The border separating the Gaza Strip from Israel – a 51-kilometer wall topped with barbed wire – looks impenetrable. On May 14, when some 50 Gazans protesting the US embassy’s controversial relocation from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem were killed by the Israeli army, the world’s attention once again converged on this contentious zone. But few truly know what life is like there.
Ever since Hamas took control of the Strip in June 2007, Gaza has slowly suffocated under the strain of the Israeli-Egyptian blockade. Gaza, a 365 km² stretch, has one of the highest unemployment rates in the world, at 27%. In 10 years, nearly 60% of Gaza-based businesses have closed, and 25% have laid off 80% of their staff. In spite of this, the Palestinian enclave is home to unparalleled creativity: Gaza Sky Geeks, one of the most promising technological hubs founded in 2011 by the NGO Mercy Corps, has become a new frontier open to exchange and investments from the world over.
This startup incubator geared at new, digital technology leverages the talent and enterprising spirit of young Gazans. It helps them transform their ideas into innovative businesses, turning Palestinian tech into a thriving industry… and, possibly, a source of economic and social opportunity for this isolated strip of land.
Google and Mercy Corp
Located in Jabala, in northern Gaza, GSG has all the trappings of a startup. A few pictures on its website provide a glimpse into the space, which, honestly, has nothing to envy Parisian incubators. It’s vast with walls covered in photos, drawings and Google and Pac-Man logos; bean bag chairs are strewn about; a foosball table and a playstation wouldn’t be out of place. The median age looks to be about 25: a dozen developers and entrepreneurs can be seen hard at work.
Ryan Sturgill has headed the center for nearly three years. An American MIT grad, he was well traveled around the Middle East before arriving in Palestine. After working two years at JP Morgan in New York, he participated in several American work groups in Iraq and later Afghanistan, before spending a few months in Dubai working in an investment fund and, finally, moving on to the Palestinian startup incubator in October 2015. But the story of Gaza Sky Geeks begins earlier than that. “GSC was born of a joint effort between Google and Mercy Corps,” Sturgill explains.
“They brought the first ‘Googlers’ to Gaza 10 years ago. After realizing they could breach the Gaza border with a high-speed fiber-optic network, they came up with their concept. The idea was to give anyone the means to make a living using the Internet in the global economy,” he says. In a place where the circulation of people and goods is basically impossible, “the Internet is the only link between this population and the rest of the world.” The project was enthusiastically received from the get go: in its first cycle, 150 candidates knocked on GSG’s door.
“We’re trying to fulfill three main missions: first, to build a community that works together; second, to teach our students code and help them sell their services online, on a freelance basis. Finally, we want to help entrepreneurs launch their online businesses internationally,” Sturgill says. The long-term goal is to “build a tech ecosystem in Gaza that can become a center for the online sale of products and services at a competitive and international level, and in this way, create lasting and sufficient revenue for Palestinians.” And it’s working pretty well. Since its founding, GSG has expanded its horizons. In October 2013, the center partnered up with Oasis500, a Jordanian incubator who’s accepted to invest in two of GSG’s Gazan startups.
A Tech Hub Isolated from the World
Little by little, the network is growing. The center enjoys a number of important partnerships, such as Microsoft, the Coca Cola Foundation and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation. “We’ve been lucky to be able to build a community of volunteers who teach and support the people here,” Sturgill enthusiastically says. “This network of sponsors is one of the ways we’ve been able to find employment and business opportunities for the Gazan techies.” It’s a door opening onto the international stage, in a place suffering from isolation.
“We may have Internet access in Gaza, but the population has been physically isolated for 10 years. This means that a whole generation of young people has never left the territory. It’s something we see everyday at work: we have to teach these kids how to relate to foreign clients and consumers, explain how they think, teach them how to communicate with them, and prepare them for what’s expected of them in terms of quality and professionalism.” Beyond their trading partners’ demands, the Gaza Sky Geeks developers must also contend with the very real issues posed by the country’s political situation.
“We try to help them find internships and get some exposure outside of Gaza, but we’re frequently denied the visas they need. It’s obviously frustrating, when we’re trying to give them opportunities in other countries that would allow them to strengthen their skills.” But, he says, “it’s all worth it” for the few times they are granted the permits.
While Sturgill recognizes the industry is only just starting out in Gaza, he’s confident about its future opportunities. “The tech sector is still very small, but it’s one of the fastest growing in the Palestinian economy. In just a few years, junior developers manage to earn about 1,000 euros a month, or 12 times the GDP per capita in Gaza. In a context where 70% of university grads are jobless, a person who knows how to code will find work, full time or almost, with a good salary. And given that there’s a real lack of developers around the world, we’re confident about the future of tech in Palestine. It’s the only economic sector in Gaza that’s not limited by borders or other constraints.”
MomyHelper is one of Gaza Sky Geeks’ success stories. Founded by the Palestinian Nour ElKhoudary, this mobile app connects Arab mothers with Arabic professionals who can advise them, anonymously and affordably, on matters concerning their children, spouses, or physical and mental health issues. “Arab women experience depression at a much higher rate than the rest of the world, often due to their relationships with their children,” Nour explains in a presentation video for investors.
Nour is not the only women supported by the startup incubator: gender inclusivity is at the heart of the center. “It’s a part of our mission: to build an inclusive community that encourages women to get into the sector.” At the GSG, women, often wearing the veil, work side by side with men, and they almost match them in terms of quantity. Whereas women are generally underrepresented in the global tech industry, at GSG they represent 42% of the incubator’s members. That might be thanks to Italqi, an inclusion program whose name is taken from the Arabic, “Let’s go.” It aims to convince families, who play an important role in decision-making for women, to support wives, sisters and daughters who wish to get into entrepreneurship.
Not every startup incubated at Gaza Sky Geeks seeks to meet some sort of social need, like MomyHelper, or circumvent the border. But all contribute to the creation of the tech ecosystem GSG aspires to build. “Above all else, what we look for when choosing a project is its founder’s passion and commitment. Then we also make sure it’s feasible, that it meets a need found in international markets, and that it’s potentially attractive to investors.”
To be considered for the GeeXelerator startup program, entrepreneurs have three minutes to pitch their project to the center’s director, during which they must defend their idea’s relevance. Certain teams win prizes, and the brightest projects are invited to join a 12-week accelerated program. 30 new startups can join the program at once.
Today, nearly 30 businesses that started out at the incubator now function independently. Among them is Izaari, an online bazaar that allows Arab designers to sell, print and send their work to the fast-growing Arab clothing industry. Munasabat, in turn, is an e-commerce platform that allows Palestinians living in Gaza and the West Bank to send gifts to families and friends. Sturgill chalks these successes up to the Gaza Sky Geeks strategy: “listen to and give the Gaza tech community the means to grow on its own, rather than adopt a top-down approach.”