Gaza Sky Geeks (GSG), the Gaza Strip’s first startup accelerator, has chosen its latest batch of entrepreneurs at an event many have dubbed the embattled region’s very own Shark Tank.
Last month 46 hopeful entrepreneurs entered the group’s competition in Gaza City. 13 emerged victorious. They will now enter a five-month incubation period GSG’s leadership hopes can stimulate the tech sector in one of the most difficult places on earth.
Last year companies that went through GSG’s acceleration program won investments ranging from $20,000 to $65,000. That may not seem much. But in a territory whose roads are rarely paved, and buildings shattered by ordnance, it can make a vital difference.
This year saw businesses addressing a wide range of issues. Price Offer, for example, is a website that brings transparency to electronic products sold through small businesses in the Middle East. Another was Mommy Helper, a Mums.net for Arabic-speaking mothers living abroad.
“Although there’s still much work to do, we were amazed that the founder had already built a community of moms in the region in the several of thousands,” Fanny Hattery, GSG’s mentor program manager, tells Red Herring.
“The event went great,” adds Hattery. “It’s by far our most successful bootcamp to date.” Almost 150 participants joined the competition—56% of whom had never before taken part—who enjoyed advice from 30 local and eight international mentors, from Silicon Valley, Germany, the UK and Italy.
34% of participants were women, and four of the 13 chosen teams were female-led. Following the competition GSG ran a kidpreneur ‘Fikra Camp’ where kids pitched their ideas. Four 12- to 14-year-olds won the event, and are now taking part in a pre-incubation bootcamp.
A week later the group welcomed 500 Startups founder Dave McClure to meet Gazan entrepreneurs from GSG and Startup Grind Gaza.
“Dario Mazzella, a European venture capitalist and mentor with GSG, told the teams that when he makes an investment, he ‘bets on the jockey, not on the horse,’” adds Hattery. “It’s a big deal to tell people they matter more than their product or idea, especially in a place like Gaza where unemployment is so high and opportunities so scarce.
“It’s a message of self-belief and and self-reliance that can be very powerful.”
The need for tech in Gaza is huge. Youth employment, at 60%, is the world’s highest. Since a 2014 conflict with neighboring Israel, which left 2,200 dead and a million displaced, Gaza’s economy has fallen by 15.2%.
A nine-year blockade by Egypt and Israel has wiped 50% off Gaza’s economy, which the World Bank describes as on “the verge of collapse.”
Yet that has not deterred GSG. Red Herring first reported on the group—founded in 2011 as a division of Oregon-based Mercy Corps with $900,000 from Google.org—following 2014’s conflict. Then, the group’s funding was pulled in favor of Mercy Corps’ humanitarian efforts.
There was considerable worry that to fall short of a $70,000 crowd fund would be the end of GSG. The group raised its cash, however—and is now looking firmly to a new crop of tech wannabes.
The Gaza Strip boasts the highest literacy rate in the Arab world. That has showed at an event which has, historically, turned up innovation across the tech board. Last year’s winners include gaming firm Baskalet; workspace Maktabi; Muslim food app Sabeel and Keen, a smart soccer ball.
The region is roughly the size of Philadelphia, with around 300,000 more people. 39% of Gaza’s population live in poverty. However mobile penetration is soaring—it is now above 50%—and Internet usage, while still relatively low at around 30%, is climbing quickly thanks, in part, to a strong connection provided by a fiber optic cable.
Payment platforms like PayPal, however, are not present. With average salaries around just $147, outsourcing could become a vital source of income for the Strip. But that would require better infrastructure, and many Silicon Valley investors have baulked at putting cash into a region, ruled by Hamas, which is often politically and ideologically opposed to Israel.
“The low hanging fruit really is the digital service industry where we’re able to test products in Gaza and then export to large markets such as Egypt or Saudi Arabia,” says Hattery.
“The biggest obstacle to a flourishing tech economy here is not necessarily related to security or infrastructure— those are significant issues to be sure,” Hattery adds. “Rather, what Gazans desperately need is an end to the total physical isolation from professional opportunities where people can develop their skills and gain new knowledge.
The blockade and political strife means that founding a traditional business has become all-but impossible. Tech, therefore, presents an ideal chance to win revenue with little infrastructure or physical movement necessary. What is most necessary, says Hattery, is experience—something GSG is trying to introduce to the region.
“Despite all the content online, it is very hard to substitute the experience that one develops working for a few years in a growing tech company, observing successful product managers, and shipping cutting edge software products,” she adds. “They are also isolated from potential customers and investors, because it’s much harder for Gazans to physically travel to where their customers are.
“Gazans need freedom of movement.”