Gaza entrepreneurs thrive online during Covid-19 and lingering conflict

For many young Gazans, shopping online is a completely new experience

Twenty one year-old Majdi Al Rayass checks goods that he received from a shipping company, before delivering them to customers. Majd Mahmoud/The National
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For thousands of residents in Gaza, online shopping is not just about convenience.

It is a radically new experience and, in the aftermath of Covid-19, e-commerce could be opening up new doors for local start-up businesses.

Only a few international online shopping platforms have access to Gaza. AliExpress, a division of Alibaba, delivers to the Gaza Strip, despite the length of time packages take to arrive because of Israeli security checks. AliExpress also serves only retailers, not individual customers. Popular service eBay is technically accessible, but laborious complications with e-payments, combined with shipping delays, mean that many Gazans think it is not worth the effort.

Haifa Al Radwan, 22, a graduate with a business administration degree, launched her own online outlet, Blue Store, in September.

Since then, she finds that working online is more productive, especially with Covid–19 lockdowns.

"I wanted to manage my own business. I don't have experience and I wanted to develop my skills, so I decided to create my own online store," Ms Al Radwan told The National.

I hoped that I could gain experience from one of the international online stores like Amazon or eBay, but those stores don't have access to Gaza

The enclave has been particularly badly hit since the outbreak of Covid-19, with many graduates unable to find work in an economy that was already suffering from high unemployment.

But in recent months, shops created on social media apps such as Instagram rapidly gained traction with consumers in Gaza.

Faced with an already grim situation, including Covid-19 lockdowns and the ever present threat of conflict, Ms Radwan decided to sell Turkish-made products with a friend who left Gaza last year and now lives in Turkey.

Once products are sourced, Ms Al Radwan uploads photos of the items on social media and markets them for her shop.

Her Instagram page now has 569 followers and specialises in selling women’s shoes and bags.

"My work is to satisfy the customers, it is not an easy job. I hoped that I could gain experience from one of the international online stores like Amazon or eBay, but those stores don't have access to Gaza," Ms Al Radwan said.

There are still significant challenges. If someone wants to pay for any item from Amazon or eBay and chooses Gaza City as the address, a message pops up saying “this item can’t be shipped to your selected delivery location", she said.

Security delays

Majdi Alrayass, 21, holds goods that he received from a shipping company before delivery to customers. Majd Mahmoud for The National

Although no longer an occupied territory, Gaza does not have its own border points of entry. Foreign imports must first reach Israeli borders, where authorities then make security checks on the goods. Cleared goods then move on to Gaza, a process that can take from one to two months.

“I used to make orders on AliExpress despite the long time it takes to reach Gaza,” Mustafa Mohammed, 39, said.

Holding up a delivery containing two micro SD storage cards, he said: “The package takes sometimes more than eight months and it doesn’t arrive to my address, so I have to go to pick it up from a post office which charges me about $1 for each package, besides the shipment cost I already paid,” he said.

Mustafa Mohammed, 39, holds his package purchased from Aliexpress online shopping store. He waited for 8 months before the package arrived. Majd Mahmoud/The National

Mr Mohammed mentioned that he usually checks to see whether the package has already been opened, knowing it has been security checked by Israel and Hamas, which controls Gaza.

Another online outlet for women’s outfits “Flora online store” is organised by Majdi Al Rayys, 21, and Abla Al Bakry, 23, from Gaza City.

"I wanted to give the customer the same feeling of buying from an international online store," Mr Al Rayys told The National.

Mr Al Rayys and Ms Al Bakry follow the same approach used by Ms Al Radwan, buying products and marketing them online.

“The quality and prices of our products distinguish us, so customers prefer to buy from our store instead of buying from the local stores," she said.

Majdi Al Rayass, 21, delivers goods that he received from a shipping company. Majd Mahmoud/The National

Mr Al Rayys, who is studying business administration and is in his final year, said that Turkish products have been flooding the Gaza market because they are the easiest way of shipping compared with other countries.

“The customer receives the package 15 to 25 days after ordering, sometimes it takes longer due to the control of Israel for everything entering Gaza,” Ms Al Bakry said.

Ms Al Bakry graduated with a degree in political science from Gaza's Al Quds Open University, but was unable to find work. She decided to start her own business, working online from home as a safe and affordable option.

Bitter disappointment 

Yasmin Nezar, 22, wanted to experience online shopping for the first time, and soon found herself making a flurry of online orders.

"The prices of the products encouraged me to order more than I normally would purchase locally," she told The National.

In an experience familiar to many online shoppers, Ms Nezar bought a winter outfit, despite the fact that it was the height of summer.

“The store mentioned that the products will arrive between 45 and 60 days, I hesitated at the beginning but because I really wanted to experience this, I went for it” she said.

“I really wanted to make an order from Amazon or eBay but those stores don’t ship to Gaza, so this seemed like a good alternative”.

Sadly, the relative convenience of shopping online is not yet a smooth process for Gazans, as Ms Nezar soon found, after waiting three months for her package.

\she said she still had not received her order. "I was completely let down by the whole experience, and I don't think I will do it again," she said.


Gallery: Gaza's struggle with Covid-19