It was common for Moroccan duo Anass Lamouri and Imane Radid to pay the Old Medina of Casablanca (the Old City) a weekly visit, navigating through its centuries-old, narrow bylanes and old bazaars. This tradition however, came to an end in the thick of the pandemic that led many stores to close their doors and local artisans to migrate to other professions to get by. The duo’s passion for traditional art and handicrafts prompted them to start an online platform to help revitalise the old artisanal sector.
The platform, Babelmdina, which translates to "The City Gate," was founded in 2021 by Lamouri and Radid and then launched in late 2022. It offers artisans the space to showcase and promote their products and sell them digitally, allowing them the opportunity to expand their clientele base, both locally and internationally. The startup's revenue model is contingent upon taking a cut per each completed sale. Currently, the startup works with 1200 craftsmen offering about 12,000 products on its platform.
"At the time of Covid-19 in Morocco, stores were shut down. It was impossible for us to visit them. So we searched online for platforms that showcase these crafts, but none were able to replicate the store experience. This is how the idea of Babelmdina was conceived," says Lamouri.
The pair join a growing number of entrepreneurs in the North African country, which has seen its nascent startup sector grow in the wake of the pandemic. Last year, Moroccan startups raised $30 million, the highest amount on record with the e-commerce sector accounting for 20 per cent of all startups in the country, followed by mobility with 14 per cent according to the Morocco Startup Ecosystem report. In the first quarter of this year, startups in the country have raised $9.5 million and while globally investment is slowing down, Morocco’s startup sector is enjoying a rise in the number of investors, incubators and accelerators.
The country’s handicraft industry serves as a key economic driver and significant source of employment, constituting 7 per cent of the national gross domestic product (GDP) and employing about 20 per cent of the workforce, with women making up an overwhelming proportion of that. The entire sector is estimated to be worth $40 billion, according to the founders.
To connect local handicrafts with global markets, the fledgling e-commerce startup works to enable artisans to expand beyond the Moroccan market and sell products abroad. It says that its top clients are from China and Australia. But, logistics remains the most challenging part owing to the limited availability of transport options and rising costs of shipping.
"The industry is very strong here. Everyone [around the globe] knows Moroccan carpets and copper crafts, for example. The hardest thing is not the crafts or the tech side of things, but…the logistics because we do have a few options such as DHL and FedEx, but the fees are very high. So the [biggest] problem that you have in this industry is how to sell the products worldwide," Lamouri adds.
With shopper expectations constantly evolving, the hardest element of running an online handicrafts marketplace is getting consumers to visualise how items can fit in real-life contexts.
Earlier this year, during its participation in the local version of the Shark Tank TV show, Babelmdina raised $20,000 in order to be able to fully incorporate artificial intelligence (AI) and augmented reality (AR) technologies into the platform to make the buying experience more personalised and immersive for customers.
"The challenge in this industry is the buyer; when you are buying a craft or a handmade product, it is really difficult to imagine the size, shape, or details of the item and how it will look in your living room or your bedroom,” Lamouri explains. “But If you are on Amazon or any other marketplace and want to buy a phone charger or cable, you already have in your mind what it looks like, the features and the purpose of this item. That's why we are introducing AR to and make use of it to serve the market and attract more buyers.”
With the fresh funding, the startup plans to incrementally grow its presence in the rest of African countries. "Africa is the land of crafts and handmade [goods], I don't see why [we need to] wait so long to have platforms like [Etsy] to come and showcase these crafts to the wider masses," he concludes.