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””.
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.
GSG has three main streams;
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
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.”
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.
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?”
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.
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Acknowledgements, and further reading
- Palestinian Women for Equality, by Jon Simmons, Times of Israel
- Supporting Palestinian Businesses from Overseas, by Jon Simmons, Times of Israel
- Freelancing in the State of Palestine, by UNDP
- Against All Odds, Life inside in Gaza’s first startup-up accelerator, by Joanne Bladd Philanthropy Age
- Cracking the code: Young Palestinians take hold of their futures at Gaza’s tech hub – Bel Trew – The Independent
- Shark Tank in Gaza – The Future of Palestinian Entrepreneurship – Adam Heffez, Foreign Affairs
- Why I Mentor Tech Entrepreneurs in Gaza, by Elizabeth Shassere
- We just want to be heard’: Woman in Gaza builds app to help support fellow mothers Bel Trew – The Independent
- Gaza’s entrepreneurs: Dreams and ambition in a tough neighbourhood by Elior Levy – YNet News
- UK to Double Support for Palestinian Economy to Advance Peace with Israel – UK Department of International Trade. Press Release July 2018
- Geeking out in Gaza – Creating a Palestinian Coding Hub, by Berenice Magistretti, VentureBeat
- Gazan Economy on the Brink of Collapse Andrienne Cernigoi, Philanthropy Age
- World Bank report: ‘The tech startup ecosystem in the West Bank and Gaza’ from July 2018, covering skills, infrastructure, investment, community, success factors and policy recommendations World Bank. 2018. Tech Startup Ecosystem in West Bank and Gaza.; and Henry, Scott. 2017
- How Tech is Bringing Israeli’s and Palestinians Together by Melissa Jun Rowley – BBC
- How One Palestinian Territory Outpaces Another by Nick Fouriezy – Ozy.com
- Doing Business in the Palestinian Territories: Trade and Export Guide Department of International Trade – Updated 11th May
- How 3G availability in Palestine (from January 2018) has transformed startup opportunities by Fast Company, by Miriam Berger
- In parallel to the challenges faced by startups, Palestine’s science and tech research community is struggling under the occupation: Nature Magazine Longread