A dramatic race is going on right this minute, one you've probably not heard about yet. Gaza Sky Geeks, Gaza's first and only start-up accelerator, is fighting to get enough funding to survive. The fundraising campaign, called Gaza Starts (www.gazastarts.com) launched on Sunday and has so far raised over $60,000 in only five days.
Located in a quiet area of the city centre next to Gaza's port, the incubator space is near all the universities in order to stay close to the tech talent. Start-up expert Said Hassan is one of three people running the space. "We're in huge need of more funding from the region. The donations we've received so far are all small, but we are hoping to reach the target," he tells me over Skype.
Four start-ups that take part in the programme have received direct investment, while about eight more use the co-working space to work on developing their ideas. Female participation at Gaza Sky Geeks is about 50%, which is possibly the highest for any co-ed start-up incubator/accelerator in the world. "Women in Gaza are eager to prove themselves, and this is a way to help them show that they can create and lead companies," says Said.
Mariam AbuEtewy, the founder and CEO of cab ordering app Wasselni is a good ambassador of this. Another participant is 16-year old Sofiya Mosalam, who took part in the latest Startup Weekend where they presented their ideas to a Gazan and international judge panel. "There aren't a lot of vacancies in Gaza, so the girls are creating jobs and hiring each other," explains Said. Having grown up without any local role models in this area, the task is no easy feat.
To overcome some of the cultural challenges Gaza Sky Geeks include the girls' families in the projects to keep them updated, so as to slowly change the culture and instill faith in female leaders. Several of the women come in and work from eight to five every day without a salary.
The challenges of trying to build a business in Gaza include electricity shortages, isolation from other markets and the lack of a surrounding business environment and support network. During the latest conflict the start-ups continued working to the extent they could under near-impossible working conditions. One entrepreneur even pitched to a program in Silicon Valley as the bombs dropped within earshot.
Said explains that people in Gaza have a huge desire to work on something that is valuable for them. "We are appealing to investors and people who know how important a thriving business community is and believe that entrepreneurship will shape the future. Without good companies there can be no sustainable development," he says. Gaza, Egypt and Saudi Arabia are just a few of the places that are seen as untapped markets for start-ups in the Middle East.
Gaza Sky Geeks is run by the American NGO Mercy Corps. Director Iliana Montauk has two months to save the organisation, touring Boston and Jordan at the moment to raise awareness. "Cloud technology provides one of the only viable ways of starting businesses in Gaza because the infrastructure is not affected during conflict," says Iliana.
If the funds run out, the accelerator will return to square zero and three years of work would be lost. I'm currently about to embark on a journalism project around Gaza Sky Geeks, so watch this space!