A lifelong video gamer and self-educated app developer, Muhammad Bushnaq was surprised when his Android trivia game accrued 500,000 downloads during its first two weeks on the Google Play store.
“I went through YouTube and started digging and learning how to develop games,” Bushnaq, 24, told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday. “Then I created two games that didn’t go well. They were my first projects. Then I created a trivia game called League of Guessing.”
While Bushnaq, from the Lower Galilee town of Kafr Manda, was pleased with his success, he realized that his free game was not making him money and that he had little knowledge as to how to transform his developing skills into something profitable. Eventually, however, a mentor connected him to Tsofen, an Arab-Jewish organization promoting the integrating of Israel’s Arab citizens into the country’s hi-tech industry.
“I met Tsofen and started thinking about how I can take the users from this game and try to make a new game, and get some help from here. I didn’t know anything,” said Bushnaq, who is participating in the organization’s new accelerator program.
Bushnaq was speaking with the Post
at Tsofen’s yearold offices in the Lev Haaretz Industrial Zone of Kafr Kasim, a city located in central Israel’s so-called Arab Triangle, just north of Rosh Ha’ayin and Petah Tikva and about 20 km east of Tel Aviv. The organization aims to transform the Kafr Kasim region into a hub for hi-tech innovation by training budding entrepreneurs in the Arab sector and drawing Israeli and international companies to open branches in the city’s industrial zone.
Tsofen opened its doors in Kafr Kasim in February 2016 after eight years of successful operation in Nazareth in the Galilee. From the beginning, the organization intended to launch four branches in the country’s Arab community – in the Galilee, the Triangle, the Sakhnin area and the Negev – said Sami Saadi, co-founder and co-CEO of Tsofen. With an active hi-tech community already established in Nazareth, the organization moved forward to establish a similar hub in the Triangle region.
“We found Kafr Kasim,” said Saadi, who serves as co-CEO of the organization alongside Paz Hirschman.
“The industrial area that we are in right now is the only industrial area in the Triangle area. We found a mayor who is committed to the economic development and technology of his city.”
While in most Arab Israeli communities about 70% of municipal revenues tend to come from residential taxes, in Jewish Israeli communities, about 70% tend to come from industry, Saadi said. Yet in Kafr Kasim, approximately 68% of revenues are generated by industry, according to Mayor Adel Badir.
Kafr Kasim may now be flourishing, but such success did not come easy to the city. The municipality was home to the 1956 Kafr Kasim Massacre, when Israeli Border Police killed 48 civilians returning from work during a curfew that been ordered earlier that day, unbeknownst to the residents.
Today, with one hi-tech industrial zone already thriving, Badir is now planning a second nearby on a 50,000-square meter plot of land. Because the country has declared the area a top category development zone, companies that move to the future space can benefit from significantly reduced taxes, the mayor said. In addition, the government has agreed to join in 33% of the employee salary costs for the first 30 months of operations, Badir explained.
“Kafr Kasim has great potential, many advantages. The first is its geographical location, 20 minutes from Tel Aviv, 15 minutes from Petah Tikva,” he told the Post
, at his downtown office on Thursday. “The location gives it a tremendous advantage. I expect that Kafr Kasim will transform in 10 years to a big center of hi-tech similar to Ra’anana,” Badir added.
Inside the city, Kafr Kasim is already partnering with Tsofen to bring increased hi-tech education not just to budding professional entrepreneurs, but also to high school students. The organization brings in successful Arab representatives from the hi-tech world to show students how they might one day enter the same arena, Saadi said.
Badir expressed confidence that, by the year 2020, Kafr Kasim would be able to join the list of Israel’s 15 strongest cities. “We are on the way,” he said.
Badir said he would like to see the city’s current and forthcoming hi-tech industrial zones absorb 1,200 Arab and Jewish workers from the entire region. Such a hub would “open a new horizon” for local Arab-Israeli women in particular, who often face difficulties applying to hi-tech jobs in Tel Aviv and Herzliya due to the lack of transportation options, he explained.
“Kafr Kasim will be a model of collaborative life, of Arabs and Jews working together,” Badir said. “I don’t like the expression coexistence, because it is understood in the public awareness that you come to Arab villages to eat hummus or fix cars. I believe in a life of partnership, in which you do business together and work together.”
One element of the public awareness that Tsofen is trying to foster is the flawed conception within the Arab-Israeli sector that its young people cannot enter the country’s blossoming hi-tech sector. Even among Arab investors, there is little awareness about the hi-tech industry, and most funds are directed toward investments that are considered more solid, like real estate.
“That Arab society doesn’t like risk,” Saadi explained.
In order to change this mindset, Tsofen is operating the TRIO/O Tech program in Kafr Kasim’s Lev Haaretz Industrial Zone in partnership with the MIT Enterprise Forum of Israel and the US Embassy in Israel’s Middle East Partnership Initiative.
TRIO/O includes an “entrepreneurship school,” in which the participants learn about the basics of entrepreneurship, such as what it means to be a start-up, what is an angel investor, what is an exit and how to make an effective business presentation, Saadi explained. After completing the school, some students have the opportunity to join a more exclusive accelerator stage, in which they can refine their own specific start-up ideas with the help of industry mentors.
Thus far, about 50 people have studied in the school program, which is currently in its third round, said Maher Kabha, Tsofen’s recruitment and training manager.
Eight people have been accepted to the accelerator stage – at the moment midway through its first cycle, Saadi added.
While thus far only six women have joined the school and none is in the accelerator program, Kabha said that part of Tsofen’s work will involve encouraging them to do so and helping them find suitable tech partners if their backgrounds are more life-science and education oriented.
“We have a lot of work to do to encourage women to enter into the hi-tech field,” Saadi said. “In the longterm, we will need to increase the number of women in the programs we do in high school.”
Men and women combined, Saadi said he hopes to see today’s 4,000 engineers in Israel’s Arab sector grow to 10,000. He also stressed the need for further partnerships with the Economy Ministry – which already collaborates with Tsofen – as well as the opening of hi-tech parks not only in Kafr Kasim, but also in the Negev.
At Kafr Kasim’s Lev Haaretz park on Thursday, Bushnaq expressed the hope that his time spent in Tsofen’s accelerator will enable him to successfully present his latest game to investors.
Bushnaq is now developing a handheld game similar to the popular late ‘90s arcade phenomenon, Dance Dance Revolution. Instead of using their feet to dance to the rhythm of a song, players must swipe their smartphone screen with a finger as arrows fly by during each tune.
Coming from a different background entirely, 37-yearold Mohamad Younis is hoping to utilize computer vision to automate processes in Computer Numerical Control (CNC) machines – computer-controlled devices used for welding and milling hard materials. Younis, an established software engineer from the Arara village near Hadera, is currently enrolled in Tsofen’s entrepreneurship school.
“I hope that this course can open many doors to me that I can do stuff with my start-up,” he said.
In Younis’s mind, one of the key steps forward for the Arab hi-tech world will be building more industrial parks or creating benefits for those Arab-Israelis who are interested in launching start-ups or working in large firms.
“There are not a lot of companies and opportunities for Arab people to work in these companies,” Younis said. “But I think if the Arab sector starts to think in a different way, to help themselves to start making companies and to ask for industrial parks and start making start-ups, I think that the situation will change.”
When Younis went to study computer science in 1997, he was only the third person to do so in his village of 35,000 people. While there might be more awareness about the sector today, he stressed the need for more direction among potential hi-tech recruits.
“I think there is a tremendous potential in the Arab population,” Younis said.
For Bushnaq, the first place to start changing mindsets is within the Arab population itself, where traditional university and career paths have long been much more popular than hi-tech.
“In the Arab society, they are working in one path.
They are going to study in the university and that’s it,” Bushnaq said. “But the start-up path is a lot different; it’s a lot harder. You have to face a lot of things and the first is the society itself. You have to convince them that you are trying to do something different; you are trying to do something to change the world. That’s something my Arab society doesn’t have.”