Mohammed al-Halimy, a 13-year-old Gazan entrepreneur and game programmer, is known by the Electronic Intifada news publication as the “Youngest Geek in Palestine.” Earlier this month, at the finale of a weeklong start-up boot camp, he pitched Filmer, a freelance photography marketplace, to a group of international and local judges. Along with dozens of other Gazans, ages 13 to 56 and half female, Mohammed was vying for an invitation to incubate his start-up at Gaza Sky Geeks, the war-torn region’s first tech accelerator. Only around a quarter of the 46 teams made the cut, and nerves ran as high as on the Shark Tank television series.
Gaza has both the highest literacy and the highest unemployment rates in the Arab world. With roughly 75 percent of the population under the age of 25, the resulting opportunity gap is getting only worse with time. In a place that is blockaded by sea and virtually sealed off by land, the Internet is salvation. Although most Gazans can’t physically travel, their minds—and entrepreneurial activities—can.
Entrepreneurs tend to play a more minor role in the Arab world’s wealthiest countries, particularly in Saudi Arabia—a popular entry market for Gazan start-ups. Small and medium-sized businesses account for less than a quarter of the kingdom’s GDP and jobs. Meanwhile, many Palestinians are “necessity entrepreneurs,” who start businesses as a refuge from unemployment. That’s why small and medium-sized businesses constitute 98 percent of the Palestinian private sector and employ almost half of the total work force.
Gaza’s start-up ecosystem transforms those who are otherwise “necessity entrepreneurs” into “opportunity entrepreneurs,” driven by inspiration—not only desperation. According to Mohammed, until recently, “the siege and other economic restrictions” prevented a start-up community from forming in Gaza. But now, with an ecosystem in place, “entrepreneurs can innovate, knowing that there are people who believe [in] and support them.” Among those supporters are Ibtikar, a West Bank–based fund for early-stage Palestinian start-ups, and other international investors. Start-ups incubated at
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