August 18, 2023 in VC, Guest post

Against the Odds: Innovation from Gaza's Entrepreneurs

In recent years, the Gaza Strip has been marked by a complex political situation and myriad challenges for its residents. This small coastal strip, located on the eastern Mediterranean coast and bordered by Israel and Egypt, has faced significant restrictions that have profoundly impacted both its political landscape and the entrepreneurial spirit of its inhabitants. Understanding the political situation and the challenges entrepreneurs face in Gaza is crucial to gaining insight into the region's socio-economic dynamics and the obstacles that must be overcome to foster development and progress.

Challenges faced by entrepreneurs in Gaza due to political restrictions

1. Limited access to resources and funding

Due to political restrictions, entrepreneurs find it difficult to obtain the necessary resources and financial support to establish and sustain their businesses. Investment opportunities are scarce, and accessing financial institutions proves to be a hurdle, hindering the growth and scalability of their ventures. Moreover, political restrictions create barriers to importing and exporting goods and materials, adding to the challenges faced by entrepreneurs. Cumbersome bureaucratic processes, delays, and high costs hinder the efficiency and competitiveness of businesses in the global market, making it harder for them to thrive.

2. Inadequate infrastructure and technology 

Inadequate electricity and internet connectivity limit the use of digital tools, hindering innovation and productivity. Gaza experiences frequent power outages and an unstable internet connection, which negatively impacts businesses. Maintaining uninterrupted operations, communicating with clients and partners, and accessing online resources necessary for growth become a struggle due to unreliable infrastructure. The implementation of cutting-edge technologies, crucial for growth and competitiveness, becomes difficult due to these limitations.

3. Global isolation and limited market opportunities

Travel restrictions imposed on Gaza residents hinder sustainable entrepreneurial activity. The region's isolation from global markets makes it challenging for businesses to expand their customer base, and reduces their potential for growth and profitability. Limited mobility also inhibits access to networking opportunities such as conferences and trade shows that provide potential business collaborations outside of Gaza.

The role of entrepreneurial support organizations (ESOs) in Gaza

Over the past two decades, numerous organizations have emerged in the Gaza Strip to foster and support entrepreneurship. Here is a chronological overview of the six most prominent ESOs in the region. 

In 2004, Palestine's Information and Communications Technology Incubator (PICTI) was established, serving as a sustainable bridge between startups, accelerators, and investors at both local and international levels. Subsequently, the Business and Technology Incubator (BTI) was launched in 2006 as a new division at the Islamic University of Gaza, aiming to offer professional business services to Palestinian entrepreneurs, who have mature concepts for unique and innovative IT-related products assessed to have strong market potential.

In 2011, two influential institutions emerged: UCAS Technology Incubator (UCASTI) and Gaza Sky Geeks. UCASTI offers administrative, technical, and financial support to ambitious entrepreneurs with innovative ideas, aiming to transform them into thriving businesses within the market. It also supports freelancers by providing essential technical training, enabling them to generate income online. Gaza Sky Geeks was established by MercyCorps in collaboration with Google. It is one of the largest tech-hub in Palestine, providing a wide range of tech training at scale.

The year 2015 witnessed the launch of GGateway, which focuses on investing in young and talented IT professionals, enhancing their skills, employability, and contributions to the technology sector. Through capacity-building programs, GGateway bridges the gap in the IT industry, accelerates career development, and creates global opportunities for participants. 

Finally, in 2018, the MAAN Hub for Innovation and Entrepreneurship was established with the aim of fostering innovation to address economic and environmental challenges.

Despite encountering numerous challenges, these organizations have successfully supported countless entrepreneurs in establishing thriving startups. They provide crucial services such as funding opportunities and access to valuable resources, enabling entrepreneurs to acquire the necessary equipment and services to drive their businesses forward. Moreover, comprehensive training and mentorship programs are offered in diverse areas, including business, technology, finance, marketing, and more, facilitated by both local and international trainers and mentors.

To further support the entrepreneurial journey, dedicated coworking spaces are made available to entrepreneurs, and equipped with essential amenities such as reliable internet connectivity, clean environments, electricity, adequate lighting, and more. These spaces serve as conducive environments for entrepreneurs to work on their startups effectively. These organizations also provide networking opportunities, and facilitate connections with local and international investors and startups. By staying connected to international experiences and trends, entrepreneurs are empowered to grow within the market and build relationships with like-minded individuals.

How are entrepreneurs benefitting from support organizations?

In the midst of Gaza's challenging landscape, two remarkable success stories have emerged, both supported by a local incubator. These startups epitomize the power of entrepreneurship, showcasing how individuals can overcome obstacles to create thriving businesses in the region.

Feda’a Abu Elayyan, a 32-year-old with a degree in Pharmacy and expertise in extracting natural oils, is the owner of Viola Company for Therapeutic and Cosmetic Industries. 

Passionate about the pharmaceutical industry, Feda’a gained recognition in Palestine and Turkey through his high-quality natural medicinal and cosmetic products. His journey began as a pharmacist, where he realized the need for better oils in medicines, leading him to learn extraction techniques and start his own business. Through the Economic Empowerment Program funded by Oxfam, and implemented by UCASTI, Feda’a received training, mentorship, and equipment, enabling him to establish a licensed laboratory of high quality. He also encouraged local farmers to grow rare seeds and wildflowers for his products. Using social media, he gained a 15% market share and expanded his workforce.

Despite the siege on Gaza, Feda’a collaborated with trusted pharmacists in the West Bank to distribute his products. Viola's success in the West Bank and 1948 lands has led to plans for a Viola agency in Turkey. Feda’a seeks investment to create a physical store, provide therapeutic consultations, and launch an online store and app for global sales, including the partnership with Amazon. He remains determined to achieve his dreams and expand the reach of Viola's natural products.

Similarly, Areij Selmi, a determined young woman with a passion for telecommunications, established her startup. At 17, Areij's mother passed away, leaving her to care for her father and brothers while pursuing her education. After graduation, she worked as a teacher to support her family but realized teaching wasn't her passion. She eventually secured a job in marketing and sales. Unsatisfied with the pay, she left to become a sales and marketing specialist.

10 years later, Areij launched her business, the Arabic Portal for Online Stores Creation and Management, offering comprehensive services, including designing, hosting, archiving, and ongoing technical support, across the Arabic region. Funding was a concern, but she received support from the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) through the United Nations Development Program (UNPD) and UCASTI, allowing her to establish her portal successfully. Despite the challenges of operating from Gaza, including power outages and banking restrictions, Areij's business has grown. She now aims to expand her customer base and attract investors, hoping to make the Arabic Portal the first international company operating from Gaza, and run by its people.

Entrepreneur support organizations like PICTI, BTI, UCASTI, Gaza Sky Geeks, GGateway, and MAAN Hub for Innovation and Entrepreneurship play a crucial role in connecting entrepreneurs to the funding, resources, training, mentorship, networking, and coworking spaces they need to better develop and scale ventures.

Despite various obstacles, these organizations have supported countless entrepreneurs, enabling them to overcome barriers, and acquire necessary skills and connections to establish successful startups. 

Supporting entrepreneurship in conflict zones is crucial for fostering economic growth, job creation, and resilience in communities facing obstacles. It not only empowers individuals to overcome challenges and pursue their dreams, but also contributes to the overall economic and social development of the region, offering hope for a better future.

For more information on how you can support ESOs and entrepreneurs in the region, visit https://ucasti.ps/ or info@ucasti.ps.

Related Posts