Bazinga Ramallah started the way most coworking spaces do–with too much coffee. “We were building mobile and web apps and we spent our time working in cafes, but we felt we were being too unproductive. And it was too expensive,” says Mohammad Khatib. So he and some friends rented a storefront and invited others to join them–a space, among the first of its kind, to foster tech startups in the Palestinian territories.
But even now, nearly a year later, nobody has joined.
That’s not to say there isn’t interest. There is. Bazinga hosts speaker events–mostly local entrepreneurs and programmers–and crowds pack in for them. But to quit your job, pool your savings, mooch off friends and family, and start a little company built on a hunch? That isn’t part of Palestinian culture. “Some people did that, and now they don’t have money to feed their children,” says Saleh Dawabsheh, a local techie who has attended Bazinga events. “It’s a problem.”
This past summer, though, Bazinga hosted a different caliber of speakers: Google developers, coming with pizza and pastries, company T-shirts, and, most important, a lot of information on how to build a startup with Google products. The event is part of a larger
outreach by Google–committing $2 million so far to the territory (split almost evenly between the NGO Mercy Corps‘ efforts to build an entrepreneurial network, and a Palestinian venture-capital fund called Sadara Ventures) and making multiple trips a year to teach classes
and counsel local entrepreneurs. Because in Palestine, Google sees something few other international companies do: opportunity.
“Palestinians have such a unique position,” says Gisel Kordestani, Google’s director of new business development. “They’re well educated. They have strong English-language skills. With 88 million people in the [Middle East and North African] region getting online, they have the opportunity to build something for the Arab world.”
Google stands to benefit from whatever is built. Currently less than 1% of the searchable content online is in Arabic. If it grows, Google can sell ads against the new content. And if the startups leading the charge are using Chrome, Android, AdWords, YouTube–well, it’s always wise to be in on the ground floor.
Kordestani has traveled the world for Google and now separates developing nations into two buckets: lands boosted by outsourced jobs and self-starting ecosystems of entrepreneurship. It’s a lot like comparing India to Singapore.
“Singapore is much more technically advanced,” she says. “They have huge Internet penetration. They have prosperity in the upper to middle classes, whereas India still has a massive poverty problem. I’d like to see the Palestinians leapfrog India to become Singapore.”
This sounds like a fantasy, certainly right now. Palestine has a ways to go before it’s either of those countries. But this is the way Googlers think–that technology is more powerful than governments or political strife. It’s like a willful decision to ignore political obstruction, a stubborn belief in the power of interconnectivity.
But while Palestine is lacking many things, it is never hard up for well-intentioned people. The territory is swarming with NGOs, each of which, at best, improves life in increments. That makes Google’s proposition all the more alluring: Can technology and profit motive work where charity has failed?
Maybe, but first there are many challenges to overcome. There’s no 3G network for wireless devices. Hardware in Palestine is often 50% more expensive than outside, so locals often ask contacts in America or Europe to buy laptops for them. PayPal isn’t available. Good developers are few, and unemployment is high–so talent can be lost in a flood of job applicants.
The Google team sees this firsthand. A few days after the Bazinga event, it hosts a similar session at Palestine Polytechnic University. It’s in Hebron, a tense, tough city, where a chain-link fence and barbed wire separate Palestinians and Israeli settlers. Google hadn’t been there before and used an intermediary to recruit students, but there was a miscommunication and the 40 or so kids who show up are not as technically proficient as developers from more cosmopolitan Ramallah.
But as they’ve learned, classes are sometimes the least-important parts of the day. When lectures wrap up, Debu Purkayastha, one of Google’s top deal makers, sits down to hear Palestinians’ startup ideas–a diverse list that has included gesture-recognition software, applications that switch off mobile phones when users enter a mosque, even custom software for a London hedge fund.
Purkayastha sees these meetings as more than his giving free advice: It’s Google on the hunt for talent–because buying a startup would legitimize the very idea of starting one, creating the model success story Palestinian entrepreneurs lust for. It could happen, Purkayastha says: “Given the unique circumstances these kids are facing, what they are coming up with is nothing short of astonishing.”
When the iPhone 4S came out, the news landed with a thud in Palestine. A local startup, Gsoft, had been selling Monica, a voice-activation program similar to Siri, the one Apple bought and integrated into its new phone. Now Gsoft was in trouble; its big idea was outmoded.
But in a still-young community like Palestine’s, this wasn’t considered a total failure. It meant they were on the right track.
“Even if you open 100 good small businesses, only 10 persons will succeed,” says Dawabsheh, who was Gsoft’s social-media marketing manager (and has since left for a telecom company). “We should keep on coming up with ideas. We should be more patient.”
Still, Monica’s failure could be partially blamed on problems inherent to Palestine. What if Monica had better distribution? Or if Gsoft had access to more sophisticated developers? Soon enough, this will become an old story in Palestine–the one that got away, again.
This is tricky territory for such a well-heeled company like Google to enter–because even though it’s trying to help, it inevitably also represents some of the problems.
For example, Android apps are hard to sell because Google Checkout is only accessible in about 30 countries, Palestine not included. Khatib, the Bazinga cofounder (and a onetime intern at Google’s Zurich office), has talked to Google about this. “Android and our payments teams are trying to address that,” a company spokesperson says. And it has solved some problems, like when revenue from AdSense wasn’t reaching Palestinians. Google used Western Union to wire earnings.
Now Khatib says it’s time for Google to take everyone further along this journey. The company has been giving introductory classes on Google products for years, but Palestinian developers need more–like a five-day, drill-down, high-intensity course on how to make an Android app from scratch, so they can truly build and succeed and show it’s possible.
“I think people are ready for that,” Khatib says. “People got the general idea of these workshops. They got excited about the products. But now it’s time to dive into these specifics. I would say they’re ready.”