Dreams Constrained by Capital: Nozipho Mbwanja’s insights into Morocco’s Young Entrepreneurs

Award-winning broadcaster Nozipho Mbwanja, winner of the Anzisha Prize’s 2017 Media Award, has gained renown as an advocate for the inclusion of youth and women in the African economy. Ever in search of untold youth and entrepreneurship stories, she travelled to Morocco, to uncover insights into the challenges and opportunities for the country’s young entrepreneurs….

2017 was a milestone year for the Young Money team at CNBC Africa. We celebrated three years of telling compelling stories about young entrepreneurs across the continent. We had built an interesting tapestry of stories from East, West, Southern, and Central Africa. We were able to tell the stories from the ground in different African markets – a first for many television platforms in Africa.

The Anzisha Prize was a huge coup for the team! When the African Leadership Academy first launched the Anzisha Prize, we were amongst the first to tell the stories and to jump at the opportunity to profile the dreams of the African entrepreneurs who had been shortlisted for the prize. We certainly weren’t expecting that when Anzisha decided to also acknowledge journalists that were telling youth entrepreneurship stories, we would be amongst those recognised. We were so grateful for the affirmation of being shortlisted, excited by the idea that the world was finally seeing the value and the power of youth entrepreneurship stories, that actually winning the prize was a secondary consideration. We were stunned and elated that we’d been honoured with the media prize and so began the journey of looking for an untold story of youth entrepreneurship.

After much debate we finally landed on Morocco. Those who work across Africa will tell you about the heterogeneity of the continent, how each market has its own distinct dynamics, how the interplay of economics, politics, and social aspirations of the people create a unique culture and business environment in every country. We chose Morocco for precisely this uniqueness.

The Unemployment Challenge

The Middle East and North African region, much like the rest of the African continent, is experiencing a pronounced youth bulge. This growth in the youth demographic is not matched with a growth in formalized employment opportunities. The resulting gap between young people looking for employment opportunities and available opportunities has left governments and other vested parties scrambling to find solutions. In Morocco, the youth unemployment challenge is even more pronounced, with four out of every five young people between the ages of 15 and 34 are without jobs.

The Arab Spring is a stark reminder of the consequences of a growing number of disengaged youth with no job prospects.
How Moroccans have responded to this reality is quite interesting. The government has seen this as an opportunity to grow and support youth entrepreneurship, with a number of programs and initiatives  launched in the last decade – including the hosting of the coveted Global Entrepreneurship Summit in 2014. At face value one can be forgiven for thinking that the government has the youth unemployment challenge under control…until you speak to young entrepreneurs on the ground. We set up a number of opportunities to connect with entrepreneurs in Casablanca.

The conversations helped us to uncover Five New Insights about Youth Entrepreneurship in Morocco.

1) A Growing Startup Culture

The Moroccan government appears to have latched onto the global trend of igniting a startup culture to fan the growth of new youth-led business. The strategies to do that have been largely similar to other markets, and include investing in entrepreneurial incubators to attract fresh ideas that need some support to be translated into businesses. The intent is noble and the rational is understood. The impact of these initiatives is questionable. Entrepreneurs told us that for ordinary young people these incubators were largely inaccessible and were the preserve of “city slickers” in Casablanca. We were learnt that the real need for youth-led businesses was further away from the urban centre, where these sexy incubators just did not reach.

Jacob Zawaq and Yusuf from Jacob Zawaq Photography, a digital agency specializing in music, film, and photography production.

2) Increasing Investment into Entrepreneurial Ecosystems 

Upon realizing that more value can be unlocked from supporting the development of entire ecosystems that would include incubators, hubs, funding initiatives, mentorship programs, and even market access support, the government rallied private sector players and the venture capital community to direct investment into entrepreneurial ecosystem development. The lessons from building a “start-up” culture seem to have been forgotten and not carried through in this new focus. The most inhibiting factor for young entrepreneurs to make the most of these ecosystems has been access barriers. Intent on making a return on investment these eco-systems fight for the same limited pool of “tried and tested” entrepreneurs instead of opening up the system to emerging entrepreneurs. The impact of this has been a tight rotation of a small number of young entrepreneurs, flushed with the investments into the same ideas and businesses.

‘Digital platforms and online businesses are affording young women the veil of invisibility while building empires’.

Nozipho with Sonia Baz, right, founder and CEO of digital marketing agency BO Magreb and Sara Tirhooula, left, a member of her sales team.

3) Women Mean Business

 We learnt that cultural practices were behind the small number of young women in entrepreneurship. Where women were in entrepreneurship it was most likely to be in a partnership within a family business rather than on their own. But young women have started to find and exploit the loopholes in the cultural schema and credited with the  growth behind digital businesses. We met a young woman entrepreneur who runs a formidable digital agency that is maximizing the impact of brands in multiple markets for her clients. Digital platforms and online businesses are affording young women the veil of invisibility while building empires.

4) Enterprise is a Global Language

Fourth on our list of insights is that young Moroccan entrepreneurs are making the most of their geographic positioning. The remnants of French colonization are strong and heavily reflected in the usage of French as a language of commerce. With close proximity to European markets, this is a piece of history that works in the favour of young entrepreneurs looking to access European markets. Young entrepreneurs are also taking advantage of the language within the Moroccan borders by unlocking Business Process Outsourcing opportunities in the form of call centres that service the clients of Europe-based businesses.

Pierre Chieriette, Nozipho and Redoune Bannouch, co-founders and Creative Directors at Mawj, Ready to Wear Couture.

5) Calling for Capital

We couldn’t leave without understanding what Morocco’s young entrepreneurs really need to rise to the challenge of creating new industries and new opportunities by creating more jobs. Consistent throughout our conversations was the call for capital.  Efforts by the government to entice banks to make capital more readily accessible have had mixed results, dampened by the high default rates. Perhaps it is time for venture capitalism, angel investors, and crowd-sourcing to step up to fill this gap. It is clear that the energy, the ideas, and the desire to do more is there. Morocco’s young entrepreneurs are held captive by constraints on capital, much like young entrepreneurs elsewhere on the continent.


An award-winning broadcaster, Nozipho is  Senior Anchor and Executive Producer of the CNBC Africa team she covers the African business story through the lens of women, youth, and Black business.

As the Managing Director of Akwande Communications, a company that empowers her to moderate conversations with global impact, Nozipho has moderated conversations for global bodies such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the International Labor Organisation, and multinationals operating in Africa.

She is also  Co-founder and CEO of The Talent Firm and a faculty member at Duke Corporate Education, where she supports the design and delivery of learning journeys for graduate programmes for corporates across Africa.

Nozipho is a fellow of the Kellogg Fellows Leadership Alliance (KFLA), the Aspen Institute’s Young African Leadership Initiative (YALI), and the African Leadership Institute (AFLI) Archbishop Tutu fellowship.

Nozipho has numerous  academic achievements under her belt, including a Political Science Degree with  Honors in International Relations from the University of Pretoria; a Masters degree in International Studies and Diplomacy from SOAS, University of London and a doctorate in Development Finance (cum laude) from Stellenbosch Business School. She’s also completed a Women in Leadership Course at the Gordon Institute of Business Science.