Johannesburg — Morocco, which the IMF ranks as Africa's sixth largest economy, is the number one investment destination on the continent, according to the Africa Investment Index 2018, thanks to "a receptive business environment and low risk profile." For the robust private sector in that north African nation, this represents new opportunities to forge partnerships, according to Salaheddine Mezouar, who served as Minister of Foreign Affairs, Economy and Industry from 2013 to 2017 and now leads the General Confederation of Moroccan Companies (CGEM). He says the country's traditional focus on Europe for investment and trade is now shifting to the south, as Morocco pursues opportunities across the continent. During an interview in Johannesburg at last month's Africa Investment Forum, convened by the African Development Bank, Mezouar outlined the advantages Moroccan companies offer as they pursue investment deals. These excerpts were translated from French.
What does your presence at this Investment Forum signal about the role CGEM is playing in promoting Morocco's private sector engagement across Africa?
CGEM represents the Moroccan private sector and also has been a long-standing partner with the African Development Bank. We are at the Africa Investment Forum because it is an initiative that the whole African private sector should support and attend. The idea is to bring investors together - private sector and government from different countries, to accelerate development. Such an initiative needs to be supported because it helps to achieve results quickly.
Morocco has always been very linked to Europe. This is its natural market, but it is the connection with Africa that offers the best prospects, We envision a two-way street with African investors coming into Morocco. That is already happening and we expect that to continue and grow.
How would you characterize the strength of the Moroccan economy?
Morocco recorded annual growth of about five percent in the first decade of this century. From 2011 to today, the rate has been around 3.5 per cent on average. This means that Morocco is among countries that have withstood the global financial crisis. Public and private investments have been sustained.
Morocco's biggest challenge today is youth unemployment. We have to accelerate entrepreneurship because this provides hope for a better future. Creation of needed jobs will not be done in the traditional job sector. Rather we have to give youth a framework where they can get support to express their potential. We have a new generation of start-ups that operate differently.
Africa offers the best prospects for Moroccan investments.
What do you see as the chief obstacles to achieving economic growth in Africa ?
Countries in Africa needs investment, in infrastructure and development of the industrial sector. And implementation capacity remains limited. That's why we really appreciate this forum, and we congratulate AfDB and President Adesina for this initiative, which is a concrete response to concrete needs. This explains our presence here. This forum allows the Moroccan private sector, which is already committed to investments in several countries, to make useful contacts.
How extensive is Morocco's private sector involvement in Africa?
Morocco is the second biggest investor after South Africa in west and central Africa. We have expertise that can be used to speed-up development and implementation. Morocco is active in several important sectors – banking, insurance, telecommunications and infrastructure. Our country has started investing in the industrial sector.
Our ambition is to invest in order to promote all the sectors we have been able to develop at home, including agribusiness, construction and real estate. We see raw-materials processing as an important way to promote value creation, and the Moroccan experience in this field is acknowledged as being useful.
Many Moroccan companies are involved in housing. We are present in the tourism sector. Morocco has developed know-how as a tourist destination, so there is opportunity for Moroccan companies to operate in the tourist sector in other parts of Africa. Moroccan investors do not generally go it along but seek to create fruitful partnerships.
A large Moroccan company has created partnerships in Ethiopia and Nigeria to provide affordable fertilizer for small farmers which can accelerate crop yields and increase farmers' incomes. The approach is to integrate the phosphate which we produce in Morocco with natural gas to develop a cheap, good quality fertilizer at a very low cost.
What is the status of Morocco's application for membership in Ecowas (the Economic Community of West African States)?
The process is still underway. Morocco submitted its application for membership to Ecowas because of historical ties, its economic presence through investments there, the security threat that the region is faced with and the need to build partnerships for development purposes. These are the reasons that Morocco can bring something to Ecowas and vice-versa. Morocco is committed to development of south-south relations.
It is true that a few countries, perhaps, view Morocco as a potential threat. We are currently doing explanatory work to let people know that the threat is not there. I think the feedback is starting to become positive. We are convinced that it is only a matter of time. We will keep on working with our counterparts and partners.
CGEM, which on behalf of the private sector is convinced about the importance of Morocco's accession into Ecowas, will keep working to convince its private sector partners in the fifteen Ecowas member countries of Morocco's membership offers strategic advantages for them.
Is the Western Sahara issue a handicap for Moroccan companies in Africa?
The approach advocated by His Majesty King Mohamed VI is that the issue is a matter that must be managed by the United Nations. The African Union is not involved in that process. Based on that, the relation with all countries, whatever their point of view regarding that national issue must be the same.
His Majesty's approach has been supported by all countries. We have ties with many that recognize the RASD (the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic). What is important is that we build relations with countries. We must not forget that this matter dates back 34 years and that the new generation of African leaders is pragmatic. They have a totally different approach from their predecessors. They appreciate Morocco.
For many countries, the view has changed regarding relations with Morocco. Everybody is convinced today that this issue must be left to the United Nations to handle and that it is necessary to promote strong and sustainable political, diplomatic and economic ties for the interest of all. That is the approach of His Majesty which the country's private sector supports.
What must Morocco do to change the policy of countries that are supporting Western Sahara?
More and more countries that supported the so-called Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic are realizing that this was fiction. The reality of the region as well as the historical links, the concrete integration of the Moroccan Sahara provinces into Morocco's constitutional life are such that it is difficult to step back.
The problem is not between Morocco and Polisario but rather between Morocco and Algeria. If there should be negotiations, it must actually be between those two countries. The Polisario is a creation that is maintained inside Algeria. His Majesty has called upon Algeria to discuss in good faith the interest of the region, its development and stability. There must be frank discussions between Morocco and Algeria in order to overcome this problem. Morocco has offered autonomy to the southern provinces. It is this position that Morocco maintains with strength and conviction, and many actors now believe that this is the single outcome possible.