Majd Mashharawi's inspiration for her start-up SunBox, which powers thousands of homes in Gaza city with cost-effective solar panels, stemmed from her own experience with the electricity crisis that mars the lives of those in the 365-kilometre blockaded enclave.
Founded in 2018, SunBox began with a vision to provide underprivileged communities in the Middle East with access to solar energy.
"I grew up with the fact that I need to programme myself a couple of days in advance to know when the water will be on so that I can have a shower. I have to know if I can charge my laptop and phone before the electricity goes off," Ms Mashharawi says.
About 86 per cent of Palestinians in Gaza reported they receive electricity for six to eight hours daily on average during the year, with 82 per cent reporting they are unable to refrigerate food due to the lack of electricity provided by the public network, according to a survey conducted by the International Committee of the Red Cross.
About 80 per cent of those surveyed said the lowest amount of electricity they received in one day last year was less than four hours. Around 94 per cent of respondents believe the lack of electricity is affecting their mental health.
According to the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, demand for electricity in the Gaza Strip is estimated at 470 megawatts, of which approximately 45 per cent is currently being met.
Since its inception, SunBox has provided power supply to 65,000 people living in Gaza city, where power blackouts are common and people hardly get three to six hours of electricity supply.
As a result of their vulnerability of depending on Israel for most of their power, Palestinians turned to solar energy in recent years to ensure a steady supply of electricity for its residents. The country aims to expand its solar energy capacity to 200MW in eight years' time – a move that could see Palestine cut its energy imports from Israel by 17 per cent, according to the Palestine Investment Authority.
SunBox offers different financial models for families, where they can share costs of installing a panel. It also provides subsidies to families to set up solar panels on their rooftops with the help of various international organisations.
“We’ve provided subsidies of up to 100 per cent and it depends on family income, family size and the location,” Ms Mashharawi says. “We also work in the water sector providing desalination plants in Gaza with solar facilities that help Palestinian families get clean and fresh water.”
The cost of installing a solar panel can range from $1,200 and could go up to $15,000. Sometimes, the company installs the system on the entire building with 20 families or more splitting the cost.
Starting the company, however, was not easy. Ms Mashharawi had to get approvals from a number of officials in both Palestine and Israel.
“It took us a long time to figure out the best way of sourcing the products from China and Japan, ship all the way to Israel and cross the border to Palestine,” she says.
“It was a complicated process and we needed so many approvals and talk to army and officials. Palestinian government from the West Bank and Gaza and the Israeli government and finally we found out the way.”
Ms Mashharawi, who grew up in Palestine with intermittent power and water supply, says she is happy to do her bit to alleviate some of the problems faced by residents.
The initiative from her company as well as others are helping thousands of residents in the city.
Currently, "every street has solar panels on the rooftop of their buildings, more than I have seen in the whole GCC area. We also get the electricity from Egypt, Israel through the grid”, she says.
Ms Mashharawi first got the idea for SunBox during a visit to Japan in 2017. The beaming lights in the streets there caught her eye and she decided to do something to help Palestinian people access electricity. After a couple of months, she moved to the US on a study programme and raised $380,000 through crowd funding and angel investors to start the company.
SunBox currently provides employment to 65 people and is also training young engineers to improve their skills in the field, she says.
“What makes this company unique is it is headed by a woman. We are the first solar company that was founded and headed by a woman,” Ms Mashharawi says. “Second, the technology we provide, there are so many features and we know what the family requires, we engineer the product and minimise the cost of it.”
After achieving success in Palestine, the company is now looking to expand its operations in the Middle East. SunBox is currently working on a pilot project in Saudi Arabia to provide solar energy to different mosques in Jeddah and Riyadh, and is raising $690,000.
“We are very profitable and generating revenue and we are looking to grow operations across the region including Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. We are also looking to work in some of the refugee camps in the region and help in power generation.”
She also says Palestine has a huge pool of talent but “have no opportunities like other countries and people immigrate".
"I want to create a regional company that works in different countries headed by Palestinian entrepreneurs and Palestinian like-minded people.”
Based: Gaza, Palestine
Launch year: 2018
Number of employees: 65
Sector: Renewable energy
Funding: The company raised $380,000 through crowd funding and angel investors initially.
Q&A with Majd Mashharawi, founder of SunBox
What successful start-ups do you wish you could have started?
I admire Uber a lot as they have solved a big headache for so many people and created jobs for millions while not owning a single car.
What is your vision for the company?
I envision SunBox as a regional company headed by a woman entrepreneur working in privileged communities like the GCC and generating profits and reinvesting it inside the unprivileged communities like refugee camps in Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.
Where do you see yourself and the company in five years?
I believe that business is the only way to build my country so I hope that 10 years from today I will be able to create a hugely successful company and then invest my skills, money and power to empower young people and build a sustainable economy that will help build a country.
How has the pandemic affected your business?
Actually, the Covid-19 pandemic positively impacted my company. During the lockdown in Palestine, people's demand for energy was higher as they were not allowed to leave their houses. We were able to sign contracts with a company in order to deliver batteries, inverters and panels for families. We were also able to launch our company in Saudi Arabia and received support from the World Bank.
What new skills have you learnt in the process of starting the company?
Launching this company taught me so many things about myself as a Palestinian and how the Arab and the western world perceive us. I learnt that a woman with income, education and knowledge can go further than 100 men together. I was also introduced to different businesses, entrepreneurs and experts who taught me things I never imagined learning.