Mohammed al-Mzaini is a 22-year old engineering student in the Gaza Strip, and unlike his classmates, he can work on his mechatronics assignment around the clock. In Gaza, electricity shortages leave most households with power for around 12 hours a day, although in recent years it was around five hours a day, enough to charge up laptops, turn on the lights, watch television and use the internet. Although, with irregular blackout schedules it’s not enough power for his school projects that rely on electricity.
As a back-up, diesel generators are available in Gaza but the cost is out of reach for most Palestinians. Al-Mzaini doesn’t have to deal with expensive alternative power sources. His family owns a small portable solar panel device manufactured by a local company that generates enough energy to run a laptop, a modem, or even a small fridge–but not all at once.
“I don’t need to rack my brain on how much time I have to finish my assignments on my laptop and worry about how long I have before the electricity goes off,” he told me last month. In recent weeks al-Mzaini’s solar panel has proved essential. Like many college students, his university canceled in-person classes for the rest of the semester as a preventative measure against the spread of the novel coronavirus. Now all of al-Mzaini’s classes are online.
Individual solar panels are a promising product in Gaza. On the market since 2018 the panels are sold under the SunBox project, owned by a Gaza-based start-up founded two years earlier, GreenCake.
The sophisticated device is the brainchild of a 25-year-old civil engineer from Gaza, Majd Mashharawi.
At first glance, Mashharawi is an unlikely entrepreneur. She was only one year out of university when she started GreenCake. And, the start-up tech scene is male-dominated in Gaza. When she launched GreenCake, her first product was a cinder block made from recycled ash–of which there is an abundance of in Gaza as a region that had three wars in six years and stalled reconstruction.
“GreenCake helped many people who had their homes damaged feel safe at once again,” Mashharawi told me.
The concrete substitute gained Mashharawi international recognition. She gave a Ted Talk and was the subject of a flurry of profiles. In 2018 Fast Company named her in their list of “most creative CEOs.” The profile described:
“When Mashhawari graduated from Gaza’s Islamic University with an engineering degree in 2015, her family expected that she would follow the usual path for young women in Gaza and get married without ever having a career. Instead, she decided to work on solving a persistent local challenge: Local buildings destroyed by war couldn’t easily be rebuilt because many construction materials couldn’t make it over the border.”
In 2017 Mashhawari was attending MIT for a semester on a fellowship when her younger brother, Kamal, was steeped in preparation for his high school exit exam. In mid-summer on the day when the final test scores were published, known as the Tawjihi, Mashharawi kept calling her family in Gaza, but couldn’t reach them.
“I called time and time again, but no one had had their phones charged,” she said.
“All I wanted was to check on little brother’s scores,” Mashhawari recounted. “Kamal is my favorite creature. I have always had high expectations for him. It freaked me out that I couldn’t [reach him].”
That night she decided to do something about electricity in Gaza.
“It wasn’t until I stayed in the U.S. for a while that I came to realize how unthinkable life in Gaza,” Mashharawi said.
After working developing a small, lightweight panel that could be attached to household items, Mashharawi raised $38,000 in seed money from a crowd-funding campaign.
Gaza’s energy crisis dates back to 2007 when the land corridor was put under siege by Egypt and Israel. With an already limited supply, Gaza’s only power plant was bombed by Israel in 2014, creating a widespread energy deficit. Repairs took years to come and in the interceding period imports of electricity from Egypt and Israel dried up. In 2017, amid a bitter dispute between Palestinian factions in Gaza and the West Bank, the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority stopped covering the bill for electrical imports to Gaza. The amount of power purchased from Israel was immediately sliced in half and Palestinians in Gaza were left with around 4 hours of power a day.
“Gazans would fight tooth and nail, long and hard until they regain all of their human rights,” Mashharawi said.
“SunBox is a lot more than just a business to make electricity a lot more accessible for Gazans. It is more of a social enterprise than a profit-oriented corporation,” she said.
The device retails for $350. Most Palestinians buy it on layaway, splitting payments over the course of a year. So far, 250 families in Gaza have received SunBox panels through charitable donations with Mashharawi raising funds to cover either the whole cost or half of it.
“SunBox can come at an even lower price. More often than not, it is shared by two families,” she said.
Mashharawi has always been prone to action.
“Palestine shapes you just as much as you shape it, or in our case, reshape it. Limited access to electricity is not our major problem. It is what it represents,” Mashharawi said, with a file in hand from raking through a drawer of engineering and academic scholarships she won, some of which she was unable to accept due to Israeli restrictions on traveling outside of Gaza.
“I wouldn’t have been the person I am if it were not for Gaza, for Palestine,” she reflected.
“After everything I’ve done, I learned we, Gazan youth, are not only always ready for change, but we also have the talent and the mind for innovation.”