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Entrepreneurship Talk and Action in the Maghreb

Jonathan Ortmans, President, Public Forum Institute

Jonathan OrtmansI have just returned from a brief last minute visit to Algiers where I spoke at a conference focused on the Maghreb countries: Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Mauritania. The objectives of the Maghreb Entrepreneurship Conference, a follow-on to President Obama’s Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship held in April 2010 in Washington, DC was to discuss strategies to promote job creation through entrepreneurship.

Hosted by the U.S. Department of State and the U.S.-Algeria Business Council, the conference brought together business talent and public officials from participating countries, including entrepreneurs of the North African Diaspora. The U.S. delegation to the conference was led by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Economic, Energy and Business Affairs, Jose W. Fernandez, who was eager to continue the work to encourage entrepreneurship and create partnerships with the Muslim world.

Among the announcements of concrete initiatives was the U.S. Department of State’s new public-private sector partnership, the North African Partnership for Economic Opportunity (NAPEO), which will build links between entrepreneurs and business leaders in the United States, Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia. The NAPEO also plans to sponsor a regional initiative for start-ups in new technologies, and support science, math and technology training.

The conference paid special attention to youth entrepreneurship in North Africa. With over 50% of the population under 25, the Maghreb countries face the challenge of a large number of educated but unemployed young people. To highlight role that a startup culture can play in deploying such talent as an asset rather than worrying about it as a threat, regional American embassies selected 10 rising entrepreneurs to attend. Their stories were impressive, with business innovation outside the domains of oil and gas, the region's main exports. For example, Omar Abdelaziz Abdelati al-Obeidi, who has been blind since he was 2 years old, started Libya’s first Internet café for the blind and the Arab world’s first online library for the blind.

The young entrepreneurs also expressed their views on how to overcome the challenges facing the region, such as the cumbersome procedures to register a business. For example, Algeria ranks 150th among 183 economies in this regard, according to the World Bank. Here, average start-up costs are high at 12% of GNI per capita. In Mauritania, entrepreneurs must spend an average of 696 hours per year to prepare, file and pay taxes (compared to 199 hours in OECD countries). In Morocco, poor ICT infrastructure is not supportive of entrepreneurial activity. Libya’s weak economic institutions prevent dynamic entrepreneurial activity.

The challenges are many, but the willingness to overcome them is stronger among the entrepreneurs. People in the Maghreb region have the right attitude for the goals of the conference. For example, 95% of Moroccans believe that hard work allows people to get ahead, placing the country seventh highest on this variable. In Tunisia, 80% of respondents to a 2009 survey felt that their city or local area was a good place to start a new business.

These signs of hope encourage initiatives to support entrepreneurs, in parallel with new policies to strengthen the environment for entrepreneurship and innovation in the region. Let’s hope those countries with a lesser understanding of the value of their young potential entrepreneurs to their national welfare listen to their Maghreb neighbors in Morocco and Tunisia who are already well on their way to becoming startup nations.

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Jonathan Ortmans is president of the Public Forum Institute, a non-partisan organization dedicated to fostering dialogue on important policy issues. In this capacity, he leads the Policy Dialogue on Entrepreneurship, focused on public policies to promote entrepreneurship in the U.S. and around the world. In addition, he serves as a senior fellow at the Kauffman Foundation.

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