When Nedal Zahran and two of his close friends founded the organization Leaders, they had no idea of what they were doing. Today, the organization is a success story; working with young business entrepreneurs and finding ways to navigate the at times hostile political and economic environment in Palestine. The hoods of their jackets struggle under the weight of heavy puddles of water. Sea fog blows at them from the South Funen archipelago. It’s the first visit to Denmark for these two Palestinian men, and so far, the rural countryside of South Funen is not giving them a warm welcome.
At first, Nedal Zahran is nervous that he has picked the wrong hiking trail altogether. Everywhere he looks, Danish flags are flapping in the wind in people’s backyards. Maybe the shoreline between Faaborg and Svendborg is a hub for brewing extremist nationalists, he thinks. The only place he has ever seen this many flags is in Israel. However, the Danes that they meet along their way are nicer than he could have hoped for. And finally, the two Palestinian men reach their destination. A cabin by the sea in Vester Skerninge, a name Nedal Zahran pronounces perfectly.
38-year-old Nedal Zahran is the Business Development Manager at the organization Leaders in Ramallah. Last month, he travelled with his business partner Zaher Bassiouni to Denmark and hiked along the coastal line from Faaborg to Svendborg. Denmark is above all a “consistently cold place”, if you ask Nedal Zahran. Beautiful, expensive, and systematic. Filled with cosy small farms, sheep, horses and flags. Different in almost every way from Palestine. “That makes it sound as though it is a total disaster in Palestine and nothing works. It is not. We have Ramallah, which is almost as good as Svendborg,” he says and laughs. “But things here do not work according to a system. In Denmark, you pretty much always know what to expect. In Ramallah, you wake up one day, there is no work and you have no clue why. Maybe it rained a lot yesterday, or some political leaders are upset about something.”
Learning by doing
In this Palestinian system – where many things do not work according to plan and a flag does not mean that it is someone’s birthday, but that Israel is trying to claim ownership of your land – he co-founded the organization Leaders. A non-profit organization paving the way for young Palestinian entrepreneurs.
Nedal Zehran grew up in the village Beit Ur some 16 kilometres west of Ramallah and now lives with his wife and their three-year-old daughter Salma in the de facto Palestinian capital Ramallah. He has a degree in Economics and International Development and has studied in both Hong Kong and Manchester, UK. Today, he is sitting in his office in the Leaders building overlooking sunny Ramallah and scrolling through pictures on his laptop of rainy Southern Funen. He describes his office as “the kitchen”, the place where the organization cooks up new projects. Nedal Zahran is the one in charge of writing the proposals and above all getting the money.
When Leaders started in 2004, it was “one of those projects that you start, and you have no idea where it is going to go”, he says. The idea was the brain-child of CEO Shadi Atshan, and in the beginning, the three friends – Nedal, Zaher and Shadi – and founders had no idea what they were doing. “The first time we had an audit from the Ministry of Interior, all of our financial documents were all over the place. I think in many cases we learned by doing. In the beginning, it was like ideas came out of nowhere. We were walking down the street and someone would be like ‘yeah, let’s do an innovation incubator.’”
The first years, the organization had a shatter-gun kind of approach and stumbled on trying to embrace projects about everything from culture and youth activism to economic development. But around year 2010, Leaders carried a new strategy: One focusing on technology and exporting tech products abroad. It is a strategy navigating an economic and political environment defined by occupation: Apps and websites do not cross physical borders. They do not risk being denied a permit or getting stuck at the borders. “Slowly, we figured out that there is a need for someone to work with economic development in Palestine. Someone with a new vision and a new outlook,” Nedal Zahran says. “So, we looked to areas where there is room to manoeuvre, it’s easier to reach the market and deliver the services. We wanted to find some way around the obstacles that the political situation in Palestine creates; the fact that the political situation is a mess, we are an occupied country, and Israel controls everything.”
Entrepreneurship in the ruins of an economic disaster
Sitting in the Leader’s office, you could not feel further away from rockets, clashes, and escalating conflict. Here, people plaster progressive statements about women in business on the walls and scribble business plans on the windows. New businesses grow in an “innovation incubator” and in the 1200 square metre tech park, ‘eZone’. But the harsh realities of the Palestinian economy influence the work of Leaders. You only need to take a quick glance at the numbers; According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the rate of unemployment in the West Bank in 2018 was an average of 18 percent and reached over 50 percent in the Gaza Strip.
According to Nedal Zahran, the Palestinian economy is distorted in several ways. Israel controls the economy, the economy depends on Israel, and while Israel does the selling, Palestine does the providing of low-skilled manpower. Working with an organization such as Leaders in Palestine means constantly struggling to solve problems that should not be there in the first place, he says: Simple products cannot be imported. Licenses take forever to get. Raw materials are held back at the borders for days on end. “If Israel wants a Palestinian economy somewhat thriving, they only want one good enough to be a secondary market rather than an independent economy. The economy favours less skill, less production, less innovation. There is low productivity, and it is easier and cheaper to import from Turkey and China. All these factors make a recipe for economic disaster,” he says.
Yet, despite working in the ruins of an economic disaster, Leaders is thriving. The first project had a budget of around 1.000 dollars per month. Now, the organization spends at least a hundred times more than that every month. Since the strategy shift, it has worked with over 60 Palestinian start-up businesses responsible for creating approximately 1.000 new jobs. The organization has opened two more offices in Brussels in Belgium and Amman in Jordan and hopes to expand beyond. “It is impact that you can measure, and it is very rewarding for us to see the kind of impact that we have had on the economy and on Palestinian entrepreneurs. That is the thing that kept us going: That we were actually doing something,” he says. “So many good things are happening in Palestine that I do not think people necessarily know in Europe and in Denmark. It is easier to focus on the bad things, on bombings and F-16s flying over Gaza. But it is important to also put focus on the many people that are doing great things in Palestine.”