Mauritania's flag flies high. (Image via Xinhuanet.com)
Mauritania's tech and startup scene started late but is growing, due to the hard work of a passionate group of individuals.
The country’s first Startup Weekend Nouakchott took place just last year, and just a few weeks ago Mauritania took part in the international Global Entrepreneurship Week.
They kicked off the week with the Startup Mauritania summit, an invitation-only day of discussions and panels on the impact of entrepreneurship and how to build an entrepreneurial ecosystem, that was open to corporate and institutional players.
The second day was a celebration of successful women entrepreneurs with Startup Mauritania Woman Conference.
The day after was dedicated to training with workshops on how to write a business plan, get funding, and more.
The week ended with the second edition of Startup Weekend Nouakchott. One hundred participants were selected, and three winners will receive unlimited mentoring.
It took a lot of work and momentum to get there, momentum that grew from last year’s Startup Weekend.
“It was huge both in terms of sponsoring and results,” said London-based Mauritanian consultant Mohamed Khalifa, recalling last year's event.
Nearly 1,300 Mauritanians applied to the hackathon, 100 were selected, and two startups got funding. Investors flew in from the Canary Islands, the Spanish archipelagos closest to the Moroccan shores.
“We received a lot of support from Mauritanian business men, such as Moulay Ould Abbas, BMCI bank CEO, companies like Kosmos Energy, as well as the government,” Khalifa continued.
Plans and ambitions
Encouraged by this positive response, Khalifa, Ahmed Baya, a Mauritanian based in London, and others formed Startup Mauritania, an association they describe as a startup accelerator. They have grand ambitions.
“There are so many young people who have small companies, sometimes in IT, but there’s no ecosystem, no startups,” Khalifa said. “Our goal is to create this ecosystem.”
Mauritanians are waiting for such an initiative. Startup Mauritania’s Facebook page has more than 10,000 likes and the team of 10 volunteers regularly receives messages from young Mauritanians sharing their startup ideas.
“Mauritania needs startups,” Khalifa said. “The unemployment rate is huge, over 30 pecent. Growth has to come from the private sector.”
But, “an impoverished Mauritanian doesn’t know how to start a company, how to connect to the right people,” he continued, which is why helping youth to start companies is so important.
Mauritania’s government, entrepreneurs and business men know that, which is why they’re looking to participate in the project, he added.
“It’s both because they want to help their country and the youth, and because they know that in the long term there’s a economic benefit to it.”
Winners of the first Startup Weekend Nouakchott prepare for a TV interview. (Image via Startup Mauritania)
Impact is even bigger when entrepreneurship helps boost internet use. Internet penetration in Mauritania barely exceeds 10 percent at the moment.
The association, aims to open a coworking space and incubator. But, for now, their focus is on conferences and training.
“A lot of youth have ideas but they don’t know where to start,” Khalifa said. “We want to tell them ‘You can start your project and you’ll get that support.’”
Khalifa and his team are building a platform for Mauritanians can meet and network with successful entrepreneurs, coachess and investors.
Their association is already working with ecosystem players from neighboring countries in order to increase the number of mentors Mauritanians can access. Those names should be announced soon.
Mauritanian startups learn about the lean canvas at Startup Weekend Nouakchott. (Image via Startup Mauritania)
Though progress is undeniable, Mauritania still has serious structural issues holding it back.
Bordered by the Atlantic Ocean, Mali, Algeria and the Western Sahara, Mauritania is mostly rural, and residents are often nomadic.
Mauritania has an incredibly high poverty rate with 40 percent of the population living on less than $1.25 per day. As such, it is more often known for its safety problems, slavery (4 percent of the population is said to be in slavery) and genital mutilation, rather than its capacity to innovate.
Undaunted, Khalifa and his partners are moving ahead.
Starting early 2016, Startup Mauritania will offer training with the Nouakchott University, which will offer a space for the organization to host their programs.
The cofounder also counts on its partnership with banks, regulatory authorities to offer concrete hands-on training.
Always ambitious, the group is organizing an Hour of Code, a global movement aiming to teach kids how to code in December. Long-term thinking indeed.