Greetings from Palestine: a female founder in the Middle East’s unlikely start-up hub

9 Jul 2015

Maysa Alshaer, founder, Loz Project

On a visit to Palestine, Joseph O’Connor discovers a vibrant start-up community which is breaking boundaries by overcoming obstacles.

Maysa Alshaer lays out a selection of colourful illustrations on the table. Each one with a distinct, contemporary design, displaying cute cartoons with speech bubbles, they’re the kind of concepts Hallmark would be proud of. Greeting cards are not popular in Arabic culture but this young entrepreneur from Jenin, northern Palestine, is on a mission to change that.

Alshaer started greeting-card company Loz Project in November 2014 and, after a mere five months in operation, she found herself part of a Bethlehem trade delegation visiting the UK, where she received entrepreneurial advice from mentors at the University of Bath’s Innovation Centre. The visit came as a result of winning this year’s Young Palestinian Entrepreneur competition and now the 24-year old graphic designer and social media specialist is keen to build on her start-up’s initial momentum.

We meet in a trendy café in downtown Ramallah – the city considered Palestine’s tech hub – where young men and women puff on shisha pipes and tap away on their laptops and tablets. It’s indicative of a youthful and tech-savvy population that’s on the rise in Palestine, and one that’s using innovation and entrepreneurship to drive change in a place hampered by conflict, checkpoints, separation walls and increasing settlement expansion.

Loz Project greeting cards

A selection of greeting cards from Loz Project by Maysa Alshaer

Alshaer has brought along a friend. She didn’t quite trust that her level of English would be sufficient for the interview, but she underestimates her competence – luckily, this is not a trait she applies to her start-up.

“I want to export the cards to America, London and Dubai,” she says. “I’m definitely thinking big, but at the moment I’m still at the first steps.”

Alshaer already sells her unique brand of greeting cards to 17 shops across Palestine and Jordan, but has received interest from retailers in Egypt and other countries in the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region. She says she has managed to reach out to clients through her knowledge of social media, a subject she studied at university and a skill that makes up her day job at one of Palestine’s leading advertising agencies, Publicis Zoom.

“I have always had a real passion for social media, even before I started working in the field professionally. Everyone here uses Facebook and Instagram, and through these platforms I have made many connections to all kinds of gift stores. Now I have some stores that I didn’t know existed contacting me to place an order.”

‘We’re trying to build the grassroots for a start-up community that will become the next Boulder or Silicon Valley in about 10 or 20 years’

Palestine’s first start-up accelerators

Currently, Alshaer creates, designs, prints and promotes the greeting cards herself and has yet to receive any funding for her start-up. She has, however, applied to Leaders Organisation’s FastForward programme, the first of a number of start-up accelerators that have sprung up in Palestine in recent years. Established in 2013, it provides selected start-ups with a seed investment of US$20,000, along with project-based mentorship, office space, and a network of expert business advisers, throughout a 120-day programme.

“We act as partners. We succeed with you or we fail with you,” says Reham Di’bas, programme officer at FastForward, speaking to me in a suite at the accelerator’s co-working space, eZone. Located in a bright, airy office in Ramallah, the set-up is impressive and resembles a scene you’d discover among the cluster of tech enterprises in the Dublin docklands.

“The quality of start-ups has improved a lot since the first round of funding,” says Di’bas. “Even the quality of ideas in the community here, the quality of the teams that we invest in, has improved tremendously. With each round, it becomes more difficult to get into FastForward, but we’re trying to build the grassroots for a start-up community that will become the next Boulder or Silicon Valley in about 10 or 20 years from now. We have a long way to go but I think we’re on the right track.”

Reham Di’bas, FastForward

Reham Di’bas, programme officer at FastForward

A long way to go for sure, especially for a place that is under the behest of neighbouring Israel when it comes to its communications infrastructure. In what has been described as a ‘digital occupation’, Israeli authorities control cellular networks in Gaza and the West Bank and have still to grant 3G licences to Palestinian operators. Businesses can invest in better connections inside their offices, but they’re expensive, certainly for cash-strapped start-ups or SMEs.

There’s also the challenge of restrictions on movement. With various checkpoints scattered across Palestine, the most basic of journeys can be made to feel like an eternity. And, of course, there was last year’s 50-day war in Gaza, which wreaked havoc on the region. According to the United Nations, about 2,200 people were killed during the conflict, while dozens more died in Jerusalem and the West Bank.

But life goes on here and breaking boundaries by overcoming obstacles embodies the spirit of entrepreneurship. Palestinian entrepreneurs – certainly the ones I had the pleasure of meeting – appear to use these obstacles as inspiration to become more innovative in transforming their fledgling ideas into viable, competitive businesses that can transcend restrictive borders.

Arab Women in Computing. Photo by Ayah Soufan

Reham Di’bas, centre, pictured with fellow speakers at a Nablus Tech Meetup event, in association with Arab Women in Computing. Photo by Ayah Soufan

Di’bas herself launched her own start-up a couple of years back, but it never really got off the ground due, in part, she says, to the fact that she was in it for the wrong reasons. While not working on her personal ambition to write a novel, she now focuses her attention on her role as an ambassador for Arab Women in Computing, an organisation aimed at supporting, inspiring and encouraging collaboration among Arab women in tech.

According to Di’bas, female participation in start-ups – be it in organising and speaking at events, or in applying for funding – has grown significantly since she first became involved in FastForward.

“I have forgotten about being an entrepreneur myself,” she says. “For now, I really want to help other women and I think it’s the perfect time to be here. We still have many years ahead but this is a healthy start of a lot of good things coming out of Palestine.”

Ramallah, Palestine

Downtown Ramallah, the West Bank, Palestine

Back at the Ramallah café, Alshaer translates from Arabic the message on each of her greeting cards, all of which take a humourous look at Arab culture. One particular card has a cartoon of a camera speaking to a lens saying: ‘With you, life appears more beautiful.’ Another features a red and white pill proclaiming: ‘You’re my paracetamol.’

In addition to the greeting cards, Alshaer has already started to expand her playful brand across other products, such as stickers, postcards and T-shirts. Ambitious as she is – and despite some other innovative projects she has previously been involved in – she stops short of considering herself an entrepreneur just yet.

‘Everyone seems to be an entrepreneur in Palestine these days’

“Everyone seems to be an entrepreneur in Palestine these days,” she says. “When I ask someone what they do, they say, ‘I’m an entrepreneur.’ But, for me, I’ll refer to myself as an entrepreneur when I make money. I believe that’s when you can truly call yourself one. It’s not just about having an idea. You need to bring your idea to life.”

I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s exactly what Alshaer, along with an ambitious generation of aspiring entrepreneurs in Palestine, succeeds in doing.

Nablus Tech Meetup, Palestine

Attendees of a Nablus Tech Meetup event in association with Arab Women in Computing. Photo by Jafar Zuabi

Joseph O'Connor Joseph O’Connor is a business journalist and award-winning editor based in Dublin. When not travelling in a far-flung corner of the world, he is sipping on an extra-hopped IPA in the local. Joseph also writes about international development and holds an MA in International Relations from Dublin City University.

Women Invent is Silicon Republic’s campaign to champion the role of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. It has been running since March 2013, and is kindly supported by Accenture Ireland, Intel, the Irish Research Council, ESB, Twitter, CoderDojo and Science Foundation Ireland.

 Simon Cumbers Media Fund Joseph O’Connor travelled to Palestine with support from the Simon Cumbers Media Fund.