sustainability and impact,” Mr Alexander said.

3. Fighting plastic use one bowl at a time

From making edible bowls by hand, a company in Cape Town used Expo 2020 Dubai funds to design a machine that produces hundreds of wheat bowls an hour in a bid to fight pollution from singe-use plastic. Photo: Munch Innovation

A request from some friends sent a South African graphic designer on a path with the aim of replacing all single-use plastic and styrofoam crockery with edible and biodegradable alternatives.

Georgina de Kock, managing director of Munch Innovation, said the idea came to her when she was asked to come up with eco-friendly containers in which to serve curry and rice at festivals.

“I thought if you can serve snack food on a biscuit, why not make a biscuit bowl that can hold more food?” she said.

Infused with the rooibos herb, which works as a natural preservative with antioxidant properties, Munch bowls can hold hot soup for up to five hours before softening.

The crisp wheat bowls, small saucers and canapes are manufactured in Cape Town and can keep for 15 months on a shelf.

After success in South Africa and also selling in Belgium, Israel, Singapore and Uganda, Ms de Kock hopes to continue company growth "bowl by bowl" to one day reduce single-use plastic pollution worldwide.

The bowls she designed were initially kneaded and rolled by hand in her kitchen.

Using the Expo grant, she worked with an engineer to build a moulding machine and went from manually producing 1,500 bowls a day to 500 an hour.

“I am most grateful for Expo’s much-needed support, that they believed in the product and my vision to help disrupt plastic pollution,” she said.

Eliminating plastic meal containers on flights is now on Ms de Kock’s radar as she researches edible cutlery, cups and lids.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, there had been interest from the UAE, EU and US for her products and she is working on regaining those countries' attention.

“The hospitality industry was severely affected and had a direct influence on our growth, order quantities and research into more products,” she said.

"I’m happy to tell consumers you are eating something that is preservative and chemical-free. I want to leave something behind, where I can say I made a difference that really matters.

"We are a little drop in the ocean but every little drop counts."

4. Power in hands of farmers

A cheap smartphone and app by AgUnity gives farmers in remote areas the chance to communicate, an opportunity many did not have before. Photo: Expo 2020 Dubai

From cocoa growers in Papua New Guinea to coffee farmers in Ethiopia, families are learning how technology can improve their yields and subsequently their livelihoods.

Through a simple mobile app, Australian start-up AgUnity introduced previously isolated farming communities to the market space, giving them access to financial services, loans, education and health services.

The company provides farmers in developing countries with a cheap smartphone with the app downloaded that securely records all their sales and purchasing transactions, replacing paper receipts.

Farmers often struggle to market crops that are usually sold for a low price.

Communicating with other growers and checking market prices helps farmers to share resources, plan and join forces to buy and sell.

David Davies, AgUnity’s founder and chief executive, said Expo 2020 funding gave the group an injection of credibility.

“These funds from Expo 2020 Dubai not only helped launch our first project in mainland Papua New Guinea with cacao farmers, but also helped us accelerate development of our core technology,” he said.

“We have also been able to generate a significant amount of interest from the Australian government in our solution through being an awardee of the Expo grant.

“Expo 2020 Dubai helped give our project and product credibility in its very early stages and has helped give us global exposure as an award-winning, early-stage tech enterprise.”

Connecting with buyers saves money by enabling farmers to sell efficiently and invest in tools and equipment.

“I can use this phone to track price per kilo and save much time than walking to the market,” said Freda Ireng, a cacao farmer in Madang, a province on the northern coast of Papua New Guinea.

“It can help me communicate with other farmers, understand what we need to do to co-operate.”

The AgUnity platform gives the power back to farmers to manage agricultural sales and distribution via the app.

The target for the technology to reach more than 1 billion smallholder farmers.

In farms with no mobile coverage, transactions are stored and cached locally until the user receives access to the free cloud service network.

Mr Davies said Expo 2020 funds were used to develop and install a solar-powered kit that emits a strong signal so farmers in low-bandwidth environments can access a stable internet connection and charging station.

“For any start-up, funding is crucial,” he said.

“Through funding, AgUnity has been able to help hundreds of farmers build a new life through technology and that would not have been possible without it.”

5. Workers in UAE use mobile app to boost skills

Indian software expert Abu Muadh, right, launched an app in Dubai to help workers such as Abdul Qadeer, from Pakistan, learn English and other skills to open up work opportunities. Antonie Robertson / The National

Tech engineer Abu Muadh, who lives in Dubai, developed Smart Labour, a mobile phone app to offer education, language skills and health and safety information to workers.

For Mr Muadh, watching a 60-year-old worker learn the alphabet diligently is among notable examples of how lives are being transformed.

“The man was making so much of an effort to learn ‘a’ for apple, ‘b’ for ball on the app, it made me tear up,” Mr Muadh said.

“That was the moment that made me feel that when this man learns to read, it’s worth all the effort.”

After years of volunteering in workers’ accommodation where he distributed food parcels, Mr Muadh created an application focused on enabling workers to improve their lives.

The app includes short video tutorials on how to introduce yourself in short sentences, gives practical information about shapes, colours and names of vegetables and fruit to familiarise workers with language in the hospitality sector.

Mr Muadh said the Expo 2020 support gave his start-up some much-needed exposure.

“There has been a lot of interest in understanding how digital technology can impact the lives of blue-collar workers,” he said.

Text-heavy content in English, Hindi and Bengali has made way for compact video clips.

“Even assessments are audio-based after we realised that some can’t read and take a test comfortably,” he said.

Mr Muadh made other adaptations such as interacting with the workers instead of purely on the app.

Tips on hygiene are shared during meetings and games.

“When we started out, we thought software was the centre of everything,” he said.

“Now we realise we need to complement that with activities.

“With games, the learning comes naturally, they have fun, laugh and tease each other and the learning happens in the background.”

With about 50,000 users in Dubai and Ras Al Khaimah, his aim is to take his product across the Emirates and to neighbouring Saudi Arabia.

Abdul Qadeer, a delivery service worker from Peshawar in Pakistan, is keen to keep learning.

“This can help change my life,” he said.

“Normally you have to pay for quality downloads but this is free so I’m doing courses to improve my English.

“There is so much I can learn.”

Updated: July 13, 2022, 7:17 AM
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