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Business without borders in the West Bank

September 20, 2019

Wall, fences and checkpoints have become a way of life in the West Bank. But now innovative startups are overcoming borders and connecting people throughout the area with the help of digitization.

Image: DW/M. Kasper-Claridge

It doesn't take long for Rowan Alawi to explain her business model as she takes out her cellphone and shows photos of street scenes from Ramallah and other places in the West Bank run by the Palestinian National Authority.

Alawi's pictures show men standing or sitting on the street waiting for job offers. They are unemployed construction workers. "There are so many workers waiting to find work in Palestine," she says. At the same time, construction companies are looking for trained workers and cannot seem to find them.

This gave her the idea for a digital platform called Amalwork.com where construction workers and companies can register and then be paired up. This way supply and demand can be better coordinated. Alawi founded the startup together with her father, a contractor, and in the first two months 600 construction workers registered by listing their skills. The first matches were made and the startup could count on the fees they charged companies for their services.

The young Palestinian is convinced that physical borders can be overcome thanks to digitization. "We are working across borders," she emphasizes. Still she doesn't want to broker workers to Israel because it is very difficult to get work permits. In addition, there is a massive black market with these permits.

Rowan Alawi
Rowan Alawi's startup Amalwork.com is boomingImage: DW/Michael Wetzel

Borders in the digital village

More and more young people in the West Bank see technology and innovation as an opportunity to create jobs and secure a livelihood.

"There is no limitation for innovation. We believe the world is a small village and we can reach anybody online," emphasizes Amani Abu Tair, founder and CEO of Wazza.Inc in Jerusalem.

Abu Tair, like over 20% of Palestinian founders, is a woman. And she has received multiple awards, including "Best Innovator of Palestinian Innovation and Creativity." Wazza is a platform that uses artificial intelligence to help students learn. "We entrepreneurs from Palestine are working hard to create our future," she says.

However, her company cannot overcome physical borders. Simply moving around can be hard. It's even difficult to get from Jerusalem to Ramallah because of so many checkpoints. "But I don't need to cross the borders in the digital world," Abu Tair says.

Testing ground for the Arab world

It is unclear how many startups there are in the West Bank since there are no official numbers available. Amani Abu Tair, who is well connected, estimates the number at several hundred. She tells of a lively startup ecosystem that has emerged in recent years.

A lively startup ecosystem has emerged in cities such as Bethlehem in recent years.Image: DW/M. Kasper-Claridge

Today, about 5 million people live in the Palestinian autonomous areas, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics. Unemployment among young Palestinians is officially around 27% but in reality it is much higher. Starting a business is therefore quite an attractive option. However, they often fail because of a lack of capital and poor networking.

Alijamil Ismail wants to change that. Since 2018 he has worked in Ramallah at Flow, an accelerator for entrepreneurs, where six startups are currently supported. They offer mentors, legal advice and access to several venture capitalists. "Our aim is to provide a one-stop shop for startups," Ismail emphasizes, "and to establish a functioning Palestine ecosystem."

Investors have already been found in Jordan, Egypt and Switzerland, Ismail says with cautious optimism. "Our access to the outside world is limited, we do need visas but one can use Palestine as a test ground for products which can then work in the Arab world."