Startups at Palestine's first accelerator bet on P2P lending, travel, and therapy

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“Five years ago there were no startups,” Yousef Ghandour, a tech entrepreneur with 14 years of experience in the field, says of the ecosystem in Palestine. “So we started a few initiatives to promote the culture of innovation and entrepreneurship.”

One of those projects is Fast Forward, the first accelerator for startups in Palestine, managed by Leaders Organization. After launching in January of this year, with primary support from the Welfare Association and other support from Mercy Corps and USAID, the accelerator is currently mentoring its first class of startups, three ambitious teams that beat out 30 other applicants and excelled in a rigorous five-week testing process.

The three teams were chosen, Ghandour says, for the marketability of their concepts, their focus on technological solutions, and their plans to extend their businesses across the Middle East and North Africa.

E-Jameya is developing a mobile application and online platform to bring the age-old practice of interest free Islamic lending to the era of social networking, building a peer-to-peer social network (not unlike Jordan's Liwwa) “to raise halal (faithfully approved) loans from personal social networks.”

Zoorna, whose name means "visit us" in Arabic, is launching a one-stop-shop travel website for tourists wishing to visit the Arab world. Members can design travel not just around dates and locations, but also by interests. By offering customized itineraries based upon those interests, the company offers much more than just ticket booking, CEO Mohammad Al-Jamal emphasizes.

Fadfid, which means venting in Arabic, is a platform that will discreetly connect individuals with quality therapists to provide private and confidential counseling services across the Arab region.

“All people are facing problems,” according to Fadfid’s CEO Mohamed Abu Qare. Unfortunately, there is a societal stigma against seeking psychological help or support. “We came up with a solution to provide more privacy,” he explains.

The Halfway Mark

Currently, the teams are halfway through the four-month acceleration period. “We are really taking these guys... and putting them on steroids,” Ghandour says.

The acceleration course, based on the model used by the Global Accelerator Network, is a seven day a week, fulltime commitment, Reham Di'bas, a recent Birzeit University graduate and Fast Forward’s program officer, continues.  

As Al-Jamal puts it, “Everything in our lives revolves around what we are doing here.”

During the acceleration period, Fast Forward invests $30,000 in services in each startup, providing each team with $20,000 to use as they see fit, in exchange for a 7-10% equity stake which is allocated to Leaders Organization, as Wamda reported in January.

For Abu Qare, the investment provided means that he is able to quit his job and develop Fadfid full time.

In addition to money, Fast Forward provides Business Education for Entrepreneur classes, mentorship to team members from Palestinian business leaders, consultants to provide expert advice, and office space.

The participants also have to pitch their concepts to panels of business professionals every month. During these pitching sessions, the teams receive what Ghandour calls "very tough" feedback that helps to focus their efforts each month.

Aiming for Success

The accelerator's goal is to ensure that startups are finding product-market fit and will be able to survive on their own after the four month period, Ghandour says.

For Al-Jamal, the accelerator is doing its job. “Being here at Fast Forward is definitely going to increase my chances of success,” he says.

Abu Qare agrees. “It’s helped a lot,” he says. “We expect that after two months we will have revenue from Fadfid.”

However, the situation in Palestine is still difficult for entrepreneurs. “People here don’t believe in startups because there are no success stories,” Abu Qare continues. “But, we are doing well. We might be that success story that people are waiting for.”

For Ghandour and Di'bas, who are working full time to make sure these teams excel, that is exactly what Fast Forward hopes to make possible.

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