FROM THE WEST BANK TO ESTONIA — The Palestinian Entrepreneur Defying Borders
By Jonny Wrate/ Kosovo 2.0
“Prizren looks like one big cafe,” Lama Mansour says, eyes alight. The 24-year-old Palestinian entrepreneur is only in town for two days, but she’s already taken a shine to it. “It reminds me a lot of home,” she adds. “It’s like one big terrace and people are just hanging out, it’s so chill.”
Mansour is one of the speakers at DOKU:TECH 2016, presenting her story of success as co-founder of BOLD Gadgets; the tech startup she began with her business partner Ismat Tuffaha back home in Palestine has since transported them both to Estonia and, soon, to Berlin.
In this instance, home means Qalqilya, a small city in the West Bank she describes as “half the size of Prizren.” Yet both she and Tuffaha currently live in Tartu, taking advantage of Estonia’s pioneering e-residency programme, which allows them to access all the benefits of running a business within the EU without needing citizenship.
Their big break into the industry came a little over a year ago with theBoldKnot, a portable battery pack USB charger on a keychain that looks like a ball of brightly-colored shoelaces. Looking to fundraise US$15,000 on Indiegogo, the BoldKnot ended up accruing an impressive US$69,791.
Success, of course, always sounds easier on paper. “Israel had this apartheid wall plan and they implemented it fully in Qalqilya,” says Mansour. “It was the first town where they implemented [it].”
In June 2003, the Israeli West Bank barrier was erected around the city — an 8 meter high concrete ‘security wall’ flanked by lookout towers every 50 metres. There is only one entrance in and out of the city, a military checkpoint. The wall cuts off over 40,000 inhabitants from the rest of the West Bank and much of their former agricultural land, not to mention the illegal settlements built on it.
“There’s no life there,” Mansour says. “It’s dead, unfortunately. People there are ambitious, with talent but they can’t do much. If Israel decide to have a closure or something it gets even more dead, so it’s not really fun to be there.”
Instead, she went to study English Literature at An-Najah University in Nablus, where she ended up working on a number of fledging projects and designs of her own. “I had this passion for creating keychains out of colorful shoelaces, so I’d buy shoelaces and make ribbons and knots out of them. And then my friend [Tuffaha] was working on this tech project and he said, ‘maybe we can take your designs and add them,’” she says. “I didn’t even know what he was working on! I was just a literature student, but I was like ‘why not? let’s try something new.’”
Due to the political situation in Palestine, even modest ambitions proved challenging. “The startup scene is very small in Palestine and most of it is software. We were the only hardware startup back then,” she recalls. “Palestine didn’t have one 3D printer, so we couldn’t even create a prototype. We had to import things from outside.”
Israel’s restrictions on the movement of goods within the occupied territories require Palestinian goods to be searched several times and are often held in warehouses for long periods. The country’s deputy economic minister Abdel Hafiz Nofal estimates that the delay increases the cost of trade by 40 percent.
“Anything that comes in has to come through Israel and it stays for like 40 days at the border with customs and the check ups,” Mansour says. “So with every iteration of the circuit, we’d wait for 40 days. It was crazy.”
BOLD Designs was not Mansour or Tuffaha’s first venture. They had previously set up Plumeria, a food startup selling local products like cheese and olives in wider markets and abroad. “But then border restrictions again,” she laments. “We made some awesome partnerships with producers and great packaging designs and branding and everything, but then it all went in vain. It wasn’t easy to get permits to start selling to the international markets.”
The pair’s turning point came when they found a startup accelerator in Estonia called BuildIt. After relocating to Tartu and two years of hard work, they launched their successful Indiegogo campaign. “When we first moved, we had a lot going on with the company,” she recalls, “we didn’t even have time to look around or meet people.”
Yet it wasn’t just running their business that became easier once inside the EU. “For the first time we were able to move around freely, travel freely, do everything freely, buy things online, get things shipped to us in two days.”
Still, Mansour’s looking forward to the next step in Berlin. “It’s cold most of the time [in Tartu], and really quiet,” she says. “It’s good if you just want to concentrate on your work because there are no distractions. Like, there’s nothing else to do but work, but it’s not really awesome for having a social life.”
She’s not the first member of her family to build a life outside of Palestine. Her father and two of her siblings live in Dubai, where she was born, while another sister is a journalist in Paris. Nevertheless, she says her community back home is very conservative and neither her nor her co-founder found much support.
“It’s common for girls to be teachers and for guys to work for an engineering firm or something,” she says. “Startups are not something that’s really common there. So my parents were like ‘what the hell are you doing? This is stupid. Go get a job.’”
Even the country’s startup industry proved unforthcoming. “Before we left, we asked everyone for support, accelerators and incubators, everyone on the tech scene… and no one helped us. No one believed in what we were doing,” she says. “And then we’d go back and talk at conferences and do workshops with local entrepreneurs and they’re suddenly so interested and I’m like ‘okay,’” she draws out the words, “‘now you’re interested.’”
As for her family? “Now they’re like, ‘we’re super proud of you! You are the best! You are like, inventor!’” she laughs. “But my dad isn’t happy. I really love my father, he’s really a good guy but he doesn’t think I should be living in Europe on my own. He wants me to come back and get married. We have this traditional marriage thing in Palestine, it’s very old school.”
Now that she and Tuffaha have found international success, she’s keen to help others there who want to follow in their footsteps. “Right after we launched the campaign the media wrote about it a lot, so I had like 10 people coming to me every day saying ‘we have a cool idea, tell us how you did this crowdfunding campaign, we’re gonna do the same thing,’” she says, before adding, “I’ve been trying to help them but so far, none of them have been really successful.”
One of the problems, she believes, is that not enough people look outside for inspiration or set the bar high enough. From how Mansour talks, it’s clear she and Tuffaha put as much effort into the BoldKnit’s Indiegogo campaign as the product itself.
“But I’m happy that more and more people are getting inspired and more determined to do startups and crowdfunding in general,” she says. As for herself, she doesn’t see much of a future for herself back home. “It’s really hard to run a company from Palestine. You can’t control the borders, you can’t control what happens. You have a lot of restrictions,” she trails off.
And what of her literature degree? “My dissertation was on ‘the symbolism and meaning of water in [T.S. Elliot’s] The Wasteland.’ It’s useless, I think,” she groans, laughing. “Why the hell would I study water in The Wasteland? I still love literature, but I’m done with that chapter.”
Now, it seems a new chapter is beginning. Before relocating to Berlin, Mansour will be visiting BOLD Gadgets’ new manufacturing line in China and the pair plan to release a new product every year. Asked where she sees herself in 20 years, she mulls over the question a while, before saying “retired,” breaking into a big grin. “On a beach with millions in my bank account. That’s what I want, that’s why I started all this.”
Kosovo 2.0 is DokuFest’s official media partner. This article is part of a series of pieces written during DokuFest 2016. Kosovo 2.0 is a print and online magazine bringing you voices unfettered and unafraid.