Like countless other Lebanese youth, I once made my way to other “homes” in search of a “better” future. For hard-working, young Lebanese who love their country but find no other choices, this heart-wrenching distance from home often feels predetermined. The "comfort" of living abroad goes hand-in-hand with the worry and helplessness over loved ones back home. Especially at a time and place where doors in Lebanon are closing, this feeling of helplessness overcomes those abroad whose hearts are still in Beirut.
Ironically, the uniquely bizarre conditions of the worldwide COVID-19 crisis provided an opportunity to address the situation affecting our loved ones and our homeland. As the world became increasingly digital, the concept of a virtual hackathon to tackle Lebanon’s urgent challenges became an outlet through which to support Lebanon. In the days after Jad Ojjeh, the initiative’s founder, floated the idea of a Lebanon-themed hackathon, 51 volunteers from the Lebanese community at MIT and worldwide––many with stories similar to my own––coalesced to provide the backbone to the MIT Lebanon Challenge. Many in this organizing team spent over 30 hours a week, on top of full-time jobs, to ensure the success of the initiative. 72 partners––spanning universities, corporates, NGOs, accelerators, VCs, and international agencies––committed their support in the form of promotion, resources, data sets, mentors and judges. One month later, we found ourselves at the opening day of the MIT Lebanon Challenge. It was a first-of-its-kind, online hackathon connecting Lebanese at home and in the diaspora to build creative, responsible bridges toward a more stable Lebanon. Our team of volunteers worked around the clock, across distance yet connected virtually and through our dedication to Lebanon.
Over the weekend of June 26-28, 600 selected applicants, 120 mentors, 24 judges, and 51 volunteer organizers from all around the globe came together to design innovative solutions to Lebanon’s most pressing challenges. These individuals’ enthusiasm, creativity, hard work and dedication set the backdrop for the event. The MIT Lebanon Challenge inspired hope for everyone involved by fostering creative solutions and exposing the youth of Lebanon to novel, challenging ways of solving real problems through participatory engagement.
Our aim was to create value and opportunity for those excited to contribute and make a change to Lebanon and its most pressing needs! The initiative sought highly-motivated individuals from diverse professional, educational, socio-economic, and geographic backgrounds. Around 75% of participants had never participated in a hackathon before, but all displayed empathy, responsibility, and a desire to innovate and design solutions for Lebanon. By deepening knowledge-sharing between participants and relevant partners, the initiative provided individuals eager to make an impact with the tools and the platform to affect positive change. Active diaspora participation set the stage for sustained collaboration between Lebanese at home and abroad. Though this was not Lebanon’s first hackathon, it was an avowedly inspiring and rewarding experience for all involved––an experience that created a framework, a platform, and a community for the Lebanese youth to receive the resources, guidance, and financial support to implement their innovative ideas despite the looming financial crisis.
An inclusive innovation framework served as a central tenet of the challenge, countering the tendency of innovation efforts to focus only on the needs of those who are already well-off in society. We wanted the challenge to act as a catalyst for social and economic inclusion, ensuring that the benefits of innovation would touch all Lebanese, not only the most privileged. Reflecting this idea, the hackathon prioritized solving problems that also aligned with the needs of the most vulnerable. Challenge tracks spread across food security, clean water, waste management, shelter, energy, healthcare, agriculture, manufacturing, technology, and outsourcing. Teams were encouraged to identify problems and design solutions that favored decentralized, bottom-up implementation strategies in a context of limited resources and public-sector intervention.
“If we look at the economic crisis in Lebanon, it seems that we need to reinvent [the economy] to be more inclusive, more local, to start exporting what Lebanese people do best, their knowledge, their talent, their services. To be more inclusive, is what the basic needs track is trying to solve. To be more local, is what the industrial track is trying to solve through agriculture and local production... The third track is around the knowledge economy, which is about exporting what the Lebanese do best,” said Hala Fadel, Founder and Managing Partner at LEAP Ventures/ MIT Lebanon Challenge Opening Ceremony.
Once the event opened on Friday 26 June, the MIT Lebanon Challenge never slept. The event kicked off with an opening ceremony, introducing for the first time the over 1000 people who came together to take change in Lebanon into their own hands. With participants spanning 10 time zones, the organizing team, the mentors and the participants were always hard at work, pouring their positive energy into the challenge and its objectives. Hackathon participants split into teams of 4-7 members across our challenge tracks, with over 100 motivated mentors standing by to support. Over the course of the weekend, these mentors provided hundreds––if not thousands––of hours of mentorship to the 72 participant teams, sharing their expertise in entrepreneurship, software development, pitching, and industry.
Over 48 hours of enthusiasm-fueled sleep deprivation, teams developed innovative solutions and refined pitches communicating the feasibility, innovation, and impact of these solutions. As the weekend drew to a close, teams gathered together for a final time to pitch their ideas in front of distinguished panels of judges including CEO’s, ministers, heads of international agencies, and founders of innovative tech companies.
The closing ceremony took place on Sunday 28 June, highlighting the winning projects, their potential, and next steps. The winners of the “Food, Water and Shelter” track tackled the problem of unaffordable housing by creating “Sharek,” an online platform that aims to match tenants looking for roommates. “Biyati,” the winners of the “Energy, Healthcare and Waste Management” track, proposed using a plant filtration system to solve Lebanon’s pollution problem. In the manufacturing track, “Leather Team” aimed to address the decline in the Lebanese manufacturing industry by linking the GCC high-end sandals and shoe brands with Lebanese manufacturers. “Farmlend,” the winners of the agriculture track, came up with the idea of developing a digital lending platform to distribute capital from large impact funds and development finance institutions to smallholder farmers in financially-challenging times. Finally, for the knowledge economy tracks, “Daimlas” proposed an online platform that connects leading tech companies with remote Artificial Intelligence teams for hiring. At the same time, “Khebez w Meleh” created an enterprise that offers rural families the opportunity to generate income by creating unique, local, customizable, rural tourism packages through a customer-centered web platform.
When the hackathon ended on Sunday night, it was only the beginning for the hundreds of innovators who are yet to start implementing their solutions. Our post-hackathon team developed an accelerator program––currently one of the few accelerator programs running in Lebanon due to the economic crisis and distance challenges of COVID-19––that promises to drive these ventures’ entrepreneurship, strategy, innovation, and civic engagement. Our program enables a match-making process with the explicit aim of fostering collaboration between participants with technical and non-technical backgrounds, as well as guided mentorship and support in legal, business strategy, industry and technological areas. The virtual accelerator also provides teams with access workshops organized by the MIT Lebanon Challenge team and affiliated partners. On the 8th of August, we invite Lebanese at home and in the diaspora to attend the final demos, celebrate the teams’ progress, and invest in or donate to the teams they believe have the potential to make a change in the Lebanese ecosystem.
On behalf of the MIT Lebanon Challenge Team, we would like to thank each and every person supporting us. In our personal quests to help solve problems in our ailing country, we created a community of action-oriented social entrepreneurs, all united in their desire to contribute to a stronger Lebanon. The MIT Lebanon Challenge proved that a little initiative and dedication from optimistic and innovative individuals, here or abroad, goes a long way!
“It is exactly in such situations that we hope that under all that rubble, we will figure out the light together… with millions being driven into misery, you all together are trying to show that change can happen. Today, you are taking sides, not a political side, but the side of the ones who cannot be silent. The side that believes that as human beings, we are defined by what we do. But we are as well defined by what we don’t do.” – Elie Habib, Co-Founder of Anghami/MIT Lebanon Challenge Opening Ceremony
To ensure the long-term success and impact of the MIT Lebanon Challenge, we are reaching out to you. We urge you to continue encouraging our participants (and others like them) to design and implement their social entrepreneurship ventures by supporting teams however you can. Connect with us on our social media platforms (LinkedIn & Instagram) if you can contribute, through mentorship (Mentors Sign-Up), volunteering (Volunteers Sign-Up), or investing (stay tuned), if you believe in the hope and opportunity that our program offers!
The MIT Lebanon Challenge is a non-sectarian and apolitical hackathon organized by a group of MIT students and volunteers from Lebanon and the diaspora. For more information about the MIT Lebanon Challenge, visit their website.
Daniella Maamari recently graduated with a Master of Science in Architecture Studies from MIT. She is currently working as a researcher for the MIT Future Heritage Lab and leading the marketing campaign for the MIT Lebanon Challenge.
Cory Ventres-Pake has a background in public-sector design and innovation and has experience in countries across the Middle East and South Asia. She is currently pursuing a master’s in Integrated Design & Management at MIT.
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