The Middle East Fervor

Move over Silicon Valley; there’s a new hot bed for start-ups. Despite the difficulties of starting a business in a region affected by conflict, there is a thriving start-up culture brewing in Palestine. In fact, the difficult situations faced by many young Palestinian entrepreneurs are often the driving force behind their innovation, after all as the saying goes, ‘necessity is the mother of invention’.

Challenges Drive Creativity

One fledgling start-up making the most of the difficult situation in Gaza is Walk and Charge, which is developing a device that charges a person’s mobile phone while they walk. It’s an idea that could be extremely valuable in Gaza, where electricity is often only available for a few hours a day.

There’s no denying that entrepreneurs in Gaza’s “Silicon Bank” face some tough challenges. There is no 3G coverage and power outages are common. Organizations such as Gaza Sky Geeks are overcoming these challenges by providing co-working spaces with power generators and Wi-Fi to budding entrepreneurs.

Walk and Charge operates out of a room at Gaza Sky Geeks, a tech incubator and accelerator that helps Palestinian entrepreneurs get their ideas off the ground. It is funded by a combination of money from donors and investor funding. I had the pleasure of meeting with Iliana Montauk, Director at Mercy Corps / Gaza Sky Geeks Accelerator, Iliana runs the entire GSG operations, she’s managed to create a robust, successful accelerator in an area most people consider long forgotten and forsaken.

Iliana and Nicola at Dinner in Old Jaffa, Tel Aviv
The West Bank Wall

A few miles away; 37.5 miles to be exact, but because of the Palestinian travel restrictions and the West Bank wall, a less than 1 hour travel is a 341 miles, 9 hours travel; in the West Bank city of Ramallah tech innovation, entrepreneurship and start-up culture is booming.

The journey from Gaza to West Bank, although hardly travelled.
The actual distance without the West Bank wall

One of the West Bank’s most successful start-ups, a travel site called Yamsafer has managed to attract $1 million from investors proving that despite challenges, Palestinian start-ups are managing to attract a surprising amount of investor funding.

A Rival to Tel Aviv

Although Tel Aviv is recognized as the capital of Middle East technological innovation, Ramallah is rapidly overcoming difficulties in order to develop a thriving start-up culture of its own. There are hackathons, start-up events and tech incubators popping up all over the city. Palestinians aren’t allowed to travel to Tel Aviv unless they have Israeli IDs, so those who have ambitions to work in the tech industry are forced to use their talents locally.

I was invited to a fire-side chat at Startup Grind Ramallah; Founded by Derek Andersen Startup Grind is the world’s startup community, actively educating, inspiring, and connecting founders in over 170 cities. They nurture startup ecosystems in 63 countries through events, media, and partnerships with organizations like Google for Entrepreneurs.

At the event I met developers, entrepreneurs, investors, accelerator managers, and more, if it wasn’t for the meticulous coordination of a driver with the right permits (to enter the west bank), the Israeli checkpoints and the wide expanse of the wall we rode over from Jerusalem to Ramallah, I’d think that I was at just another Silicon Valley Meetup.

Well, that is until you start speaking to the people and hearing about their stories. Our hosts, Nada and Jamilah Morrar and Peter Abualzolof, are some of the most fascinating people I’ve met. The Morrar’s and Abualzolof share a passion for start-ups and their community, the Morrar’s are American-born Palestinian Muslims that hold US Passports and have graduated from California Universities, but decided to return home to Ramallah. Peter is a Palestinian born Christian who relocated to Ramallah. I have to admit, my first question was why? Why would anyone choose to live her? Then I started to understand…

Peter and Jamilah“Gigi” at Dinner
Happy Brian
Never have been to a restaurant that engaged all my senses and tasted so good!
A view of Ramallah
Inside the West Bank checkpoint, Ramallah

Who wouldn’t want to live in a community booming with entrepreneurial talent, — the shear fervor and creativity in Ramallah is bursting from its seams and seeping into it’s food, it’s art, it’s culture, it’s businesses and everyday life. There is so much life here that the most dispassionate soulless schmuck would be brought back to life with a zest for a thousand years more.

Overcoming Infrastructure Deficiencies

Just 9 km from Ramallah, the foundations for a new city called Rawabi, which will include a technology park, are being laid. Some see it as crazy. Others, a risky adventure that will crash with reality. In modern offices in Ramallah, they just smile, work and dream. “The idea came in 2007 with the start of the economic and security improvement in the West Bank. After building successfully in Morocco, Egypt and Jordan, we said it was time to invest in our country,” said Bashar Masri, developer of the city, named Rawabi, “the hills” in Arabic. It is the crown jewel of the plan by Prime Minister Salam Fayad, to create infrastructure in two years and declare the Palestinian state. “The Rawabi project is economic, social and, above all, a clear political expression,” he confesses in his Ramallah headquarters. “With Rawabi, those hills will not end up someday in the hands of the settlers,” a Palestinian official added.

The deputy chief executive, Amir Dajani, is convinced that “a state is created with projects like Rawabi, reflecting an economic boom and a huge injection of hope.”

We visited Rawabi and the project is nothing short of spectacular. The first families were already moving in and I have to admit, I’m almost convinced to relocate myself. The construction is a massive undertaking, with record heat and constant pressure, but somehow the crew has been able to rapidly build one of the most sophisticated communities in a matter of a few years.

The Success of Silicon Bank

Despite the challenges, the Palestinian tech industry is growing rapidly. According to a recent report, Palestinian IT companies reported a 64 percent rise in the amount of work they are taking on from global clients between 2009 and 2012. Palestinian IT companies and ex-patriots have bonded together to form GloPal, a network that aims to link companies in the region with clients around the world. Such ventures could be the key to Palestine’s continuing success in the tech industry.

The success of this region is going to a cool, calculated, methodical victory for the Palestinian’s.

An ideal world would see both the Israeli’s and Palestinians sharing the fruits of their land and labor. I hope that when I go back soon, that things follow the path of collaborative progress and that this era is just the dawn of hope in the Promised Land.

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