Karim Tarraf, Co-founder of Hawa Dawa, is bringing high-tech solutions to the air pollution problem

There are few things more essential to life than the air we breathe. But getting a breath of fresh air today has become a rarity – nine out of 10 people worldwide are inhaling polluted air. It’s become a silent killer – taking the lives of around 7 million people a year, according to WHO estimates.

Whether its millions of lives being cut short or greenhouse gas warming gradually destroying our ecosystems – pollution is an elusive enemy. We see the damage once it’s too late, understanding what we’re up against through the irreversible lens of retrospect.

To tackle climate change, we need to map it out. Get into the nitty-gritty of the where, why and how of pollution hotspots so we can clean up our skies. We need data.

Karim Tarraf, Co-founder of Hawa Dawa, is a green techpreneur on a mission to deliver that data.

Just five years ago he was a student of Entrepreneurship and Electrical Engineering who wanted to do something “tangible” with purpose-driven business. His lightbulb idea came one day as he sat in a seminar.

Together with a fellow student, he mapped out an idea for a wearable device for asthmatics that reacts to the environment: “We won the university competition of 2015. We felt like we were on to something on both the medical and the technical side.”

Hawa Dawa – which derives its name from ‘air medicine’ in Swahili, Turkish and Persian – has since grown into an end-to-end solution for applying air quality data-based insights for relevant industries. Its IP combines data from satellites, air monitoring stations, land use and traffic data to build a heat map of air pollutants in real-time. This data is packaged for specific industry needs at a fraction of the cost of traditional solutions.

Today, Karim says, Hawa Dawa enables incredibly detailed mapping of air pollution that was previously unattainable: “we can capture emissions data on a global scale from every harbour to every city, shipping route, airport, factory and road.”

“So much of what we’re doing is creating transparency and lifting the veil on what exactly is causing air pollution in cities and this, in itself, is an impact.”

Hawa Dawa operates in four countries and 25 cities, projects are underway for expansion into three further countries and “this is just the tip of the iceberg” says Karim – “it’s increasing in momentum.”

Which key market gaps does Hawa Dawa fill?

Cities in Europe are legally required to monitor air quality. The problem is that current methods are not fit for purpose; they can only take measurements in certain areas and are expensive and complicated. We are offering a digital alternative which is as accurate as a big measurement station. It’s not a substitution; we use the big stations to train our sensors. But there’s a market demand there to increase efficiency and reduce costs. A hyper-accurate station costs £150,000 upwards – for the same price, we offer complete city coverage.

There’s also a need for data to get the most ecological and economic output for traffic management and quantitative data to manage public health better.

How did COVID-19 impact your business?

One impact is the mounting evidence it created on how air pollution and our health is interlinked. Since June/July interest in Hawa Dawa has picked up even more than before because digitisation, climate protection and health are three topics that the pandemic fuelled. At least in Germany, you need to have data digitally available to make real-time decisions.

Our clients are corporates and cities, and their budgets are already set for this year. Cities may be more gravely impacted next year. But this is also part of our value proposition – before you spend billions of dollars on a new project, it’s tools like Hawa Dawa that can help you realise an impact for every Euro you invest. Air quality and environmental data as a whole should be integrated into the mainstream of our decision making.

Which three words describe your Hawa Dawa journey?

Adventure, Pioneering, Rollercoaster.

What are your top tips for marketing a data-driven cleantech product?

Let market demand shape your direction

We’ve always been close to the market and open and transparent when talking to our clients. We have city mayors who we know on a first-name basis; they tell us which needs our product should meet so their department can use our system. The client bonds with and helps shape the product before it’s in the market. So market demand shapes our direction, but we don’t let it undermine our innovation and disruption.

Start from the customer pain point and work backwards

What we’re doing isn’t new. 1,000 years ago, a physician in Bagdad was asked to find the right location to build the largest city hospital. He hung pieces of meat up all over the city, and where the meat remained the freshest, he selected as the location for the hospital. He used air quality data in a basic form to guide his decision.

If he’d said, I have air quality data, who wants to buy it? He wouldn’t have created a market for it. He worked backwards from a problem and linked his approach to an existing industry. We do the same with health, weather forecasts, and traffic, linking into six verticals – we use the most cutting-edge technologies in telecommunications, sensors, AI and earth observation, but the philosophy remains the same.

Be close to the market but also convinced of your idea

If you want to be pioneers, you have to see market risks as opportunities and look beyond what you can currently see.

You have to balance working closely with and learning from the market with being convinced of your approach. If you’re developing new ties with existing industries and digitising or changing a market, such as the air quality monitoring market, there are not so many openings. So you need to create your path and know whose advice to listen to since not many people have been where you are. In the end, we need to make the final calls.


What’s the biggest obstacle to business growth?

One of the biggest obstacles we’ve faced is that there is an urgency and a willingness to act, but not yet enough courage to act.

Mckenzie made a projection that 25% or more of revenue across sectors has come from merging several sectors – like air quality and fitness or air quality and health. The business models are new; digitisation is merging traditional industry boundaries. But people are resistant to that type of change because it’s a different way of earning money – we’re in a period of transition.

So it’s not enough to say, ‘here’s the requested data, now you integrate it.’ We show the client how it works and why, down the line, this will be relevant in their industry. It’s not an easy road we’ve chosen, but having big corporates and city mayors approach us and knowing the reason we’re sat together talking is because we developed a technology that didn’t exist before, that makes us proud. It’s the ‘aha’ effect. People didn’t know this was possible and we show them the technology is available today.

Is there a principle you follow in business and life?

Tie your camel and then trust in God. So you always do your part and then you rest and hope for the best and remain optimistic.

The Asian proverb ‘the man who moves a mountain starts by carrying away small stones’ gives an all-round picture on how I try to deal with the ups and downs.

…………………..…..if Karim could time travel into the future of his green techpreneur journey, he’d be in an emerging country, supporting the local entrepreneurial startup spirit. “I’m both German and Egyptian, my wife is both Bolivian and German, so we’re always going to be in the intersection between two different cultures – we see ourselves as bridging cultures and countries.”

His dream house would be on a sunny coast – the Mediterranean or the Red Sea – “a simple house built in Latin American or Oriental style, where you can go into the water as often as you can.”

Karim’s book recommendations:

The Rare Find: How Great Talent Stands Out by George Anders

People are the most critical resource for a startup. This book teaches you a lot about yourself in that context, but also what to look for in talent.

A networking event you should go to:

Rise Up Summit is thus far one of the more unique networking events I have been to. It gives you a glimpse into a very vibrant and often underestimated entrepreneurial ecosystem, where purpose meets scale.

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