Launching a tech startup in Gaza means facing some unique challenges. Entrepreneurs must find ways around obstacles, like an unpredictable power grid or battling mountainous bureaucracy just to leave the country. Mohammed Awad is a standout member of a new cohort of Palestinian entrepreneurs who are beating these odds to build successful technology companies.
Awad’s startup, DWBI-Solutions, was recently selected to receive seed funding and mentoring from Oasis500, a Jordanian startup accelerator that partners with Mercy Corps through Gaza Sky Geeks, Gaza’s first and only startup accelerator. Awad, 33 and father of one, spoke with Global Envision about his experience as a Palestinian entrepreneur so far.
Global Envision: Your business delivers a service called Data Warehousing and Business Intelligence, a complex topic. How would you explain your business to a non-technical person?
Mohammed Awad: We create statistical reports for companies to make better decisions, and our main target is organizations that have many branches. We extract data from those branches, make some transformations so it’s in a common format, and make it available to top management on a unified portal so they can make better decisions.
Many organizations need DWBI to make more precise decisions. Most of the government ministries in Arab nations don’t have such solutions, and no vendors to provide them. We are the first regional providers with an original product that addresses this need.
What led you to turn your expertise in this topic into a business?
The idea came when I was working as a programming leader with the Malaysian ministry of higher education to help them better understand their students. We were using a Microsoft solution which had many limitations like expensive licenses and closed sourced software that was mostly incompatible with non-Microsoft products. I started thinking about a customizable product that we could package and resell, which led to my PhD research.
When will you officially launch?
We are an official, registered Jordanian company and are open for business. We’re going to have a very interesting and dynamic website, but it’s not quite perfect yet, so we’re still working on it.
How many people are on staff?
We have four full time employees and some part time employees who help us out with various projects.
How is DWBI-S financed? Do you have loans or investors?
We have Oasis500 funding through Gaza Sky Geeks, and the University of Palestine is funding salaries for our employees for one year.
What kind of office space do you and your team work out of?
We’re currently working in an office provided by the University of Palestine. There are three rooms, a small kitchen and all the technical infrastructure, which is everything we really need.
What projects are you currently working on?
I am very happy to say we have landed our first client. ACES is a Jordanian construction company with 1,500 employees and many different offices. The top management in Jordan wanted to see the progress of all their sales in these different offices. They were having each branch send Excel files with sales data to the main branch to be compiled, formatted and analyzed, which took months. We did a pilot product for them and they were amazed that what once took months literally took seconds with our solution.
Where would you hope to see the business one year from now? What would success look like to you?
I would like to see a company that has branches in the region, that can provide support to many different companies. And as we expand we would like to hire people in Gaza.
Who do you see as your biggest competitors and what sets DWBI-S apart?
We are the first in the region to have an original product; we’re competing with firms that are reselling solutions from companies like Microsoft. These products are usually very expensive, and we can offer a more customized and effective solution at a fraction of the cost.
Besides financing, what resources do you think are needed for others to launch startups in Gaza?
We really need the flexibility to leave Gaza. It takes months of suffering -- applying and reapplying -- just to leave. Lacking freedom of movement is a big impediment to success here. In Gaza we also lack the experience in launching startups. Hopefully we can help mentor people who come behind us.
What impact do you hope startups like yours will have in Gaza?
I hope it will have a strong impact in Gaza. The region needs local solutions, and if we’re successful we can hopefully hire hundreds of local people.
What's been your most valuable skill in launching the business? What advice would you give to other young entrepreneurs in Gaza?
I would say my most valuable quality has been patience, and my words of advice would be: Don’t give up. Startups are full of challenges, but I am confident that if we don’t give up, we will hit our targets eventually. I would also advise creative Gazans to find an opportunity they think could be successful, and to go ahead and launch a startup. Many of them might fail but many will also succeed. Startups are a great way to overcome the employment problem we have in Gaza.
People in Gaza are very hardworking. They just lack the guidance and leadership to get past their lack of experience. Opportunities like Oasis500 and Gaza Sky Geeks are so important to help them access the funding and network of mentors that can help them overcome those limitations.