Did you think setting up a startup was difficult? Try doing it in a place where electricity cuts out for up to 16 hours a day.
Anyone familiar with the Gaza Strip knows that it has been under an Israeli enforced siege since 2007, which has restricted the movement of its residents and their trade activity causing a collapse in the economy and a sharp increase in unemployment levels. Yet, Gaza's youth have defied the odds by looking towards a borderless space to find work – the internet.
Gaza has a high literacy rate, with Palestine having one of the lowest illiteracy rates in the world, and similarly there are high rates of internet activity exceeding those of other conflict zones. Gaza's driven, well-educated and tech-savvy youth striving to thrive under the difficult circumstances make it the perfect place for a startup accelerator that can hone the skills of these young men and woman and help them to realise their ambitions and start up their own businesses.
Gaza Sky Geeks (GSG) was founded in 2011 by Mercy Corps and funded by a number of international organisations, such as Google and US-based Rogue Venture Partners. It is Gaza's one and only startup accelerator. GSG has been working towards giving Gaza's ambitious and creative developers the chance to enhance and implement their business ideas. Investors from around the world have invested in Gaza's startups through partnerships with Gaza Sky Geeks to provide Gaza's entrepreneurs with expertise, mentorship and networks, engaging with the top ideas during unique events such as startup weekends, GSG Coffee Club, hackathons and various other competitions.
This week, Gaza Sky Geeks had its first European meet-up in London to celebrate their achievements, share what it has been like to launch startups in Gaza and describe what challenges remain.
"[Gaza] has one of the populations in the world that is most eager, hungry to lead change in a positive way and hungry to engage with the rest of the world," Iliana Montauk, GSG director, told the Middle East Monitor. Montauk referred to Maktabi, an Airbnb for office space, as an example of the startups they helped sponsor in Gaza. Indicating that a similar idea has received a significant investment in the United States, she continued: "The idea for the Middle East is coming from Gaza and it's something that in addition to being innovative can actually be launched from Gaza; the costs are low, the talent is there and it is targeting the Middle East market."
Ahmed Saleh, a London-based GSG mentor program associate, shared his stories of growing up in Gaza before receiving a scholarship to study at LSE and working in London as a result. "I'm not self-made, I'm people-made," he said. Describing the many challenges he faced while living in Gaza and how the support and opportunities he received made him what he is today, Saleh added, "My family pushed me to study, my friends supported me, and people gave me the opportunity."
Entrepreneurs and experts who have volunteered to mentor Gazan startup teams attended the meet-up in London and spoke about their experiences of visiting the Gaza Strip and mentoring its youth. They spoke of their astonishment at seeing such optimism, ambition and gender balance among Gaza's entrepreneurs. On several occasions, the speakers compared Gaza Sky Geek's vibrant workspace and the youth's work and passion to what they see in Silicon Valley.
Electricity cuts that last for up to 16 hours a day due to fuel shortages and Israel's frequent bombing of Gaza's sole power plant remains one of the many hardships Gazans have to deal with on a daily basis. Gaza's reputation as a conflict zone also makes it difficult to attract investors and travel restrictions hinder exposure, forcing Gaza's entrepreneurs to miss out on significant opportunities.
Montauk shared the story of a recent winner of a hackathon and seed funding in Jordan, joking that pitching was the easiest part of starting up after he was held at the border crossing for twelve hours. However, Gaza's youth continue to hang on to the hope of a better and more successful future, as they continue to work hard to achieve their aspirations.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.