Young Palestinian entrepreneur tackles Gaza’s most pressing issues

Engineer Majd Mashharawi says the people of Gaza are trapped in an open-air prison with no access to clean water, proper healthcare, reliable electricity, let alone houses. (Supplied)
Updated 20 September 2019

Young Palestinian entrepreneur tackles Gaza’s most pressing issues

  • Majd Mashharawi's business ventures seek to build a more sustainable future for Gaza
  • Engineer turned entrepreneur refused to let gender bias stop her from achieving success

CAIRO: For more than two million people in the Gaza Strip, the struggles of daily life include coping on just three hours of electricity, while hospitals, schools, sanitation facilities and agriculture have to operate on an unreliable, limited sources of electric power controlled by politics.

For 25-year-old Majd Mashharawi, there was no doubt that something needed to change. Mashharawi was a civil engineering graduate of Gaza’s Islamic University, where one student in every six is female.

In a gender-biased culture, it meant fewer work opportunities and more obstacles. However, the engineer turned entrepreneur refused to let this stop her.

“In Gaza, we’ve been suffering the effects of a harsh blockade for longer than a decade,” she said. “We are trapped in this open-air prison with no access to clean water, proper healthcare, reliable electricity, let alone houses. For the past 50 years, because recycling methods aren’t being applied, the rubble from demolished houses ends up in landfills, then our groundwater, causing more damage.”

Since bringing construction materials into Gaza is restricted, Mashharawi and her former colleague, Rawan Abdulatif, thought: “Why don’t we create building blocks from the local material we abundantly have here in Gaza  rubble?”

Mashharawi had to try 150 times before getting the right formula for “Green Cake”, an alternative to concrete as cheap as rubble. “Concrete is made of aggregate, sand and cement. After eight months of experimenting, we realized we would not be able to replace cement entirely, so we started looking at the other two ingredients,” she recalled.

“In Gaza, asphalt factories produce eight tonnes of ash every week from burning wood and coal. We turned this harmful industrial waste into a filler for our building blocks, cutting down construction material cost by 25 per cent.”

Following numerous tests for durability, fire resistance, compression and sustainability, Green Cake hit the market in 2016. 

“Being a female in the construction business was even more challenging than inventing Green Cake itself,” she said. “It took a lot of determination and research to find a workshop in Gaza that would allow me to conduct and implement my so-called experiment.”

While Green Cake has yet to stand the test of time, 100,000 building blocks have been used to restore houses and factories all over the war-torn city. “This is just the beginning,” Mashharawi said. “We believe that Green Cake has a long way to go, and we won’t be able to get there without financial support.”

She did not stop there. “In a city that gets an average of 320 days of sunshine a year, our entire region is yet to resort to a more sustainable energy source, solar,” she said.

Enter Sun Box, a solar-energy kit that generates 1,000 watts of electricity, enough to power small household appliances, four lamps and a fridge for a day. The system, imported from China but installed locally, would cost a household $350.

“Sixteen percent of families in Gaza pay about $56 monthly to get alternative electrical resources. And when talking about the general population, most households pay about $15 monthly to get their alternative electrical source,” Mashharawi said.

“So, when you come to think about it, in the long run, it’s actually cheaper, more sustainable, and a reliable source of energy.”

The company, which has profit and non-profit arms, launched in November 2017 to offer solar systems for families suffering from an electricity shortage.

Sun Box provides different versions. One is for low-income families, subsidized by a crowdfunding programme, and the other is a shared system for two households.

“It’s hard to run a business that totally depends on politics. Getting the needed permits to get these panels into Gaza could be our most challenging obstacle, but we get it done,” Mashharawi said.

“We need to fight for our rights in Gaza, and in order to do that, we must have something to believe in, a passion to drive us towards the change we want to see in our world.”

 

This report is being published by Arab News as a partner of the Middle East Exchange, which was launched by the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Global Initiatives and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to reflect the vision of the UAE prime minister and ruler of Dubai to explore the possibility of changing the status of the Arab region.


Lebanese donor hands Nazi artifacts to Israel, warns of anti-Semitism

Updated 08 December 2019

Lebanese donor hands Nazi artifacts to Israel, warns of anti-Semitism

  • Abdallah Chatila spent about 600,000 euros ($660,000) for eight objects connected to Hitler
  • He said he had felt compelled to take the objects off the market

JERUSALEM: wealthy Lebanese-Swiss businessman said Sunday he had bought Adolf Hitler’s top hat and other Nazi artifacts to give them to Jewish groups and prevent them falling into the hands of a resurgent far-right.
Abdallah Chatila said he had felt compelled to take the objects off the market because of the rising anti-Semitism, populism and racism he was witnessing in Europe.
He spent about 600,000 euros ($660,000) for eight objects connected to Hitler, including the collapsible top hat, in a November 20 sale at a Munich auction house, originally planning to burn them all.
But he then decided to give them to the Keren Hayesod association, an Israeli fundraising group, which has resolved to hand them to Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial center.
Chatila told a Jerusalem press conference it had been a “very easy” decision to purchase the items when he saw the “potentially lethal injustice that those artifacts would go to the wrong hands.”
“I felt I had no choice but to actually try to help the cause,” he added.
“What happened in the last five years in Europe showed us that anti-Semitism, that populism, that racism is going stronger and stronger, and we are here to fight it and show people we’re not scared.
“Today — with the fake news, with the media, with the power that people could have with the Internet, with social media — somebody else could use that small window” of time to manipulate the public, he said.
He said he had worried the Nazi-era artifacts could be used by neo-Nazi groups or those seeking to stoke anti-Semitism and racism in Europe.
“That’s why I felt I had to do it,” he said of his purchase.
The items, still in Munich, are to be eventually delivered to Yad Vashem, where they will be part of a collection of Nazi artifacts crucial to countering Holocaust denial, but not be put on regular display, said Avner Shalev, the institute’s director.
Chatila also met with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin and visited Yad Vashem.
Chatila was born in Beirut into a family of Christian jewellers and moved to Switzerland at the age of two.
Now among Switzerland’s richest 300 people, he supports charities and causes, including many relating to Lebanon and Syrian refugees.
The auction was brought to Chatila’s attention by the European Jewish Association, which has sought to sway public opinion against the trade in Nazi memorabilia.
Rabbi Mehachem Margolin, head of the association, said Chatila’s surprise act had raised attention to such auctions.
He said it was a powerful statement against racism and xenophobia, especially coming from a non-Jew of Lebanese origin.
Lebanon and Israel remain technically at war and Lebanese people are banned from communication with Israelis.
“There is no question that a message that comes from you is 10 times, or 100 times stronger than a message that comes from us,” Margolin told Chatila.
The message was not only about solidarity among people, but also “how one person can make such a huge change,” Margolin said.
“There’s a place for optimism.”