The goodness of Gaza: Grassroots with hope

Part 3 in the series, "Partnering for Palestinian Prosperity"

Innovation, entrepreneurship and creativity: three words that wouldn’t often spring to mind when pondering the war-torn Gaza strip. Gaza’s unemployment and poverty figures are troubling and the economic outlook is bleak according to Steen Lau Jorgensen, World Bank Country Director for the West Bank and Gaza.  According to Jorgensen, much of the youth are economically without hope, as the current market in Gaza is not able to offer jobs leaving much of the population unemployed and impoverished.

Technological and business growth in Gaza is thwarted by political unrest and violence. Economists have highlighted the difficulty in measuring the detrimental effects of the Egyptian and Israeli blockade. Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2006 but has continued to control Gaza’s borders, airspace, and sea access, severely limiting the movement of goods and people.

Gaza Sea Port

Home to 1.8 million people squeezed into 365 square kilometres, Gaza ranks third among the most densely populated areas of the world. Poor leadership by internationally declared terrorist organisation, Hamas, has driven the territory’s economy to the verge of collapse and pushed its unemployment rate to the highest in the world.

Statistics can hardly convey the desperate situation for the majority of residents in Gaza. My aim, however, is to spotlight some of the shoots of hope rising up from the ground in the form of creative and business projects. One thing we rarely hear about in the Western media is the spirit of the Gazan people. We are shown the youth of Gaza attacking the border with Israel, militants brandishing weapons in terror tunnels, but surely it is right to highlight the determination of many Gazans to rise up not through violence and destruction, but through construction: overcoming the immense challenges stacked against them and building a better life for themselves. 

A FRONTIER MARKET

Entrepreneurialism is essential for those looking for an alternative to the crushing situation. Businesses are pioneered as a refuge from unemployment. Adam Heffez in his Foreign Affairs article Shark Tank in Gaza, “That’s why small and medium-sized businesses constitute 98 per cent of the Palestinian private sector and employ almost half of the total workforce… Many Palestinians are “necessity entrepreneurs””.

Image Credit Gaza Sky Geeks

Technology can build alliances across borders. With funding from international bodies (Mercy Corps and Google Start-Up), Gaza Sky Geeks (GSG) has become Gaza’s first coworking space; a hub for local entrepreneurs and freelancers. It is the first academy to provide an essential foundation for its students and members to develop a freelance career building websites and apps for Arab and Western businesses.

Image Credit Gaza Sky Geeks

GSG has three main streams;

  1. The Coding Academy trains 16 students per cohort in a full-time, intensive course for 8 weeks with an additional 16 weeks of project-based learning with real-world clients, enabling participants to jumpstart their professional portfolio. The objective is for Gazans to graduate as full-stack developers who can deploy production-grade software online and secure high-quality jobs with companies or work as freelance developers
  2. GeeXelerator, has already had two cohorts and is currently training its third. The GeeXelerator is an intensive 16-week pre-seed acceleration programme that helps teams build a usable product, validate the core product feature with users, and launch the feature online for public use. Twenty Startups have been formed since the programme’s inception in 2014. The business alumni are available online.
  3. Freelance Academy – a 12-week freelancing mentorship program: helping young people in areas such as web development, graphic design, translation, social media, mobile development, and front-end development to become successful online freelancers. Mentorship is intensive, and during the 12 weeks, participants gather for networking and experience-sharing in addition to workshops on trending topics in the field of freelancing.
Image Credit Gaza Sky Geeks

HOW TO HELP

Fortunately for those wanting to take positive, construction action to support Palestinian freelancers, GSG has made the process easy for foreign businesses. Connecting with the agency side of GSG has been made available on the Work With Us page, and it is also possible to become a mentor, providing advice and guidance remotely, on the GSG Become a Mentor page.

Rand Safi, programme Officer at Gaza Sky Geeks, explains their biggest need: ‘We are looking for technology companies and tech departments to hire our student and alumni full-stack developers, but welcome enquiries from all business looking for digital talent.” 

Image Credit Gaza Sky Geeks

Elizabeth Shassere, author of “Why I Mentor Tech Entrepreneurs in Gaza writes, “I meet people who are used to overcoming extreme challenges while still full of optimism and hope for their futures. I witness people making things happen and making do with limited materials and resources. I see teams coming together to create opportunities for themselves in Gaza that many of us take for granted every day. 

EMPOWERMENT OF WOMEN

A staggering 41 per cent of the entrepreneurs supported by Gaza Sky Geeks are women. This figure is considerably higher than most accelerators in Europe and the US, certainly more than surrounding Muslim nations. It is particularly worthy of note, given that more than half of women in Gaza have experienced violence at home, and nearly 80% have reported psychological abuse, according to the UN. One such entrepreneur is Hanan Hashan, who seeks to merge her profession of digital marketing with female empowerment. Hassan delivers lessons in digital marketing to young women, opening up opportunities for them in the information technology sector. 

Image Credit Gaza Sky Geeks

Abu Ewaida, a founding partner of Gaza Sky Geeks, is ambitious for the future.

“Of course I am optimistic, there is no reason why the Israeli start-up nation should not reach Gaza as well. If all the youth, regardless of religion, nationality or geographic location join hands together — the world will be a better place for all. If we have a technological development for artificial intelligence and there is an Israeli company that deals with that, why shouldn’t we join hands out of mutual interest?”

Image Credit Gaza Sky Geeks

The nonprofit, BuildPalestine, aims to be the go-to platform to fund projects designed and implemented by Palestinians. BuildPalestine has a local team seeking out innovative, social impact projects that are making a difference for creatives on the ground. Their team uses digital marketing to connect with supporters around the world and engage with them virtually. They have a platform where supporters can find opportunities to make an impact, either by donating to a crowdfunding campaign or by volunteering with an organization. 

“Palestine is a very donor-dependent economy,” said Ola Aboukhsaiwan, co-founder of BuildPalestine. “There is no flexibility to reframe the problem and come up with another solution. We wanted to create a space where identifying the problems, and the solutions, come directly from the community.”

UK GOVERNMENT’S PROMISE

The UK Government has committed to help rebuild Gaza after the years of war and neglect. UK aid will help to import construction materials for the Gaza Central Desalination Plant, as well as upgrade water infrastructure in Gaza and the West Bank, improving drinking water supplies and reducing pollution. This will result in 55 billion litres of safe drinking being pumped into Palestinian homes and businesses in Gaza every year. UK aid will also help to finance solar panels for hospitals, businesses and households, increasing the availability of power as well as cleaner and cheaper alternatives to fuel-based generators.

“The UK will provide up to £38 million over five years (2018-2023) to support economic activity in Gaza and the West Bank. This is more than double the amount of UK aid support previously provided for economic development in the West Bank and Gaza.”

Like determined shoots of a tree forcing its way through concrete, Gazan entrepreneurs deserve more than our respect and admiration. Such courage and strength to bring change for people through business in Gaza deserve our practical support.

Sign up to i61collective.com to be the first to receive releases on how we in the West can support Palestinians in their positive creative endeavours.

@Jonsimmonssw6 Co-Director of i61Collective

Acknowledgements, and further reading

About the Author
Jon co-founded I61collective, a movement in the UK that facilitates grassroots creative projects in Israel and the West Bank. In the spring Jon supported the opening of the International Prayer Room in Bethlehem. The aim is to encourage Westerners visiting Israel to spend time in the West Bank, and find creative space for sanctuary. During the spring tour Jon met with Palestinian businessmen and women in the West Bank, to try to understand what they need from Western consumers and businesses to help them and other Palestinians build a financially independent and prosperous future. This inspired me to write a series of articles called Partnering for Palestinian Prosperity. The aim of the series is to demonstrate that under very challenging circumstances, Palestinians have persevered to build businesses and viable ventures that are worthy of active encouragement and investment. In 2018, Jon co-lead a group of international and local musicians as part of Music on The Wind tour, performing live to communities on ‘both sides’ of Israel and Palestine. The aim was to invest in the people through the healing and restoration power of live music, regardless of their background. Jon is also the founder of israelinvestment.org, a community that helps UK investors make informed decisions when investing in asset classes in Israel. Jon is passionate about the power of using business to bring cohesion between Israel and the Palestinian Territories.
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