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The 10 most innovative European, Middle Eastern, and African companies of 2021

Beewise, Sokowatch, Softbox Systems, and SunCulture are some of the top businesses in these regions when it comes to addressing today’s emerging needs.

The 10 most innovative European, Middle Eastern, and African companies of 2021
[Icon: Assignment Studios]
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This year’s selections from Europe, Africa, and the Middle East show that innovation knows no geographic bounds. From the world’s first autonomous beehive to the world’s first quantum computing language, a carbon footprint-monitoring credit card to technology that transforms deserts into fertile soil, it’s clear that the future is happening everywhere. Some of the companies leading these advancements hail from established innovation economies, others from emerging ones, and yet others from cities recently decimated by tragedy.

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1. Beewise

For earning well-earned buzz as the world’s first autonomous beehive

Bees are among some of the smallest creatures on the planet, yet they couldn’t be more important. The insects are responsible for up to 30% of our global food supply, but some species are going extinct due to climate change, pesticides, and other unidentified causes. Autonomous hives created by Israeli company Beewise update the wooden hives that beekeepers have been using for 150 years with robotics, computer vision, and AI to control temperature, humidity and pests, automate honey harvesting, and monitor every bee’s health. Nearly 300,000 hives are currently being used by more than 100 commercial beekeepers; the company says they yield 200% more honey, improve bee colony survival rates, and decrease manual labor requirements by 90%.

2. SunCulture

For creating a solar-powered irrigation system that allows small farmers to water their crops

Ninety-six percent of small farmers in Africa rely on rain to irrigate their land, which is why their yields trail the rest of the world by up to 50%. The problem will only grow more precarious as the world continues to heat up and the climate continues to change. Kenya-based SunCulture, which worked with the Togolese government and a distribution partner in a first-of-its-kind partnership in 2020, is bringing their solution to thousands of farming households, allowing farmers to turn to the earth instead of the sky for irrigation. Their off-grid technology, coupled with Pay-As-You-Grow financing, lets farmers extract up to 3,000 liters per hour of water from the ground at depths of up to 70 meters–without the need of a fixed energy source thanks to its solar-powered array. This means that small-scale farmers in even the remotest of areas now have irrigation capabilities that once belonged only to large-scale farms.

3. Doconomy

For inventing a credit card that allows consumers to see–and offset–their carbon footprint

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Many things contribute to the world’s carbon expenditure–including our consumer shopping habits. The problem is, most people don’t have an easy way to track their spending’s negative impact on the environment. That’s where Sweden’s Doconomy comes in. The company’s DO White credit card tracks the CO2 emissions generated from cardholder’s purchases. Released to the Swedish market in 2020, the DO White card is powered by the company’s Åland Index–a cloud-based service for climate impact calculations. With every purchase made on the card, Doconomy’s Åland Index (which partners with banks in 14 countries) calculates its CO2 impact and generates a score, which the user can then offset by buying units in UN-certified climate-friendly compensation projects in developing countries. Within months of its mid-2020 launch the DO card attracted 20,000 customers in Sweden.

4. Quantum Machines

For inventing a universal programming language for quantum computers

Quantum computing is the next frontier. Whereas traditional computers–from enterprise servers to the smartphones in our pockets–operate by computing bits that can either be a 1 or a 0, a quantum computer operates by computing qubits, which can be a 1 or 0 or both at once. Yet, quantum computing is so new that it lacks a universal programming language that works on all quantum computers. Without a universal programming language—like C++ or Java are for traditional computers—quantum computers have so far had to have bespoke apps designed for their physical circuits alone. Israel-based Quantum Machines has recently begun changing that with its QUA standard universal language for quantum computers, released in 2020, which acts as a software abstraction layer, and is now allowing researchers and scientists worldwide to write programs for varied quantum computers with one unified code.

5. Clario Tech

For simplifying the complexities of digital privacy and security for individuals

As our world becomes more interconnected, online privacy and security have never been more critical. Unfortunately, securing and protecting our digital life is often far too complicated for people who aren’t extremely technically-literate. If you’ve ever watched your grandparents struggle with anti-virus software, you’ll know what we mean. But U.K.-based Clario Tech has negated the need for technical prowess when it comes to protecting your digital life. In June 2020, the company launched its Clario platform that takes the form of a simplified app-based personalized dashboard that monitors and protects against all types of personal digital security and privacy threats across six key areas of a person’s digital life—Identity, Browsing, Device, Money, Network, and Files. If it discovers a threat, it tells you how to mitigate it using plain language that anyone can understand. The company’s software also includes another feature helpful for anyone who gets overwhelmed by the ever-changing world of tech security: built-in 24/7 support, with the ability to connect by chat or a call with actual humans who can provide advice on using the software and managing security issues. The service is available for operating systems including macOS, iOS and Android.

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6. Softbox Systems

For creating paper-based temperature-controlled shipping boxes that are 100% recyclable

Cold storage wasn’t something most people thought about before 2020. But the logistics and requirements of shipping COVID-19 vaccines changed that. And cold storage solutions are essential for more than just vaccines; medicine to food also require them. The problem is that boxes that are cold storage-compatible aren’t environmentally-friendly, since they often use Styrofoam or other plastics to prevent temperature loss. That’s changed with U.K.-based Softbox Systems‘s Tempcell ECO, introduced in June 2020. The single-use box can keep its contents temperature-stable for 72 hours without using traditional insulators, thanks to Softbox’s corrugated cardboard insulating technology called Thermaflute. And unlike Styrofoam or other plastic-based insulators, Thermaflute, because it is 100% paper-based, is 100% recyclable.

7. Sokowatch

For enabling small shopkeepers in East Africa to quickly source essential food and goods

Millions of independent shops across East Africa form the backbone of communities and local economies. Yet, many lack the advanced tools to source and manage inventory properly, leading to stock shortages, lost sales, and wasted perishable goods. Such inventory supply chain issues can be a costly problem considering East Africa’s 10 million independent shops can move a combined $180 billion worth of goods each year. Kenya-based Sokowatch offered a solution in 2020 that enables these informal retailers to manage their inventories with nothing more than a cell phone. Using Sokowatch’s mobile app–or even just SMS messaging–shop owners (currently around 15,000 in at least nine African locations) can request inventory replenishment from central distribution hubs instead of needing to contact myriad suppliers. Best of all, orders can be placed at any time of the day and be delivered via tuk-tuks in two hours or less. The company can even use the independent shops’ purchasing data to predict incoming orders and pre-stock tuk-tuks to get the delivery on the road as soon as an order comes in, resulting in fewer wasted goods, better-stocked shelves, and increased local sales. Average sales growth of Sokowatch’s retailers in 2020 was forecasted to be 82%.

8. GGRIL

For picking up the pieces in Beirut

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2020 was a year filled with so many hardships that some people may not even remember the tragic explosion at Beirut’s port in August. The massive blast killed more than 200 people, injured at least 6,500 more, and was felt as far away as Europe. In addition to damaging or destroying numerous buildings, the explosion caused 5,000 tons of glass from shattered windows to be scattered around Beirut. Instead of just leaving the glass to languish in already overflowing landfills, the Beirut-based Green Glass Recycling Initiative Lebanon (GGRIL) collected and cleaned the glass and provided it to the only remaining glass packaging factories in Tripoli, helping the country’s struggling glass industry to remain afloat. GGRIL also produced a line of glassware products such as wine jugs and mugs to commemorate the blast with the shards that remained.

9. Whirli

For keeping plastic out of landfills and saving parents money by being the “Netflix of toys”

As any parent knows, kids grow out of toys almost as soon as they get them–leading not only to wasted money but wasted packaging and plastics (the primary material most toys are made from). Enter Whirli, a U.K.-based toy sharing subscription service. As part of a monthly subscription, parents (or their kids) get to choose what toys they want in exchange for Whirli tokens. Whirli sends the toys out, and subscribers choose how long they want to keep them. When done, subscribers send the toys back in exchange for more Whirli tokens, which they can use for more toys. Or, if a kid falls in love with a toy, it’s theirs to keep for a less-than-retail price. In 2020 Whirli built the world’s first proprietary platform to facilitate its circular economy model. It’s been a hit with millennial and Gen Z parents looking for a more sustainable way of shopping for their family.

10. Desert Control

For turning desert and dry lands into fertile soil by using a clay-based treatment that holds water

Many regions of the world are victims of their own geography. While some countries are blessed with fertile soil that serves as bread baskets for much of the world, others have little farmable land. Norway-based Desert Control has come up with a new technology that allows countries to turn their dry lands into ones that can sustain growth. Their revolutionary Liquid NanoClay treatment mixes clay with water in a special process. When LNC is sprayed directly onto dry, sandy land, the mix saturates the soil turning it into a spongelike fabric that retains water, and with it, nutrients. The result is farmable land that had previously been barren. Traditional methods of turning dry lands into fertile land takes typically between seven and fifteen years. Desert Control’s LNC accomplishes that in just seven hours. LNC has been field-tested in Egypt, China, and Pakistan. And in Dubai in March 2020, watermelon, zucchini, and pearl millet were planted in a patch of desert treated with LNC. Five months later, the yield was harvested.