Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Ramallah Guide for Internationals

This is actually not exactly a business idea. It is more of a guide for shopping and living in Ramallah for Westerners. Most recommendations travel by word of mouth, but given the high fluctuation of Internationals, I figured it may be useful to pin some of them down.

Most of the recommended places are marked in the map of http://www.openstreetmap.org/. Therefore I will not provide way descriptions everywhere.


A restaurant guide for Ramallah could fill an entire book. Instead I will just name my favourites and give some links for further research.

  • Orjuwan - upscale restaurant with a good and creative food selection, nice ambiente and good music. 
  • Darna Restaurant - Very good Palestinian cuisine. Try Gaza Salad, if you like it spicey. A bit pricey though.
  • Mövenpick Ramallah, Allegro Restaurant -- Mövenpick prices.. Best Italian food in town. Try the exclusive wine collection!
  • Mediterraneo, a new (2013) Italian Restaurant inside the Latin Patriarchate on Rukab street.
  • Level 5 -- 5th floor above Zaman Cafe in al Tireh. Good and affordable food with a stunning view from the Terrace. Paulaner draft beer.
  • Cafe De La Paix -- The teryaki salad is my favourite. Also check out the fair trade corner with goods from Canaan.
  • Fuego -- Mexican food (or fusion dishes such as Avocado-Hummus) in a nice old stone building. Decent cocktails.
  • Ziryab -- Cosy environment, especially for wintertime
  • De La Vie -- Nice homemade cakes
  • Chili Chilis -- best burger in town (old town)
  • Zaman Al Tireh -- Try the tuna sandwich, or the health salad. Also a nice place for breakfast/brunch. Every other Tuesday morning 8am, it is a gathering place for Ramallah's IT startup companies.
  • Snowbar -- best landscaping in town, comfy seats under trees, includes swimmingpool
  • Segafredo Al Masyoun near Ankars Suites -- franchise coffee bar with large terrace
Further references, check http://yummypick.com also for online order and delivery: http://otlub.ps/ or http://www.clickandpick.ps/

Budget Fastfood

  • Best chicken shawarma: It is on Rukab street, near the green Jawwal shop, a few meters towards Manara, on the left side. They have a horizontal shawarma grill over charcoal, and freshly baked shrak bread. 13 Shekel for an excellent shawarma.
  • Best Falafel: On Irsal street, opposite the JDECO building, a few meters towards the city center, there is a Falafel place, 4 Shekel for the sandwich. The falafel maker has a picture with him and Abu Mazen in his restaurant.
  • Flaming Saj on Irsal street has decent local style pizza at very affordable prices (12 shekel for a large pizza)
  • Best Kunafa (outside Nablus) is available at Helwiat Eiffel - Eiffel Sweets

Buying Food

As of July 2013, a new Gourmet supermarket opened, which takes shopping in Ramallah to a next level: MaxMar on Irsal Street (that's the street that goes from Manara Square past Muqata towards Birzeit, close to Chili House). They have approximately 10.000 different imported and local high quality products on display, including a herbs and nuts corner, a bakery, a sweets corner, great selection of imported cheeses, and so on. Soon they will launch an online purchase system with home delivery. 

  • Fruits and Vegetables: Specialized shops tend to be better than supermarkets like bravo. My favourite is, coming from Ein Musbah street, turning right onto Tireh street, and next to the right down the hill, on the right hand side.  And of course the fruit market near Manara.
  • Bread: Zaman Cafe has good dark bread, in case you miss it. Al Bayt Al Kadeem Baker makes good  fluffy Arabic bread. Dark arabic bread is available at MaxMar. Whole wheat arabic bread is avialable at AlKiswani in the old town. If you miss German style bread, you can get it on Yehuda market in Jerusalem. Can be cut and deepfrozen. You get packaged dark bread by German "Mestermacher" company in most Bravo or MaxMar shops.
  • Alcohol: The best collection available, and the cheapest prices you find at Jubran, you find him on a side street of Rukab street. From the gas station, walk 300m uphill, and turn left at the corner of the stationary shop. After 50, Jubran is on the right side. If you are a frequent customer, ask for a customer card that will give you 5% discount.
  • Pork: There is one butchery in Beit Jala (central square of Beit Jala, ask for Khansil, which means pig/pork), and otherwise you will find a smaller selection of things in a small shop in Ramallah tahta, on the street of the mosque, 100m on the left side, almost in front of a bakery, with red painting. Also there is Yanni Grocery across from Stones.
  • Meat: There is a good chicken shop (Aziza) three doors down from the Ramallah Old Town Pharmacy (around the corner from Arab Bank Tahta). The Butcher of Bravo Plaza Mall supermarket is quite good as well.
  • Cakes: Next to Stones, you find a cake shop, with three letters, something like QMH. The dark chocolate cake is amazing.


Among the Arab cities of the world, Ramallah probably ranks #3 in nightlife after Beirut and Dubai. Most of the night life takes place on Thursday though. Here are a few places to go in Ramallah:
  • Snowbar is nice to hang out in Summer, and occasionaly they host events with DJ. Summer season only.
  • Andareen resembles something between a bar and a disco with occasional salsa classes. Entrance is somewhat hidden, via elevator, 4th floor, opposite Rukab ice cream.
  • Sparkles in Mövenpick has mostly House music and Arabic dance music -- the audience mostly upper class Palestinians. Often it is the last resort after most other places close. Decent cocktails. Winter season only.
  • Basement is a proper club located in a basement (hence, the name) with DJs and everything else
  • Beit Aniseh often hosts life music or DJ on Thursdays. Sometimes couples-only policy. Somtimes you pay for entance. Otherwise a place to mingle. Mix of internationals and Palestinians who care less about the allegedly "bad reputation" (whatever that means) of this pub.
  • Orjuwan is a decent restaurant with cocktail bar, with occasional DJ events, especially Thursdays. Cocktails are nice. Entrance policy somewhat restrictive. Smart casual business clothing helps, or reserve your table in advance.
  • Barameal is a nicely decorated pub, a few steps uphill from Sangrias. They host occasional life music or DJ parties, sometimes private events.
  • La Ween is a pub with occasional DJ and dancing -- its style looks somewhat boheme, with Arabic poetry on the wall. Located three doors down from Qasaba theatre.
  • La Grotta, across the street from Fuego Restaurant, is a pub, and a nice "after hour" place, once other places are closing down. The bar looks somewhat improvised, but with a nice and diverse, slightly artsy crowd.
The Ramallah municipality with its female Christian mayor has a relatively liberal regime -- still recently they introduced a general closing hour which is enforced some time between 1am and 2am. Clubs with good sound insulation, which don't disturb neighbours, like Sparkles or Basement may be running a bit longer. After Ramallah closes down, the only option is Jerusalem (e.g. the Palestinian bar Beer, and next to it the Israeli club Uganda, and a few blocks down Sira aka D1), or Tel Aviv (e.g. Radio, Deli, etc.). A good indicator for Israeli clubs with Arab-friendly audience is the fact that they serve Palestinian Taybeh-beer.
In the Negev desert, there are many Israeli desert raves, and more recently, there is a Palestinian desert rave group emerging, and another one for Psy-Trance called Mukhti Gathering, which makes events in '48 territory, with music acts from Germany, West Bank and '48 Palestinians, and invites mostly through Facebook and word of mouth.

Sports, Outdoor Activities and Chilling Out

  • Turkish Bath: There is a nice turkish bath in Al Bireh including all types of massages, and another one located in Al Masyoun area
  • In a nearby village (Jifneh), there is an affordable, large outdoor swimming pool
  • Hiking. Aid worker Stefan Szepski used his free time to hike and write a book with his hiking recommendations. Also you can take organized hiking tours through tour operators, or political and historical hikes through organizations such as AIC or the Center for Jerusalem Studies. Also Riwaq has a number of hikes and maps to be explored. Be careful when venturing out alone, as in some remote areas near Mar Saba monastery near Bethlehem, incidents of robbery have been reported.
  • Mountain Biking: The Palestinian desert has some challenging routes. Palestinian bikers are a very small community. Contact them on their Facebook group.
  • Jogging: Ramallah is really not a good place for jogging, but the best routes are probably either the remote part of Al Tireh street, which stretches a few kilometers down with a decent sidewalk, or you can go from Ein Musbah street steep down the hill until you reach the bottom of the valley, and you will find a long tarmac road with very little traffic that stretches about 8km.
  • Sarayyet offers contemporary dancing classes, swimming pool, and many other sportive activities.
  • Popular fitness clubs are Solo gym and Tri Fitness. In the same building of Solo Gym you find a massage center.
  • Affordable Yoga Classes are offered by Farashe Yoga near Manara -- see http://farasheyoga.org
  • Classes for Transcendental Meditation are offered in Al Tireh. Call Kevin 0598 752 813 
  • The terrace of Level 5 restaurant offers comfortable sofas with a stunning view (including Tel Aviv skyline)
  • Snowbar has comfortable sofas and sun chairs by the swimming pool
  • Mövenpick and Grand Park Hotel have a nice pool area, and there is another fancy pool opposite Grand Park hotel, which sports an In-Water cocktail bar.
  • Reef Cafe, Azure Restaurant and Jasmine are nice places to hang out and smoke a waterpipe.
  • If you have an entire weekend, and enough money to spend, you should consider going across the border to Kempinski Ishtar Hotel Dead Sea -- they have pure luxury, the largest Spa in the Middle East, an excellent Thai Restaurant, and sparkling wine for breakfast. If you use Allenby bridge, you need a Jordanian visa from the Embassy in Ramallah, and also check the opening times of the bridge. A taxi can take you from Ramallah to the bridge, and taxis are waiting on the Jordanian side of the bridge to take you to the hotel.

Tourist Sites

  • Traditional gift items: A few meters downhill from Al Bireh Municipality, turn left, and immediately right, there is a shop with handicrafts from all regions of Palestine. Also you can buy delicious gifts from Cafe de la Paix, which has Fair Trade organic products from Canaan/Burquin (infused olive oil, sandwich spreads, maftool, zaatar, almonds, etc.).
  • Tourist office: Opposite Ramallah Municipality, next to Cafe de la Paix. Has maps, and some other useful information
  • The only real tourist sites are the Arafat memorial and the Mahmoud Darwish memorial, each with an adjacent museum (the Arafat one being under construction). 
  • Dar Zahran Gallery exhibits a traditional christian palestinian house, some photography, an excellent collection of Palestinian traditional merchandise.  You find it opposite Arab Bank in Ramallah Tahta (on the other side of Ruqab street). 
  • Futher locations for the art scene are Sakkakini Gallery located uphill from Beit Aniseh, and the International Academy of Arts Palestine, and in Bethlehem the Dar Al Kalima college.
  • Further recommendations you find in Lonely Planet and on Wikitravel

Finding a Flat

Panoramic view from Area D hostel in downtown Ramallah
  • For short stays and for guests, check out the brand new (July 2013) youth hostel called Area D, which will also hook you up with helpful information and tour guides. contact via https://www.facebook.com/AreaDHostel
  • If you read Arabic or trust google translation, look for apartments on http://www.shobiddak.com
  • Otherwise, a lot of shared flats are offered on http://groups.yahoo.com/group/ramallahramallah/
  • Also you find flats at http://www.englishpal.ps/ 
  • Common prices for a room in a shared flat is 250-300 $ a month, to be paid on a monthly basis, utilities come extra, and can be quite expensive especially with heating in wintertime.
  • Furnished 2-3 bedroom apartments in a central area of town go for around 500-800$.
  • Written contracts are rare, many want cash payments in dollar within the first week of each month. That gives you a negotiation chip -- if you encounter long delays for the required maintenance of the flat, you may decide to delay your payment.
  • Flats have lousy insulation, and often come without heating. If you have central heating, fuel is going to be very expensive, like up to 500$ a month for a decent sized flat to have it warm and cosy in January. Many go for the cheaper option of a gas catalytic oven, which you put right in front of you when sitting on the sofa.
  • Many Palestinian landlords are, according to European standards, control freaks. They want to know exactly who goes in and out of the apartment, and any suspicious activity is immediately reported among neighbours.
  • Neighbourhoods in the Christian city center of Ramallah tend to be slightly more liberal.
  • Generally we westerners, being far from parental control, are suspected to fall for random sex and prostitution. After I had some female friends over, my landlady came to me telling me that the neighbours were complaining I was allegedly having sex in the living room -- to me a very surprising observation. Later I understood that having unmarried boys and girls in the same room leads to the logic assumption of sex taking place. In Islam this weird logics is called "khulwah" but also conservative Palestinian Christians seem to have a similar way of thinking. For people who enjoy tight parental control throughout their lives, it seems to be hard to imagine that westerners learn taking responsibility for their own lives when left alone.
  • Many landlords will not permit male visitors to female-only flats, because of the widespread suspicion of prostitution.
  • Some cases have been reported of male Palestinians claiming to be very open minded, offering rooms in their flat, inviting exclusively young western girls to live with them, expecting to benefit from the alleged sexual liberty of westerners. To avoid this, maybe you want to have a male friend calling to ask for availability of the room, if the answer is no, then you should be suspicious to receive a different answer calling as a female.
  • After you are warned about all these horror stories, I am sure you will be ready to find a nice flat with friendly neighbours, install some curtains for privacy and enjoy the great hospitality that Palestine has for foreign visitors!


  • Hairdresser: In the same building of Level 5 restaurant (Al Tireh Roundabout), there is an excellent Hairdresser called Hana Eideh studios. Well equipped with a collection of Schwartzkopf hair products, and staff that has been trained by Tony & Guy. Very friendly and professional. Main target group is women, but they may make some exceptions if you ask.
  • Dentist: In the same building as the hairdresser, you find an excellent dentist, Munther Tibi.
  • Tailor for small repairs: At the corner of Rukab/Al Tireh Street with Ein Misbah street, there is a tailor (you find many more in the center)
  • Shoe and bags repair: From Manara, walk towards the police station, on your right side you find a tiny shop for shoe repair, right next to a smelly chicken shop.
  • Drycleaner: Jamal who is located opposite the supermarket next to the Arafat Memorial does good work. Carpets I tend to bring to the drycleaner next to Bravo supermarket Al Tireh, Al Tireh street.
  • Money: Arab Bank ATMs disburse Shekel, Dinar, and USD in large amounts for Credit and EC cards. Bank of Palestine also works, but has lower transaction limits. Arab Bank Tahta on Rukab Street next to the Gas station is an option, also Plaza Mall al Bireh has many ATMs
  • Internet. Ask your landlord for DSL, for which you will need a Paltel phone line. MADA is a good DSL provider. Otherwise check your Wifi -- possibly your home is covered by Coolnet, Yalla or Globalcom providers. Otherwise, an Israeli SIM card offers 3G coverage in many areas of Palestine. The last option is somewhat controversial. Check my other blog post.
  • Rental car with yellow plate can be obtained from Middle East car rental on Jerusalem Road, shortly before you pass the red crescent building. Price approx. 200 Shekel per day. Reserve at least one day in advance to make sure you get a car. Phone 02-2963141. Sometimes rates are better and cars are newer with Israeli companies in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, but be aware that those companies don't cover insurance for A-Zones in the Westbank such as Ramallah. In East Jerusalem you find some alternatives with Palestinian insurance, for example "goodluck" car rental, opposite American Colony Hotel.
  • Checkpoint Guide: How to get in and out of Ramallah conveniently -- read my other blog post.

Airport logistics

With an international passport, for most people it is convenient to use Ben Gurion airport.

  • By car: If you travel westwards by car, e.g. to the airport or to the beach, it is good to know that there is a way to avoid Qalandia CP. Drive towards Beitunia, at the entrance of Beitunia, there is a big roundabout decorated with giant fruits. Take first exit. Continue that road which leads through Ein Arik village, to Deir Ibzi village. In Deir Ibizi you see a big gas station on your right, you drive past some Olive trees, shortly after, you see a car dealer on your left. Take the next turn right (road sign to Ras Karkar), which leads a steep road winding down the hill. At the bottom you reach settler road number 463. Turn left and follow signs towards Tel Aviv. Using this way, it is a mere 45 minutes from Ramallah to the airport, and at Hashmonaim Checkpoint you can expect to pass without delay (as opposed to Qalandia). Long term parking at the airport costs 40 Shekel per day.
  • To reduce parking cost, you can park at the Modiin industrial zone train station (along Road 431) for free, and take a train (15 minutes) to the airport. The station is called Paatei Modiin, and check the schedule because during night-time the train doesn't run.
  • Without a car, you can take bus no. 18 from Ramallah to Jerusalem, Damascus gate, and you can call Nesher taxi (02-6257227) to pick you up from Jerusalem Hotel. Make the reservation with Nesher taxi on the previous day. As an alternative to Qalandia checkpoint, you can take at the Qalandia parking a white minivan that passes through Hizme checkpoint to Jerusalem. That may save you some hassle with your baggage. Bus to Jerusalem costs 7-10 Shekel, Nesher taxi (it is a mini-bus) to airport costs 60 Shekel.
  • Direct taxi from Ramallah to the airport costs between 280 and 350 shekels -- you will need a taxi with yellow number plate and a driver who knows the above described route via Deir Ibzi. Here are two numbers of people who can get you such a taxi: Bassil 0598735180 and Rami 0545774318. Sometimes you can find people to share a taxi ride if you write a mail to the ramallahramallah group on yahoo.
  • A cheap and relatively hassle-free, but controversial option is using a settler bus: You take any green-plate taxi or servees bus towards Ras Karkar. Tell the taxi to drive towards Ras Karkar, and as soon as you hit the settler road (you can tell by the Hebrew roadsigns), turn right (or get off the bus), and you will have the Ha-Parsa Bus Station after 200 meters. Take Egged bus number 181. Check time table online. The bus takes you through Hashmonaim checkpoint to Modiin train station. From there, it is two train stops away from the airport. This works only during daytime as the train and bus are not going at night.



Monday, June 25, 2012

Jawwal and Watania to Conquer the Israeli Market?

Telecommunications and the Occupation

While Israeli mobile operators can offer comprehensive coverage for all 11M Israeli and Palestinian inhabitants, providing voice and broadband data services, the Israeli government puts economic sanctions on Palestine by not permitting Palestinian mobile operators (Jawwal and Watania) to deploy their networks in large parts of the territory, and furthermore not permitting to offer broadband data services using 3G frequencies.

"Economic sanctions" is actually wrong wording. "Unilateral trade policy" is maybe more accurate. The main intention I assume is not to punish Palestine, but rather to give Israeli companies a competitive edge over Palestinian ones, shifting the trade balance in favour of Israel. The official reason -- for those who know the region it's not hard to guess -- is "security reasons".

Many Palestinian customers -- especially those that like to enjoy the benefits of 3G Internet, and those that occasionally travel within Jerusalem or Israel -- can hardly avoid to get themselves a SIM card of an Israeli provider, if they don't want to pay the prohibitively high roaming fees or be patient enough to stick with Jawwal's GPRS services. The PA's attempts to impede the use of Israeli SIM cards are mostly futile. There are obviously no official figures, but I would estimate the market share that Israeli companies have among Palestinian customers to be in the range of 100-200 M $ per year.

MVNO -- a solution?

MVNO stands for Mobile Virtual Network Operator. The Israeli telco regulator recently adopted this modern approach of getting competition into the telco market. Rami Levy is the first MVNO in Israel offering SIM cards and mobile telecommunications services to its clients without having its own infrastructure. MVNOs are doing sales, customer care, tariffs, billing and collection, but for the actual phone calls, they rely on the infrastructure of network operators like Cellcom, Pelefone or Orange. MVNOs can often buy network capacities very cheaply from network operators (because capacities are idle most of the time), and resell them to their clients at higher prices, being able to charge decent profit margins in exchange for their customer care.

Now Palestinian mobile companies like Jawwal and Watania are seriously crippled by Israeli authorities in their ability to deploy their own networks. Their competitive advantage however lies in customer care. Jawwal and Watania have a large existing customer base, and a well developed network of call centers and sales points, which can operate at much lower cost than Israeli competitors thanks to skilled staff with lower salaries, and cheaper rents.

Conquering the Market

If Jawwal and Watania obtain MVNO licenses in Israel, they will quickly be able to offer their domestic Westbank and Gaza customers the full range of services including 3G and cheap calls from within Israel, giving Jawwal and Watania the chance to reclaim the above mentioned market share of 100-200M $. Furthermore, those Palestinian companies could start to conquer the Israeli market advertising with cheap rates among the 1.5 Million 1948-Palestinians (aka "Arab Israelis"). The remaining 6 Million Israelis could possibly also be attracted by low prices. And it shouldn't be too hard to create a call center with Hebrew language in Gaza or Westbank that economically outperforms call centers of Israeli providers.

Due to the numbering scheme, which separates Israeli and Palestinian numberspaces, your Jawwal SIM card  would in the future have two numbers: 059xxxxxxx and maybe 053xxxxxxx, whereas the xxxx'es would ideally match, to make it easier to remember.

Under this scenario Jawwal would suddenly have a competitive edge not only at home, but also among the Arab Israeli population. '48 Palestinians can use their Jawwal SIM card to call their cousins or business partners in Westbank and Gaza cheaply, while at the same time being able to call Israeli phones at reasonable rates. When they visit their family in Al Masyoun area of Ramallah, or other areas where Israeli network coverage is poor, they can benefit from the Jawwal network infrastructure.

Political Risks on Israeli Side

On the side of the Israeli regulator, there may be a risk that they try to put conditions on the MVNO licensing process that impede the outsourcing of parts of the value chain of a MVNO operator to Palestine. A legal study would be required to assess these risks in detail, being
  1. Managing customer data in Palestine (data protection law, "security"?)
  2. Using palestinian SIM cards and running two numbers on the same SIM card
  3. Having call centers in Palestine for customer care
  4. Connectivity between Isr. and Pal. Networks (technical and regulatory)
  5. Billing and collection (this part would probably need to be carried out through a legal establishment registered in Israel -- options for joint billing and collection should be checked, tax optimization)
  6. Using Palestinian investment for licensed MVNO operator in Israel (capital requirements?)
  7. Can the agreement with the network operator be designed in a way that in worst case scenario, the Palestinian investor one can pull out of Israel without much losses?
The existing Telcos might try to lobby for a regulation that makes it harder to outsource part of the value chain to Palestine, and they might likewise have lawyers looking around above mentioned points where a regulation could be used to weaken the Palestinian competitor.

Political Risks on Palestinian Side

On the side of the Palestinian regulator, there are several risks. First and foremost, the PA government tends to utilize Israeli restrictions for their own PR. If Palestinian customers were legally and happily using 3G Internet, that would leave the PA with less arguments against Israeli oppression on the political stage. To keep their arguments, the political level of PA may be interested in hindering any legal 3G deployment for Palestinians. Today, the sales of Israeli SIM cards and prepaid vouchers is forbidden on territories under Palestinian control. (It is however easy to circumvent -- as there are many commuters to Jerusalem, and also Israeli gas stations in C-Areas accessible for all Westbank Palestinians are salespoints)

Furthermore there are some signs under way that Palestinian companies will soon get some 3G frequencies. This may further encourage the PA in its attempts to forbid any competition with Israeli mobile networks. If 3G frequencies are available for only one of the two Palestinian operators, either Jawwal or Watania, the lucky one will certainly be interested to lobby with PA government to prevent a MVNO deal for its main competitor on the domestic market. This internal competition, and the political hurdles imposed by PA, will then distract Palestinians from competing on the Israeli market.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

E-Bikes: Easing Commute Through Checkpoints

Did you ever try to pass from Ramallah to Jerusalem at 7:30 am? The two cities are adjacent, and their centers are a mere 14km from each other, but the commute will easily take an hour or more, because of Qalandia checkpoint, where you will be sitting in an overcrowded bus that pushes forward meter by meter. Most Palestinians are not allowed to take their car to their workplace in Jerusalem thanks to Israeli regulations.

There are a few lucky ones that have the right type of ID to get an Israeli number plate, and those with an Israeli numberplate and a scooter can bypass the terrible traffic before the checkpoint. This blog post proposes a solution for the remaining 99% -- or at least those of them who feel it acceptable (culturally and status-wise) to move their ass on two wheels.

A high-end E-bike manufactured by A2B

A "Gap" in Israeli Legislation

By not allowing Palestinians to drive or ride scooters, use airports, use borders, use some Israeli public transportation, the Israeli government makes it pretty hard for Palestinians that work in Israel or in occupied East Jerusalem to come to their workplace, or anywhere else.
Luckily, the Israeli laws that impede Palestinian mobility don't cover bicycles. And, E-bikes are likewise categorized as bikes according to Israeli law.
So with an E-bike, you could join the lucky ones that cross the Checkpoint in just 5 Minutes instead of queuing up in a mess of traffic for 45 Minutes.

The Business Model(s)

It is obvious that you could market and sell E-bikes to commuters -- advertising on the last mile between Kufar Aqab and Qalandia checkpoint is probably most effective. Since Palestinians (apart from Kids or Jericho inhabitants) seem to be culturally hesitant to move on two wheels, you will probably need to do a good campaign, possibly hiring a celebrity to act as a role model to make E-bikes culturally acceptable.

Some commuters wouldn't want to miss the convenience to drive their car as far as they can, so for those you could offer another option. Instead of riding their E-bike all the way from home to their workplace, you build a large parking place on Jerusalem Road about 2km before Qualandia checkpoint, have them park their car every morning, and rent out a fully charged and well-maintained E-bike for the rest of the commute to their workplace in Jerusalem.
Customers, after receiving a free 3-days trial period, can make a monthly or annual subscription to that service.

Bikes: Winners or Losers in Road Wars?

The driving culture in Qalandia traffic jam is not one of the nicest. Drivers tend to be in big hurry, and pretty much on the edge with their nerves. Lots of honks, and attempts to overtake each other. Not the safest environment for bike riders who lack the metal plating around them.
Mohamed Shtayeh had aquired funds in the name of PECDAR from the German government to upgrade Jerusalem Road a couple of years ago. If significant bicycle traffic is found on that road, you may be finding yet another donor funding to construct a well protected bicycle lane. Many donors like these kind of "green" projects.
Technically, narrowing Jerusalem street in favour of a bike lane wouldn't hurt the car traffic much, because the bottleneck is not Jerusalem street -- the bottleneck is Qalandia checkpoint and the roundabout and road to Al-Ram.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Party Boats in Gaza: New Revenues for Fishermen

The Gazan Entertainment Industry

The Gazan government is known to have a tight grip on the entertainment industry. Alcohol is available on black market only. Women are banned from smoking waterpipe in the public, and several approaches of gender segregation are enforced in public. Still, we can expect a significant part of the population to be less observant than the strict regime tries to impose on them -- not only the 5% Christian minority whose religious ruleset is more compatible with entertainment, but also a larger group of Muslims that prefer to find their own way of belief instead of having other people's interpretations imposed on their lifestyle. Because of the tight governmental grip, nightlife has moved into private spaces, and people need to be restrictive in inviting strangers, being afraid of getting denounced by part-time spies. Prostitution is -- as in most parts of the world -- widely available through taxi drivers that act as middlemen. The booming restaurant business in Gaza serves mainly for family gatherings but it is hardly an environment where people can freely mingle in whatever way they like. A boat out in the sea, even if Israel lets it go only 6 miles away from the coast, provides enough privacy to get a taste of the freedom that most Gazans are so deprived of.

Fisher boats in the port of Gaza -- soon to be equipped with loudspeakers and cocktail bar?

The Market Size

The target group is mostly young, relatively wealthy and possibly unmarried, possibly living in conditions with limited social surveillance of their families. Wealth often accumulates around government and influence, which is valid in Gaza as well, as the economist points out in a recent article:
In the meantime, Hamas leaders seem increasingly content to enjoy the fruits of splendid isolation. The parliamentary car park, full of rickety bangers when Hamas first took office, now gleams with flash new models hauled through the tunnels under the Egyptian border. Two Hummer H3s and a golden Porsche were recently spotted cruising the streets. Ministers and members of parliament seem unbothered by the lack of accountability as well as reports of money-laundering. “We’re hunted and targeted,” explains a self-pitying MP on Hamas’s parliamentary ethics committee, who recently spent $28,000 on a new car with the help of a $12,000 loan from the movement.
Pure-minded Islamists accuse Hamas of forsaking its official name—the Islamic Resistance Movement—for the pursuit of power. Hamas has relaxed the summer religiosity campaigns that marked its first years in power and has suspended its plans to apply sharia law. Gazans mockingly call its female adherents “the 2Js”: they wear an ascetic jilbab, or nun-like cloak, for public view, but they sport skin-tight jeans underneath.
Apart from customers related to the government, you might want to look for wealthy businessmen (construction and tunnel logistics companies for example), and academia -- Al Azhar University, Islamic University and others. Those two Universities alone have 40.000 Students. There are maybe 50.000 Christians in Gaza. Maybe 10%, of the population is gay, i.e. 150.000 people, of which maybe 10% would be daring enough to live out their sexual orientation given a safe environment, i.e. 15.000.

The real number of potential clients is hard to guess, but given the lack of alternatives, those customers that you find are probably willing to pay a good price for a short trip into the freedom of the open sea.

Canvassing Your Customers

A closed club of selected members, possibly organized through closed groups in socal media is the way to go. To start off, you might want to talk to existing underground clubs, gay communities, as well as the few posh restaurants and hotels in Gaza, where you can recruit your first customers.

Gay events you might want to handle separately. For hetero events, I would expect to find more demand from male club members, so you might have to introduce a policy of "couples only" so people are encouraged to bring along their sisters or female friends.

How to Protect the Business from Interventions of Authorities

Club members should prove their confidentiality, to avoid them from whistleblowing to family members or local authorities about what those might find morally inacceptable. Ways to prove confidentiality can be either a large cash deposit that they have to leave you for the duration of club membership, and also you can have other member vouch for them, to build a network of trust.

In terms of technical measures, you might want to connect your club membership with an iPhone/Android app. Local authorities might be closely monitoring the Gaza port for suspicious activity, but you could give your customers directions to drive to a new location each time, some lonely beach or so, and have a rubber boat pick them up from the beach and bring them to the party vessel. The iPhone app can make sure that this communication takes place encrypted and leaves no traces for investigators.

Another way would be to collaborate with the authorities and let them "tax" your business. Due to the nature of the business, it is more likely that the tax will have the form of a bribe under the current government.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Barcode Scanner App Indicates Settlement Products

Many customers are asking for more transparency about the products they buy in shops: About their origin, about nutritional values, about other customer's comments and experiences, about genetic manipulated content, about allergic substances, and so on. In Palestine, customers pay special attention on product origin from Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

Smartphones, which enjoy great popularity in Palestine, provide the hardware platform needed to provide the above mentioned consumer transparency. There is a number of Apps available worldwide which have proven the feasibility of consumer transparency through barcode scanning.

Settlement Products -- The Debate About Boycott and Sanctions

Settlements in the Westbank are illegal according to international law. They are an indicator of annexation rather than occupation. They create facts on the ground that render a two state solution impossible. The high number of 0.5M settlers make the process irreversible, because dismantling them would ignite a civil war. This perpetuates Israel as the government of entire historic Palestine for indefinite future. With the Israeli government unwilling to give citizenship to Palestinians, the outlook for Palestinians is to live somewhere along the lines of statelessness, apartheid, reservation camp or as a refugee.

BDS is one of the main players promoting economic sanctions against those Israeli policies that lead to this dire outlook of the Palestinian population.

In Europe, there are strong signs for an increasing willingness to impose sanctions against Israeli settlements.

Also in Israel, there is significant support to boycott settlements -- this movement is so strong that it caused settlement lobbyists to urge Knesset to push through an anti-democratic law to silence those voices.

However, customers decisions will always remain free. Knesset can never require people to buy settlement products. And they can not prevent you from giving consumers transparency about the origin of products. Non-governmental organizations like SADAKA, which reside outside Israeli jurisdiction, are continuing to publish lists of settlement products. Also the European Union is demanding transparency about imports from Israel vs. imports from settlements.

A smartphone app would empower users to choose based on many criteria that may be relevant for them, including the product origin. You could also include further criteria, for example creating awareness on companies involved in the profitable settlement real estate business.

The Technical Platform

Looking at these statistics, it is probably enough to target the two main platforms: Android and iOS.

You don't need to start from scratch, as there are well-developed libraries and software development kits (SDK) available that provide the functionality of barcode scanning with mobile phones. These are examples of open source solutions:

Furthermore, you will need to host a database that links the barcodes with the consumer information. The cloud should be able to provide you with a very cheap and very scalable solution for this.

You might want to connect with other existing barcode databases. This is the official one, and there are some open projects like http://www.upcdatabase.com/ or http://openean.kaufkauf.net/

Also check existing Apps for Android and iOS, like Barcode Scanner, Barcode Reader, Barcoo, ScanLife, etc.

Do a quick prototype, announce it somewhere among early adopters (like Peeks group on facebook), and add further features and improvements based on user feedback.

The Business Model

Don't expect people to pay for usage, or pay for downloading the app. Instead, you should rely on donations of users that want to support your cause. So after gaining some popularity of the App, you may include donation requests integrated into the software.

Also you may be able to sell the app to the Ministry of National Economy, Consumer Protection Department, which is in charge of, among other tasks, preventing settlement products to be sold in Palestinian supermarkets.

Also, consider developing a Hebrew language version, since there is a significant portion of the Israeli population that opposes settlements (mainly those that are striving for a two-state solution, which is impeded by any settlement).

The European market may also have some interest, but you would need to provide a comprehensive set of consumer information rather than just the product origin. Here my suggestion would be to partner with European barcode reading companies, and have them connect with your database.

You could try to create additional revenues by letting companies provide information and letting them advertise their products on your platform.

Some commercial apps make money with shopping recommendations on where to buy that product cheaper.

Update: It's there!

There is one app called "Buy No Evil", which currently doesn't seem to function on android. But another one is getting very popular, called "Buycott" for iPhone and Android. BDS seems to be developing their own app, see this article.

Monday, June 4, 2012

A Hosted CRM Solution for NGO Business in Palestine

This business idea aims to reduce the cost and improve the efficiency for business development (project acquisition / "sales pitches") for NGOs. This aim is to be achieved through a "Palestinian Donor Directory" that provides a wide range of information and services that help NGOs to acquire new funds efficiently and effectively.

What is "NGO Business"?

Development aid constitutes around 20-30% of the Palestinian GDP. As percentage of GDP, that is much less than for example Afghanistan, but measured per capita, it is among the world's highest of maybe 500-800$ per capita. Part of that goes into infrastructure and procurement, or salaries of around 150,000 civil servants, while another, quite significant part is channelled into local implementing agencies and NGOs that employ an estimated 20-30,000 Palestinians.
If you are from Europe, you might expect NGOs to operate like Greenpeace, with many politically motivated volunteers and unpaid interns. In Europe, it would be unthinkable that Greenpeace salaries are better than Mercedes or Bosch. Palestine is different than Europe in many ways, and a significant portion of the educational elite in Palestine is employed in NGO business with very competitive salaries. Actually, some Palestinians are complaining that young graduates from western countries are taking away their jobs in NGOs with their underpriced salary expectations.
NGOs in Palestine receive only a very small portion of their funding from direct donations of people or companies, but instead they act as implementers, service providers or consultants on behalf of a versatile landscape of institutional donors. I'm not saying that Palestinian NGOs are lacking intrinsic motivation, or that they are greedy. It's just that due to the market size and the funding mechanisms, their work has a stronger business character than elsewhere in the world.

Optimizing NGO Balance Sheet

While private businesses are streamlining their operations towards optimized profits, NGOs don't pay dividends to shareholders, and most are non-profit, but still they like to generate internal profits from projects that can be used for core staff salaries, for office infrastructure, cars, secretaries, business trips for management, rainy-day funds, and many other things.

Many donors give contracts that separate project cost from overheads. For example, a contract limits overhead to 8%, so most funds have to be disbursed project-related, and only a small portion can be used for management, for headquarters infrastructure, and business development -- this overhead is always the most scarce and precious portion of the funding. So optimizing an NGO balance sheet means creating a slim management, slim office infrastructure and slim business development. Managers anywhere are not inclined to cut their own salaries, and it is nice to have a secretary and a comfortable chair, so why not focus on cutting cost in business development?

Just like a consultancy company, many NGOs invest significant funds and energy into business development, to keep the project pipeline filled, so that they can choose the projects that best fit their portfolio, and to have a better negotiating position for each of the contracts. This is where a "Palestinian Donor Directory" has a good potential to save staff cost and improve effectiveness of business development.

Another balance sheet optimization strategy is double-selling projects. NGO business usually doesn't produce a tangible product that is transferred to the client, but instead it sells development impact. The same impact can be sold to two clients without additional efforts. Just as consultancy companies sometimes double-sell their staff working hours, NGOs can double-sell their staff efforts, and sometimes even their procurement efforts if the clients don't demand submission of tax invoices for all expenditures. So, it is valuable for NGOs to know about the administrative procedures of donors. Donors that do pay staff efforts are usually more profitable, and donors that don't require submission of original tax invoices can also be more profitable.

What Information Should a Palestinian Donor Directory Contain?

LACS maintains a phone book with all contact information of OECD-DAC donors, which constitutes about 2/3 of Governmental development aid, and maybe half of total development aid. That phone book is structured by sector, and gives a good starting point. However, it is provided for free, and you definitely need to add some value to make NGOs pay for it.

First and most obviously, you need to make it as comprehensive as possible, so include all Gulf state donors, include international NGO donors, include private donors (Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and such), etc.

Then, you need to add keywords that each donor usually likes to hear when talking about project proposals.  So "gender sensitivity" is the most obvious example for most DAC donors. Some might like "rural development" while others prefer "human rights" aspects to be covered. Some might call for "democracy", while others put it more mildly as "governance" or simply "state building". Gulf donors may have a preference for humanitarian aid or islamic schemes like zakat projects etc, while western donors tend to like things being "sustainable" and "empowering". Sector-specific, there is a lot more keywords to be added if you know the specialities of each. And knowing the personal preferences of the decision makers is worth even more.

Another added value is an overview about ongoing and completed projects. On one side, NGOs could get an impression on the rationale of project design and typical project sizes. In addition NGOs could see when is the right time to contact someone (during the end phase of a running project, where some donors may be unsatisfied by the competing NGO, giving a chance for a new player to enter).

As mentioned in the previous chapter, the administrative procedures are very valuable information to optimize the balance sheet. That includes information on how a contract is won, what overhead can be charged, which cost categories are eligible for reimbursement, and what proof of expenditures have to be presented, etc.

The Business Model

With an expected market size of maybe 200-500 NGO clients, one needs to find a way to create significant revenues per client through regular updates and a subscription scheme. If you provide very valuable information, you'll be able to charge maybe 20$ per month for small NGOs and 100$ per month for large ones -- that would create annual revenues of between 50.000-180.000$. Enough to run a website, hire a programmer and a secretary.
In addition to the standard services, you could offer premium services, like arranging sales pitch appointments, and consultancy on a sales strategy, service of drafting an offer according to EU requirements etc. to create additional added value.

To get some inspiration on how another site on development business looks like, check http://www.devex.com
Here is another site specific to Palestine, but so far contains only basic contact info:

In the start-up phase, you could concentrate on providing a comprehensive list of job offerings and project tenders in the development sector that you provide for free. With enough audience, you can start the money-generating business of providing the donor directory with all the added value services.

Abuse prevention. If you make information expensive, you have to prevent copying. A good approach is to provide an on-line subscription which can be viewed on-line only, with regular updates, to make copying hard. You can do some plausibility checks to check for abuse of accounts (like cookies, IP addresses, java or flash apps etc.

Another way to prevent abuse is to integrate the donor directory with a hosted CRM solution like salesforce. There is a salesforce partner that has recently established linkages with Palestine you might want to talk to. The entire platform could be well implemented as a salesforce module. Instead of a monthly subscription, you could work on business models of pay per lead, or actually pay as a percentage of contract volume acquired.

Positive Side-Effects for Development

Today, in most sales pitches of NGOs with a donor, the NGO will say that they are the only one in Palestine who does this (be it rural women empowerment, or whatever else may be on the agenda). Donor staff tends to believe in this, because they fluctuate every 3 years or so, so they are hardly exposed to the entire market. That creates a negotiating position of a supply-side monopoly for the NGO. Monopolies tend to increase prices, and are not good for quality either.

The donor directory would give NGOs better access to decision makers at donor institutions. So donors would be exposed to a greater variety of implementers, increasing competition, which may result in positive impact on aid effectiveness. De-monopolizing the market can decrease prices and improve quality.

Prepare to Face Resistance

A large part of ODA is partner oriented in line with Paris Declaration, therefore PA institutions often have a strong saying in which implementation partners to choose. Those governmentally chosen NGOs enjoy a certain supply-side monopoly, enabling them to increase prices, while they have to watch carefully to behave PA-friendly in all their steps.
So this part of the monopoly is hard to break up -- and PA may be punishing attempts to do so. So the focus should be on those donors that enjoy more freedom, and those sectors that enjoy a not-so-tight grip of PA in steering donor funds.

There are a few top-dog NGOs in each sector that have good networks with donors on one side, and good linkages with the relevant PA institutions. They will not be amused if competitors try to take away their market shares. So some might try to prevent you from making their well kept business development secrets widely available.

Your advantage is that actually this information is not really secret. Donors are more open in communicating their funding commitments, their strategies and implementation plans. You could work as an agent on both sides, talking to donors presenting them the variety of NGOs active in that field, and selling the information about donors to NGOs as sales leads.