Tech stars line up to back Gaza’s first coding academy

Roster of Silicon Valley, Arab entrepreneurs aim to match donations to fundraising campaign for Gaza coding hub

Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff has joined a growing roster of deep-pocketed tech entrepreneurs and investors in backing the launch of Gaza’s first coding academy, as part of a wider effort to ignite Palestine’s technology sector and equip young Gazans with the skills to engage in the digital economy,

Aramex founder Fadi Ghandour and Jabbar chairman Samih Toukan are among those who have pledged to match, dollar-for-dollar, donations to the #PowerUpGazaGeeks crowdfunding campaign.

Other backers include Silicon Valley luminaries Eric Ries, author of Lean Startups, Brad Feld of TechStars, and Dave McClure, founding partner of 500 Startups.

The campaign is spearheaded by Gaza Sky Geeks (GSG), a startup incubator and tech hub operated by US nonprofit Mercy Corps. It had an initial target of $95,000, to fund a generator and fuel to extend the hub’s working hours during the evenings and weekends.

"We live in what is essentially a disaster zone, but with a good internet connection, we can build our future even here"Electricity in Gaza is patchy at best, with some of the region’s nearly 2 million residents receiving as little as four hours of power each day. The generator would offset this unreliability, helping the hub to stay connected and online.

“We’re facing the worst energy crisis we’ve had in Gaza,” said Said Hassan, GSG’s manager and a startup founder himself. “At the same time, our tech sector is gaining traction – startups are closing more investments and generating revenue. We need electricity and access to the internet so we can grow our companies further. We live in what is essentially a disaster zone, but with a good internet connection, we can build our future even here.”

Gaza Sky Geek’s initial target was surpassed 10 days after the campaign’s launch, and was replaced by a stretch goal of $400,000. The extra funding will be used to launch Gaza’s first coding academy, bankroll 22 internships for Gazans in overseas tech firms and train high school girls to code. The campaign will run until January 27.

“Gazans are smart people working on ideas for companies,” said Dave McClure, who is also an advisory board member for GSG. “They deserve support and investment just like any other startup founder anywhere else in the world. To some extent, they have even more hustle because they’re working in such a tough environment. They may actually be some of the best entrepreneurs in the world.”

Since the launch of Gaza Sky Geeks in 2011, its entrepreneurs have created more than 100 jobs and $91,000 in revenue via startups and freelancing. Mashvisor became the first Palestinian startup to be accepted into a US accelerator, through 400 Startups. Another, Baskalet, a mobile game studio, became the first Gazan startup to be accepted into a Silicon Valley bootcamp.

Unemployment in Gaza is among the highest in the world at 43 per cent. In September, the World Bank warned of a worsening economic outlook for Palestine, amid a 50 per cent fall in foreign support over a three-year period and an ongoing blockade of goods and materials by neighbouring countries Israel and Egypt.

Some 1 million jobs must be created by 2030 in Gaza and the West Bank, just to avoid current unemployment rates rising.

“When I was at Microsoft, I helped set up our outsourcing to the West Bank,” said Blaise Aguera y Arcas, principal scientist at Google, “My team was impressed with the talent of the Palestinians we worked with. I've always been struck by how isolated Palestinians are, and how much of an opportunity the tech sector presents for job creation in that environment.”