Frontier Markets Here We Come
Since 2013 we’ve hosted AngelHack hackathons in nearly every continent; starting off with what was once a 30 city tour AngelHack now hosts over 50 hackathons in nearly every global tech hub. Hosting an AngelHack event not only invigorates the tech community, but often we can help build it from the ground up. In May of 2016 AngelHack hosted the first hackathon in Gaza City and the another hackathon in Ramallah, both of which are only partially recognized states and have been under economic boycott for the last ten years.
A Brief and Incomplete History
The Palestinian territories are located in the Middle East close to the Mediterranean sea, the territories are not physically connected by land and to complicate things further Gaza is governed by Hamas whereas the West Bank is governed by the Palestinian National Authority. Entry into Gaza requires permits that can take months to approve and, Ramallah, although it holds a heavily guarded checkpoint of its own, is easier to enter and navigate. Both, we were told, were highly unstable territories that could erupt in political discord at a moment’s notice, naturally I packed my bags and started looking for flights.
Entering Gaza is no easy feat, but once I was in, I found a city that was free from the bitterness that I had expected; the way into the heart of the city is covered with unpaved roads, dozens of donkey carts, street sellers and buildings whose facades were only half of what they once used to be. But the people of Gaza defied all expectation, they were vibrant, passionate and grateful for the visitor that had come to spend a few days in their country. My trip was organized by Mercy Corps, a global humanitarian organization and Gaza Sky Geeks (GSG), Gaza’s first accelerator and co-working space. Through a group of dedicated core team members and an international support base, GSG has built a community that is passionate about acquiring technical skills and building a startup ecosystem in one of the world’s most cut-off regions.
Women made up a much larger proportion of the attendees in Gaza when compared to other international AngelHacks and this was largely due to the leadership of Ryan Sturgill, Director of Gaza Sky Geeks and TechWomen fellow Mai Temraz, who founded Gaza Geekettes – a community of women that aspires to involve more women in tech.
Of the 65 attendees and 19 projects that were submitted in consideration for the four prize categories, three were claimed by female-led teams. The Grand Prize, however, went to Homee, a team of five full-stack developers who created an online ordering platform, with a delivery integration component, for shoppers looking to purchase artisan, handmade goods. Homee will be participating in AngelHack’s HACKcelerator incubation program and is in the running to come out Silicon Valley to participate in AngelHack’s Annual Global Demo Day. A first for AngelHack and a first for all five Palestinian developers. Proceeding AngelHack Gaza I made my way to Ramallah where, YamSafer, a local start-up specializing in online hotel-booking, was going to host the second hackathon ever in the city.
Gaza is to Ramallah as a sit-down family dinner is to a night out at a hip hop club, which is exactly where I found myself on my first night in town. The young, 20-something Ramallah crowd are a group of passionate entrepreneurs that have laid down stakes in the city, knowing full-well that they will meet twice as many roadblocks than if they had founded their startup abroad. Organizations like Ibitkar Fund, a fund that invests in early stage startups in Palestine, are there to shepherd the way for many of these founders and the investment has paid off. Now, Ramallah headquarters established tech-startups like Yamsafer, who has raised $4.5M in two consecutive fund raising rounds and Battuta, who secured $2.5M in Series A Investment in 2015. Economic boycott and armed checkpoints haven’t deterred this determined group and Ramallah is quickly making a name for itself in the international developer community. The AngelHack Ramallah winning team, BareedEE, created a mobile delivery platform that facilitates the delivery of packages and will be participating in the AngelHack HACKcelerator.
The resilience of hackers, entrepreneurs and game-changers in cities like Gaza and Ramallah goes to the heart of why AngelHack hosts hackathons in frontier markets. Hacker culture teaches us that in order to evolve out of our current problem sets we must acknowledge our limitations and hack solutions around them. Coding has given the global community a way to connect beyond the physicality of political and economic walls and nowhere is the power of code more tangible than in the occupied territories of Gaza and Ramallah. For a real-life primer on how to hack your way out of every possible life limitation go to Gaza and Ramallah and I promise you will leave with much more than with what you entered.
Nausheen Ali is VP of Marketing and Communications at AngelHack. She has helped organize social innovation hacks for companies like Ebay/PayPal, Capital One, UN Women Singapore and the World Bank. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.