Start-up challenge in Gaza
Gaza - Dozens of workers sit with their eyes glued to computer screens, fingers clicking on keyboards writing code and typing in data for clients around the globe.
It could be a scene at any software firm but these programmers are Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, which has been under a tight Israeli blockade since 2006.
“Here we are opening a gap in the blockade and showing that Gazans are capable of achieving big things,” said Saadi Luzun, 33, co-founder of Unit One, a Gaza outsourcing firm that develops web and mobile applications for clients in the Gulf and Europe.
Ten years ago Luzun joined with fellow software engineer Ahmed Abu Shaaban and formed “a small start-up in a tiny room” in Gaza City. Their company now employs 89 people, most of them young women who are busily engaged in data entry inside a spacious office.
“Gaza has no oil or gas but we have human resources — plenty of young people who are just waiting to be offered an opportunity,” Luzun said as he walked past rows of staff members in front of their screens.
Recruiting women is a “social responsibility”, said Luzun, who said his next objective was to start employing people with disabilities. After three wars with Israel in the past seven years, there should be no shortage of recruits.
During 2014’s 50-day conflict with Israel, large areas of the territory were razed and about 2,200 Palestinians were killed and more than 10,000 others were wounded.
“Gaza is not just war, blood and bombs,” Luzun said. “Gazans want to do business and not just sit around waiting for humanitarian aid.”
The proof, he said, is in the numbers. The last time they held a recruitment drive, they had 400 applicants for ten jobs.
One young woman looking to work at Unit One is Sadine al-Ayubi, who is about to finish her degree and is desperate to avoid the unemployment that affects more than two-thirds of young Gazans.
“Most young people have a degree but they never find work,” the smartly dressed 21-year-old said, holding a smartphone with a sparkly cover.
For Lina, 23, who has been with Unit One for three years, the fault lies with “the political and economic situation” in Gaza, which is effectively ruled by the Islamist Hamas movement and cut off from the rest of the world by the Israeli blockade.
Until last year, Palestinians were able to leave via the Rafah crossing with Egypt but that frontier has been closed since October as Cairo struggles with a growing insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula.
The latest war brought Gaza’s already battered economy to its knees, with International Monetary Fund (IMF) figures showing gross domestic product (GDP) declined about 15% in 2014. During the bombardment, 128 businesses and workshops were destroyed, according to the Palestinian Federation of Industries.
Programmer Mohammed al-Banna, 27, said working in technology offered him a sense of freedom because it is “the only area” that Israel cannot cut Gazans off from the outside world.
In fact, Israel controls Gaza’s cable communications that are routed through the Jewish state and also the bandwidth of its internet connections, meaning that it has the technical ability to sever the territory’s digital link to the rest of the world.
In the perpetually connected world of technology, having electricity is also crucial but it’s far from certain in Gaza, which suffers from hours-long power cuts every day. To ensure its servers are never down, Unit One has invested in solid backup generators to provide an uninterrupted power supply.
“Even during the war, we were able to continue working,” Luzun said. Such a step is crucial, particularly for reassuring clients who are “sometimes nervous about signing a contract with a company in a war zone”, he adds.
Unable to leave Gaza, Luzun has not met most of his clients, instead using Skype for conference calls.
Unit One has come a long way and Luzun harbours dreams of creating a company culture like Google’s
“We would like to do what Google does. We even thought of organising fun days for our staff,” he said with a smile, recalling a visit to the California-based offices of the internet giant.
But with the instability in Gaza unlikely to change any time soon, it is not such a straightforward prospect.
“We haven’t done it yet — we never know when a war can break out and force us to stop working,” Luzun said.