The coming (tech) revolution in Gaza

There is a revolution coming to Gaza. A fourth war is of course possible, perhaps likely. But this new revolution could change everything. Buried in the ash of despair and hopelessness are two technology greenshoots that could serve as a model for complex crises around the world.

I recently traveled to Gaza not as a diplomat, journalist or aid worker, but rather as an entrepreneur in search of software developers and rugged water technologies. My first stop: Gaza Sky Geeks. This Mercy Corps incubator operating in Gaza City helps startups build products and offers teams of designers and full stack developers for international clients, like me.

I then met with the CEOs of half a dozen firms leading the Gaza tech sector; these firms are doing early stage outsourcing in the region and beyond. Collectively their firms employ over 150 engineers who work through blackouts, disruptions and conflict to deliver services to the world.

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Both with the eager young developers at Gaza Sky Geeks and with the more seasoned tech firm leaders, I saw talent, passion, creativity and drive. The early buzz is that these Gazan developers deliver value to their international clients on a competitive basis.

A decade ago, Ramallah had just a few hundred engineers. Today, leaders in the Palestinian tech sector estimate that Ramallah now supports 5,000-10,000 private sector jobs. Not surprisingly, as Ramallah has blossomed as a mini tech hub, salaries for top talent has risen. Real estate prices in the city’s most trendy areas has become quite expensive with cafes popping up throughout the city. 

Intrepid businesses are beginning to scour for software talent in the West Bank cities of Nablus, Hebron and now, increasingly, Gaza City. With this tech boom and the prospects of anchor multinationals setting up shop in the new West Bank city of Rawabi, Palestinian software firms could be on an impressive up cycle. 

Now, imagine a Gaza with 5,000-10,000 software engineers. As the global demand for software engineers continues to skyrocket, particularly with the coming of big data and the internet of things, Gaza becomes an increasingly interesting opportunity. As we have seen in the West Bank, a critical mass of tech workers brings start ups, venture capital, mergers and acquisitions.

Spend an evening this Christmas season in downtown Ramallah, with the lights, trendy new restaurants, Palestinian craft beer and think about revolution. Ramallah is not Gaza, but entrepreneurs and stock options can change everything. The same DNA that propelled Israel to be the start up nation works for the Palestinians too apparently.

Software is not the only nascent sign of hope.

The collapse of the water aquifer and the resulting necessity of desalination of nearly all the water in Gaza has propelled new thinking in water and treatment technology that could be viable in frontier markets around the globe. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is piloting a community based off-grid solar desalination plant for brackish water; this technology is pre-commercial but primed to hit emerging markets in 2019. The World Bank is exploring efforts to expand a small solar field to power the existing Gaza Wastewater Treatment Plant, and UNICEF is powering a solar-fuel facility in Gaza’s Khan Younis neighborhood.

While scouting for software engineers, I also accompanied Mercy Corps to see their community water systems, which bypass broken truck infrastructure and saline water lines and pump clean water to multiple water taps in a community of 25,000. This technology adapted in Gaza would be perfect for the people of Yemen and can readily be employed as an off-grid alternative to refugee communities along the Syrian border or in the horn of Africa. Moreover, Gaza is ripe to test other, newer technologies such as air-to-water systems, gray water re-use in rugged environments, and private community solar and water, instead of large-scale government infrastructure.

Hamas retains authoritarian control over these 140 square miles along the Mediterranean. Any new tech wadi requires freedom, a marketplace of ideas, rule of law, an unhindered flow of capital. Oppressive government, excessive reliance on donors, oligarchical elites, all cut against the viability of Gaza tech corridor. But two things are clear: there is talent and a tech revolution is coming.

Dave Harden is managing director of the Georgetown Strategy Group, CEO of Souktel, and one of the longest-serving American diplomats in Israel, leading the assistance mission to the West Bank and Gaza for more than a decade. Follow him on Twitter @Dave_Harden