Trying to catch up with a fast-growing digital world, Moroccan entrepreneurs are hoping to leapfrog into a new era of tech business
CASABLANCA, Morocco - When digital guru Amine Benboubker decided to return to his native Casablanaca in 2016, hoping to start his own business after 12 years in France, he soon realised his homeland was stuck in the past.
"It is like the advertisement is from the 90s,” Benboubker tells Middle East Eye.
It is like the advertisement is from the 90s
-Amine Benboubker, entrepreneur
In 2016, Benboubker launched the consulting company NetSpace in Casablanca, Morocco's economic capital. The company helps entrepreneurs and companies refine their digital marketing strategies by offering services for marketing, branding and fostering a digital presence.
Keen to encourage synergy, creativity and new ideas, Benboubker also set aside a room in NetSpace’s offices, which are located in the Les Hopitaux district, for freelancers to get together and cooperate on shared projects. The space can accomodate between six to eight freelancers that can rent out the co-working space for DHS 1,000 ($108) a week per person.
“Here a web developer can meet a graphic designer and work together," Benboubker explains enthusiastically.
WeLoveBuzz employees work at their Casablanca office (MEE/Sebastian Castelier)
However, according to Benboubker, many creative Moroccan freelancers prefer to work for foreign companies because they can ensure a lucrative, stable income. These companies also tend to value creativity and pay more attention to their ideas and opinions.
Benboubker studied accounting and finance at Rouen Business School near Paris and before moving back to Morocco worked as a financial consultant for large companies in Europe.
A digital hub
Yet Morocco's future seems brighter, as it plans to become Francophone Africa's first digital hub in the coming years. The government’s vision for Morocco Digital 2020 is to increase access to digital services in addition to equipping and connecting 20 percent of the country’s small and medium-sized companies to the internet.
At a networking event last month organised by La Factory, a local company that supports collaboration between tech startups and corporations in Africa, digital entrepreneurs were found rubbing elbows with investors, bank managers and the heads of large companies on the top floor of Technopark. The information technology business cluster is located in Casablanca's southern district of Ain Chock.
Founded by Moroccan entrepreneur Mehdi Alaoui, La Factory is helping create fertile ground for tech business through holding various events.
Among the attendants is Zineb Drissi Kaitouni, founder of Dabadoc, an application she launched in 2013 that helps people locate nearby health practitioners and book appointments online.
By promoting the app on local media, buying Facebook ads, and online marketing, Kaitouni says that Dabadoc has become one of the largest online medical appointment booking platforms in Africa.
"Our first challenge was to educate people and create awareness of the advantages of using an application like ours," Kaitouni says.
According to a 2016 marketing study, 72 percent of Moroccans said they did not know of any smartphone applications made in Morocco.
Yassine Zyad is the founder of Sheaply, a start-up that specialises in an alternate model of international shipping by giving "back the power to the individuals through a social experience". Through an online platform, Sheaply acts as a middleman between people looking to ship products - such as phones, computers and other electronics - through travellers willing to transport them for a fee.
Morocco is not the best country to launch a digital business because of a set of societal and macro-economic factors
-Yassine Zyad, founder of Sheaply
Zyad funded Sheaply from his own pocket in addition to both public and private grants.
According to Zyad, there is a lack of access among the economically disadvantaged and scant public awareness for the potential of digital technology. On top of this, because the education system is not digitally oriented, there is a low appetite for innovation.
"Morocco is not the best country to launch a digital business because of a set of societal and macro-economic factors."
Furthermore, he says that investors remain far too conventional and “not interested in innovation".
In 2010, Casablanca became home to the entertainment media website WeLoveBuzz, which covers a wide range of topics such as culture, sports, politics, relationships, lifestyle and technology. Driss Slaoui founded it with the aim of it becoming the "BuzzFeed of the Arab world," according to Slaoui.
Driss Slaoui, Moroccan entrepreneur and CEO of the digital entertainment company WeLoveBuzz (MEE/Sebastian Castelier)
"Years ago, people visited websites directly. Today, they click on direct links to content proposed by Facebook," Slaoui says.
Reaching more than one million followers on Facebook, WeLoveBuzz focuses on the "average Moroccan," according to Slaoui, though it has often been accused of producing useless content.
Years ago, people visited websites directly. Today, they click on direct links to content proposed by Facebook
-Driss Slaoui, founder of WeLoveBuzz
"The purpose is to entertain Moroccans, not just the French-speaking part, not just the Arabic-speaking part, not just the elite,” Slaoui says.
Slaoui defends his website by stressing that WeLoveBuzz has larger goals of producing thought-provoking articles such as "10 Gender Stereotypes on Moroccan Women We Shouldn’t Have."
WeLoveBuzz “wants to educate people, on women’s empowerment for example. Trying to tell people how to think is not the best way. We want to change attitudes".
There are others attempting to encourage Moroccan women to break stereotypes, such as Houda Chaloun, with her adventure-laden blog The Moroccan Nomad.
Having previously worked as an IT engineer, Chaloun left everything three years ago to become a travel blogger. So far, Chaloun has visited more than 30 countries including Antarctica, Peru, Italy, Jordan, Turkey, Panama, and the USA.
Convinced that social networks can be a powerful tool for sparking social progress, she also founded an interactive webzine called Les Voyageuses in December. The webzine aims to inspire Maghrebi women to break societal rules, get out of their comfort zones, and travel on their own.
Houda Chaloun (far left) inaugurating a women-oriented online magazine called 'Les Voyageuses' at a five star hotel in Casablanca (MEE/Sebastian Castelier)
Through the Facebook page she established, women can share advice or simply have community discussions.
"There are a large number of Moroccan Facebook pages that share jokes and fun content. It is what works well,” admits Chaloun, disappointed by the way Moroccans consume content on social media.
"To counter a difficult social atmosphere, it is normal for people to mostly consume entertaining and light content on the internet,” she explains.
But Chaloun believes that there is also space for content like hers, which provides useful and valuable information for Maghrebi women wanting to travel on their own.
Poverty and lack of access
In an internet cafe in the old medina of Casablanca, some teenagers are working on five computers that seem to be between 10 and 15 years old. The hourly cost to use them is five Moroccan dirhams ($0.54).
Moroccan children play online videogames, use social media and watch videos on computers at a five seat cybercafe in the old medina of Casablanca (MEE/Sebastian Castelier)
With neither a smartphone nor a computer to call his own, Zoubir, a 16-year-old high school student, has been coming to the cafe since the age of seven.
"Coming here, and especially on Facebook, gives me a chance to speak with my friends and follow the news. For example, there are pages which share historical information about my district," he adds.
To counter a difficult social atmosphere, it is normal for people to mostly consume entertaining and light content on the internet
-Houda Chaloun, founder of Les Voyageuses
Mr El Hadaoui, who has managed the internet cafe for two years, says that most of his customers do not have internet access at home.
According to the National Telecommunications Regulatory Agency, around 68 percent of the Moroccan population was connected to the internet in 2016.
The old medina lies in the remaining 32 percent, where it is common for residents to not have internet access in their homes because they can't afford it.
About a 10-hour drive from the growing digital ecosystem of Casablanca, a 4G antenna has been recently installed in the small mountainous village of Ait Daoud.
Wearing burnous, traditional cloaks worn by the Berbers, a man uses the internet on his phone at a cafe in Ait Daoud, a village in the Little Atlas mountain range (MEE/Sebastian Castelier)
“I discover new websites and use Google, Facebook, and Whatsapp," says Ibrahim Zerroual, who runs a coffee shop in the village. "You speak with people, you check the weather report, newspapers - it is like seeing a new world," he says.
Before, we would send letters and wait fifteen days for a reply
-Ibrahim Zerroual, coffee shop owner
According to Zerroual, in the past, just being connected to an antenna was a difficult feat. Late into the night, young people would climb up the surrounding hills to connect to the antenna of a nearby village.
"Before, we would send letters and wait fifteen days for a reply," says Zerroual with a wide smile, comparing the arrival of the internet to the arrival of electricity.
In Morocco, the digital and communication revolution is changing how people live and how they see the world. For digital pioneers like Amine Benboubker it can't happen soon enough.