Gaza City – Few opportunities await Gaza’s youth after they graduate from university. Unemployment among university graduates aged 19-29 years old in the besieged coastal enclave was just shy of 80 percent last year, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics.
But civil engineering graduates Tamer Abo Motlaq, 26, Usama Qudaih, 24, and Khaled Abo Motlaq, 24 were determined not to add to the grim statistic.
Harnessing their degrees and their desire to create sustainable affordable energy alternatives for their cash-strapped fellow Palestinians in Gaza, the trio founded the Olive Jift Project – a startup that turns “jift”, byproducts from olive oil pressing, into fuel pellets for home heating and cooking.
To secure seed funding and valuable mentorship, the three graduates entered their startup idea in a contest run by Danish Church Aid.
“Our project won a micro-funding of $5,000 and received technical assistance and coaching from [the local NGO] Ma’an Development Center,” Tamer told Al Jazeera.
Converting jift into fuel pellets costs the company about $150 a tonne, or $0.2 a kilogramme- roughly half the local price of a kilogramme of firewood.
“The Jift production begins with grinding fresh olive mill pomace left on the site of the olive press, then we apply chemical treatment to remove the bad smell from Jift burning and reduce its emissions and smoke,” Tamer explained to Al Jazeera.
“The final stage is to compress treated olive pomace through a machine specifically designed to make Cylindrical-shaped Jift with a certain amount of air gaps in it. Then, we let it dry in the sun before it’s ready to use.”
The founders said the machine they needed for the final stage of production would have set them back $11,000, more than double their available seed capital, so they pooled their engineering knowhow to build the equipment themselves.
“Together, we built our own machine from scratch at a local workshop, and it ended up costing only $3,000, including the damages we incurred in the first few failed attempts,” Tamer said.
The team hopes to make a meaningful impact, if even on a micro-level, by creating a sustainable product that is affordable to Gaza’s residents and helps alleviate chronic energy shortages while redressing a growing area of environmental concern.
Hassan Tammous, an associate professor of biochemistry at Egypt’s Al-Azhar University, explained that oil extraction typically leaves behind more than 40 percent waste of the total olive harvest. He told Al Jazeera that “each year, 80,000 tonnes of olive pomace is left behind after oil extraction in the West Bank and Gaza.”
Waste management is a challenge in densely populated Gaza. Olive waste, which can end up in sewers or on farmland is particularly concerning, said Tammous, because it contains “polyphenols and other chemicals, which are toxic to microorganisms, harmful to agricultural production and contaminating to aquifers”.
The fuel pellets also lessen demand for firewood that is usually sourced from local citrus trees, according to Tamer.
“Logging is unsustainable in Gaza, because we don’t have much green environment in such urban and densely populated area,” he adds.
Tamer said that not only are the Jift pellets cheaper and better for the environment, they are also more efficient. “Regular firewood burns for four to five hours while a Jift block burns for seven to 10 hours in average,” he said. “When used for heating and cooking, a few-cents worth of Jeft blocks substitute for a 64-shekels ($18.47) gas cylinder.”
On a more industrial scale, it takes approximately 0.386kg (0.85 pounds) of dry firewood to produce one kilowatt-hour in steam turbines compared with only 0.23kg (0.5 pounds) of Jift used to produce the same amount, according to Mazen Abu Amro, Dean of Al-Azhar University’s Faculty of Engineering.
After marketing the project to local outlets and on social media, the Olive Jift team said demand for their product has exceeded supply.
“We were surprised that despite our production rate of 1,000kg per hour (2,204.6 pounds), we often run out of Jift,” Tamer told Al Jazeera.
“Some local factories want us to supply Jift in large quantities all year round for alternative energy, while many farmers in Khan Younis in southern Gaza use it in wintertime to heat greenhouses and chicken farms, because it can give them up to 12 hours of heating.”
The team hopes to double its production capacity next year along with its workforce and engineering staff.
New products are also in the development pipeline, including a portable heater that could charge a phone from burning Jift.
Tamer said he hopes that the international community takes notice of the entrepreneurial spirit incubating in Gaza.
“Entrepreneurship is the path to challenge the dire status quo and develop local solutions to Gaza’s crises,” he said.
“We are some of the most highly educated populations in the world. What we lack is a serious opportunity to demonstrate our resourcefulness and potentials to create a better reality ourselves.”