The Israeli blockade of Gaza has devastated the local economy. With heavy restrictions on trade, exports from Gaza now stand at just three percent of levels before the blockade, which is now in its seventh year. The IT sector represents a creative way that entrepreneurs in Gaza can get around the blockade, selling products and services online as well as locally. Oxfam and partners are supporting 150 young IT graduates to develop their business ideas.
Nidah Wishah’s cousin was just seven months old when he was hit by a tear gas canister and left paralysed. Nidah and her family provide round-the-clock care, but she wanted to use her IT skills to do something bigger and enable people with disabilities to gain independence. While volunteering at a centre for blind people, she came up with an idea.
Together with her lifelong friend Mannah, she developed a mobile phone application to help blind people detect the colour of an object. The app can also match colours, making it particularly useful for picking matching clothing items and for the colour blind. They hope to develop the application further so that users can detect when an object is in front of them, acting as a virtual walking stick.
Oxfam and partners are helping dozens of entrepreneurs like Nidah with finance and marketing training so that they can develop their products for a wider market. In Gaza, where up to a third of businesses have closed due to the blockade and youth unemployment has risen close to 50 percent, the growing IT sector offers a rare opportunity to reach external markets. “The restrictions on exports to the outside world mean that if you want to export, it’s not possible,” says Loai Al Haddad, an Oxfam economic development officer working on the project. Unlike most goods, online sales can get around the restrictions of the blockade.
Some have already managed to sell products outside Gaza. Alaa Saleh and Mustafa Abu Amar have set up a business that produces animations and adverts for an international market. With the project’s support they have already worked with six international companies from the Gulf, Canada and Saudi Arabia, including doing a recent animation for Emirates Airlines. “We want to develop it further and one day have a large company that employs other people,” says Alaa.
The everyday challenges of the blockade still pose problems. Doing business in Gaza can be difficult, especially with limitations on the transfer of money into Gaza and frequent power cuts of up to 12 hours a day due to a shortage of fuel – made worse since the closure of tunnels from Egypt last year, on which Gaza relied for affordable products.
Mohammed Ferwana, 22 and currently in his final year of a Computer Science degree, adapts his sleep patterns so that he can work when there is electricity. “One day we have electricity in the day, the next day we have it only at night,” he says. “You have to work in the available hours.”
With his business partner Omar, he has developed “Teacher Assist” software to help university lecturers. Using motion sensor technology found in Nintendo Connect gaming systems, the interactive educational software enables the user to carry out presentations using their hands – moving slides, zooming in, or even drawing and writing without using a keyboard or mouse. Mohammed came up with the idea after a visit by Microsoft representatives and watching doctors in America use motion sensor technology during heart surgery. He wanted to see if the technology could work in an educational setting in Gaza.
The blockade also means that only limited technological supplies are available. It took six months for the Nintendo gaming systems, which are not readily available in Gaza, to arrive. “Ordering specific computer parts can slow down the development of any new idea,” says Mohammed.
Despite the enormous challenges, the creative entrepreneurship of the graduates offers great opportunities. “We want to show the world that even with the blockade Gaza still has potential," says Mohammed. "Everybody thinks that we are fighting all of the time, but I see great minds and great young people who are eager to create something. They want to show the world their ability.”
The project is funded by DANIDA, the Danish development agency, and works with the Palestinian Information Communication Technology Institute (PICTI) and the University of Applied Sciences in Gaza (UCAS).