Zahi Khouri on doing business in Palestine


The National Beverage company obviously produces beverages. What we do is try to create jobs with high quality products. Contrary to what most business people try to do is to cut costs and eliminate jobs. I take pride in creating jobs. We started 20 years ago with 48 people, today we are at 800 plus people. So, all the rest is secondary. See, I can’t see any company in our environment, in the Palestinian territory, whether in Gaza or in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, where we haven’t done quite a lot of social or impact changes. And one has to recognise if it weren’t for Coke I wouldn’t be as knowledgeable about these things without them. So there is something positive about big multinationals. Plus, Coca Cola is very serious and quite sincere about this issue of social impact. They see a bigger role that women can play. We have a programme which we try to be associated or take advantage of called “Five by twenty” which is creating five million women entrepreneurs by the year 2020 around the world. So if I can get a piece of that cake and succeed in our territories, in the, in our country, I’ll be very happy. Plus for example if you take water issues, we took less with all the problems in Gaza, with the blockade in Gaza, water situation is deplorable. It’s just inhuman. So we built our own desalination station and give water to approximately 30,000 inhabitants of one of the camps. We established the first women’s football team, which won, which were number two regionally, after two years only. The captain is now a Vice President at FIFA in Zurich. So you know, these things always affect my mood. When I’m in a bad mood I think about these things, you know. I teach my staff, I always say, “You have to challenge the challenges.” Yes, we do have challenges, but you know, what do you do about it? You just have to keep, I mean, when we had a total invasion of the Israeli army we couldn’t get from one point to the other so we moved some of our products on the back of a donkey. To go up the mountain and back to the village and so on. Yes, but you know, you have, and I always say, and I will say, maybe this is half true “life shows no mercy for those who give up.” So, that’s all, and we have practical issues. We, you know, there is a wall in front of you, you go around the wall. And you know, I think, occupying forces in difficult situations also see that creating jobs creates stability. And creating stability lessens violence, and so on. I also make life easy for the staff and keep developing them. They see that there is no limit to mankind’s potential. Or as we say I “unleash their potential” and you know, you get self confidence, then you’ll get this faith in yourself and you’ll fight it. Just to put it in context, our biggest problem, other than the political problem and so on, is, for me, the number one enemy is brain drain. So the first world creates problems and benefits from these problems. So all the great talent, you see them in the first world. And a lot of them are immigrants, and that’s how do I create an environment where they stay home? And because the unemployment among graduates, and I tell you it will shock you, that unemployment among graduate women is 80%. And among the younger people, I mean male gender, is around 40%. So and yet you look at their IQ is just unbelievable, with a literacy rate of 98%, so how do we get these youth to stay? And so we established an innovation fund, like a start-up fund but a very high risk fund. In other words, we just push these young people with ideas into an accelerator, and some make it, some don’t make it, but those who make it we give them their initial capital. It’s usually around 40,000 so to get started generally. And we’ve had in the last three years, around 30 start-ups, maybe 10 will make it, which is extremely high ratio for start-ups, so, or pre-angel startups. And each one kind of employs 7 to 12 people, and then the multiplier effect will be enormous if it works. So that’s one way of doing it, and a concrete way. And they’re very excited, the competition is, I mean we’re getting a pipeline of ideas which is enormous. And you’d be surprised to hear that the best ideas we get them out of Gaza, which is here always linked to rockets and nothing else. But you have very high level of creative minds out there. I think, you know we use here at Business for Peace a lot of the word “businessworthy.” And maybe you ought to do a new organisation called “governingworthy.” But maybe this would have to be in the next life because you know what in so many countries, leadership has been the worst model for the young generation and how to take care of that I don’t know. Maybe we have to redefine democracy and redefine human rights and redefine a lot of these concepts. And, I hope the younger ones are smarter than us.

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