Entrepreneurship lessons from the Algerian desert

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Slimane Kadi
Slimane Kadi turned the desert into a succesfull business. (Images via Mehdi Bennaceri)

This is a story about entrepreneurship in its most basic form, removing the proverbial tech startup in a garage, forgeting shiny new apps, cool hardware, or any of the other bells and whistles.

Disconnecting to reconnect

Back in December 2014 I spent eight days without a phone or wifi in the Taghit oasis, in the heart of the Algerian Sahara.

I had co-organized the Maghreb Social Innovation Retreat, bringing ten social innovators from across Europe and Africa together to relax while meeting and learning from peers. As Moroccan entrepreneur Mehdi Bennaceri put it, we "disconnected to reconnect".

A different kind of entrepreneur

To make this happen, we got in touch with local guide Slimane Kadi. He booked us a house, arranged our meals, brought in local music groups to play for us, and guided us through mesmerizing hikes across the dunes of Taghit. 

Kadi has been roaming the dunes of the Algerian desert for many moons. He has a dark complexion, flat cheeks and a firm handshake.

Business is thriving for Kadi; he provides tourists with accommodation and tour guides. While we were in Algeria, he and his group of friends and colleagues were managing five different groups of tourists simultaneously.

Everyone on his small team had a clear responsibility. Kadi was the coordinator, Hassan the tour guide, Hamza the chef, and if any further help was needed, they could tap into an army of 'freelancers' ready to help within five minutes.

It was a flexible startup devoid of tech. The team lives by a strong sense of fairness, particularly related to sharing revenue. “No one [in the group] eats alone,” Hassan said.

Slimane et Ismail face au désert
Kadi and Chaib facing the desert.

What I learned in Taghit

If you believe what business schools are teaching, Kadi seemed to be doing everything wrong. He never planned for or cared about profits, costs or margins. He feared no competition. Yet despite an unorthodox approach to doing business, Kadi was able to turn his desert resource into a successful company.

Through Kadi’s example, I left with three takeaways that can apply to any aspiring entrepreneur, in tech or otherwise:

  • Entrepreneurship is a mindset. Anyone, anywhere can be an entrepreneur no matter what environment or support systems are around them. It’s about having the tenacity and drive to turn your idea into a viable project or business. It is a mindset that lets you see opportunity, turns your ideas into a viable business, and keeps you going amidst adversity.

  • Tech isn’t everything. The only 'tech' that Slimane uses is an analogue phone, a Gmail address and a Facebook account. Yet with these rudimentary tools, he is able to attract customers and organize his activities seamlessly. Even without a smartphone, one can create, market, and sell a great service to customers.

  • Don't conform to others’ expectations. Stick to your values, learn from the way others are doing business around you. You may need to update your tools, but the idea of selling to others has been around forever. You don’t always have to look to Silicon Valley or another tech hub to find valuable lessons. Observe those around you to learn.

There are thousands of Kadis out there: solo entrepreneurs with little formal management training, coding ability, or access to technology. Of course, Kadi could reach more customers should he adopt higher tech tools and processes, but is expansion really the point? Slimane taught me that there is no one way to find fulfilment in your business endeavors.

Simply find a niche and fill it with a quality service or product people want or need.

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