Nov 05,2011

By: Sid Ahmed Benraouane

I was sitting next to a beautiful woman who was carrying a musical instrument; I asked her what was the instrument for and she said it is for playing Andalusia music, a genre of classical music known in the Maghreb region. I asked her if she could play a bit and she replied of course! At that moment, cabin crew had started cross checking the landing procedures, and by the time she started singing, we were about few thousand feet above one of the most beautiful bays in the world, La Baie d’Alger (The Bay of Algiers). I tugged myself into my seat and decided to let my thoughts land on the wings of a beautiful voice in a land of which I know nothing. This was my first encounter with Algiers, and it was one of my greatest moments.

This is how a member of the Maghreb Delegation, who knows about the world quite a lot, described to me his visit to Algeria. He was part of the Maghreb Delegation trip to Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia put together by  the U.S. Department of State in the context of an initiative launched last year in Algiers: the US- North Africa Partnership for Economic Opportunity, known as NAPEO, which is part of the global alliance Partners for a New Beginning. The Department of State’s Global Entrepreneurship Program spearheads key entrepreneurship programming for the NAPEO initiative. The goal of the Maghreb Delegation led by Lorraine Hariton and Julie Egan from the US State Department was to jump start a discussion about entrepreneurship in the region, by identifying promising entrepreneurs and connecting them with mentors willing to coach them on how to sharpen a business plan, pitch an idea, seek funding and manage a venture.

To this date, GEP has conducted few similar delegations: Egypt, Indonesia, and soon in Turkey. The idea is to help countries, on the tipping point of breaking away from a managed economy to an entrepreneurial economy, take advantage of the US experience in building an ecosystem that fosters entrepreneurship, innovation and job creation. At its core, GEP delegations are about helping young entrepreneurs in these regions make sense of the Silicon Valley’s cultural DNA: Why start ups like Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Groupon live and thrive in the US, and die elsewhere?

In Algiers, the business plan competition launched by the Maghreb Delegation was tough. We spent about two days reviewing business plans, coaching entrepreneurs, and mentoring them on how to improve their performance in front of a judge panel. We looked at about 25 business plans and we selected one start up that was quite unique for Algeria: an e-payment application by founder Yourghouta Benali that provides consumers with the ability to operate commercial transactions. This could be a breakthrough solution for Algeria as it offers an interim step, while the country is working on its e-commerce strategy. The winner of this competition, along with two other winners from Morocco and Tunisia, have been offered a special prize structured through the NAPEO partnership: Spend a short stay in Tech Town (Detroit) and Silicon Valley to learn more about the US market and, why not, develop a marketing strategy to commercialize their product in the US and elsewhere.  This kind of partnership that builds bridges between the United States and the Maghreb is what the U.S. – North Africa Partnership for Economic Opportunity is all about.

In the Maghreb Delegation, I represented TechWadi; there were about fifteen members representing successful entrepreneurs, academics, angel investors, and VC companies. As a judge and a mentor, I had a unique perspective. I was quite familiar with the specificity and the needs of young Arab entrepreneurs in the region. I know what motivates and drives young entrepreneurs, but perhaps more importantly, I know the challenges and the barriers that can easily demotivate them. The concept of mentorship, for instance, which is quite known in the US, has a different meaning in the region. A mentor could be looked at as an evaluator with whom we can’t afford mistakes, share information, or simply someone from whom we should hide our weaknesses. This difference in perception, of such a critical concept to entrepreneurship, can makes mentorship a useless one. At TechWadi, and in addition to our technical advice that we provide through our global mentorship platform, we are quite aware of the type of cultural traps that can cost an opportunity.

In Algiers, we also had a chance to discuss the impact of the North African Partnership for Economic Opportunity initiative. NAPEO was launched in Algiers in December 2010 at the US-Maghreb Entrepreneurship Conference. Its aim is to build bridges between the peopls and business communities in the United States and the Maghreb, support regional economic integration, and support the dreams and jobs of young people in the region. One interesting aspect of this partnership is that it focuses on local priorities.  It does this through careful input from local partners and entrepreneurs who have formed local advisory boards in each country to support this initiative.

This initiative is also part of a larger framework, called Partners for a New Beginning, designed to reflect President Obama’s vision of how the US should deal with 21st century global challenges. As part of the Maghreb Diaspora living in the US, I have been dreaming about this New Beginning for quite a while, perhaps more than two decades. A New Beginning, where entrepreneurs, innovators, educators, and young women and men (the people that is) have a say in how the US-Maghreb relations ought to be shaped.

Now that we have completed the process of building institutional frameworks, we can start working on our promise: A New Beginning…

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