Morocco’s Ifrane Forum is a platform for exchange, reflection and action on African trade and investment. Khadija Idrissi Janati, President of the Forum, tells Hichem Ben Yaïche what to look out for in this year’s edition from 6-8 December.
What distinguishes the Ifrane Forum from other forums in Morocco? And what is its purpose?
Ifrane Forum, the African Trade and Investment Summit, is much more than just an event, it’s a philosophy: to connect Africans so that they can get to know each other better, build trust and work together more effectively. It has been designed as a forum for exchange, reflection and action by Africa and for Africa, with the ambition of contributing to the development of intra-African trade and investment.
It is aimed at Africa’s private sector, with priority given to very small businesses and SMEs, creating debate on these issues and highlighting the fundamental role that operators play in the continent’s economy.
Over the past seven years – and through the various editions organised – Ifrane Forum has been able to federate a network of SME managers, decision-makers, principals and opinion leaders, all committed to a prosperous Africa.
What do you favour in the choice of guest speakers and issues addressed?
As a forum focused on action and creating impact, it is essential to choose participants and speakers who share Ifrane Forum’s philosophy and mission.
We make our platform available to people with rich and rewarding experiences, who embody the intelligence, determination and potential of Africans, who show generosity and nurture a strong sense of belonging to the continent and duty in contributing to its development. We give them the floor to share their experiences, challenges and successes.
The scientific committee chooses Africans from the continent and the diaspora, who are active far from the limelight and whose careers and commitment deserve to be better known, women and men who, for us, make up the Africa of today and tomorrow.
It’s not a question of having “headliners”, but of having “well-made heads” who can inspire and show the way.
As far as the themes are concerned, they are chosen according to the challenges of the moment to serve the forum’s ambition, while keeping in mind the African Union’s Agenda 2063, which constitutes a veritable “roadmap” for the continent. At each edition of the Forum, a great deal of thought is given to this issue. The committee looks at the latest studies, statistics and analyses the publications of the various institutions, exchanges with the wider network and uses it to define unifying, inspiring and engaging themes with which private sector operators can identify and project themselves.
Governments and financial backers are prioritising the emergence of economic Afro-Champions with a view to structuring and strengthening the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). Where do we stand today?
This is why we have a representative of the AfCFTA General Secretariat among our speakers, and are devoting a panel to this subject.
But before answering your question, I think it’s important to recall the long and complex process that has been underway since 2012 to bring this African dream to life. The decision to launch the AfCFTA project was taken in January 2012, at the 18th ordinary session of the Assembly of the African Union. Three negotiating sessions were held between 2012 and 2018. To date, 53 out of 54 African countries have signed the agreement and 46 have ratified and deposited their instruments of ratification.
The AfCFTA is expected to boost intra-African trade by 52.3% by 2025 and increase Africa’s income by up to $450bn by 2035. Its full implementation will lay the foundations for a continent-wide customs union and single market, producing a profound transformation in the African economy.
The African private sector is at the heart of this transformation. The new configuration of the continent will give African businesses access to an open market of nearly 1.3bn people by 2025, offering major development opportunities for African SMEs. Momentum is already building on the continent. Over the last few years we have witnessed a unique dynamic of intra-African collaboration. In 2022, 297 M&A deals were completed in sub-Saharan Africa, compared with 176 in 2021. Earlier in 2018, South Africa’s Sanlam invested more than $1bn in Moroccan insurer Saham. The development train of African companies is on the move, reinforced by a growing awareness of the importance of turning to the African market as an accessible and less restrictive alternative to the European and American markets, which have become increasingly regulated.
You have made this theme the main focus of your forum. How do you plan to contribute to this debate?
When we set out the themes for the summit and communicate them several months in advance, our first objective is to draw attention to the subject and arouse the curiosity of the community, inviting them to explore and find out more. Often, this process gives rise to a question and a change of perspective. The forum’s programme has been designed around panels with specific sub-themes led by expert speakers connected to the field, whose answers are clear and operational, to project themselves into the Africa of tomorrow, to understand the AfCFTA and the role and place of the private sector in this new market, to identify the support and guidance mechanisms for African SMEs, to understand the new entrepreneurial dynamics on the continent, to invest in art and culture as a high-potential industry, and so on.
The work doesn’t stop at the plenary sessions. The programme also includes practical workshops on topics such as digital transformation, internationalisation and scaling up – all key to business growth.
Also on the menu are field visits to Moroccan companies that have become large and operate internationally, for networking sessions and sharing best practice.
All the debates are the subject of reports that are distributed to the entire community, which remains connected, even after the event, via our online platform.
Finally, this edition will be an opportunity for us to consolidate Ifrane Forum’s ancillary activities with the launch of a high added-value initiative, which will be a new force for reflection and proposals. It will be announced at the close of the event.
Morocco has made Africa a major focus of its economic development. More than 15 years after initiating it, informed observers consider that it needs a second wind. How do you see this revival?
Since his accession to the throne, King Mohammed VI has made more than 50 visits to Africa, covering a large part of the continent. Accompanied by a delegation made up of the country’s biggest economic players, the King has shown a firm determination to place Morocco on the continent’s development trajectory, with a clear message delivered in his speech in Abidjan: Africa must have confidence in Africa.
These visits reflect Morocco’s policy towards Africa, based on openness, collaboration and co-development. Several measures have been taken within this framework, including the cancellation of Moroccan debt for the LDCs (Least Developed Countries), and total exemption from customs duties for their products entering Morocco. Over 1,000 cooperation agreements have been signed between Morocco and the countries of the continent in the last 20 years.
Naturally, this phase, like all launches, enjoyed a high profile, which faded over time, giving way to work on the ground. Morocco’s economic operators, political decision-makers, government agencies, employers’ associations and professional federations are in constant contact with their counterparts in various African countries, and are working together on projects that will help shape their countries and the continent as a whole.
So I wouldn’t call this a “relaunch”, but a “move to the next stage”. Several dozen Moroccan companies operate in a wide range of sectors, including finance, mining, insurance, real estate, pharmaceuticals, oil and gas, tourism, construction and public works, telecoms, technology and many others. The location of these companies, which are often large, could be consolidated by the creation of ecosystems that enable some or all of the value chains to be located. The AfCFTA and its provisions would help to facilitate this new stage.
The transition to the next stage is also taking place through the strengthening of Moroccan FDI in Africa. These flows have grown spectacularly, from around $100m in 2014 to over $800m in 2021.
You work in communications. How should Morocco’s branding evolve in a world in crisis?
The Morocco brand is essentially based on the kingdom’s narrative around its cultural heritage, a thousand-year history at the crossroads of three continents and two seas, whose influence stretches from the south of France to the Niger River, with a long tradition of governance that has seen several dynasties succeed one another.
Studies show that Morocco is renowned for its quality of life, its human factor, security, environmental protection and the fight against climate change. These last two attributes are undoubtedly linked to Morocco’s hosting of COP 21. Morocco’s political stability is also seen as a recognised major asset.
In 2022, Morocco ranked 32nd out of 72 countries on reputation among the G7 countries + Russia, on a par with the United States and Indonesia, and better than South Korea, Vietnam, Chile, the BRICS, Turkey and all the Arab and African countries, according to the annual report of the country’s Royal Institute for Strategic Studies.
In order to consolidate this generally positive image, in a context of profound change where everything is evolving at high speed, including opinions, it is essential to maintain the recognised attributes and act on other attributes that are benchmarks in the world of today and tomorrow. I will mention five of them:
- The first is ethics and responsibility, two elements that are becoming increasingly important, particularly for the younger generations, who are marking a return to human values. The positive image of Moroccan human capital will facilitate this work;
- The second is the level of development. Morocco’s commitment to industrialisation and its leadership position on the continent in a number of sectors, including the automotive and aeronautical industries, are winning it points. We need to consolidate this position by strengthening our technological and digital positioning, which is the stuff of dreams for young and old alike throughout the world;
- The third is tourism, by highlighting the Kingdom’s various tourist assets in a harmonious and balanced way, and promoting them through places to visit, experiences to enjoy and encounters to make;
- The fourth is immigration. In both host countries and countries of origin, the Morocco brand is impacted by the systems put in place and the experiences made. Moroccans living abroad are ambassadors whose actions and words help to shape the perception of Morocco, and the same goes for foreigners living in Morocco.
- And the fifth is the education system. Many countries around the world have been able to carve out a niche for themselves thanks to their universities, colleges and research centres, following the example of countries such as Romania and Ukraine in the 1990s, which welcomed thousands of foreign students every year to study, mainly in medicine. Universities such as Benguerir’s UM6P are playing this role, organising visits for national and international opinion leaders, major events and partnership programmes with prestigious universities and world-renowned organisations such as the World Economic Forum (WEF).