From dates to big data, entrepreneurship as therapy

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“You need to start by entering your order into the machine,” a waiter explained to Hadj Khelil at a McDonald’s in Paris.

The 43-year-old entrepreneur, who is more used to organic food than McDonald’s, was caught off guard – and a little rattled. Apparently, the fast food chain he was intimately familiar with as a young man had changed a great deal over the years. He got his first job at this very McDonald’s when he was 17. That was back in the 90s, before startups were all the rage.

Now, Hadj Khelil is the CEO of Big Mama, a French startup specializing in big data. From a current batch of 15 employees, Big Mama plans to bring aboard 60 more employees over the next two years.

Khelil said he owes the success of his startup to his particular training - a soul-searching journey in Algeria that lasted 12 years and revolved around the creation and management of a company dealing in organic dates.

From trading to farming

In Khelil’s family, life revolves around work, challenging oneself, and aiming for perfection. “My parents are workaholics, my brothers are workaholics. So I was looking forward to be able to work,” he told Wamda.

Hadj Khelil, an entrepreneur who feels comfortable in his own skin (Images via Hadj Khelil)

After completing his studies at prestigious French business school ESCP (which included two semesters spent at Oxford University), the ambitious Algerian got a job in financial trading, in London. He seemed poised for a life in big finance.

But four years later, the young man was tired of working 15 hours a day for other people, performing tasks in which he found little meaning or fulfillment. Also, as he put it, “I spent my whole life running from something; I needed to understand who I was.”

Indeed, Khelil had long kept up a frantic pace in an attempt to figuratively outrun non-resolved issues such as his dual citizenship, his family’s past, and the complicated history between French and Algerians.   

“I love France, it is my home,” he asserted. “But I wholeheartedly love Algeria as well. My grandfather was a big shot in the history of Algeria’s fight for independence and I got to wondering, ‘Why did we come to France in the first place? So many people hate us. What’s the point?’ ”

Khelil concluded that he should take some time off in order to grapple with these issues. “I needed therapy to understand all these things, which were tormenting me,” he said.

In 2001, Khelil went to Ouargla, his family’s hometown, located in central Algeria. He was there to visit his uncle, but ended up staying. Saddened by the decay of the family’s land, he made an on-the-spot decision to make use of it to introduce organic farming to Algeria. He named his company Bionoor.

“Organic is the latest fad for Westerners. For us, it’s written in our genetic code. Clean eating is a real concern; it is even written in the Quran,” said Khelil. Additionally, thanks to his instinct for business, Khelil “saw an opportunity for marketing.”

Farming is not for everyone

So the financial trader found himself at the helm of a company dedicated to growing and exporting dates.

“Our challenge was to put Algerian dates back on the map. The 90s had just ended [a dark decade for Algeria, filled with civil war and terrorism] and the economy was in the doldrums. The world had forgotten that Algeria was producing dates and we wanted to remind everyone that they were the best.”  

The entrepreneur had to learn the art of date cultivation, wanting to innovate and improve. So he experimented with different production systems and process optimization methods.

The results were not always encouraging.

“The first year, I ended up penniless. I lost all the money I had earned in London,” he recalled.

“I did all the wrong things one could do: wrapping, certifications, labels, logistics, transportation, marketing. People took me for an American because I really looked like a newcomer, and they took advantage of that,” he said, looking back.

Only 20 percent of the finished product could be sold. The rest had to be discarded because of a flaw in the wrapping that spoiled the dates.

Putting the export of dates back on track was one of Khelil’s goals

Khelil had to start all over again. It took some doing, but after four years, Bionoor finally became profitable.

The organic label must be earned

Success in the organic food market cannot come without certification attesting to the organic nature of the goods in question.

In 2002, even though the civil war in Algeria had ended, most international food certification experts were wary of setting foot in the country. It was still deemed a dangerous place. Fortunately, Ecocert, a French organic certification organization, agreed to send representatives to Algeria.

The result? In 2002, Bionoor became the first Algerian company with the right to export food bearing the organic farming stamp.

After 12 years dedicated to Bionoor, Khelil had, in a sense, finished his therapy. “I understood who I was, why we had come [to France],” he said, apparently reconciling the two halves of his identity, Algerian and French.

It was time to take the next step. “I was ready to get serious,” Khelil said. “[With Bionoor], I was still in training mode. It is like boxing. Training is the most serious part but is still training. Then you have to go up and fight.”

From dates to data

In 2014, Khelil returned to France to launch, of all things, a tech startup. “I said to myself that if I really wanted to change the world, I only had one tool within my reach: technology.”

What interested him in technology was big data. “The internet stands as a mere village party in comparison with what is happening with the data revolution. There is going to be a tsunami and people are not even aware of it,” he said.

Khelil launched Big Mama, a startup whose handle combines an allusion to big data with a play on George Orwell’s ‘Big Brother’. With this somewhat ironic name, the entrepreneur wanted to prove that big data and ethics can go hand-in-hand.

Big Mama quickly came to boast a star-studded advisory board consisting of, among others: Jacques Vincent, former vice executive president of Danone group; Jean-Paul Herteman, former CEO of Safran; François Bieber, the entrepreneur who founded Kwanko; and the French philosopher and sociologist Edgar Morin.

Having spent three years designing algorithms and experimenting with various prototypes, Big Mama is currently preparing to market its own products. Chief among them is Amanee, an electronic bracelet for the elderly which sends out an alert when it detects an anomaly in the behavior of its owner – if he or she falls, for example, or strays from a zone marked as safe. The product is not yet on the market, but the Big Mama team is already thinking about the relevant technology’s applicability in the field of sports and even in the military.

Big Mama now understands data. It is time for the startup to use that data in real life.

Feature image, date trees, via Bionoor.

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