Through an innovative Mercy Corps’ partnership with Google and the Source of Hope Foundation, young Palestinian web developers receive firsthand training and mentoring from engineers and business people from cutting-edge technology companies – as well as potential seed capital funding.
The Arab Developer Network Initiative (ADNI) is intended to spark innovation in information and communications technology (ICT) in the Gaza Strip and West Bank and catalyze income opportunities for youth, reaching over 1,000 Palestinian entrepreneurs in the first year. Google.org, the philanthropic arm of Google, is supporting the effort with a $900,000 grant and the Source of Hope Foundation is providing $1 million. Find out how you can get involved through mentoring, workshops and other opportunities.
Andy Dwonch, Senior Director on Mercy Corps’ Social Innovations team, worked alongside our Palestine team to develop the partnership. He shares more about the program in the interview below.
What’s the project in West Bank and Gaza going to do?
We structured the Arab Developer Network Initiative to give young people the tools they need to start their own new business ventures and to launch mobile and web apps that can be monetized, so they can profit from their ideas.
The program provides talented young Palestinian developers with technical and business training, straight from experts at Google and others who’ve been trained by them. Last month we held two-day trainings on HTML 5 and AppEngine in Hebron and Nablus and a separate event in Ramallah. Roughly 30 engineering students, engineers or entrepreneurs in each location, who already had an intermediate level of expertise in those technologies, enhanced their abilities to use these fundamental Google tools to create web and mobile apps.
The second component of the program is mentoring support for developers and entrepreneurs by international tech and business experts (from Google and other tech companies) who can help them build high-value ventures. In December we’ll host another training and hold a Startup Weekend event that will bring together teams to conceive and potentially begin building technology businesses from the ground up. Teams will form around the top 10 to 15 technology business ideas and by the end of the weekend, each group will aim to have developed the business and revenue model and potentially even created a working prototype of the technology or app.
This leads to the third component of ADNI – the investment of early-stage seed capital for the most promising startups, by an equity fund currently capitalized at $500,000. The fund will aim to make equity investments of between $10,000 to $20,000 and the ADNI team will provide entrepreneurs with intensive acceleration services over a period of three to five months. Ventures that progress toward set objectives during that period may receive follow-on funding from the fund for an additional equity stake. Based on the current fund capitalization, we aim to fund 10 to 15 companies initially, but we are hoping to raise capital from additional investors in order to extend the life of the fund, to seed more startups, and to fill critical funding gaps in the tech entrepreneurship continuum in Palestine.
What makes this type of program innovative for Mercy Corps?
At Mercy Corps, the Social Innovations team’s strategic objective is to launch breakthrough innovations that can reach more than one million people and become financially sustainable within five years. While ADNI doesn’t fit neatly within that mold, it is innovative in many ways, and if you consider it as a model that can be replicated in other countries and regions, there is potential to ultimately reach and benefit huge numbers of people.
Mercy Corps does a lot of work around job creation, and we facilitate efforts that can create economic opportunities in communities. But it’s pretty rare for us to work directly with the technology industry for that purpose.
The partnership itself is also somewhat unique. It approaches partnerships from a different angle than we have before. We’re not leveraging our own development expertise so much as we’re facilitating access for program participants to various third-party offerings, and to technical and business expertise available from partners like Google. Primarily our role is to facilitate access to what’s cutting-edge in the broader tech industry for Gaza and the West Bank developers and entrepreneurs – the latest trends, tools, and ways to profit from their ideas. We’re bringing experts to work directly with these young developers and entrepreneurs, and we’re also training them to be able to pass on what they’ve learned to others, so that a core group of young people who understand how to create and monetize their apps and internet content will grow to reach a critical mass.
ADNI is also unique in that it addresses a major market opportunity relating to the creation of Arabic language content. The vast majority of the world’s online information is in Western languages, especially English. And while more than five percent of internet users are native Arabic speakers, there is still limited content available in Arabic. ADNI aims to address this market opportunity and we believe that given the highly educated Palestinian population, this initiative can be an engine for creating locally demanded Arabic content and native applications that are desirable to regional populations. If the model proves successful in creating jobs by tapping into that market opportunity I believe it can also be replicated in other regions to target similar gaps between supply and demand for relevant localized content and apps.
What other places or types of places could you see this project being replicated?
There is great potential to replicate ADNI in other countries and regions. The reality is that developing countries are far behind in terms of building tech ecosystems and creating local language content and native apps, so the market gap for that content probably exists in most of the places where Mercy Corps works. The issues of the youth bulge and the need to create employment opportunities for young people is near universal. To be successful, the pre-requisites include education – in particular a supply of technically sound software programmers – along with decent access to relatively affordable internet connections and increasing internet and mobile penetration rates.
Within Mercy Corps’ global footprint there are many places that could fit the bill.