The anti Silicon Valley: Start-up haven blooms in Moroccan paradise

Story highlights

Idyllic village is becoming an international hotspot for start-ups

The conditions allow a different approach to working life

CNN  — 

The sleepy shores of Taghazout have traditionally been shared between the local fishing community and traveling surfers.

The pinprick town on Morocco’s west coast has sketchy Internet coverage and little obvious appeal to workaholic, technophile entrepreneurs. But buzz is building around Taghazout in start-up circles, and it is becoming an international hotspot.

Taghazout is currently rated the fifth best town for “digital nomads” to live and work in, by the users of Nomadlist. Virgin recently named it alongside Seattle and London as one of the world’s best start-up hubs.

One indication of local progress is The Blue House – a new co-working space, incubator and retreat that launched in October out of a six bedroom villa in the adjacent village of Tamraght.

Founder Aline Mayard believes the environment offers an inspiring and healthy alternative to the frenetic start-up scenes of Western cities.

“When you work in the start-up industry there is a lot of pressure on you, but it’s important to remember it is a marathon not a sprint,” says Mayard, a Parisian journalist who has covered the North African start-up beat for several years.

“(To maintain) energy, motivation and constant creativity, it’s very important to have breaks, to take a step back and focus on your overall strategy. It’s very hard to do that at home – so we see more entrepreneurs looking to get out of their bubble and daily routine.”

A different way of working

The Blue House offers services that make use of the local conditions.

Companies can book working residencies in the villa – often for creative and collaborative tasks. There are shorter retreats aimed at renewal through surfing, meditation and healthy living, and bespoke off-site experiences from team hikes to “hackathons.”

Brainstorming at The Blue House

The House also hosts conferences and social events that bring local and international entrepreneurs together – one of its central purposes.

“We are trying to build bridges between Morocco and Europe,” says Mayard. “We want to attract investors and entrepreneurs to this market, and for Moroccans to benefit.”

Moroccan entrepreneurs benefit from the experience of international business people, says Mayard, and events raise money which is used to sponsor local start-ups.

The founder says that visitors arrive from all over the world, from Beirut and Casablanca to Stockholm and London. Most international visitors come from Europe, just a short flight away, and many have suffered for their work.

“Our programs resonate with people who have already experienced burnout, and know they must take care of themselves,” says Mayard.

British entrepreneur Jonny Miller spent 10 months in Taghazout with his team developing storytelling platform Maptia. He says that low costs – his food bill was $10 a week – and low stress, made for ideal creative conditions.

Surfing conditions are excellent.

“Like many young founders, we have a tendency to burn the candle at both ends, but Taghazout surrounded us with ways to keep our perspective,” says Miller. “Even during periods of intense and productive late-night work we could hear the constant sound of the waves below our window and were encouraged to renew ourselves by getting outside into our surroundings.”

Moroccan-American start-up Chui conceived their intelligent doorbell system in Taghazout through epic brainstorming sessions between surfing, reading and meditation.

Co-founder Nezare Chafni believes the environment is perfect for the early stages of a business, but less so for scaling up.

“I think its a great place for ideation and prototype development,” says Chafni. “But as the business grows it may be hard to find talent and get investors to invest in a company based there.”

Building an ecosystem

The region could benefit from growing interest and investment in the wider Moroccan start-up scene.

After hosting the 2014 Global Entrepreneurship Summit, the government increased its support for entrepreneurs. International accelerator Endeavor is also promoting development, having recently established a base in Casablanca.

“We started here because entrepreneurship has started to become an alternative for employment in Morocco, as the (state) economy is not creating jobs,” says Mr. Nawfal Fassi-Fihri, managing director of Endeavor Morocco.

Endeavor’s working model is to identify start-ups with high growth potential, help them scale up, and then blaze a trail for others to follow. The group has worked with local success stories such as luxury gift company Linea Luxe and online marketplace Hmizate, and it is hoped they can support a new generation.

“We want them to become role models for the next entrepreneurs. We want them to become venture capitalists and invest in start-ups. We want to build an ecosystem,” says Fassi-Fihri.

The director acknowledges there are weaknesses in the national infrastructure, with shortages of key skills such as in recruitment. But he believes Morocco is an increasingly attractive proposition for international investors, both as a gateway to Africa and one of the region’s mature markets with a business-friendly government and tax regime.

As the start-up ecosystem blooms, development brings its own dangers.

Taghazout is expanding rapidly to accommodate new arrivals, but there are fears that the traditional charm of an old fishing village could be lost in transition.