Morocco’s Startups At The Crossroads

Victor Hwang, CEO & Co-Founder of T2 Venture Creation, from Forbes

A few weeks ago, I was a keynote speaker in Casablanca, Morocco at the Global Annual Conference of CEED, a organization that assists entrepreneurs in several emerging markets. There I met countless inspiring people, mostly from Morocco but also from nearby places. I could virtually taste the electricity in the air. Entrepreneurs and other businesspeople were continuously buzzing around the event, pitching, trading, and pursuing their dreams. Morocco, it seems, is rising.

Why is this happening in Morocco? Indeed, we might expand the question to ask: what makes some economies like Morocco rise, while others in the world languish? It’s a question with big implications for the world.

A key answer, I believe, is that crossroads are breeding grounds for innovation. For instance, Silicon Valley is a result of the American frontier, where ambitious people from diverse backgrounds were smashed together in a serendipitous cacophony. Frontier cultures tend to be innovative ones. Diversity often begets wealth.

Morocco is in a similar situation. Is it African? Is it Arab? Is it European? The answer, of course, is yes.

Morocco, crossroads of three cultures, as viewed from the International Space Station.

Since antiquity, Morocco has been home to some of the most entrepreneurial cultures the world has ever known—from the seafaring merchants of Phoenicia to the Berber traders still active today in the marketplaces. The nation has been a center of commerce at the intersection of Europe, Africa, and the Islamic world for centuries.

Although times have changed, Morocco’s importance as a crossroads has not. And today—with the economic rise of the African continent and the political changes inspired by the Arab Spring—Morocco seems poised to leverage its role as an anchor connecting three major parts of the world again. For instance, at the recent CEED conference, participants had the choice of attending a panel discussing doing business in the U.S. or a panel on the same for Africa. Over 100 opted for Africa. Only a few dozen were interested in the U.S.

Entrepreneurship is in the DNA. According to CEED’s director in Morocco, Fatima Zahra Oukacha: “Moroccans are entrepreneurs. We were colonized by the French in the last century and acquired all of the modern institutions that came along with that. But prior to that, everybody was an entrepreneur.” In addition, entrepreneurs benefit from a relatively effective educational system and supportive government. As Fatima points out, Morocco has remained stable during the Arab Spring despite chaos elsewhere in the region.

But government cannot be a crutch. Fatima talks about the need for Moroccan entrepreneurs to “take the lead and start doing things for themselves.” They need to find their own solutions, and “generalize those solutions across the entire ecosystem.”

Therefore, CEED focuses on creating the whole ecosystem—particularly building strong networks between entrepreneurs, investors, mentors, and others. Innovation is about more than just money; it’s about people. Peter Righi, the Global Director of CEED, says, “The number one problem entrepreneurs say they have is access to capital. However, if I went in with $1 million, I don’t think [a lot of these entrepreneurs] would know how to use it. There are a lot of other things they need: a business plan, they need to know how to make a pitch, they need to have customers, they need to have a network, and more.”

What does success look like when building an ecosystem? Fatima tells the story of a young entrepreneur who joined CEED less than two years ago and wanted to build a telecom company. Mentors and peers at CEED told him repeatedly that the idea wasn’t feasible, that he would have no competitive advantage. More importantly, however, they encouraged him by saying it was OK to make mistakes and even fail, as long as he learned in the process and tried again—a core tenet in innovation culture. Through CEED’s network of entrepreneurs, the entrepreneur was eventually connected to a co-founder and together they started iTaxi, a car service with a similar business model to Uber. iTaxi is now serving over 2,000 riders, and they were chosen as the official transportation provider for CEED’s conference.

So can Morocco leverage its position as a cultural, economic, and geographical crossroads? The ecosystem—what we call the Rainforest—is the key. And ecosystems are shaped at the human scale, where people interact and build ideas into reality together. Peter himself said it best: “Entrepreneurship can break down barriers. When a critical element is missing, when trust is missing, when walls are up in the Rainforest, we can often bridge that gap.”

Human bridges are the modern equivalent of physical bridges in the past. They’re like the invisible infrastructure. You can’t actually see them, but they are the steel beams and reinforced concrete of the new economy. In that sense, Morocco has the opportunity to build some of the longest bridges in the world.

Victor W. Hwang is an entrepreneur, investor, and author in Silicon Valley.  He runs a major conference on building entrepreneurial ecosystems—the Global Innovation Summit + Week—which involves delegates from over 50 countries on February 15-21, 2015.

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