GITEX‘s inaugural event in Africa made its debut in Marrakech, Morocco on 31 May to 2 June. Tens of thousands of attendees from across the continent and beyond attended to visit over 900 exhibiting companies, over 250 conference speakers and 30 government delegates from African countries. At the event, we found out how Morocco is taking advantage of becoming a hub for African progress.
Forty-two years after its inception, GITEX Africa 2023 represents the first time a GITEX event has been hosted outside of Dubai. The Morocco-based event focused heavily on creating a platform to support collaboration and dismantle some of the barriers and points of friction between Africa’s 54 countries.
Meanwhile, the event also championed Morocco’s own tech ecosystem and startups, with an aim to bolster its own progress: by showcasing over 100 of the firms operating within its borders.
Following an opening ceremony, complete with the Moroccan national anthem, Aziz Akhannouch, Morocco’s Head of Government, explained the significance of Marrakech being GITEX’s city of choice to host the event, which has established a high level of notoriety in the tech world, whilst in Dubai.
“Marrakech is a symbol of the cultural heritage of Morocco,” he explained. Akhannouch also discussed how GITEX Africa could create a new platform to help “establish a strong pan-African economy”.
Chakib Alj, president of the General Confederation of Moroccan Enterprises, mirrored the sentiment of Akhannouch and declared that Marrakech hosting the event is an “affirmation of Morroco’s efforts” during recent years. Alj then commented on the “technology landscape that is now attractive to foreign investors” that Morocco has created.
Encouraging and attracting greater levels of investment from foreign VCs and the private sector was also a recurring point during the event’s keynotes and panel sessions. Akhannouch himself called for this and urged Africa to “further grow and encourage investment in startups, small and medium-sized businesses and encourage innovation in AI and IoT” in order to capitalise on its unique position.
Trixie Lohmirman, executive vice president of the Dubai World Trade Centre and CEO of KAOUN International, the international events company and organiser of GITEX Africa, spoke to The Fintech Times on what made Morocco, and specifically Marrakech, an ideal host location for the international technology event:
“You need a destination that has strong infrastructure, whether it’s connectivity or road transport. It must have a strong industry to underpin it, whether it’s a strong financial sector, automotive manufacturing or agriculture, to give it the impetus for growth.
“The government involved also needed to have a good digital transformation programme to support the development of the event going forward in the next few years,” she said.
Lohmirman also explained that Marrakech’s geographical location made it a strong contender for becoming the host: “It connects the Eastern and Western worlds, while also connecting to the North. Being a Francophone country is also important. So, geographically, the connections available give a lot of strength to Marrakech.
“We needed a lot of cooperation with the government to make an event like this happen and we’re very grateful to the Moroccan authorities for making this happen. We have facilitated incoming visitors and attendees from over 100 countries so far”.
Explaining how the event could prove beneficial to Morocco’s own startups and SMEs, Lohmirman said: “The industries in Africa can now keep pace with the rest of the world. GITEX Africa can support Moroccan companies in keeping pace with competitors across the globe. This event can help provide the momentum and openness to promote change across the continent. GITEX is all about the power of people and technology,” Lohmirman commented.
Morocco’s biggest challenges
Despite a positive outlook on the future of both Morroco and the African continent, Chakib Alj shone some light on some of the most pressing challenges the African technology ecosystem finds itself in: “Despite a rapidly rising number of users, the internet penetration rate in 2021 was only 41 per cent.
“Bridging this gap is essential. Attracting and retaining talent is also an important challenge to consider. We can make African talents stay here and thrive, by investing in and creating a vibrant technology ecosystem. We need to unlock more funding for startups and make them, and this region, more attractive to investors.”
Habiba Ben Barka, chief Africa section at the United Nations Conference for Trade and Development (UNCTAD), also explained the issues pertaining to the private sector: “The private sector has a significant role in terms of diversifying trade on the continent. The issue of the private sector in Africa is they are mostly small, micro or medium-sized, in the case of significant challenges. Access to finance has been a great burden on them to be able to accelerate the transformation of African economies and those are some of the issues we are looking at and how we could leverage some of the financing services.”
The role of the regulator in Morocco
The role of the regulator in both Morocco’s successes and failures also emerged as an important talking point in a number of the sessions on stage at GITEX Africa 2023. Ismael Belkhayat, founder and CEO of Morocco-based e-commerce app Chari, touched on the positive effects of regulation in recent years:
“Morocco is a local champion when it comes to banking. We have very strong banks that have done a great job banking with the workers but also expanding outside of our boundaries and we are very proud of it. We are also very proud of the regulator, which has put in place the right legal framework to make that happen.”
Despite the positives, a feeling that existing regulatory legislation is too strict to enable innovation also emerged on stage a number of times. Mehdi Tazi, general vice president of the Confederation of Moroccan Companies, explained how this regulatory landscape is currently slowing progress: “Morocco has a very regulated economy. This is good because the banking and insurance sectors are very strong. However, it does not create a favourable environment for smaller financial services and fintechs.
“We also need to find new financing solutions. Financing exists for smaller companies at an early stage, but we don’t find enough financing to help firms go further.”
In an effort to ease some of the issues the Moroccan tech ecosystem is experiencing, Tazi also explained that the country needs to “continue training its young people” and discussed the confederation’s objectives looking to make this a reality: “We want to reach 15,000 people trained in the AI development and cybersecurity sectors”.
A positive next step for Moroccan progress
A wide number of African startups were able to showcase their capabilities and meet potential customers, partners and investors at the event. One-hundred Morocco-based startups were selected to form the ‘Morocco100’, an initiative created to support them in better-attracting investors at the event.
One of many Moroccan fintech exhibitors at the event was Mehdi Zirari, the chief product officer and co-founder of KONTA, who spoke to The Fintech Times about how GITEX Africa could benefit other fintechs from the country: “The main benefit is to support them in expanding their reach. It can help them learn a little bit more about the differences between African countries – because they all have different regulations. The event offers the opportunity to quickly understand that there are differences between all countries and to find the right markets.”
“We had the opportunity to meet with potential clients, like solution providers that can help us reach their own market, like in Dubai, Saudi Arabia, Kenya and Nigeria. We were able to contact them and therefore find partners that know these markets, and if everything fits, be able to reach them”.
With the GITEX event already planning its return to Africa next year, the future of Morocco’s technology and financial services may well be entering a new chapter, alongside the rest of the continent.