Overcoming barriers of women-led entrepreneurship in Palestine

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Ghassan Amayra is the co-founder of Palestine-based MENACatalyst and Leila Farraj is the digital content strategist at MENACatalyst

From the United States to the United Kingdom, the UAE to Latin America, the power of entrepreneurship lies in its ability to drive growth and effect change in economies around the world. When we stop to think about entrepreneurship, the first thing that tends to come to mind are companies that have risen to become billion-dollar giants, like Amazon in the US, or Careem in the UAE, a regional on-demand ride-hailing service which was recently acquired by Uber for $3.1 billion. Yet, entrepreneurship is more than just billion-dollar names. Rather, entrepreneurship lies in one’s ability, regardless of gender, to innovate and create change whether in the market economy, or to better society. 

But for developing countries suffering from an economic downturn, the need to adopt approaches, like entrepreneurship, that breaks dependency on foreign aid, while combating extreme poverty among the most marginalised, such as women, is crucial.

Women Entrepreneurship: A Global Perspective

For women around the world, the bleak employment landscape and lack of economic opportunities has remained what may seem to be an insurmountable obstacle to their financial independence. According to the World Bank, women entrepreneurship is essential to not only promote a healthy market economy but to combat extreme poverty on a global scale. However, gender disparities have proven time and again a major roadblock for women entrepreneurs looking to access resources, capital and support to launch and maintain their own ventures.  

In the US alone, women-driven enterprise has grown 114 per cent in the past two decades, creating almost nine million jobs and generating approximately $1.7 trillion to the economy. Women-led entrepreneurship now accounts for 40 per cent of all entrepreneurial activity in the US. 

However, the highest rate of early stage entrepreneurial activity is surprisingly found in Palestine at 23 per cent, followed by women led startups in  Latin America and the Caribbean which is at 16.7 per cent. Compare that to North America which is at 12.8 per cent and Europe with the lowest rates at 6.1 per cent which translates into six women for every 10 male entrepreneurs. Moreover, in developing countries, women entrepreneurship is on the rise, with women founding or leading up to 10 million small to medium-sized enterprises (SME) throughout the developing world. 

In the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) region, women make up 21 per cent of the labour force which accounts for only 18 per cent of the region’s annual gross domestic product (GDP). Despite this, one in every three startups in the region is founded or led by a woman, which by global standards is impressive. Based on these numbers, it is safe to say that women founded startups in the Mena region are performing on par with womenbased startups in the US and surpassing those of Europe at an average of 35 per cent.  

Palestinian Landscape: a Statistical OverviewTo provide an overview of what thousands of Palestinians are living through, the unemployment rate in the West Bank and Gaza is at an all-time high at a staggering 31 per cent, according to the latest reports released by the PCBS. This translates into 52 per cent in Gaza and 19 per cent in the West Bank. Although women comprise nearly half of Palestine’s 4.9 million population, 2.4 million females (49 per cent) to 2.5 million males (51 pre cent), the disparities in opportunities are overwhelming. 

Added to that, female participation in the labour force remains disproportionately low at 21 per cent, while male participation rate is at 72 per cent. To this effect, female unemployment is at an all-time high at 51 per cent compared to 25 per cent among males. Although women are active in the labour force, they make up more than half of all unemployment rates. Palestine Needs More Women-Driven Enterprise

Palestinian women are turning to entrepreneurship as a way to create their own economic opportunities and entrepreneurship is key.  

According to the World Bank women-founded and led enterprise are 25 per cent more likely to employ women than male led businesses at 22 per cent. As such, more women in leading economic roles results in opportunities for unemployed women. In what is a noteworthy achievement, women-led enterprise  across the Mena region including Palestine, expand their workforces at higher rates. 

As a case in point, civil engineer Majd Mashharawi knew the power shortage in Gaza could no longer be overlooked and decided to turn to entrepreneurship to make a change. To this effect, Mashharawi decided that the perfect response was to harness the energy of the sun with SunBox–an off-grid solar kit that provides families with up to three hours’ of electricity per day/battery. As a result, SunBox has emerged not only as a startup employing a number of Gazans but as a humanitarian response improving the lives of countless Palestinians in the process. 

Obstacles Faced by Women Entrepreneurs

Although women have the ideas and passion needed to drive their entrepreneurial projects, the general lack of technical and real work experience is a major drawback to their success. But beyond that, attempting to establish viable ventures without public and private sector support, and financial backing is an obstacle in and of itself. 

Women entrepreneurs around the world face a range of similar problems when establishing their startups, including:

  • Raising capital

  • Lack of skilled mentors

  • Technical Training

  • Market access

  • Ecosystem support

In any context, a healthy entrepreneurial ecosystem requires access to capital, mentorships, business support services, and gateways to global markets, resources that are sorely lacking in the Palestinian startup ecosystem, especially for women. 

Enhancing the Economic Power of Women

Simply put, entrepreneurship can put a dent on unprecedented rates of female unemployment in Palestine. Through entrepreneurship, women can attain financial freedom as the leaders of their own income-generating ventures and improve their socio-economic status, ultimately lifting themselves and their families out of poverty. 

Overall, when women have the resources they need to establish ventures of their own, and policies in play that promote entrepreneurial projects, that are not only viable but also find innovative solutions to gaps in local markets, it empowers them and benefits the economy. 

The best way stakeholders within both the private and public sectors can contribute is by removing barriers to entrepreneurship while providing essential business development services, such as access to credit, mentors, financial training, legal support, and market access. Ultimately, via entrepreneurship, women can generate additional new employment opportunities, see a boost in their purchasing power, and accelerate economic growth. 

Overcoming Barriers

To address these concerns organisations like Palestine-based MENACatalyst are working to address gaps in the local entrepreneurial ecosystem by spearheading the country’s virtual economy. By focusing on the power of innovation and entrepreneurship we aim to help local entrepreneurs overcome boundaries and tap into the collective resources of the Palestinian diaspora around the world. 

For women entrepreneurs based out of Palestine, the opportunity to connect and collaborate with committed investors and mentors is a life-changing opportunity. MENACatalyst has developed a series of programmes for local entrepreneurs especially high-potential women-led startups, to come into contact with committed diaspora angel investors, industry partners, business professionals and successful business women. 

Through these programmes, entrepreneurs gain access to mentorship and investment opportunities, secure business service agreements, take part in business and technical trainings, and gain the know-how and connections needed to unlock the potential of global markets. 

Ultimately, thousands of Palestinians struggle to cope with severe economic downturn and extreme poverty on a daily basis. Without access to essential resources to revitalise a stagnating market economy due to what may seem as an endless series of imposed restrictions, Palestinians must turn inwards and tap into their resilience and industry to overcome boundaries and grasp new global opportunities.

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