Challenges and Opportunities for Startup Investors in Tunisia and Morocco – Part II

This is the second part of my recent trip to Tunisia and Morocco. Check out the first part of this travel series: Challenges and Opportunities for Startup Investors in Tunisia and Morocco – Part I.

Next we flew to Morocco. There is a special customs procedure between Tunisia and Morocco and it took us an hour to get through. The officer was quite convinced that I wasn’t really me. I got taken to a side room to be questioned. I cracked a joke in garbled French, “Why, you don’t think it’s me cause I’m too pretty to be the girl in the picture?” They chuckle and let me through. If all else fails, make them laugh.

We stay in downtown Casablanca and are right next to the main souk downtown and I tear through it and discover Moroccan shoes, pottery, woodwork. It is fantastic and cheap. Why aren’t they exporting this and charging five times as much? Because licensing is difficult and they are poor, uneducated street merchants. It’s sad to see so much potential being strangled.

Kenza Lahlou, Co-founder and Managing Director, Startup Your Life.

Kenza Lahlou from Startup Your Life was in charge of organizing and she did a great job. We were so busy I wouldn’t be able to tell you everything we did, but I left very impressed and excited to come back to Morocco. My main takeaways from Morocco are that they need to do more to publicize what they have to offer, and I need to brush up on my French. We met entrepreneurs that I’m still in contact with as potential investments. We met investors whom I will be happy to co-invest with in the future. We met ecosystem players who work hard and have their hearts in the right place. We met government officials who blew my mind with their strategic preparedness; they had a brilliant answer for everything I threw at them.

Ambassador Dwight Bush Morocco
Opening remarks by Sr. Ambassador Dwight L. Bush, U.S. Ambassador to The Kingdom of Morocco. Photo credits: Startup Your Life.

A few of the startups I’ve kept in touch with are OmniUp, Ma-Navette, and DabaDoc in Morocco. I met private angels in telecom and… horse racing. All guys, unfortunately no ladies coming from the investment side, but at least they were brilliant guys!

Chantalle Dumonceaux Startup Your Life Conference
Speaking at “Building, Investing and Scaling Startups in Emerging Markets” conference. Photo credits: Startup Your Life.

I think my favorite session was in a mini outdoor majlis on the rooftop of a co-working space in Rabat with government officials. Watch Morocco. There was a French-English live translation and I found it amusing to listen to the translator through the headphones impassionedly arguing with himself in different languages. I asked “What does it feel like to fight with yourself?” He said, “I feel crazy!” Poor guy.

Similar to Tunisia, capital controls were cited as a problem and bankruptcy and licensing could be easier, but the decision makers I met were well aware and have great plans to deal with structural and regulatory hurdles. And similar to Tunisia, founders should be thinking bigger, regionally if not globally, and I’d like to see a higher volume of startups. In order to address volume, change is needed at a policy and macroeconomic level to bring the brilliant Moroccan diaspora home from France. And Morocco shouldn’t aim to just utilize their own talent and resources but to become a gateway between Africa and Europe for startups with lower startup costs. They really have the conditions to become that hub. But they’re on the right track at high levels. Watch Morocco.

I had an extra morning after everyone left, so I went to King Hassan mosque – beautiful. When I left I had an hour before I had to be back at the hotel to pack so I thought I would visit one more souk. I hailed a taxi and asked to be taken back to the souk and the driver offered to take me to an exposition filled with even better arts and crafts than I would see at the souk. Intrigued, of course, I agreed. He took me to his friend’s store called Exposition. So I wasted a very precious half hour before my flight out and almost missed it and remembered an important lesson I seem to have forgotten over and over: when your friendly taxi driver says he’ll be your guide and take you somewhere better than where you wanted to go, he is taking you to his friend’s store, which is actually worse. I learned it in Egypt, in Lebanon, in Brazil, and again in Morocco.

It was an amazing learning experience and I built links with the decision makers and entrepreneurs in these countries where I previously had none – I’m sure business will get done from this trip. This is a really fantastic initiative by the US State Department and I hope it continues. I’m happy to see foreign policy focused on leading change by example and education rather than force.