Pales­tinian start-ups in­no­vate way past ob­sta­cles

Spe­cial­iz­ing in US real es­tate

Kuwait Times - - TECHNOLOGY -

At first glance, Mashvi­sor is just one of thou­sands of web­sites spe­cial­iz­ing 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 alZolof, 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 “Startup 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-ofthe-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 kilo­me­ters (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.

Shadi At­shan, Leader’s direc­tor gen­eral, told AFP 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 told AFP.

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 or­ga­ni­za­tions that op­er­ate in the field and ad­just their se­cu­rity pro­grams ac­cord­ing to events. Soon they want to ex­pand to the Egyp­tian and Iraqi mar­kets. — AFP

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