On late trains, Awesome taxis drivers and potential-full African Startups ecosystems!

1imageBeing highly interested in entrepreneurship and in the whole startup hype, i left Tangier, my hometown, where I had just landed 2 days ago from a Marrakech trip that revolved also around the same matter to go attend Startup Africa Summit, the gathering of the African startup scene organized by Startup Maroc hoping that the event, the ideas and the connections i would make would be worth the acrobatics and the ONCF train merry-go-round that I had to go through. So, that is how I jumped on the last train to Casablanca on Friday night. The said train arrived with only one hour late which, let me tell you, is quite an achievement in the Moroccan context. I rejoined my scary desert lodging -as everyone left for the holidays-, ate the dinner that mom had neatly packed for me cold because i was too lazy to heat it up, and went to bed all excited to go meet the enterprising Africans the next day.


I woke up at 7h30, scrambled down of bed, poured myself a cup of tea and I was good to go. Here is what I wanted to narrate in this part of the tale : I booked myself a Careem/a uber that arrived just in time, the trip/the service was nice, so was the driver, look we took a selfie and I arrived safely. That would have been a good intro to such an article, wouldn’t it? I installed the UBER app a long time ago but never got around completing the registration don’t ask me why. And I tried booking a Careem, but the app estimated the trip up to 90dhs and as much as a ride in the hyped new economy transport services matched my aesthetics, my student budget just couldn’t afford it. So i went out of the campus, stood there in the middle of Nouassar Road, Sidi Marouf and somehow a free taxi, a normal one, happened to pass by. Which, let me tell you once again, happens once in a lifetime in this peripheral side of Casa. To “ how come you came to this area?” the taxi driver responded “ I don’t know. I just somehow ended up here”. That’s what true miracles are made off, kids. Frosting on the already pretty cake of that morning, we spent the ride talking about Bob Dylan, Abd El Halim Hafid, Eric Clapton, Naima Samih, Aziza Jallal, Oum keltoum and other classics of American and the Arabic music; “ Al khalidat” he sighed nostalgiously. Furthermore, he suggested me to watch “ Lost words” a film about 70’s music industry, we talked about how Dounia Batma – a pretty voice gone mainstream, kardishans kind of mainstream…- had ruined the potential she had of becoming the next Aziza Jallal, and the man told me about the rock band he was part of in his young age, how he was invited to play in ISCAE back in the 70’s, and how he had that one friend that later made it to become a Doctor in Paris. Being particularly fan of the Moroccan post-colonial glamour, i was thrilled! I was even more thrilled that all of this only cost me 30dhs that I asked him for a selfie! Step up your game UBER/CAREEM!


I was afraid of being late, I ended up being early. I’m telling you that taxi ride was the best thing ever! I entred Studio Des Arts Vivants, the pretty-pretty venue where the event took place, saw the familiar faces of the regular startup enthusiasts, registered, took more pictures than needed, social-meditated (= updated facebook and snapchat),  had my second cup of tea of the morning, met some friends and finally got to the amphitheatre as the first talk was about to start. The Eyeris Moroccan CEO, Modar Alaoui, took the stage to tell the sucessstory of his Sillicon Valley based startup. Eyeris, operates in ambient intelligence through face recognition based on deep learning. Basically it’s a software used in driving monitoring (as it analyses micro expressions such as eye blinking ), and marketing feedback (when implemented it can identify the reaction to an ad; did the eventual consumer laugh? Was he interested?) among other applications. Feeling overwhelemed by all the technical aspect of the thing yet? I felt the same as as the founder was explaining how it all worked, i even scrapt some technical words in my agenda. You can literally read in the said page “ robots taking over the world”. As he puts it “It’s no longer ‘Artificial’ Intelligence as  IT fades into the fabric of life, it’s life 2.0!”. “ I hope life 2.0 has better battery life because my Samsung is already running low on battery” i thought to myself.


Modar also talked about the mobility revolution which I thought was a cool concept; it can be summed up in three zeros; 0 Gaz emission, 0 Accident, 0 Ownership. He also listed the main businesses he thought would be impacted by the disruption created by entrepreneurs; Transportation, Agriculture, Shipping and Pay tech. “why do we wait for Uber to come and take over the market? We know the market better than UBER, let’s beat it to it! “.  Furthermore on the difficulties of a 3rd world market such as Morocco he added “Yes. It’s not easy, it will not be easy, waking up today at 8AM today wasn’t isn’t, you just make it! “.


The first panel was titled “ Going international, opportunities in Africa” and was moderated by the guy with the orange vest and an obvious incredible taste in fashion who is also an experienced CEO, Chafik Sabiry. The first Panelist, Tarik Fadili, is the CEO of Algo Consulting an e-government solution that promises to make your struggle with Moroccan bureaucracy and your wait for “l’m9adem” to show up a vague memory by providing you with a total of 22 documents online. It’s inspired by Obama’s 2025 plan of a paperless bureaucracy, and contrary to the rest of e-gov solutions, it has a bottom up approach : it’s based on the citizen’s needs, and its given freely for the government, it’s the said citizen that pays for it. “ Everyone wins but the fraudsters! “ he explains. After Guinée Conakry, Madagascar and Algeria, the Moroccan Ministry of modernization finally gave Tarik the right to launch a demo of his service in “F9ih Bensalah”. “ Seeing is believing” he emphasized on the importance of giving a proof of concept. Yassir Houmame, Co-founder of CACIOPEE, a Moroccan Leader IT Services & Business Software Solutions Company operating in 20 African countries, agrees as he explains that the westerners are used to “ oranges and sardines coming from Morocco, not softwares. You have to look for the opportunity to show them a proof of concept, always!”. He also underlines that “ Africa is not a single Market, it’s 54 countries and 54 different cultures, it’s a huge market with very different specificities”. Moreover on the advices, there were three main ones : Start your business with confidence, as Assim Slimani, General Manager at PayLogic puts it “ Start your business like it’s a 1 million dollar business from the start “, secondly, consider going international and start by the nearest markets, Africa! “ Morocco is a good school. But Africa is the university.” Tarik stated. And thirdly Scale up.

To a question about homeless companies, Tarik responded that his office for the 6 months was “ Café de la gare ” at Agdal train station while him and his team would go to Venezia ice, a more fancy café to meet with clients. It took him 14 months to get something close to an office and 7 years to get “ a real office”. He also underlined that it got easier today, as Technoparks and co-working spaces are becoming common and are offering great deals.


Then it was time for the second talk. Samir Abdelkrim took the stage after he was announced as the official reporter of the Startup scene in emergent countries as he is the CEO of StartupBRICS.com. This was by far my favourite talk of the day as he really embodied the spirit of the event and reminded us that the whole startup ideology is not a product of our governements policies but really the will of many communities to take initiatives and make things better for themselves and for the others, creating opportunities and generating jobs. As he emphasized on the importance of Tech hubs, he gave the example of Co-creation Hub, an Incubator that is today the center of levitation of the Nigerian ecosystem, and that started in a very organic way as a group of new technologies enthusiasts organized bootcamps, small events, co-working spaces and brainstorming sessions to empower entrepreneurship and to initiate social change. One of the outcome in terms of startups was Wecyclers,  a household recycling service using a fleet of low-cost cargo bikes that aims to solve the lack of government policies regarding waste management in a context where Malaria is still present.  Little by little, these initiatives federated a community and the tech startups of Nigeria came to settle next to the CC hub which created a digital cluster. The government, having identified the potential of such a grouping has only followed recently. Yaba, the neighborhood where all of this is happening, is today the first Nigerian area to have optical fiber. This tall inspired me more than any of the Silicon Valley success stories did, because it’s locally made and it has a post-colonial revolution aspect that I just love. Moreover on how startups contributed to solve issues in South Africa, PAYZA, a Kenyan payment service converted 1/3 of the informal economy. “It all starts with a tech hub and a community, the government follows“ Samir says. He then stated that the ecosystem of Senegal is the most advanced one in Africa which explains why global players such as google opened their African headquarters there. What’s lacking according to Samir is the funding as in 2011 only 113 fundraisings took place in Africa. Nonetheless, the StartupBRICS founder confidently concluded “Even if it’s going to take time, I’m sure that the next Mark Zuckerberg will come out of Africa!”.


In the next panel, the panelists among which was Hicham Majd, co-founder of Labseed, a startup that operates in decreasing immune reactions to transplant, tried to identify how technological transfert could benefit to Morocco as an African country. They stated that In terms of innovation, Morocco can still compete in biotechnology, nanotechnology -as the Moroccan clay can be used as a resource- and renewable energy which has been initiated by the Moroccan solar program in Ouarzazate. They also stated that for Morocco to develop a competitive edge it needs an ecosystem and a know-how, as for now we are just an “hotel”; “unless we do our own development we will only be a market for the international investors” they concluded.


We had lunch, networked a bit between two bites, and we were back for another set of sessions of inspiring talks and valuable discussions. Most of the ideas stated in the afternoon session were stated before, so I’m just going to give you a quick tour of what got my attention the most.


Hasan Haidar, venture partner at 500 Startups a famous emerging ecosystems investment structure, preliminarily reminded us that that as fairytale-like as the whole startup hype may sound or look, it still based on the money and then gave us tips on how to pitch. “ Tell us about what you achieved, not the story of how you started! …You have to be uniquely persistent, but do not pitch me in the toilets!”. When asked about the profile of the ideal startup in terms of investment he simply replied “ we are investing in numbers ”. The sixth panel, made of investors, emphasized on that same idea later on as they declared “Do not ask us to help you, ask us to invest in you!” and they insisted on the fact that one should do their “homework” before pitching. About people who do not talk about their ideas as they fear that they will get stolen from them, he said “Ideas are worthless, I have 100 ideas before leaving home in the morning. It’s the way you execute that matters!”. “ We believe in you guys, it’s up to you to believe in yourself!” he assured. He later on was joined by a bunch of Silicon Valley startupers in what resembled to a remake of “9issat nass”, Moroccan-Silicon-Valley-Veterans edition. On to go or not to go to Silicon Valley Haidar stated “You can go if you want, but it’s freaking expensive!”. He advised not to go, to stay near your market unless your project is about a new groundbreaking technology. “If it’s spaceships and nanotechnology, then yes, go!” he said. They discussed and came to the conclusion that in a way or in another, you face the same problems whether in here or in Silicon Valley. For example: if you want to hire 200 developers, you’re gonna have a hard time in here because not enough qualification, and you’re going to have a hard time in the valley too as the demand exceeds the offer. Despite the fact that they all agreed that the valley is characterized by an never-seen-before ecosystem  that you cannot mimic with amazing facilities, some, Omar Tazi, an investor, for instance, thought that it’s “ an overrated thingy” and that it’s more of a mindset than anything else. An overrated thingy, that, like all overrated thingies, still does it in the bank I thought to myself!


In the remaining panels, Hamid Bouchikhi, director of ESSEC ventures, illustrated how the idea about entrepreneurship changed through the years as he related anecdotally that in 1987 a hysterical mother called him because her son, a business school graduate, had had the oh-so bizarre idea to undertake a project on his own. He assured that today “Entrepreneurship is not only a vogue, it’s an imperative!”. As business school students are no longer expected to join a multinational and plan a typical career, but rather they are supposed to implement new concepts and create jobs opportunities for their communities. And three main factors of success for businesses were identified; the accompaniment of the dynamic of the ecosystem which was illustrated by the incredible work that STARTUP Maroc is doing through the startup weekend caravan and similar entrepreneurship democratizing initiatives. Secondly, the identification of the best practices in terms of para-governmental and governmental contracts, and private-public partnerships. And finally, the democratization of the access to funds.


The first part of the event had ended. By this time, the casa-Tangier jetlag (or should I say ONCF Lag) had got into me, I was tired and wondering if I shouldn’t just go home and skip the Final of Get In The Ring. I attacked the buffet, got me some more energy from one too many petit-fours, and decided to stay. And I did well, because it was worth it. Algerian-middle-age-hijabi-women-in-a-ring-defending-a-youth-empowering project kind of worth it! A young Sudani women, CEO of SUDACRAFT,  responding to why her project should win rather than Votrechauffeur.ma with “ I can just take a taxi you know!” kind of worth it. Let me tell you, I was thrilled to see African countries entrepreneurs entering the ring full of confidence, full of will to change things for the better!


And so here I’m writing these lines in my Sunday 11am train back to Tangier, full of hope for the African startup scene. A scene full of potential, in an area full of potential, in an era full of potential. May we just be wise enough to come together as African countries, join forces and make all of this potential profitable/something more than just plain potential!