This year’s the Global Entrepreneurship Summit (GES) took place in Marrakech under the high patronage of His Majesty King Mohammed VI, from November 19th to the 21st. This initiative of the White House, launched five years ago, aims at creating a culture of entrepreneurship in countries with a mostly Muslim population.
The very political event didn’t have much of interest for entrepreneurs, but has been a good occasion to witness how much the Moroccan startup scene has evolved.
Not much of interest – for now
As one might have expected, this highly political event proved disappointing for the entrepreneurs in attendance. Participants, wearing suits and tie, or stilettos, were mostly there to hear nice, generic, and empty speeches, snap a picture of US Vice President Joe Biden, members of the Moroccan cabinet, pop singer Akon, and a few African heads of state. The few entrepreneurs and support organizations who were invited on stage could hardly compensate the presence of officials.
As for entrepreneurs, SMEs, and startups, they were almost invisible. The Innovation Village, which was supposed to represent this new generation of entrepreneurs, was essentially dedicated to support organizations such as Enactus, Startup Maroc, Réseau Entreprendre Maroc, and Endeavor. All do amazing work, but wasn’t it as important to highlight Maghreb entrepreneurs and their innovations? To allow decision-makers to talk to founders themselves? To let entrepreneurs of the region meet, exchange, and learn from each other?
A few startups from the Maghreb and Africa have been able to exhibit thanks to Startup Maroc and the Confédération Générale des Entreprises du Maroc (CGEM), both of which dedicated booths to them for half a day. This was the first action of the employers’ organization that is now aiming to support innovative SMEs. Sadly, startups couldn’t really personalize the booths, which hampered their visibility.
But the biggest issue with this event was its values, diametrically opposed to those of entrepreneurship. Generic speeches were more valued than action; attendees heard more fancy talk than straight-to-the-point calls to action. Crazy amounts of money were thrown at this event, in the most inefficient way (participants didn’t have access to any water or food the entire first day). And networking was clearly not a priority (finding the list of participants was close to impossible).
Finally, the only thing global about this morocco-centric summit was its name.
In spite of all, the event was bearing good news, because it involuntarily highlighted how much the Moroccan startup scene has evolved, and how much institutions are now willing to help.
The beginning of a new era for Moroccan startups?
Many startups shared with us that they were about to announce fundraising rounds, sometimes seeking investors new to the region. More interestingly, some told us they’ve been approached by consultants representing traditional investors looking to invest in the innovation sector. This means two things: a) more money is going to flow into startups, and b) it might actually work, as traditional investors seem to have understood that they will need help to understand entrepreneurs’ needs, and spot which has potential.
This is understandable as Moroccan startups have matured. Startup Maroc, the famous association behind most startup competitions in Morocco, was organizing, for the first time, the MVP Cup, a competition for startups with an MVP (minimum viable product). This makes the time when competitions were all revolving around ideas and business models seem so far away. The winner, the event discovery app Ev.ma, won 100,000 MAD ($11,000), a prize that will no doubt be useful to this self-funded startup.
Younes Qassima, cofounder of Ev.ma
This summit was also the occasion to witness an interesting trend: corporates jumping on the bandwagon, hoping to boost innovative startups and the digital economy. We’ve talked about the CGEM, but they were far from the only ones present.
Othman Benjelloun, president of BMCE Bank, a private finance group of Moroccan origin which operates throughout Africa, announced the launch of the African Entrepreneurship Award, a yearly competition with a million dollar budget, whose conditions are still to be unveiled. The president also announced he will expand the BMCE’s Observatoire de l’Entrepreneuriat, which aims to help mobilize funding, offering networking opportunities, and spread a culture of mentorship.
Attijariwafa, an other Moroccan finance group, which is a leader in the Maghreb and is known for its support for entrepreneurship – the group has been supporting Maroc Entreprendre and Injaz Al Maghrib for a few years, offers bank services custom designed for SMEs, and works with Endeavor Morocco to map out the ecosystem and mentor scale-ups – also had something to announce.
The group unveiled an exclusive partnership with PayPal. Called Attijari-PayPal, this service will enable Moroccan e-merchants to withdraw funds from their PayPal accounts to an Attijariwafa bank account, in dirhams and other currencies. This new service is in keeping with the overall strategy of the group to support online payments: the group is a stakeholder of Maroc Telecommerce.
Governments are getting into the game too. The Moroccan government announced a similar event will be organized every year, and the American government announced it will create a seed investment fund with a $50 million fund, in partnership with the World Bank.
Organizations from the Middle East and Africa have also shown interest for Morocco. The famous MIT Forum Enterprise competition will be organized in Maghreb, for the very first time, in Casablanca (applications will be accepted until late December). ArabNet’s founder, Omar Christidis, was also around to explore the potential of an event in Morocco. And the 2015 edition of the Innovation Prize for Africa will be organized in Morocco. This competition, started in 2011 by the AIF, rewards African innovators, including those in the diaspora (applications will be accepted until November 30th).