The Palestinian Entrepreneur 3D Printing a Brighter Future for Gaza
Creating medical and educational equipment through 3D printing technology, Mohammed Abu Matar and his startup Tashkeel 3D seeks to overcome barriers that so often endanger the Palestinian people.
Every few years there comes a piece of technology that allows people to bypass barriers to their progress and wellbeing. For Palestinian entrepreneur Mohammed Abu Matar, 3D printing is that technology. Through his startup, Tashkeel 3D, Abu Matar produces educational tools and life-saving medical equipment in Gaza, where war, lack of resources and a frail marketplace so often hinders the development of any business.
A telecommunications major turned entrepreneur, Abu Matar’s passion for technology is what led him to discover 3D printing in 2014. A year later, he built the first 3D prototype in Gaza using open source software. “This technology has immense value,” Abu Matar tells StartupScene. “It’s not something that just helps with work, but it can be used in a variety of ways for multiple purposes that are truly important for our community, and the people of Gaza.”
It is this belief that saw him through the darkest times, when his office was destroyed by an airstrike in 2021 last year. “I went back to zero or below zero even, but I didn’t hesitate for a second to give up my work and my business,” says Abu Matar. “Because the market, and the people, need our services.”
Today, as he’s bringing his business back to life, Abu Matar shares his entrepreneurial journey to empower other developing communities to build their own products and better their living conditions, and reduce their reliance on supply chains that are so often disrupted by global events such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
STARTING A BUSINESS
Starting a business under normal circumstances is difficult enough, but building a startup under strict border controls and restrictions on the flow of goods can be outright crippling. However, as often is the case in Gaza, many youths have no choice but to start their own ventures. “When I graduated in 2006, things were very difficult in Gaza, economically and politically,” recalls Abu Matar. “There was no opportunity to work at the time, so I thought that the best thing to do was to start my own business.”
Soon after he graduated, Abu Matar started a business providing services to workshops and maintenance centres, particularly electronic boards and other spare parts. As a tech enthusiast, Abu Matar also started collecting new technologies entering the market until he learned about 3D printing. “I tried to import this machine, but I wasn’t able to,” he says. “We are isolated economically in Gaza, so we cannot import much. So, I approached the situation the Gazan way: the things that we can’t import, we produce locally.”
Getting a $20,000 bank loan helped Abu Mattar build the first 3D printing prototype in Gaza and launch Tashkeel 3D in 2016. Although a 3D printer can print almost any product, he chose to specifically focus on the most pressing issues. “Our country has so many problems in all areas of life, such as environment, farming, health, education, etcetera,” Abu Matar explains. “So, we did a survey on what are the most important problem areas facing Gaza, and we found two: healthcare and education.”
PUTTING 3D PRINTING TO GOOD USE
Indeed, focusing on these two sectors has been beneficial for both Abu Matar and Gazans. Working with local and international organisations such as Doctors Without Borders and UNDP amongst others, he was able to produce much-needed medical products, most notably a tourniquet to prevent haemorrhaging.
“In Gaza, a lot of people die during wars,” Abu Mattar says. “They usually die from excessive bleeding, and ambulances are too late to reach them because most of the time they are not able to get through all the destruction and rubble. This product is important because it helps stop the bleeding and it’s easy to use, even injured people can use it on themselves.”
After watching a video of two injured people, where only one tourniquet was available for use, Abu Matar was left with mixed feelings. “The one who didn’t have the belt died,” he says. “I didn’t know whether to be sad or happy. Should I be happy because someone lived after using our product, or sad because we didn’t produce enough?”
At the time, the startup was only able to produce 1,000 tourniquets. So, Abu Matar took it upon himself to produce an additional 2,000 products to distribute to journalists, injured people, first aid respondents and those close to the border. “That way, if any of them got exposed to injuries, they could protect themselves,” he says.
Tashkeel 3D also produces masks for medical workers to protect them from the COVID-19 virus, and more recently for burn victims. He claims that by using the protective masks for severe burns, clinics are able to treat tens of patients instead of only one or two patients a month. Meanwhile, he also provides educational aides like body anatomy tools and experimental items to support students’ learning.
REBUILDING FOR A BETTER TOMORROW
The destruction of Abu Matar’s office in 2021 completely devastated his business. All the equipment, machinery and hardware that he had accumulated since 2006 was lost. But he was determined to rebuild, not only to continue the company’s operations, but to also provide injured people and those on the front lines with much needed medical products.
“The hardest thing is for someone to wake up and lose everything,” Abu Mattar says. “I woke up to a call, with someone telling me my office's building was destroyed in an airstrike. This was the hardest challenge of all, whether emotionally or financially. I had to start all over again, and until now, I’m still struggling.”
Despite this setback, Abu Matar was adamant about continuing his business. He quickly reached out to friends abroad who put together a fundraising campaign for the startup. Within eight days, the campaign reached its target funding of $50,000 and Abu Matar was able to produce tourniquets soon after the war ended.
“I’m still growing,” he says. “Although I’m still not as well established as I once was, I’m about 90% there. I brought back employees to work again, and I’m now trying to enter new markets and work with new organisations.”
Tashkeel 3D is back to having three employees, and Abu Matar is looking to increase his services to other sectors, like jewellery and maintenance services. Looking to the future, however, he plans to provide consulting services to countries experiencing similar struggles like Gaza, helping them develop low-cost technology services to better their living conditions. He adds that there are many countries in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East where people are suffering from wars or are struggling to access raw materials, particularly because of recent disruptions in global supply chains.
“I soon plan to provide services through international organisations to help affected communities build their production capabilities,” he says. “By sharing our years of experience, knowledge and struggles of operating in a place like Gaza, I hope they can learn from it, and use it to benefit themselves and their communities.”