Gaza's First Incubator Ramps Up, Giving New Hope to Local Entrepreneurs

by Maya Rahal, December 11, 2012

A timely answer to the ongoing strife and instability in Palestine, the first incubator in Gaza is continuing to make strides, training startups and focusing on social responsibility. Since three passionate co-founders launched Business and Technology Incubator (BTI) in 2006, it has graduated 40 startups, and plans to add 20 more by the end of the year.

Over half of these startups are run by women. "Contrary to popular belief, there are as many women entrepreneurs as men in Palestine, and they are as active and committed, which is something we at BTI are proud of and support," says Business Development Specialist Rafat Abushaban, who co-founded the incubator with Mohammed Skaik and Mohammed Ayesh.

Unlike many incubators, BTI interestingly does not take an equity stake in the companies it incubates. It offers its services completely for free, thanks to partnerships and funding which began with support from the World Bank, and then the EU's Quality Improvement Fund (QIF), and now includes connection to the Moubadiroun project and sponsorships from SPARK, the Palestinian Ministry of Higher Education, BiD Network, Spice Group, the Arab Science and Technology Foundation, and the Welfare Association.

Its current sponsorships will sustain the incubator as it is for another 4-5 years, the founders say. They currently boast a 50% success rate, which continues to encourage sponsors to approach the incubator. "We know how hard the situation already is in Palestine, so we don't ask for any fees from our startups. We only push them towards building the best of what they are working on and contributing responsibly to the society", says BTI Director Mohammed Skaik.

In addition to offering a workspace and services for free, BTI sets up training programs and organizes events to match experts and investors with entrepreneurs, while the three co-founders play a mentoring role on a daily basis. Overall, the incubator helps startups with daily challenges from registration paperwork to online payment integration for those building an e-commerce site.

Having started as an ICT-focused incubator, BTI has slowly broadened its scope to include as many entrepreneurs as it can, as part of its mission is to fight poverty, create new jobs opportunities, and boost capacity building in Gaza. "We also encourage agricultural and industrial entrepreneurship, because we want to make sure we are serving the society as much as we can, in an attempt to change the typical image of Palestinians globally," says Abushaban. 

BTI mostly recruits its startups through two competitions which it runs yearly, during which ideas are pitched and business plans are prepared. "Our only condition is a creative idea that proves to be applicable and feasible on the ground in Palestine, and we fund those ideas," says Abushaban. After BTI selects 6-8 winners, it also guides participants who did not win towards other programs or organizations where they can further develop their concepts. 

"Gaza and the West Bank are witnessing a trend lately when it comes to centers and programs supporting entrepreneurship," says Abushaban, but he says that currently no other incubator provides physical space the way BTI does in Gaza. Abushaban also explains that the team visits universities and encourages students to enroll in their program if they have a creative idea, as part of a broader goal to sow a culture of social responsibility.

It's inspiring to discover that there are still incubators and organizations in this region who "do good" without anything in return, neither equity shares nor logistical fees, only to serve a sense of collective evolution. No doubt this spirit is directly linked to the situation in Palestine and the will continue to demonstrate to the global community that inspiration blossoms in the face of adversity.

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Maya is the managing editor at Wamda and a digital media trainer and instructor. You can reach her at maya[AT]wamda.com, find her on Twitter @RahalMaya or connect with her on Google+ and LinkedIn.