Stepping into the offices of the few technology startups in Ramallah really feels like entering a work space in San Francisco or Silicon Valley.
The walls of every room are built of glass and long group tables that accomodate 20 employees at a time give an open and cooperative atmosphere. Park benches and patches of astroturf give at least a partial feel of being outdoors.
The tech industry is making innovative strides in Palestine. Yet unlike Silicon Valley, Palestinian startups face both unique challenges and opportunities.
Since 2011, tech startups – or at least the prospect of them – have been gaining traction across the Arab world to combat the staggering youth unemployment rates and to bring technology up to speed with the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) market.
There is a lot of untapped potential in the young people of Palestine to engage in the regional market. To self-starters like Imam Hithnawi, 27, and his team at the start-up incubator Flow, this potential can make some honest change – to Palestinian society and the world at large.
The problem with Palestinian society
But start-ups in Palestine face a lot of challenges. A major problem, “is that the older generation are finding it hard to understand that technology is the future – not just for us, but for the whole world.”
“If we are not looking for it, maybe we will not have a future,” Hithnawi, CEO (or “team leader” as he calls it) of Flow, confessed about Palestinian society.
Startup culture requires a lot of trust in the investment. You don’t immediately receive a product from a payment, like in traditional business transactions. There’s a long process – an incubation period, alpha and beta testing, prototypes, etc – before the final product and in all these steps the startup team needs money as well. Hithnawi explained that in Palestine, the private sector just doesn’t understand this.
“We don’t have this mentality. They [stakeholders] will not accept the fact that youth know about this world more than they do.” If they think you are not “mature” they will just flat out give you a “no,” without helping you try to grow.
That’s where Flow comes in. As a “one-stop shop,” the Flow team supports the entrepreneurs idea throughout the long incubation and testing period, until they can present a final product to their investor network.
“We think that if we bring them [the entrepreneurs] to incubation and acceleration and make awareness on the new world of startups,” Hithnawi enthusiastically said, “we will change the fixed mindset to a growth mindset,” with the goal of building a knowledge-based economy in Palestine.
The appeal of tech
Traditional startups of all shapes and sizes exist in Palestine, but the biggest focus right now is on the tech industry. One reason being opportunity, the other, reality.
Despite the rapid growth of Arabic-speaking internet users over the last decade, web content in the Arabic language is We’re talking about 350 million people who speak the same language. This is one of the biggest markets in the world,” Hithnwai said.. The Arab world presents itself as an open market for web-based businesses and applications. “
This is how Yamsafer swooped in with their travel website and mobile app.
An online travel provider focused on Arabic-speaking travellers, Yamsafer is now a tech “unicorn” (a startup valued at over $1 billion USD) in the MENA after just seven years.
According to Yamsafer CEO Faris Zaher, 31, people in the Arab market have needs that the global competitors haven’t fulfilled. Offering non-credit card payment options and establishing partnerships with local hotels that companies like Expedia and Booking can’t reach are some of the ways Yamsafer has been able to cater these needs.
Moreover, Yamsafer is the first step in building a knowledge-based economy that will put Palestine on the map of the global market.
“I think the future and present [of tech] is already creating opportunity in Palestine,” Zaher told Palestine Monitor. He said he has seen positive changes over the past two to three years in terms of the quality of talent coming out of universities. And these bright young minds are eager to work for tech companies like Yamsafer.
“It’s a personal motivation of a lot of people who work here – they are taking part in building the future of their own economy. They believe in it.”
Lack of mobility faced by Palestinians further adds to the appeal of building businesses based on the Internet. Because there is no physical import and export – everything is dealt with on the virtual “cloud” – tech startups can bypass the occupation and its control of Palestine’s borders.
Tech companies present an opportunity for Palestinian entrepreneurs to, “overcome physical obstacles and define their future,” Hithnawi believes.
Investing in the future
“Innovation is the solution for a lot of problems in the world,” Hithnawi said passionately. “There is no solution for youth unless you invest in them.”
Forty-nine percent of Palestinians between the ages of 19 and 29 are unemployed, many of whom have university degrees but face the problem of being overqualified for the available job market. Another problem is the support for young Palestinians to pursue careers of the future, like those in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) fields.
“Going into STEM is not that big in Palestine.” said Omar Khatib, 16. “A big obstacle I see is the Palestinian society itself because it’s not invested in tech and STEM in general.”
Khatib just graduated from the Friends school in Ramallah and is waiting to hear back from his early application into Harvard University in the United States. He received this amazing opportunity in part due to his involvement in the Code for Palestine program.
A three-year program,motivates and mentors Palestinian high school students in both the West Bank and Gaza in pursuing computer science and STEM careers. It also drives tech entrepreneurship at a young age by teaching them the skills necessary to launch innovative solutions into successful startups.
Khatib was confident that Code for Palestine will help develop the tech industry in Palestine in the coming years. “People who enter this program have great aspirations… I feel like great things can be done out of this for our country.”
Hithnawi spoke about the world finally listening to Palestine in a way other than through tragedies. “If we empower the youth we can empower the economy and if we empower the economy, people will here us.”
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