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An adviser from Microsoft provides guidance to young Palestinian entrepreneurs at Gaza Sky Geeks office, in Gaza City January 21, 2016. Picture taken January 21, 2016.
Reuters/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa
A visiting Microsoft employee gives a talk at Gaza Sky Geeks.
PLUG AND PLAY

Palestinians in Gaza are bypassing a decade-old blockade by creating digital startups and telecommuting

Tim Fernholz
By Tim Fernholz

Senior reporter

Arabic is one of the fastest growing languages on the internet, and it’s generating skyrocketing demand for Arabic content and applications. That need is creating opportunities for tech businesses from Cairo to Amman—and even on the Gaza Strip.

Economic opportunities are few and far between on the 140-square-mile patch of land. Its nearly two million inhabitants have been suffering under a blockade of goods and materials by its neighbors, Israel and Egypt, since 2007, when Hamas, a Palestinian Islamist group considered a terrorist organization by many countries, took control of the territory. Human Rights Watch calls the blockade ”an unlawful act of collective punishment; they impeded the rebuilding of Gaza’s devastated economy by severely restricting exports from Gaza.”

Yet one export isn’t restricted: information. A non-profit technology hub called Gaza Sky Geeks, operated by the charity Mercy Corps with opened with initial funding from Google.org, is trying to capitalize on this by equipping young Gaza residents with the technical skills and the resources to participate in the digital economy, even as their real economy crumbles.

“The one piece of infrastructure that is really good is the internet,” Ryan Sturgill, the American director of the tech hub, told Quartz. “There is a fiber landline and wi-fi everywhere. Online work, whether you are trying to build a software product and sell it outside, or contracting freelance work online, translating stuff for somebody in another country, doing graphic design, building a back-end system for a web application—that is all stuff people can do in Gaza and get paid.”

Gaza Sky Geeks was started in 2011. On a given day, fifty or sixty people work from its offices. This year, some 2,000 people have participated. In the past two years, 100 people, generally in teams of two to three entrepreneurs, have gone through the GSG’s incubator to develop viable start-ups for Arabic-speaking markets. The organization also facilitates visits by mentors, often engineers at top tech firms extending a trip to visit offices in Tel Aviv, the main home of Israel’s technology industry.

One firm that came out of Gaza Sky Geeks is Baskalet, a mobile game studio aiming at smartphone users in Saudi Arabia, which has seen its games downloaded a million times. Another Sky Geeks start-up, an e-commerce firm that markets health and beauty products to Saudi women, recently earned a $50,000 investment from a group of European angel investors.

The organization is holding a year-end fundraising drive to raise money to buy a new generator to keep the office open during nights and weekends, offer more instruction in software development and send Gazans abroad to internships at tech companies.

There are still significant challenges to this model. A major one is payments: Getting money into and out of the strip can require circuitous routes via friends abroad. One of Gaza Sky Geeks’ projects is advocating for more digital payment options for Palestinians, especially PayPal, which hasn’t been receptive. “Israeli settlers in the West Bank have access to PayPal but the Palestinians who live right next door don’t,” Sturgill says. Bitcoin may be another option.

If it seems quixotic to try to build a modern economy in a place wracked by political violence and scarcity, it’s actually rather practical. There is no shortage of funding for humanitarian relief from the US and European governments, with delays in reconstruction coming more from deploying the funding effectively behind the blockade, Sturgill says.

What isn’t well resourced, he says, is any effort for economic development and starting businesses. And there is little effort to provide an outlet for Gaza’s youth.

“There’s an entire generation of young people who have been completely confined and never interacted with people [outside Gaza],” Sturgill says. “University graduates who are coming out of school in Gaza; there is a 70% unemployment rate; 73% of the population is under 30. The lack of contact with the outside and the lack of basically anything to do has really significant implications.”

And with little sign that political resolution is near, the digital economy may be the only viable choice for people in Gaza seeking opportunity amid the constant threat of disruption and violence.

“It’s not dependent on the vagaries of if there’s a conflict,” Sturgill says. “As long as the internet is up, it doesn’t matter if the borders are closed. You can work in a global marketplace.”

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