World, Science-Technology, Middle East

Gaza tech start-ups hope to reach world if borders open

Local tech start-ups in Gaza Strip must work around Israeli blockade; open borders could boost their opportunities

23.11.2017
Gaza tech start-ups hope to reach world if borders open FILE PHOTO

By Kaamil Ahmed 

GAZA CITY, Palestine

The doors at Gaza Sky Geeks open onto a buzzing communal workspace, teeming with young Palestinians bouncing ideas off of each other, hacking away at screens full of code or huddled into training rooms trying to pick up new skills.

The incubator for Gazan technology start-ups is a bubble away from Gaza's hardships, in a year when even scarcer access to electricity than usual has compounded the unemployment and mental health problems many of its youth have had to grapple with through a decade of near total blockade.

It gives them internet and electricity when the streets have gone dark outside and a way to make their ideas work around the blockade they have come of age under.

"In this space, I cannot be annoyed by the electricity or other things. This environment is great for us," says Nur al-Khodairy, whose application “Mummy Helper” connects Arab mothers to support on parenting.

Still, those and other obstacles remain, limiting just how much these young businesses -- which provide everything from clothing and games to advice for new mothers -- can achieve.

But the recent push to unite rival Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas, the latter of which ruled Gaza since 2007, could release some of that strain if it delivers on the promise to open the border with Egypt, allowing key goods to enter Gaza and travel for the young entrepreneurs who want to go abroad.

"The main issue for us is to give us freedom to travel whenever we need. If the border is opened, many things would change. If we had 24 hours of electricity like any people in the world, many things would change, but also maybe the people outside could see the things here," says al-Khodairy.

Opinions are split on the Palestinian reconciliation process, which has failed in previous attempts, but al-Khodairy says she and others are putting more hope into a deal being completed this time.

'Lifeline'

The Palestinian factions have made several promises after meetings held in Cairo, but a deadline for opening the Rafah border crossing was missed on Nov. 15, though the Palestinian Authority says it will still go ahead when Egypt is ready.

Gaza Sky Geeks Program Manager Anam Raheem says that with the blockade stunting Gaza's growth and the ability of young, educated Gazans to find opportunities, the internet has become the "only lifeline Gazans have to the outside world”.

She says Gaza Sky Geeks’ focus on using the internet has helped local companies reach a "global marketplace" despite the enclave's specific challenges. One clothing company they support has its products manufactured in the U.S. and shipped to Arab countries, even though the products cannot reach Gaza itself.

Abdulhamid al-Fayyoumi, CEO of Vidmass, a start-up that helps small businesses create social media content, says the problems go deeper, including legal issues and payment challenges.

He is skeptical about whether reconciliation will deliver any changes, but agrees that -- if it does succeed -- it could make a massive difference to Gaza.

"There's a gap between start-ups from Gaza and ones who start from any other place in the world. Most Gazan start-ups are starting from minus," says al-Fayyoumi, adding that addressing those problems would simply put Gazan companies on an equal footing with similar start-ups elsewhere in the world.

Gaza Sky Geeks currently supports more than 30 startups, but it also gives space to freelancers and has an academy for young Gazans who want to pick up the technical skills they need to make their ideas work.

Many of them have been able to flourish and even travel abroad for competitions and meetings, including Tashbeek, a startup that connects Arab entrepreneurs to consultants and whose directors recently went to Dubai, Turkey and Bahrain.

"If we had a better potential or better situation, of course all of the start-ups would become successful," says Maha Sohail, Tashbeek's social media coordinator. "They would flourish."

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