Remarks at the North Africa Partnership for Economic Opportunity (NAPEO) Conference

Jose W. Fernandez
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs
Second NAPEO U.S.-Maghreb Entrepreneurship Conference
Marrakesh, Morocco
January 17, 2012

Good morning. It’s a thrill. I was going to say originally “it gives me great a pleasure,” but I’ll be frank – it’s a thrill to be here with all of you today in beautiful Marrakesh, along with Minister Baraka, Minister Ben Abbes, Secretary Albright, and a number of other luminaries in the room. This has been a dream come true for a lot of us at the State Department and it’s wonderful to see this group here.

Let me start by thanking in particular the extraordinary group of partners on the NAPEO Morocco board for hosting this conference. Let me also thank Omar Chaabi for this wonderful hotel and for the opportunity to be here. Special gratitude to the Aspen Institute, and Toni Verstandig in particular, for the tireless efforts of the Aspen Institute and of the NAPEO secretariat. I also need to thank a colleague, Julie Egan, who was the originator of this idea at the State Department, and who has been indefatigable in making it happen and has been great partner in pursuing this initiative.

Also and this will be my last thanks, let me also extend my gratitude to our Embassy in Morocco, to our embassies in Algiers, Tunis, Tripoli, Mauritania for their support of this conference of its goals.

Over the next two days, you will have the opportunity to hear from more than 65 speakers and trainers, and you will have the opportunity to meet and learn from the over 500 participants at this conference from both the Maghreb and the United States.


One of the things that I’m asked often back in Washington when people hear about NAPEO – and they hear me talking and it has become a priority for our bureau– is why NAPEO? Why has the State Department made NAPEO such a priority? I tell them that the answer is simple.

The United States believes that entrepreneurship, education, and greater regional integration are key to economic opportunity and prosperity here in the Maghreb and that we at NAPEO can play an important role in building links across the region from the bottom-up through business partnerships and by linking young entrepreneurs. Through NAPEO, we will support private sector efforts by meeting with Maghreb Ministers twice a year in order to advocate for policies that enable entrepreneurship, job creation, as well as deeper economic integration here in North Africa.

Overall, what we would like to do in NAPEO to work closely with the private sector to build a network that will accomplish three significant goals. First, we will try to and increase people-to-people exchanges between entrepreneurs and business leaders in the United States and the Maghreb. Second, we will encourage new businesses, and third, we will inspire youth entrepreneurs to play a significant role in job creation.

The ultimate objective of NAPEO, and the objective is easy to say but I realize it is hard to make a reality, the ultimate objective is to work with our local partners to identify key projects that will help to meet our goals, and then match them with U.S. and international partners, including entrepreneurs, educators, foundations and very importantly investors.

Our goal together is to positively impact 100,000 people in the Maghreb and the United States over the next five years. And we hope that you will join us in this effort.

This is a wonderful crowd. A little bit more than a year ago in Algiers it was hard to imagine that we would have this kind of reception.

NAPEO One Year On

In the euphoria of the moment, with all of the energy that you have in this room, I think it is important to remember what it is that we set out to do back in November of 2010, what has been accomplished, and what still needs to be done. And so what I’d like to do in the next few minutes is to take this opportunity to review our work over the last year and also talk about where we might go from here.

Last year in Algiers, when we launched NAPEO, I said that this initiative would not be about talking, and you heard David Arkless talk about the fact that this was not going be about talking. It was all going to be about acting, it was all going to be about actions. After all, talk without action, as my dad used to say, is just talk. We described at that time several concrete initiatives that we hoped to achieve over the course of our first year, in four specific areas: Number one, access to finance; number two, supporting regional entrepreneurs; third, building links between our countries by promoting partnerships in sectors such as IT and creative industries; and fourth, promoting education and job skills training.

I am proud to announce the progress that we’ve made in each of these four areas this year is great. And over the course of this conference over twenty announcements will be made by private partners as a testament to their support for NAPEO. But what I’d like to do is give you a preview – as you heard David Arkless say, perhaps to steal a little bit of the thunder from these announcements.

Access to Capital

Let’s first talk about access to capital. First, when I spoke last year about access to capital as a key component for the success of entrepreneurs, I said that one of the goals of NAPEO was to support access to capital for North African entrepreneurs. I said that incubating innovation and technology through partnerships would be a priority. We wanted to support young innovators and entrepreneurs and help them find the capital that is needed in order to turn dreams into reality.

And so we have. This past October, our bureau led a NAPEO delegation of 15 American investors, five of those investors are in this audience today, to Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. The Delegation, which included potential business angel investors and entrepreneur mentors from the Diaspora community in the United States, met over ten days with local investors, incubators, training organizations, and government officials. Most importantly, this delegation provided mentoring and training for over 70 young entrepreneurs and showcased some of the most important start-ups in the Maghreb.

As part of this delegation, three of the most promising start-ups – one each from Morocco, from Algeria, and from Tunisia – received and incubation award and a scholarship to study entrepreneurship structured through NAPEO. This is a prize that was made possible – and we’re very very thankful—by a partnership between the Department of State, TechTown Incubator, Wayne State University in Detroit, and the American Arab Chamber of Commerce, in Detroit. This is an excellent example – this kind of initiative- of the type of concrete partnership that NAPEO continues to foster, and I think you will be hearing more about this from TechTown later on today.

Well, to support the framework for early stage investing in start-ups in the region, last year I spoke about partnerships to promote angel networks and the nascent Maghreb venture-capital sector. This was an effort to increase regional seed and growth capital for small businesses. I said then that we would encourage angel investors from the Maghreb Diaspora community to form a Maghreb Angel Network composed of Diaspora members from the United States and create a fund to support young entrepreneurs in their home countries. And we have. Throughout the course of the next two days, you will hear from several private sector partners who have accomplished these goals as part of NAPEO.

You will also hear from several investors from our recent NAPEO entrepreneurship delegation, some of whom are prominent Diaspora leaders in the United States, who have partnered together already to crease a Maghreb investment network to invest and encourage the most promising start-ups in the region, this is the first of its kind – the first fund of its kind in the Maghreb. What it will do is that it will link to local funds in each country, called Maghreb Growth Funds, beginning in Morocco. It will then expand to Algeria and to Tunisia.

Also to support the development of the Maghreb venture-capital and private equity sector, the Institute for International Education will announce a private equity, venture capital and angel investors delegation from the Maghreb to the United States very soon to meet with U.S. industry professionals and potential partners in Silicon Valley and in New York. One of the things we hear about as we go around North Africa is the need to create linkages with investment firms in North Africa with investment firms in the United States and that is what this delegation will try to do.

Supporting Regional Entrepreneurs

Second, the second goal that we talked about last year was supporting regional entrepreneurs. To support regional entrepreneurs I spoke last year about working with the Maghreb Diaspora to launch a regional start-up initiative focused on North Africa. Working with the Education for Employment Foundation, the Algeria Start-Up Initiative, and other partners, we are proud that today you will learn today of the launch of the Maghreb Start-up Initiative, which is the first-ever Maghreb-wide start-up initiative to encourage young entrepreneurs.

I also talked in Algiers about the importance of training for entrepreneurs in new and sometimes overlooked sectors of the economy. One of these, which is of great interest to me, is the creative industries. I highlighted the opportunity to work together to harness the immense potential of regional artists in this part of the world, musicians, filmmakers, writers, and digital media artists, in order to contribute not just to the arts but also to job creation and local development. We are pleased to have partnered with American for the Arts and Creative Leaps International to have delivered training in Algiers and also at this conference in order to assist creative industry entrepreneurs to build and sustain businesses in the cultural sector and to promote their cultural exports.

Building Links

The third objective that we talked about last year was building links. Equally important to everything that we do is creating links between budding entrepreneurs so they can receive mentoring and support. Last year we described plans for a virtual platform to allow North African young entrepreneurs and business leaders to try and network between events – not simply at this event, but between events – such as this annual conference. Well, you will hear later from the Atlantic Council about the NAPEO On-line Partnership and Investor Platform that will facilitate cross-border links by enabling American and Maghreb young entrepreneurs to connect with each other and to find potential funding sources.

In another effort to try and build links among regional entrepreneurs, USAID will provide approximately $4 million to identify, train, and connect entrepreneurs in Morocco and Tunisia to connect them to sources of financing. This will be done in collaboration with the NAPEO local boards in both Morocco and Tunisia. Promising entrepreneurs will receive support in moving their business ideas forward and turn their business plans into reality. Start-up companies will find mentorship and supportive services to help them expand and create jobs.

Some of you may also remember that last year we announced that the U.S. Trade and Development Agency (USTDA) would host a reverse trade mission of delegates from the Maghreb to come to the United States to explore a particular sector. Well we did that as well. In November of last year, USTDA brought a dynamic delegation of solar energy from this part of the world. Leaders from Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia to the United States. The delegation met with both senior executives and technical experts of leading solar power companies; visited solar power plants; participated in briefings with public and private investment organizations, and had meetings at the U.S. Department of Energy and other relevant government agencies.

Job Skills Training & Education

Finally and as a fourth goal, one of the things we talked about was job skills training and education. Last year we promised job skills and education training in a variety of areas with a special emphasis on opportunities for youth. As part of NAPEO, the Education for Employment Foundation is providing a Maghreb “train the trainers” program, which will qualify 18 trainers from Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco to teach “Workplace Success” – Workplace Success is a job skills program created by EFE which is in high demand by private sector employers. This Maghreb network of trainers from universities, institutes and non-profits that the trainer will then return to their countries to train young jobseekers and entrepreneurs.

To further fulfill our promise of education and exchange among business and entrepreneurship centers of excellence in the Maghreb and the United States, I am happy to announce that the Aspen Institute is working with U.S. and local partners to bring a University Partnership Delegation to the Maghreb this spring in the hopes of laying the foundation for a network of regional business schools, universities, and research entities.

Over the past two days, the State Department-sponsored Global Innovation through Science Technology (GIST) Boot Camp has also provided business development training to 40 technology entrepreneurs from Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria. These participants have exchanged best practices, and have even tried to catalyze new collaborations that we hope will grow into new ventures. Expert mentors have shared information on a wide range of topics from analyzing technology market potential to developing a business pitch (something as basic as going to an investor and trying to convince that investor that your idea is worth pursuing). GIST will continue to offer online training programs and webinars with technology and investment experts to build skills that will build innovative solutions.

Lastly the Department of Commerce hasn’t been left behind. It is also represented here today through the widely respected Commercial Law Development Program, which will continue to expand its work in the Maghreb. This program has been working actively with local partners in the Maghreb on the development of laws and practices that support trade liberalization, economic diversification, entrepreneurship and commercial rights, all at the request of each of the Maghreb governments.

Well this is a lot – this is a lot to say. It’s not the kind of talk that would bring out big ideas. Because I think, as David Arkless mentioned, the time for big ideas is passed. What we need to do now is to turn our ideas into action. In December 2010, in Algiers at the first NAPEO conference, we spoke about the need to create opportunity and jobs for young people throughout the Maghreb. The events of last year I think if anything have confirmed our objectives and the need for NAPEO. We also spoke last year about the need to go from grand ideas into specific projects and I think we’ve done that. The challenge going forward is that we need to do more. We have only scratched the surface. I think that we are at a wonderful moment and I think this idea is an idea that we will continue to pursue. We need to do more. We need to find ways -- as you will hear throughout this conference-- we need to find ways to scale up NAPEO.


And so in conclusion, I urge each of you to be our partners in scaling up NAPEO. I urge each of you here today to take what you learned during this conference and take it back to your communities. We urge you to become the catalyst for spreading the entrepreneurship spirit, to help employ youth, connecting to the United States and others in the Maghreb, and building new partnerships as part of the NAPEO initiative and beyond.

Thank you.