This post originally appeared on Geektime.
With a total population of around 1.7 million in Gaza, the startup scene is relatively small, but you would never know it from the frenzy surrounding mentorship and tech education events over there. Thanks to programs like Mercy Corps accelerator Gaza Sky Geeks, Google Developers Group in Gaza, and others, buzz is building around entrepreneurship.
Gaza is a special case with many demographic, socioeconomic and geopolitical challenges. The economy is dependent on regional influences and connected to a limited and small market with many restrictions on borders, which impede free movement of people and free trade of physical goods.
Within this difficult context, Palestinians believe that economic and political development needs to be jointly aligned.
As a result of all these constraints, technology is seen as one of the main doors to access the rest of the globe. Software applications, business services and solutions, mobile technologies and applications, digital Arabic content, online marketing and e-Commerce are just some examples that make the ICT sector Palestine’s main economic gateway to the rest of the world. Adapting and learning to use the internet and the Cloud quickly, to transfer digital productions out of Palestine, has been, and still is key to success.
Entrepreneurship, innovation, technology transfer, business incubators and accelerators are attractive words amongst countries in the Middle East, especially in recent years. The Palestine ICT Incubator (PICTI), established in 2004, with headquarters in Ramallah and a branch in Gaza, was the first Palestinian ICT-specialized business incubator.
Since then PICTI has made enormous progress in spreading a technology, entrepreneurship and innovation culture through the area.
A startup accelerator
Gaza Sky Geeks (GSG) is the Strip’s first and only startup accelerator, launched in 2011 after Google, keen to promote the tech sector and startup ecosystem in the West Bank and Gaza, approached the NGO Mercy Corps. The conflict-torn Gaza Strip produces more than 2,000 young graduates with technical degrees each year. Gaza Sky Geeks helps them launch their own high-tech businesses.
Mercy Corps has also helped run Startup Weekend (SW) – the global grassroots entrepreneur movement aimed at generating early interest in startups and bringing teams together, in Gaza since 2011. This year’s SW Gaza drew over 650 applicants; over 150 were ultimately selected to participate.
Gaza Sky Geeks does not give aid money to startups as they don’t believe it would be beneficial for the startup ecosystem in Gaza. The company connects startups to outside investors who invest in the startups for equity because they believe they will receive a return on their investment. These investors are looking for investment opportunities throughout the region and they find the opportunities in Gaza to be very compelling.
The GSG office, near a seaside stretch of seafront hotels and restaurants, is also a source of reliable electricity and wifi, serving a vital need in the power cut-plagued Strip. The walls of the GSG office are emblazoned with Google, Android and Facebook logos. There’s a chill-out room with multi-colored bean bags and plans for an Xbox and Playstation to help the entrepreneurs loosen up.
“Gaza Sky Geeks serves as an accelerator program to take on startups after incubation,” explained GSG program assistant Hazem al-Habib. “The startups have already started working on their ideas and products, so we give them an investment of about 31,000 dollars, 14,000 as cash and the rest as client services. We started with a boot camp event and about 40 companies signed up. It’s about giving them training in business models.”
GSG also focuses on arranging mentoring sessions, using Skype or Google Hangouts meetings with mentors from Facebook or Google, and other successful entrepreneurs from the Arab world.
Not just a boys’ club
According to a post on Mic.com, the cultural bias against women entering technological fields simply doesn’t exist in the Arab world. Despite political instability in Gaza, entrepreneurship is budding and women entrepreneurs will soon outnumber men.
“Gaza has an incredibly high percentage of women involved in technology at early stages,” said Iliana Montauk, director of Gaza Sky Geeks – a #40Forward partner (Google’s initiative to support women-led tech companies).
“Women study computer science at higher rates than men and they attend Startup Weekend competitions at nearly the same rate as men.”
Gazan women have a difficult time explaining the startup world to their friends and families.
“Through focus groups, we learned that women’s families in Gaza often do not support their efforts to launch a startup because they do not see women returning home with income or a certificate,” said Montauk. “Gazans typically consider those as signs of accomplishment. The concept of a startup isn’t yet understood by most of the population.”
To address this obstacle, Gaza Sky Geeks is providing stipends to some of its female participants, “so they can show their families that they are bringing money home.”
What’s on the horizon?
Arab youths are looking for a ‘change.’ The “Arab Spring” sheds the light on their role in the coming period with all the economic and political implications that drive the eventual success of our efforts.
Startups may not be the answer for all Gaza’s myriad political and economic troubles, but its proponents hope a more immediate impact will be to empower the Gazan youth.
While Gazan entrepreneurs are facing unique and seemingly insurmountable obstacles, they clearly have tremendous will to overcome those obstacles. That passion means that in just a few short years and with a bit of polish, we’ll see those diamonds shine. We’re going to see some great iteration and growth from Gazan startups.
Keep an eye on these teams as they further validate their ideas and begin building viable companies.
Featured image via Gaza Sky Geeks (GSG)