Gaza’s first startup accelerator has launched a campaign to ensure its survival, as the region rebuilds after this summer’s conflict with Israel. Gaza Sky Geeks (GSG), an offshoot of humanitarian group Mercy Corps, has won significant acclaim for its work investing in local digital entrepreneurs and hosting popular startup weekends and a co-working space.
But following this year’s conflict, which left 2,200 people dead and half a million Palestinians displaced, funding for GSG was pulled in favor of Mercy Corps’ urgent humanitarian work. This week the group began its funding drive, Gaza Starts, with a view to securing $70,000 by December 8. At time of going to press $47,422 had been raised.
“Major donors will meet Gaza’s humanitarian needs: electricity, water, shelter food,” writes GSG. “But more than anything, thousands of Gazan youth want opportunity. Two days after the bombs stopped last summer, our rooms filled up with youth working on their startup ideas.”
Should the target not be met, Gaza Sky Geeks will be wound up at the end of 2014. It would be a crushing blow, especially in the wake of an unprecedented era of success for Gaza’s digital economy. Since October 2013 Gaza Sky Geeks has helped secure capital for four young firms of between $15,000 and $20,000, from local investors such as Nablus-based Palinno and Oasis 500, from Jordan.
The four includes Tevy, an entertainment social network that connects viewers based on their televisual tastes, and Wasselni, a carpooling app similar to Uber or Lyft. This year’s startup weekend attracted 650 applicants, up from Mercy Corps’ usual showing of around 300. And women have played a growing role: of 2014’s 25 winning concepts, 16 had female leadership.
“People have been very motivated by a group that can give them hope and a chance to do things themselves,” says Iliana Montauk, Palestinian Territories director, Mercy Corps. “Startups and techs don’t require a huge amount of infrastructure, and it doesn’t require much movement between borders – which is very important in Gaza’s case.”
Palestine has a highly educated youth population. And the territory’s 47% mobile penetration rate is quickly climbing. But Internet is still scarce – it is available to just 28% of Gaza’s 1.8 million people – and basic supplies such as water and electricity are sporadic. Over 18,000 homes were razed during Israel’s Operation Protective Edge, which was ended via an August 26th ceasefire. As June’s startup weekend continued, over 20 shells fell nearby.
“One team member lost his house: pretty much the whole neighbourhood was destroyed,” says Montauk. “For most people it’s really shaken them up.”
Unemployment in the embattled strip is predicted to be as high as 70%, and the political tensions which caused this summer’s conflict continue to rage within Palestine, as well as Israel. But with capital beginning to flow, and a comparatively low average salary of around $450 per month, Montauk feels Gaza is ripe for foreign investment.
“The Arab World investors are eager for investment flow at seed level,” she says. “What they’re seeing in Gaza in terms of education is as high as anywhere else, and what they’re seeing in passion and commitment is higher.”
Gaza now has a Google Developers’ Group. And with infrastructure rebuilding – if slowly – Gaza Sky Geeks may enjoy another successful year in 2015 – if its funding target is met.
“Once you leave Gaza, Gaza never leaves you,” adds Montauk. “The amount of optimism and passion that is in the young population there, the amount they trust you and are eager to have something positive to contribute, is mind-blowing.”