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Wed, May 23rd , 2018
Author: Haya Yayha Expert: Hadi Atwi

  There is nothing quite as inspiring as meeting a teenager, barely into his first year of university, taking on overwhelming work with the hope of making his community a better place. etcetera recently met with Mr. Hadi Atwi, a young man who just recently started studying computer engineering in university, yet he already has his own tech start-up FoodConnect, which is working to end food waste in Lebanon.  

Getting Started 

            Hadi had not always planned on becoming a computer engineer. “I was going to pick another major,” he says. “I was really considering getting into agriculture or another industry related to my startup.” However, he had some familiarity with the field. “I was interested in programming and in the whole tech world, and how it’s evolving. I knew one programming language, Javascript,” Hadi relates. “Then, this past summer, I saw that Teens Who Code was doing a summer camp in BDD (Beirut Digital District), and I signed up.”  

            The camp convinced him that he belonged in the tech world. “It was so interesting, we learned robotics; we learned how to make games with C#. We also had a creative writing class that we really enjoyed,” he enthuses. “My favorite course was probably the course we took with Cherpa, which is a company that has an online platform which helps kids learn how to use robotics.” Apparently, the course was a big hit. “Cherpa found that 20 years from now, a lot of jobs will have robots and so they’re trying to teach students how to handle those robots,” Hadi elaborates. “And we worked with something called Arduino, which is a chip that serves as the brain of the robot, you program it, and it processes the code you write and moves other parts like robotic hands or an engine.” 

            The instructors were sources of motivation in their own right. “The cool thing about the instructors was that they all had some kind of startup already, and they were so young and so involved in this tech world that the class was so hyped.” Hadi remains in contact with some of those instructors. “The thing about the summer camp is it didn’t end when it ended,” Hadi explained. “I met those instructors, and I still talk to some of them, and they give me help and advice when I need it.” 


            After the summer camp, Hadi started trying to use the programming skills he learned to solve an urgent problem. “We found out by research that there is a lot of food waste in Lebanon,” Hadi laments. “In one study, researchers attached tech monitors to garbage bins in the Greater Beirut area, and they found that 1,200 tons of food are wasted each day in that area, and on the other side, you have a large number of people who are food insecure.” 

             So what to do? “For the past two months, I’ve been working on a startup called FoodConnect, which is a web platform designed to match donations to certain NGOs,” Hadi says. “What we’re trying to do is give surplus food value by giving it to the right NGOs. We want to design an app that matches the food donation with the NGOwhichcan handle that certain type and amount of food at that specific time.” 

            The process of creating such an application is apparently long and complicated. “There is a lot of research and networking that we need to do. At this moment, we’re trying to connect food retailers and food NGOs ourselves to learn more about the process and specifically the problems that can come up and need to be solved,” Hadi explains. “Then I have to find the solutions to those problems and implement them in the app, and only then can the app automate that process.”  

            There are also other challenges. “One particular challenge we have right now is that we’re not really adding value to anyone, we’re just connecting two people,” Hadi says. “In business terms, the retailer would rather throw away the surplus food because the process is really overwhelming for them: people coming at scheduled times to pick up the food, their staff busy preparing for that. In the retailer’s mind- ‘why bother? Why not just throw it out?’” So, for FoodConnect, the challenge is convincing retailers to come on board. “We need to figure out business incentives, not just humanitarian ones,” Hadi says. “Right now, we’re looking for a restaurant that would agree to experiment with us.”  

Unconventional Learning  

            Listening to Hadi, it’s easy to forget he is actually still in his first semesters at university. Yet, as it turns out, he had never quite depended on schools and universities to give him the information he needed. “I’m all about online searches and finding courses online,” Hadi explains. “My brother is a computer engineer too, and he told me not to count on college or school courses because with computers, things are changing very fast, and university courses will either just teach the basics or will be outdated.”  

            Yet, the Internet provides vast and cutting edge resources for those willing to learn. “Online material will always be up to date,” Hadi informs us. “Websites like Udemy, Udacity, Codecademy, CodeCollege, all have great instructors, great material, and it’s all for free. There’s even an entire Introduction to Computer Science course taught by a Harvard professor on YouTube; it’s really amazing!” 

            According to Hadi, the online resources also cater to different learning preferences. “If you just want to learn syntax, Codecademy is the place for you,” he says. “But if you like project-based learning like I do, go for Udacity or CodeCollege. On those sites you’re doing a whole big project like building a website, and throughout that process you’re learning HTML, CSS, and Javascript.”         

            Of course, even with all the available materials, learning such content needs self-discipline and perseverance. So what advice does Hadi have for teenagers aspiring to do impressive work in the tech world? “Don’t have a social life!” he jokes. “Or actually, have the right social life, surround yourself with tech enthusiasts and people who are actually doing the work. Also, start small, say with thirty minutes of programming a day, and build up from there!” 


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