High-tech startups launched by crowdfunding in Gaza

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Gaza Sky Geeks supports hundreds of startup Internet companies, even through the bombings

A man opens up a search engine which reads Palestine for country code in Arabic (AFP)
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Friday 13 February 2015 8:45 UTC
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By Andrew Jay Rosenbaum

ANKARA (AA) - The al-Nuseirat refugee camp in Gaza is a warren of crumbling buildings and rubble. The mosque at the camp was destroyed by an Israeli airstrike. Power supply to buildings that still are livable is shaky and much of the water supply is contaminated. Established in 1948, the camp has been home to three generations of Palestinians, and shows all the signs of life in an ongoing conflict.

In the midst of all this, 25-year-old Mariam Abultewi has started a social media business. Her app, named Wasseini, brings together car drivers with pedestrians seeking a lift. Abultewi, who reportedly started the business because she got tired of waiting for rides herself, now has more than 2,000 subscribers.

Abultewi received help and support starting her business from a startup incubator called Gaza Sky Geeks, which is providing financial and technical support to hundreds of Gazans aspiring to become the next Bill Gates.

Gaza Sky Geeks was created and run by 28-year-old American Iliana Montauk, who works for Mercy Corps., an international humanitarian organisation. With the help of Mercy Corps., Montauk has mounted a crowdfunding campaign this year on Indiegogo that brought in $70,000 of funding this year, and that kept the incubator up and running.

Gaza Sky Geek has operated even through Israeli attacks. “At a recent startup weekend, Israel attacked nearby targets. Our group, which included advisers from abroad, all sat together with our bags packed, in case we had to evacuate,” Montauk told The Anadolu Agency.

Montauk doesn’t make light of the difficulties: “Launching a startup anywhere is going to be hard and take time. Working in Gaza, these people display great courage.”  

Montauk started the incubator with a $900,000 grant from Google. “Google provided funding in 2011, after visiting Gaza and being impressed by the region’s potential. We initially ran training events and competitions to create awareness of startups in a community that needed them. We ran our first Startup Weekend with local partners in 2011.”

Interest grew among young people in Gaza, many of whom have education and training but little access to employment. According to UN statistics, about 1,000 Gazans graduate with information and communication technology degrees each year, but unemployment is at 40 percent. Gaza Sky Geeks offered an alternative.

“Gaza has a dense population of optimistic, resilient, adaptable, hardworking youth who are hungry to take part in the global startup movement, take their future into their own hands and contribute to the world in a positive way,” Montauk said.

A good example of what Gaza Sky Geeks can do is the startup created by Gazan Ahmed Borel. The 28-year-old engineer set up a network of international designers to create three dimensional products and sell them online.  In his first year of operations, he rung up a substantial profit, matching the designs with customers online all over the world. Borel attributes his success to Gaza Sky Geeks, who taught him to think outside the box.

After three years of operation, Gaza Sky Geeks ran through the Google grant, and Mercy Corps. could not provide any more funding.

“The timing was terrible,” Montauk said. “Not only did we have more than 600 demands from young Gazan entrepreneurs, but we also were beginning to have considerable success linking startups with international funding.”

So Montauk, ever thinking outside of the box, turned to crowdfunding. “We set our goal for this year at $70,000 and we reached it in a week. Bear in mind that this is just enough to keep the incubator open with one staff member,” Montauk explained. “So we’ve raised the goal to $320,000 and we’re almost there.”

Montauk said that the message really got across, which is what crowdfunding is all about. “The money is important, but it’s also important to become better known, and to raise credibility. We have achieved all this, and we’ve garnered some important investor interest by making ourselves known through crowdfunding.”

Gaza Sky Geeks has also been concerned with bringing Gazan women into the startup world. The incubator maintains a goal of having 50 percent women working in the incubator at any one time. “We’ve been able to come close to this goal,” Montauk said.

If the second round of crowdfunding is successful, Gaza Sky Geeks will continue to fill an important vacuum in the region. Montauk says she will find a way to keep going “no matter what happens".