First Published: 2016-11-30

Palestinian start-ups defy unique challenges
Online start-ups avoid many of frustrations for other companies run from Israel-occupied Palestinian territory.
Middle East Online

Innovating despite occupation

RAMALLAH - At first glance, Mashvisor is just one of thousands of websites specialising in US real estate.

But it has a unique feature, undetectable to customers: its designers created it in the West Bank and it is run from the Israel-occupied Palestinian territory.

"The great thing about a start-up is you can work on it anywhere in the world. You can be in Palestine, you can be in Cambodia, Vietnam, China. It doesn't matter," explains Peter Abu al-Zolof, who founded Mashvisor more than a year ago with a friend.

Last week, Mashvisor became the first Palestinian company to get the support of the influential American 500 Startups venture capital fund.

It is one of a number of Palestinian start-ups in the occupied Palestinian territories, long overshadowed by Israel's so-called "Start-up Nation".

The online platform automates and analyses US real estate data nationwide to find investors the best property deals.

As in Silicon Valley, the staff dress casually, drink coffee from state-of-the-art machines in garish colours, and pad through the office wearing US-made headphones around their necks.

But working in the West Bank brings unique challenges.

In October 2015, a wave of violence broke out across Israel and the Palestinian territories.

Abu al-Zolof's friend and founding partner Mohamed Jebrini, who lives in Hebron, found himself stranded in the city as roads were closed, 45 kilometres (30 miles) from their Ramallah offices.

"He was stuck in Hebron and I was stuck in Ramallah and we were still working on our company," explains Abu al-Zolof.

And the American-Palestinian says the online nature of what they do means they can avoid many of the frustrations for other companies in the West Bank, where the Israeli army checkpoints often present very physical challenges to commerce.

"There are no walls, there are no challenges, there is nothing that can stop this kind of thing," he says.

"It's a virtual market, so there are no checkpoints where they tell you: 'You can't sell this. You can't take this out of the country.'"

The company benefited from the support of the Ramallah-based Leaders, an organisation that helps nurture start-ups.

- 'No unemployment' -

Shadi Atshan, Leader's director general, said that in the start-up scene there was "no unemployment -- unlike almost all other industries and economic sectors in Palestine which have high unemployment".

"Those with good skills can earn a very high income."

The unemployment rate in the occupied Palestinian territories is 27 percent, according to figures from the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics.

The Ibtikar investment fund has invested around $800,000 (750,000 euros) in ten start-ups so far, according to its executive director Ambar Amleh. She stresses their work is not charity.

"This isn't work that should be funded by donors or grants. The expectations of making money should be there from the beginning because we are creating companies," she said.

Palestinians are still a long way behind Israel, where companies in Tel Aviv's start-up scene regularly sell for tens or hundreds of millions of dollars.

In 2013, Google bought the Israeli traffic app Waze for more than $1 billion, a figure unimaginable in the Palestinian scene.

But Amleh points out the huge government support for Israeli start-ups, which don't exist in the Palestinian territories.

"I think more and more people are starting to see that they really can make something they have been dreaming about come true."

Hussein Nasir al-Din and his partner Laila Aqal have a business inextricably linked to the conflict -- monitoring the security situation in Israel and the Palestinian territories.

The Red Crow website, run out of a small office in Ramallah, monitors security developments and sends real-time alerts and maps to clients.

Their customers include UN agencies, diplomats and organisations that operate in the field and adjust their security programmes according to events.

Soon they want to expand to the Egyptian and Iraqi markets.

 

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