Right next door to the start-up nation, a new high-tech scene is about to emerge. In Ramallah, more and more young tech-geeks and the aspiring young, filled with creative and innovative ideas, are founding their own start-ups with the help of VCs and accelerator programs. Checkpoints, permits, or borders won’t stop these start-upists who only need a laptop, an internet connection, and little else. What does the Ramallah start-up scene look like? And what in the world does it have to do with sex? TLV1’s Lissy Kaufmann reports.
Ramallah, the unofficial capital of the West Bank, lies about 15 kilometers north of Jerusalem. The city is home to some 32,000 people, but also to a growing community of start-ups.
In Ramallah’s first and only open space for start-ups called “Work Factory”, Ashraf Alkiswani is working around the clock to do one thing: change sex habits in the Arab world. Currently located in this modern multistory office space, complete with conference rooms and a chill-out corner, Ashraf and his team are developing a website named Karaz – cherries in Arabic – which provides tips for a better sex life. It is meant to fill a huge void of ignorance, Ashraf says.
Heard a number of different stories, people who were unfamiliar with how to use condoms, people didn’t understand what contraception is, people who on their honeymoons don’t realized that there is a foreplay that needs to be introduced because you have a man that is very excited and the woman who is very nervous and it turns a happy night into something disastrous, women have been hospitalized because of this and it shocked me. Men are like: “Oh, I waited 28 years!” But well, it is just like: “You can wait a few more hours. Calm down.”
On the website visitors can find Q&As, a blog and a shop for adult products like lingerie, condoms or lubricants. But since the site strictly adheres to sharia law, certain things, such as anal sex, remain a taboo.
We are targeting the Arab world in general, we are doing campaigns, throughout the Middle East. We say that we are sharia compliant in order to make Muslims more comfortable. However we are not saying that our problems and our website is solely for Muslims, we say they should be comfortable browsing our website, it is acceptable also for conservative Christians alike.
During the six months since and his team launched the project, the number of unique visitors has risen from 1,500 to 50,000 per month, most of them come from the Arab world.
Karaz is part of a growing number Ramallah-based starts-ups. Most of the founders come from a privileged background. Some of them have lived in the USA, all of them are highly educated and speak perfect English.
According to Forbes magazine, an estimated number of 300 technology companies in the Palestinian Territories already employ around 4,500 people. Even though high-speed internet is banned by Israel, the Palestinian high-tech industry is nevertheless an attractive sector for Palestinians, notes Taylor Valore from the Palestinian Venture Capital company “Sadara.”
The strongest case for entrepreneurship in Palestine is it is one of the few industries that doesn’t depend on physical exports, doesn’t require a lot of movement, which are the biggest thing that the occupation limits. So tech entrepreneurship is the best option for growing the economy there.
This is particularly encouraging, given the high unemployment rate amongst the 25 to 29 year olds in the West bank, currently standing at 22 percent, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics. Taylor, who is originally from the US, has been based in the Middle East for a few years. He is familiar with the Middle Eastern business world, and has a strong belief in Palestinian entrepreneurship:
People underestimate where Palestine is right now, especially if you compare it to other Arab countries or the region in general. I visited similar entrepreneurial environment in the Gulf, and Turkey and Egypt. I was very surprised that Palestinians are even better in some places than those ecosystems.
Accelerator programs such as “Fast Forward” help the young start-ups. It was launched a year ago, which might qualify them as a start-up in itself, still running on its initial seed money, trying to become self-sufficient. “Fast Forward” is currently hosting three start-ups in one of Ramallah’s upscale neighborhoods Al Masyoun, where it provides consultation and a financial grant of 20.000 dollars.
People here are young, dressed casually in sneakers and shirts, sitting in front of their laptops with earphones and turning to their smartphones every now and then – and the occasional visitor would be hard-pressed to think they’re not in Tel Aviv. But although the country known as the “start-up nation” is just next door, the potential for cooperation is far from being fully realized, as program manager Ambar Renova, also originally from the US, explains.
It is a difficult question for all these organizations, for us, one of the best start-up ecosystems next door and not really being able to have relations with them is quite difficult. But there is strong movement, like boycott divestment and sanctions, anti-normalization movement to make it hard for leaders to have any kind of that program. And really I think as an organization we do see value in reaching out to other countries, yes Israel is next door. But there is a lot of other ecosystems that we can work with that offer similar value. It is a complicated issue and we rather stay away from it at this point.
One of the advantages for Palestinian start-ups, as compared to Israeli ones, is that they can penetrate the rather underdeveloped Arabic market, with its potential of 400 Million users. One of the disadvantages of working in Palestine is, that there is still a lack of understanding about the start-up world, as Ambar notes.
It is improving. more and more people realize what a start-up and what an entrepreneur is. Palestine and a lot of the Arab world is quite risk averse, and so most families want their children to get a stable job and entrepreneurship is a risky endeavors, for everyone involved, but one that could have very high benefits. We do a lot of outreach to the community, for example right now there is a lot of our staff is in Tulkarem in the north, doing a boot camp for university students and teaching them entrepreneurship.
To reach out to students and alumni, Sadara’s Taylor Valore as well as some other professionals in the field, are organizing the training program called “start me up”. In evening classes, would-be entrepreneurs learn how to write a business plan or to develop a marketing strategy. Ziad Zaghrout, a business professor from Bir Zeit University, is lecturing tonight. So far, Ziad knows that Palestine still cannot compare internationally. But looking across the border, Ziad is hopeful.
Israel in the 80 and 90 wasn’t the startup nation we think about today, it took a lot of failures to reach the current level, so that is what I expect to the Palestinians case. Maybe now there aren’t any success stories, but 3-4 years markets will make it to the international news.