Mustafa, could you give us a quick introduction on what your role is at IrisGuard?
Sure, my role is Regional Business Development Manager. I joined IrisGuard in 2006 as a Technical Support Engineer in Dubai and I was responsible for the operations of our UAE border control project until 2013.
You've achieved a milestone of your own, 15 years at IrisGuard. What have been the defining moments?
It’s been a great journey and I was pleased to see that 3 months after I joined, the leadership team had put their trust in me to run the back-end system of the UAE venture, which was also the first time that iris recognition technology was ever deployed for border control.
We focused on building up a good relationship with our customer, the Department of Naturalisation and Residency Dubai (DNRD) and I was part of the team who received foreign delegations presenting our technology deployed for border security, so certainly one of the proudest moments for me.
I was also responsible for deploying the first single iris camera developed and manufactured by us – the H100. Dubai airport itself processed over 9 million cross matches using our equipment. Our field team provided on the ground support and would usually be at a location within 24 hours by any means available, I remember a helicopter trip in the middle of the night to fix an issue with a border kiosk because it was very critical - mission accomplished!
One of the pivotal developments for us was the start of our solutions being deployed in the humanitarian aid sector and the integration of EyeCloud® with the UNHCR system. What did this mean for IrisGuard?
Actually, before our technology was used for aid transfers, in 2008 we expanded our solution to the banking sector and the proposition was to digitise financial transactions to achieve transparency, to add an extra security layer.
The UNHCR team really embraced our technology, saw the opportunities for cash transfers via an iris and without relying on other ID methods, which can be misused. In 2013 we started working with them and I was responsible for the negotiations as well as the business and technical project management. Alongside Bashar Zakaria and Karim Malhas, we worked on the design and development of the EyeCloud® platform for cash disbursement in 5 countries, which now processes over $1b of aid funding on an annual basis.
We partnered up with Cairo Amman Bank who were working with the UNHCR as a service provider, put together the system architecture and integrated with the ATMs to launch assistance cash-out for refugees, linking the UNHCR platform with EyeCloud®.
In 2016 myself and Mahmoud Sahmoud stood outside of an ATM and watched beneficiaries receiving their cash assistance via the first iris enabled ATM. Not only were they using this cutting-edge technology but they were able to get cash in exactly the same way as you and me - in complete dignity.
Which is why the next step for us was to widen the usage to other types of aid, to support other agencies under the UNHCR umbrella and in 2015, we engaged with the World Food Program (WFP) to provide beneficiaries with a faster and more secure way of paying for their food assistance in supermarkets. Myself and the tech team including Karim Malhas worked on completing the integration with the Building Blocks Blockchain and I am sure it’s a night neither of us will forget. Karim was getting married the next day, we worked until midnight to meet the launch deadline and 50 stations within refugee camps were up and running, which are still used every day – great effort all around.
We took this one step further and approached Zain Cash, one of the largest mobile wallet providers in Iraq. We partnered with them, the Central Bank of Iraq and the UNHCR, building up a unique eco system utilizing our latest product invention, the first iris enabled mobile device - the EyePay® Phone. I was so pleased when this project won at the GSMA Glomo Awards in 2021.
Throughout 2018 and 2019 we worked across Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan on different projects with the UNHCR & WFP, resulting in card verification program through Liban Post Cash United and Jordan Post; cash aid distribution via Egypt Post and Zain Cash mobile wallet in Iraq.
You always look for the next opportunity, how can we grow further and evolve within the eco system of payers, service providers and those we serve?
I’ll divide this into two parts. One of the areas of our focus is to increase our footprint in other countries for the IrisGuard system service (EyeCloud®) on a larger scale. The other perspective is of course financial inclusion. The WFP have managed to remove bank fees because linking their private blockchain with our platform provided them with a verified proof-of-life and transparency in transactions, ultimately securing the last mile. In the future, we will also work on other use cases including G2C services, social welfare payments, education and healthcare. We will link multiple service providers on one platform and expand access to more services, across larger geographical areas.
Whilst we are happy to work on registration for database build, the value really comes in when it is used for the provision of services and to that point, the sky is the limit for us. Food, cash, health screenings, non-food items, pensions and during lockdown, our iris EyePay® Phone was used to deliver food and cash door-to-door to the right people. Of course there are other biometrics, even other iris biometric solutions but to be able to adapt, adapt quickly and at this scale, that is certainly unique about IrisGuard.
The beneficiaries are using one of the most advanced technologies on the market, but its not just about the technology is it?
The most important thing is to provide the assistance to the right people. Since enabling the ATM function for example, aid agencies providing this service are able to cover much larger areas, making it more convenient for the beneficiaries. We can’t develop technology without having demand for it, we can’t develop business without the technology and so the view has to be - to view and treat beneficiaries like everyone else and get them digitally and financially included.
Governments need to stretch their funds further to support an increased number of citizens and refugees in need of assistance, as a result of Covid-19. Accountability and inclusivity, which technology like ours provides, are crucial for this to be done fairly.
The most important point is to avail beneficiaries the protection of their entitlement using their own eyes. No one can take their entitlement from them, except themselves or their immediate family members. This is a very powerful factor, which drives our innovation around beneficiaries, the services and protection our technology provides them with. Being the weakest link in the process, beneficiary empowerment and protection ranks supervene in IrisGuard.
Finally, you have an engineer’s heart with a passion for the technical and for the business development side. What is that spark inside you that motivates both?
I’ve asked myself this question many times. But deep down I believe that the best sales ability comes with the understanding of the technical and engineering side of the product. I’ve spent more than 14 years in the technical and integration areas. It gives me confidence that whilst I understand the system requirements, I can accurately apply it to the needs of my customers and they also value the fact that we don’t stop innovating.
And I am part of a great team. The experience, the talent and the skill we have at IrisGuard is incredible and the successes we’ve had are the successes of everyone here.