Gaza Startups Strive to Build Economy Despite Blockade

At least three Palestinians were killed and one injured in an Israeli air strike east of the Gaza Strip last Wednesday, according to Palestinian health officials. The attacks come just days after the United Nations and Egyptian officials brokered a ceasefire to restore calm and end the Israeli offensive on Hamas positions in the Gaza Strip. 

At least three Palestinians were killed and one injured in an Israeli air strike east of the Gaza Strip last Wednesday, according to Palestinian health officials. The attacks come just days after the United Nations and Egyptian officials brokered a ceasefire to restore calm and end the Israeli offensive on Hamas positions in the Gaza Strip. 

Tensions escalated when Gazan Palestinians started sending incendiary devices into Israel as part of weekly border protests partly aimed at lifting the land, sea, and air blockade that has suffocated the territory for more than a decade. Since the mass rallies known as the Great March of Return began in March, Israeli forces have killed at least 138 Palestinians and wounded thousands more.

While some Palestinians in the Gaza Strip are trying to end the economic blockade through protests, others are trying to overcome it by building a vibrant startup ecosystem.

One of the main institutions leading this entrepreneurial charge is Gaza Sky Geeks. Launched in 2011 in partnership with Google and Mercy Corps., not only does this institution provide Gazan entrepreneurs with a co-working space and a startup accelerator, it also provides technical education to Gazan startups. Since 2011, Gaza Sky Geeks has graduated around 26 startups from incubation, to acceleration, to realization.

In May, the World Bank released report breaking down the tech startup ecosystem in Palestine, recognizing Gaza Sky Geeks as one of three critical players working to scale up Palestinian startups. The two other main players and connectors in the West Bank and Gaza’s entrepreneurial ecosystems include Birzeit University and Startup Weekend.

Gaza Sky Geeks offer a wide range of activities to help Gaza startups compete globally. Last year, they established two new programs. The Gaza Code Academy, a joint project by Gaza Sky Geeks and Founders & Coders, will train 16 students per session in a full-time intensive course on coding and computer literacy over 16 weeks. The program also offers an additional eight weeks of project-based learning with real-world commercial clients.

In an interview with Startup Scene, an online magazine that covers entrepreneurship in the Middle East and North Africa, Gaza Sky Geeks’ Mentorship and Communications Coordinator, Sara Afifi, said that the mission of Code Academy is “to graduate full-stack developers who can deploy production-grade software online and secure high-quality jobs with companies or as freelance developers.”

The second program is Gaza Sky Geeks’ Freelance Academy. This 10-week training program offers Gazans mentorship in online freelancing, social media, and professional English. The program also offers participants weekly workshops and the opportunity to meet for networking and experience-sharing sessions.

Although the tech startup ecosystem in the West Bank and Gaza is still maturing, it has several key strengths. These strengths include the presence of talented people and highly educated founders. It is estimated that over 55% of startup founders in the West Bank and Gaza Strip hold a university degree, while over 19% hold a graduate degree.

Gaza Sky Geeks startups also provide training and employment to fellow Gazans, who in turn reinvest in their community. The popular Gazan startup institution also provides the residents of the densely populated city with educational workshops that hundreds of people attend on a daily basis.

The Gazan startup ecosystem also has a vast network of regional and international actors with whom participants can engage and learn from. Many of these actors include universities such as New York University, the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Chicago, and the London School of Economics and Political Science.

The besieged enclave is also home to one of the most inclusive tech communities in the world with 50% of the participants at its events being women. Many female entrepreneurs in the Gaza Strip have strong backgrounds in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), and they often host coding clubs to promote the development of the skills of other women.

Thanks to the relentless efforts of Gaza Sky Geeks, many Gaza-based startups like Baskalet, a mobile game studio, have been able to generate revenue and grow their user base. The Baskalet team was even selected for Google for Entrepreneurs’ Blackbox Connect program, making them the first startup in the Gaza strip to be accepted into a competitive international accelerator.

However, in order to participate in any regional or international event, Palestinian entrepreneurs have to secure various permits from different governments to be able to leave the strip. So, even when presented with unique opportunities, Palestinian entrepreneurs have to jump through many hoops in order to participate, and more often than not, they are unable to do so.

Unfortunately, for the Gaza Strip’s entrepreneurial community that is only one of the many challenges they face on a day-to-day basis.

Securing funding is also especially difficult for entrepreneurs based in Gaza, because they cannot pitch at international startup competitions or network with potential investors at entrepreneurial events due to travel restrictions.

It is also rare to find investors who are willing to undertake the risk of going to the Gaza Strip or investing in its nascent startup ecosystem. Consequently, many Gaza-based startups, even Gaza Sky Geeks, struggle to find the investment they need to stay afloat.

However, even when entrepreneurs in the Gaza Strip are able to cross the so-called entrepreneurial “Valley of Death” and generate revenue, they frequently face obstacles to being paid for the jobs they do for remote clients because “PayPal is not allowed in Palestine and the other payment processing options provided by similar gateways and banks encounter high fees and are not always available for Gaza users,” according to Al-Afifi. Gaza Sky Geeks recently started working with payment companies like Stripe and local banks to make it easier for Gazan freelancers to get paid.

Although both male and female Gazan startup Founders are quite well educated, many of them are young and inexperienced in the realms of entrepreneurship and management. Even though many of these entrepreneurs have access to mentors, it seems that these mentors have little impact on the long-term success of their mentees’ startups.

While many entrepreneurs throughout the world might find this economic environment too daunting, entrepreneurs in the Gaza Strip embrace it and are determined to succeed despite all the odds stacked against them — because “whenever there’s hard work,” says Al-Afifi, “there’s always hope.”