Casablanca: Gateway to Africa

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The Moroccan city’s vibrant business environment makes it the perfect base to access the continent’s surging growth Even before the African Continental Free Trade Agreement took effect on Jan. 1, 2021, Casablanca was staking out its position as a hub from which foreign investors could expand across the newly opened market of 1.2 billion consumers, which is forecast to fuel African exports by $560 billion.

Casablanca is uniquely located for easy access to the continent from the U.S., Europe, the Middle East and Asia, with direct flights to 113 destinations. Its welcoming business environment offers mobile Internet speed faster than in Ireland, Vietnam or Turkey; a streamlined two-day process to set up companies; multilingual mediation and arbitration; and a flat 15% corporate income tax.

“Africa is now in a position to make huge technological leaps and invent its own business models.”
Casablanca Finance City, an economic and finance hub dedicated to helping investors, provides community intelligence, such as business networking, market data and regional insights, plus access to a high level of local talent. An Atlantic coast city, it has excellent schools, a year-round mild climate, rich cultural sites and low living costs.

World-class infrastructure

French telecoms company Orange last year relocated its hub for the Middle East and Africa to Casablanca, with about 80 employees and their families, from 11 nationalities. “Casablanca headquarters are attractive whatever their country of origin,” says Alioune Ndiaye, chief executive officer of Orange Middle East and Africa. “Casablanca offers a good customer experience [because] it has world class infrastructures, [including] a hub airport for foreigners. [It’s in] a geographically strategic position between Paris and the rest of Africa, has political stability and—more importantly—security.”

Africa is a growth market for telecoms, with access to connectivity still rising, reaching 413 million users at the end of 2020. It also has a young population—half are under 20—eager to use new technologies. “Africa is now in a position to make huge technological leaps and invent its own business models. We expect to see developments in education, agriculture, health and content,” Mr. Ndiaye says. The rollout of 5G, already begun in North Africa, Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire, will relieve congestion in saturated urban mobile networks while bringing new capabilities, such as artificial intelligence.

Rise of renewables

Energy is another area ripe for growth and investment. More than a decade ago, Morocco set out its strategy to generate 52% of its energy from renewable sources by 2030, and it’s well on track. The Noor Power Station near Ourzazate is one of the world’s biggest concentrating solar plants, with 580 megawatts of power when all phases are built, plus thermal storage in the form of molten salt.

“Morocco has made a strong strategic move toward renewables. We consider that it is a leading country in that respect, where our solutions fit quite well with its needs and we can build the appropriate partnerships to build the solutions,” says Philippe Miquel, chief executive officer of Engie North Africa. “Energy is going through a significant change linked to renewables,” away from large, centralized electricity generation powered by fossil fuels and toward decentralized generation using renewable resources. “We think the system isn’t going back. We will live in a world of decentralized energy.”

Engie brings electricity to rural and remote parts of Africa through rooftop solar panels, Solar Home Systems and minigrids. In Morocco, where an electrification program has reached more than 99% of the population, such retail services aren’t needed, and decentralization takes place through industrial and commercial customers that want to generate their own power using renewable resources like solar, wind or biomass to recycle their waste.

“As an energy provider that develops solutions, what you want to do is be grounded in a market that offers the depth in terms of infrastructure and industrial and commercial businesses that are required to develop. Morocco counts as one of the few countries in Africa that unites these conditions,” Mr. Miquel says.

Powering connections

Morocco is also rich in wind and hydroelectric resources. With its location between Europe and the rest of Africa, it has interconnections with grids in Spain, Algeria and Tunisia. It is looking to expand connections with Spain and to reach Portugal and Mauritania too.

Africa50, an infrastructure investment platform created by the Africa Development Bank and African states, is also focusing on renewable energy, especially solar and hydropower, across the continent. It has hydropower plant projects in Cameroon and Madagascar and a solar plant in Egypt, as well as traditional power generation in Senegal and Nigeria. “We believe energy is one of the most pressing needs for our continent to help industrialize Africa,” says Alain Ebobissé, Africa50’s chief executive officer.

After holding an international competition, Africa50 chose Casablanca for its African headquarters because of its convenient location, vibrant business environment and the many ties Moroccan companies have already made throughout Africa, he says. “Moroccan firms are increasingly investing in diverse sectors across the continent, going beyond North and West Africa to East Africa. The banking sector in Morocco is particularly dynamic, [so] we see a lot of investment by Moroccan banks in West Africa. In addition, Morocco can export its expertise where demand is expected to grow, particularly renewable energy and green infrastructure projects,” he adds.

Africa50 also has many projects across Africa in transportation, such as Guinea’s international airport and a bridge between Kinshasa and Brazzaville; and information and communications technology (ICT), such as Kigali Innovation City in Rwanda; as well as energy projects beyond generation, such as power transmission. It works with other key sectors, too. “From our base here [in Casablanca], we have been able to do quite a bit of good investment across the continent,” Mr. Ebobissé says. “We look at Africa as a very attractive investment destination.”

Access to Africa

Casablanca is the gateway to Africa, which has “the fastest growing and youngest population of any region and may soon be the only place with birthrates at replacement or higher, so it is providing a growing and skilled labor pool,” Mr. Ebobissé says. “It has a growing middle class and growing purchasing power, creating a huge market for goods and services. It can drive the world economy. It’s important for the world.”

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