In this week’s episode of Beyond Consulting, we welcome Rabih El Chaar, former Strategy& consultant, and Co-Founder of Nadeera. Rabih joins us to share his consulting experience and how it helped him establish a social enterprise.
The Beyond Consulting Podcast is hosted by Ken Kanara and co-hosted by Steven Haug .Ken leads this week’s episode.
Ken Kanara: I’m Ken Kanara, and this is Beyond Consulting, the only podcast focused on your career, health and wealth after consulting. This week, I welcome a good friend of mine, Rabih El Chaar, the cofounder of Nadeera. Rabih, welcome to the show.
Rabih El Chaar: Thanks a lot, Ken. I’m very, very happy to be here, and I’m very happy to be chatting with you.
Ken Kanara: Likewise, likewise. I think they should know that it’s probably been more than 10 years since we last spoke, but Rabih and I are good friends from the Middle East, where I used to work with him at Booz & Co. But Rabih, our listeners probably don’t want to hear too much about that, I think they want to hear about your story. Tell us a little bit about your career and what’s brought you to Nadeera.
Rabih El Chaar: Of course, fantastic. Let me just take you through a bit of the history of how I started in consulting. I started after an MBA. I was a petroleum engineer in Canada for several years, then I decided to go and do my MBA at INSEAD. I joined consulting post-MBA as a Junior Manager, then progressed in that until I got hired by a client. I did that for a few years and then came back to consulting. Around 2019, just before COVID, I decided to do something different. Everything had been great up to that point, but at the end of 2019 I was really keen on trying out a lot of ideas that I’d had for many years, and I took the opportunity to do that. That’s what exactly when I started Nadeera, but at the same time I continued doing consulting in the background, or in parallel, until Nadeera was up and running, and that’s where we are today.
Ken Kanara: Excellent. What is Nadeera?
Rabih El Chaar: Great, so Nadeera is a social enterprise. Nadeera in Arabic means “the clean one,” and it’s from cleanliness. What we’re trying to do is introduce recycling and circular economy in the Middle East. Unfortunately, we only recycle less than 5% of our waste compared to countries such as Switzerland or Germany that recycle more than 65% of their waste. That’s the huge opportunity if you equate that across the Global South, not only in the East, so I’m talking about Asia, East Africa and South America. This is hundreds of billion dollars of material that is actually thrown into landfills, whereas it could have been rescued, economically, and then rescued from an environmental perspective. We’re very much focused on that topic, and we are tackling that topic from a behavioral science perspective.
Ken Kanara: When you say you’re tackling it from behavioral science perspective, does that mean you’re in the home of the consumer? What is it exactly that you’re doing?
Rabih El Chaar: I started in this industry back in 2017 where I was working starting my NGOs. I started two NGOs, one focused on solar power and distributing solar power in the region, and another one focused on waste management. We got a grant and we started learning about the industry. What we realized, and which was a very major kind of discovery, was that waste mismanagement is not a mechanical issue, it’s a behavioral issue. As long as people are able to recognize recyclable items back at home, segregate them and put them in separate bins, you solve 90% of the problem and then everything downstream of that becomes very, very easy.
The strategies for governments, they try to solve it putting bins out and assuming people are going to do it on their own, and it doesn’t work because people need a lot of nudging and a lot of personalized messages to get them to recycle. At Nadeera, we focus on doing three things. First, we make recycling fun and easy so people are able to understand it well, not take it as a chore, but actually enjoy it. We have an AI algorithm that allows you to take a picture and know if this item is recyclable or not. We even have the game that you can play like “Fruit Ninja,” that you can actually put items in the right bins just to make it more fun and enjoyable. The second thing that we do, which differentiates Nadeera, and we have actually filed our international patent on that, is that is we trace and we verify to know who’s recycling and who’s not. So if Ken is recycling, I would actually encourage you and let you know you’ve done a great job and give you a lot of incentives and rewards. If you’re not recycling, we’ll give you a lot of education and offline and online prompts so you’ll know that first, we’re actually looking, and then second, to know how you can engage, recycle, and once you recycle, you get a lot of these benefits. So we close the loop on that behavioral aspect of things.
Ken Kanara: That’s interesting. I guess the thing that’s kind of curious to me is that I would imagine that you’re having to attack this problem from a lot of different angles because you’re dealing with education and income levels across the spectrum. Is that right?
Rabih El Chaar: Absolutely. As a matter of fact, we have two products. One product that targets higher socioeconomic classes. It’s door-to-door, it’s bespoke, and it offers more discounts from big retailers. And the other targets lower socioeconomic classes. In this one, we offer direct cash for recyclables using the same methodology, but offering cash for recyclables. They come to us with their recyclable items. On a digital platform, we record these transactions, and we give people the cash for the recyclables.
Ken Kanara: Oh, wow. You’re actually paying for trash?
Rabih El Chaar: Absolutely.
Ken Kanara: Wow.
Rabih El Chaar: We do it in a manner that allows us to track it and make sure that there is no leakage in the system, make sure it’s done in a profitable manner, and rewarding, as well, to them.
Ken Kanara: That’s incredible. As someone who spent time in the Middle East, I can see what a huge opportunity, and problem, currently exists. And you’re right, it does start at the behavioral level. What are some of the things that you’re encountering in terms of the challenges, or maybe resistance, from your everyday consumer?
Rabih El Chaar: As a matter of fact, Ken, consumers are ahead of everybody else. Consumers want to recycle. Once you go and give them something easy and fun, they actually latch on very, very quickly. The difficulties we see are in getting government permits and getting the right approvals for us to operate. Sometimes it’s tedious and it takes a lot of time and education for the government, to explain to them what to do, but once they understand it and we start operating, they’re actually very encouraging and they help us out.
Ken Kanara: Interesting. Do you also have collection facilities or something like that? Maybe I’m asking the wrong question, like…outside of the consumer’s home, like public recycling bins and stuff like that?
Rabih El Chaar: No, that’s the right question. Yes, absolutely. We have two types of facilities right outside the homes to collect these recycled items and then another facility which is centralized, where we take all these recyclables, we trace them, we scan the QR codes that are on the bags and we are able to know which households they came from. Then, we give the rewards there on the spot, or we tell people through the app, which gets pushed to the users app, telling them what mistakes they’ve made so they can avoid making those mistakes next time. We have our own facilities, in addition to working with traditional collection companies in their facilities as well. We do a lot of collaboration with such companies. We’re done a study with Yale University actually, in the States, and they funded that study. We’ve taken one town and we split it between Nadeera users and non-Nadeera users and we’ve proven quantitatively that using technology to alter people’s behaviors and get them to recycle actually works because our users got up to five out of five stars in terms of quality of sorting in a matter of 45 days, as opposed to the control group that continues to be two out of five stars, given that they were not receiving these prompts and interventions.
Ken Kanara: Wow. That’s interesting. So you’re getting two things. One, is you’re doing good for the planet, right? That’s good. And then two, you’re giving meaningful incentives for people across socioeconomic situations. I would imagine that, for certain groups of people, especially in the Middle East, this can have a meaningful impact on their lives from a financial perspective.
Rabih El Chaar: Absolutely, especially, for example, in Lebanon right now, where we operate, we have a lot of people that are taking this as a second job. They’re actually going around and collecting recyclables, not only from their houses, to be able to get these supermarket vouchers or be able to get the hard cash so they can provide for their families. Definitely, that has a triple bottom line impact.
Ken Kanara: That’s incredible. I know that you mentioned working with NGOs, starting NGOs… how did you get the idea for this?
Rabih El Chaar: It’s a gap, Ken, that we realized that nobody was addressing. Every time you get funding to do a waste management project, they spend years and years doing studies on infrastructure and on mechanical items, and nobody is really paying attention to the behavioral aspect of things. Once we realize that the behavioral part is the most important part, then we said, look, we’re going to stop doing these running projects from funders and we’re going to launch this startup because we know exactly where the problem is and we want to tackle it head on.
Ken Kanara: For our U.S. listeners…it’s very interesting because from a behavioral perspective, I remember as a kid going to a place to give the cans and get the money, okay? Now I live in a condo, we have separate bins and there’s no money exchange or anything like that. What has changed, at least in the US, that makes an opportunity still available where you are?
Rabih El Chaar: In the US, what has happened, and it’s actually very interesting you mentioned that. The U.S. have gone a bit in a reverse manner when it comes to recycling, about 20 years ago for some reason. A lot of companies were pushing for single stream waste. You put all your waste in one place and then waste companies promised that they have all the intelligent machines to take it apart and segregate the waste. However, that has failed miserably. More than 1000 facilities, like the ones I just explained about, shut down in the U.S. because they couldn’t handle the mixed waste. Then, the European model was the more successful one, which is being applied in Canada, where I used to live, in Europe and Australia. As you rightly mentioned, it used to happen in the U.S. and then it stopped. Just 18 months ago, or about 24 months ago, the U.S. Now has restarted this campaign on recycling from source. You can see a lot of these campaigns picking up across the country, with many grants being offered to states to actually kick off sorting from source campaigning.
Ken Kanara: That’s interesting because I’ve always been curious which, was my next question, which you inadvertently answered, which is, I see people in my building putting pizza boxes in the trash and trash in the cardboard shoot. I always wondered, “How does that sort itself out?” But it sounds like it doesn’t in the US.
Rabih El Chaar: Yes, not yet. However, the U.S. is picking up again on recycling and sorting from source.
Ken Kanara: Wow. Okay, got it. That’s really cool. How long has Nadeera been around?
Rabih El Chaar: We started, officially, in early 2021, so about a year and a bit now. Now we’re operational in Lebanon, and the United Arab Emirates, and in Saudi Arabia very soon, and we’re in discussion to enter other countries as well.
Ken Kanara: Wow, that’s really fast growth. The biggest challenges or opportunities for you are really alignment, and partnerships with different local municipalities and governments, is that right?
Rabih El Chaar: Absolutely, which took a lot of effort for us to establish. Now we have that established. We have 10 projects we’re delivering this summer that are across all of these geographies that are very critical for our next steps. If they are delivered on time and as per our expectations, I think that will unlock a lot of recycling across the region for us to be involved in.
Ken Kanara: That’s great. Rabih, one thing that I think, and I can admit this as a former consultant myself, that we missed out on in consulting, because consulting is a bit academic, right? Okay, you have this great idea, you go to execute it, but at the end of the day you need to sell, right? You need to sell the idea, you need to build the partnerships with those governments and different channel partners. How do you actually go about doing it, how did Nadeera do it?
Rabih El Chaar: Look, consulting is a superpower power, right? Like anything, we all have to recognize that it has its limitations, of course, and particularly when it comes to making things happen in real life. But the few years that you spend in consulting learning these skills, it gives you a lot of superpowers when it comes to analyzing topics, communicating whether verbally or written, or even your visuals, because you’re pitching all the time. I’ve pitched, I don’t know, maybe 1000 Times now. You have to perfect these things and that’s what consulting teaches you, right?
I’ve built on the strengths that consulting has given us. However, at the same time, it’s very important to stop theorizing and roll your sleeves up and get into doing stuff, making mistakes, learning from these mistakes and then pivoting, iterating. That’s kind of the “startup mentality,” if that’s what you want to call it. Using consulting skills is very, very important and very useful across the board. However, there needs to be a change in mindset that allows you to roll your sleeves up, make mistakes, lick with your wounds, and then do it all over again. Then, you learn a lot and you grow in ways that we didn’t, particularly, when we worked as consultants.
Ken Kanara: Did you struggle with any of the areas that you just mentioned when you were going out on your own?
Rabih El Chaar: Yes. As consultants, we have a lot of gaps when it comes to implementation. We’re really good at structuring things, putting it together, and analyzing it. Once you start implementing, you just have to manage your team differently. Right now, we have to manage the different type of personalities versus consultants. They look alike, pretty much, in terms of skills, so yes, of course I struggled a lot along the way. Whether it’s managing the team members or doing things in real life, you have to be very patient when you are starting a startup. It’s not like you’re on an 8 week assignment and then you finish it, you hand over the delivery and move on. You actually have to be very patient. You have to wait and make sure you are doing the right steps or fixing anything that didn’t work well. The key thing is for you to have that open mindedness to learn and be able to embrace that this is not consulting anymore, it’s different. You have to learn these new skills, particularly around the startup mentality, and being agile in how you do things.
Ken Kanara: What about the ecosystem or environment in the Middle East, right now, as it relates to startups and venture capital, and that sort of thing. Could you tell us a little bit about that?
Rabih El Chaar: Of course. Actually, when I was later in my consulting days, my work focused on that space, so I got to know what quite well. It’s a great ecosystem right now, it’s actually super fun to be part of it because it’s nascent. It’s like Silicon Valley about 20 years ago, so everything is kind of heating up. I would even venture to say that it’s much better for startups rather than for VC because you have a lot of money, you have a lot of people that have deep pockets that want to be part of investing in startups. Yet, you don’t have a lot of really genuine, original ideas in the region as much. Of course, you have a lot, but not in abundance. Once you go and pitch for an accelerator or VC, you get a lot of attention and a lot of support, which is quite unique. We’ve been very blessed in being part of Plug and Play with Misk Foundation, which is a very big accelerator program here in the region, Astro Labs and Ma’an Program, which is a social incubator, Ver-Tech in Lebanon….. We’ve done a lot of these incubation programs, and they helped us financially, because they gave us our seed funding, but they also helped mentor and teach us these skills that we’re talking about that we might not actually know them very well as consultants.
Ken Kanara: Correct me if I’m wrong Rabih, but you didn’t necessarily come from a technology background, right? I know you have petroleum engineering as a background, but how did you bridge the gap given the tech and app focus of Nadeera?
Rabih El Chaar: Absolutely, it’s a great question. We were blessed at Nadeera by having team members like our Chief Technology Officer. He’s a super cool guy, he knows his topics very well and I just lucked out by meeting him and then he hired on other team members, and now we have five full-time developers on the team. All of them are excellent, top-notch, and they care about the purpose and they care about the company a lot. That has been, actually, a very smooth part of the journey. I think luck has a lot to do with it.
Ken Kanara: Speaking of team members and building an all-star team, what has been the thing that seems to resonate most with the folks that you’re able to get to join Nadeera? I guess what I’m maybe trying to ask is, is it the excitement of being part of a startup? Is it the mission of solving the recycling problem in the Middle East? What’s really resonating with candidates?
Rabih El Chaar: It’s a great question because we had a feedback session with the team and we had this discussion. All of them, consistently, it’s about the purpose. All of them believe in the purpose, they like the momentum that the company has, they like the culture and ethics that the company has. We trust each other a lot, we have a really chill environment, and there’s no politics or pressure that in unnecessary. That’s something that everyone had a consensus on, and that people actually like Nadeera because of these reasons.
Ken Kanara: That’s fantastic. The reason I was smiling is because one of the things that I think I enjoyed most about getting out of, let’s call it a bigger company, is that politics tend to go away with that scale, right? That’s fun.
Rabih El Chaar: Absolutely.
Ken Kanara: Speaking of Mission, where’s the company going? What’s your vision for this?
Rabih El Chaar: We’re very keen on being a brand name when it comes to introducing recycling into regions and growing and doing that. We’re focused right now on the Middle East. We’re focused on UAE, Saudi Arabia to start with, but then very soon, Jordan, Egypt. We’d like to be the partners for waste haulers that are the waste connection companies, and governments, to bridge that gap and fill the elements on the value chain that were basically blind spots before and that focus on behavioral change using technology. Our aim is to scale and grow as fast as we can. As I mentioned before, the projects we’re doing this summer are critical. We have partnerships that are already established that are an amazing platform for us to grow from this point onwards. I think the next six months are going to be crucial for the acceleration of our growth.
Ken Kanara: Excellent. You mentioned waste haulers and governments. I would imagine that supply chain and complexity is a big part of figuring out your business. Is that right?
Rabih El Chaar: Absolutely. That’s why partnering with waste haulers is critical for us because they already have the infrastructure. We bring in the digital platform or we bring in our engagement methods and our tracing methods and then we plug in on top of them and we’re able to work seamlessly. We’ve done that already. That gives us a great advantage to go to the market much quicker than trying to do it organically.
Ken Kanara: Oh, wow. Then it becomes a big benefit to them as well.
Rabih El Chaar: Absolutely. It’s a big win-win situation because a lot of these haulers want to be recyclers as well. They want to be a part of the new economy that is being built around circular economy. It’s a win-win situation for us to launch and for them to be able to segregate better and get access to these recyclable items.
Ken Kanara: That’s really neat. That’s neat to think that you’re also building a potential subculture of solopreneurs across the different regions. That’s really cool. Excellent. I wanted to also ask you about what advice, in general, you’d have for our audience. A lot of the listeners are maybe in consulting, maybe they’ve left consulting and gone on to their first corporate strategy job, and maybe they want to become an entrepreneur. What would you tell them?
Rabih El Chaar: A few thoughts Ken. First of all, embrace the journey that you’re on right now. Irrespective of if you’re suffering or not, if it’s a tough project or not, ultimately all of this journey will end, I’m guessing, unless you want to become Senior Partner. Embrace it because you will learn a lot. It’s a lot of really cool skills. It comes, of course, with its baggage and its difficulties, but do embrace it because it’s very, very important and it does give you some kind of superpower. So that’s number one.
Number two is don’t be lured by the money only. At some point in time, if you do have a cool idea, a good consultant can find work overnight. Don’t get worried about job security and linking into positions and titles and go after your dream. Worst case scenario, you will have learned tons of new things and then you can go back and be a consultant at any point in time. That’s something that is very important. It’s a revolving door when it comes to consulting and you can come back and work as a consultant at any point in time. These are the two things I would really stress.
Ken Kanara: On the second point, “Don’t get lured by the money…” What should people get lured by?
Rabih El Chaar: I guess impact and success, that’s what drives me. When I wake up every day and I’m asked, “What do you want to do?” I want to create impact, I want to be successful. Once you do these two things and do it at scale, money is going to be a secondary product that’s going to come out of it. And particularly, for consultants, you will never be poor, right? You will always be able to provide for yourself. I think sometimes we get a bit over-obsessed about our insecurities that we want to make sure we get into one position and the other, and we chase that dream, but it’s good to take a step back and look at it from afar and say, “Is this what I want to really do at this point in time?” Sometimes the answer is “yes,” but sometimes the answer is “No, let me just go and try this cool idea that I have,” especially with how digital technology is evolving today. If that doesn’t work, I can always come back and be a consultant.
Ken Kanara: Thanks for sharing that. I really like your first point because it’s “live in the moment” kind of advice, right? If you’re always only focused on the next thing you’re going to miss out on the whole process. I think that makes a lot of sense.
One of the things we’re doing here is we’re building a library of books that have had an impact on our guests’ lives. It can be anything from a children’s book to a business book, but is there any book that you’d recommend to our listeners that has had an impact on your life?
Rabih El Chaar: There’s a recent book I actually read that I liked a lot, it’s called Skin in the Game. The title is self-explanatory, it’s telling you how important it is for you to have skin in the game in whatever you do, whether it’s a small thing or it’s a more complex thing. The nice thing about that book is that it tells you a lot of anecdotes and stories of where people have had skin in the game, how they were successful and how, when people don’t have skin in the game, and sometimes consultants don’t have skin in the game, so they end up not being very fulfilled and not being able to do what they want to do. It’s a good book for our fellow consultants. It’s a good book to read and it puts a perspective on things.
Ken Kanara: Excellent.
Rabih El Chaar: It’s by Nasim Taleb.
Ken Kanara: We’ll add it to our library. Rabih, it’s been so fun having you on the show. Could you share the websites or the details if our listeners wanted to learn more about Nadeera?
Rabih El Chaar: Of course. Nadeera can be found at nedeera.org. That’s N-A-D-E-E-R-A dot O-R-G, or you can follow us on our Instagram, @Nedeeratech, with the same spelling of Nadeera and then T-E-C-H. I would love to take on any questions or any thoughts. It’s a really cool topic because a lot of people just show up, they want to volunteer, they want to give advice, and they want to contribute to the cause. So if anybody has any thoughts they want to share, they’re more than welcome to do so.
Ken Kanara: That’s incredible, and it’s such an important problem that you’re solving that I’ve had the, I’d say, good fortune of seeing first hand. I’m excited to see the impact that you make on the region. Rabih, thanks so much.
For our listeners that are listening for the first time, please make sure to subscribe on Spotify or Apple so that you’re notified of future episodes. If you’re looking for transcripts of past episodes, you can visit beyondconsulting.info. Lastly, if you want to get in touch with anybody at ECA, it’s going to be eca-partners.com. Rabih, thanks so much for joining us.
Rabih El Chaar: Thank you so much, Ken.
Ken Kanara: For everyone, we will talk to you next week.
Connect with Rabih on LinkedIn and visit nadeera.org for more information.