TURNING CHALLENGES INTO OPPORTUNITIES

Jordan 2019 | ECONOMY | INTERVIEW

The closure of Syrian and Iraqi borders hit the Jordanian economy hard, but Kawar Group continues to leverage its expertise in disruptive technologies to streamline global assistance to refugees and enhance Jordan's exports.

Karim Kawar
BIOGRAPHY
An entrepreneur and angel investor, Karim Kawar is a former Jordanian Ambassador to the US and the current President of Kawar Group. Kawar is also Chairman of IrisGuard, which works with UNHCR and WFP to secure payments and blockchain transactions with iris recognition on mobile devices; NatHealth, the largest third-party administrator for health insurance; and Kawar Energy, the leading developer and EPC of renewable energy projects. Previously, he was Director of Ahli Bank, United Insurance, and JWICO, and architect of REACH and REACH2025 initiatives for Jordan’s digital economy. He has a bachelor’s in management, finance, and computer science from Boston College.

How do Optimiza and IrisGuard, Kawar Groups' flagship developments in the ICT sector, contribute to the group's portfolio?
Optimiza is result of a nine-way merger, and this was the group's effort to not only consolidate some of its activities but also merge with like-minded companies to build, scale, and export products and services to the region. This has worked extremely well for the group, making Optimiza one of the few publicly traded ICT companies on the Amman Stock Exchange. With over 35 years of history, it has the reputation and experience to take on large projects inside and outside of Jordan. IrisGuard is also a stellar company. Its latest product is a phone that is manufactured specifically for IrisGuard. The phone has an Iris-scanning camera on the front and back, with no password or security. We have developed with Iris recognition a demo app that can scan my iris and find me from that database. A scan will be taken of my eye and sent to a demo database in the UK. The app found my picture and my information out of over 2 million irises in just over five seconds.

How is Kawar applying this innovative technology?

We are now using IrisGuard to focus on increasing financial inclusion. UNHCR is registering Syrian refugees through IrisGuard to avoid duplication. Once registered, UNHCR can provide services using cashless systems. Refugees can go to ATM machines and look into the camera, which opens up a special screen using which refugees can access their assistance. It is extremely accurate, and we have processed over USD600 million with no questionable transaction. We have worked with WFP to extend this technology to supermarkets, so that refugees can purchase their food items by scanning their irises. By giving refugees cash, we empower them to make choices and we support the local merchants. IrisGuard encourages financial inclusion so that refugees can have a financial history through blockchain. IrisGuard has been a win-win for everyone, and working with donor agencies has allowed it to stretch the assistance dollars to help more clients.

What is the potential for Jordan to become a digital, knowledge-based economy, and where does Kawar Group fit into this equation?

I was the architect of the REACH2025 initiative, which is building Jordan as a digital economy. First introduced in 2000, Jordan has come a long way in the ICT sector. Jordanians are increasingly using their smart devices to interact, whether it is with our banks or our government, which brings greater efficiency. Certainly, a great deal of that can utilize blockchain in terms of tokenization, making assets more accessible for potential buyers. That can cut across many industries, for example, in agriculture, blockchain can track produce from the farm to the dining table. Many stakeholders are exploring how to use blockchain to fix that, which can go a long way in enhancing our exports.

Can you tell us more about NatHealth?

NatHealth, a national health insurance administration, is another company in our group, and we are its third-party administrator (TPA). It's a 22-year-old company that works with insurance companies and self-insured funds that outsource the administration and the adjudication of its medical claims to us. We sit in between the healthcare providers and the payers, be they insurance companies or self-insured funds. Recently we set up NatHealth Palestine, which is now in its fifth year and fairly successful. We seek to take this company regionally to replicate this success in other markets. Jordan has great opportunities and can be well positioned to receive those investments, whether in logistics, ICT, energy, tourism, or healthcare—key sectors that are promising for Jordan and the region.