The Palestinian entrepreneur bringing power to Gaza Boîte de réception

Energy blackouts had been a feature of daily life for almost as long as Majd Mashharawi could remember. Then a visit to Japan changed everything

When Palestinian entrepreneur Majd Mashharawi left Gaza for the first time in 2017, she counted herself lucky to be among a small minority able to get away from a place described by its residents as the world’s largest open-air prison.

But during her visit to Japan, what most caught her eye were the lights in the streets. The Palestinian enclave she comes from is notorious for its power cuts. Mashharawi, 25, decided to do something about the problem on her return to Gaza.

Her solution was to launch SunBox, a company that aims to create access to energy by providing, among other things, affordable, off-grid solar kits to families.

Priced at $350 (£288), the solar kit is often shared between two families, generating electricity for a range of devices such as lamps, phones, TVs and even small refrigerators, as well as internet connections.

“I spent all my [time at] college sitting by a candle,” says Mashharawi. “Hospitals are prioritised, they have eight to 10 hours’ electricity – people have three to five hours.”

When the power cuts started, Mashharawi was 12. “It became part of my life. It’s annoying … but you don’t know about it until you see it in real life,” she said. “When I was in Gaza, I used to accept it, but when I went to Japan, and I saw how many lights they have in the streets, how easy life is … you just go to the bathroom, you have [a] hot shower, it’s so easy.”

Gaza’s electricity comes from its diesel power plant, as well as from Israel and Egypt, but it receivesless than half of what it needs for a full 24-hour supply. The power plant’s ability to generate electricity has been affected by bombing by Israel, as well as by Gaza’s restricted access to fuel.

Electricity, says Mashharawi, is essential, not least for people who are sick. “For people who need electricity for their medical devices, for them it’s life. Some people spend hours in the hospital because they need certain devices that cannot run on small batteries, and they don’t have money to buy a generator.”

Mashharawi, a civil engineer, had already made her name as an entrepreneur after developing an alternative brick to repair houses damaged by Israeli airstrikes in Gaza. Launched in 2016, her GreenCake company manufactures concrete blocks largely made of debris from houses combined with ashes and a small amount of imported cement.

SunBox kits consist of one or two panels, one solar device and a battery; components come from China, Canada, the US and even Israel. The basic kit can be upgraded. There is a pay-as-you-go option, where people can split the cost over a year.

Launched last year, SunBox is already a success. Its projects have included the installation of a 250 kilowatt system for a desalination plant. It now has a staff of 10 and in July had a turnover of $500,000.

However, Mashharawi’s goal is to do more than just provide electricity. “In the West Bank, they have electricity but the issue is dependency. They’re very dependent on Israel. One of our missions is to bring independence to the Palestinians. If we want to create a country, we have to be independent.”

As a young woman, Mashharawi has defied the odds. As a child, she says, she felt “Gaza was too small for me”. She received an Erasmus scholarship to study in Germany, but wasn’t able to participate in the programme as it took her eight years before she eventually managed to leave Gaza. She opted for a holiday in Japan, which sparked the SunBox idea.

In London recently, participating at the Palestine Expo, a gathering to highlight Palestinian arts and culture, she said she had had to go through a lengthy process to get permission to travel, and was initially told she couldn’t leave.

“I was banned from leaving the country by the Israelis for a year for security reasons. They said it was impossible, but my dictionary doesn’t have the word impossible.” An intervention by the Swiss embassy, which sent her a diplomatic car, got her from the Gaza-Israel border to Jordan.

“It’s very hard. In the beginning it was really impossible, everything was against you, the community, the family, relatives, friends, but if you believe in something, everyone else will believe in it, even your enemy,” she said.

Despite her success and having made many visits abroad, Mashharawi says she doesn’t want to live anywhere but Gaza.

“In Gaza there is an end for everything. You look to the sea there are ships from Israel, you look to the land there is a wall or a fence, you drive 40 minutes, this is the end. You can’t go further,” she says.

“I drive every weekend just to the north of Gaza to see the end, to convince myself that this should end. The blockade didn’t just block us physically, it also blocked our minds.”