Covid-19 and the Maghreb: a more collaborative future?

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The Maghreb – which principally comprises Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia – has been hard hit by the coronavirus, but the pandemic has also sparked innovation and driven changes in the region that many hope will outlast Covid-19.

In mid-March Morocco became one of the first countries in the region to implement strict lockdown measures  a move that earned praise from the EU, as did King Mohammed VI’s proposal for a continental initiative to pool knowledge and resources.

Following initial success in containing the pandemic, lockdown measures were eased in June, as the country followed a common global pattern: a tentative, socially distanced re-opening, combined with a return to quarantine in areas that have seen secondary spikes, such as Tangier in mid-July.

Tunisia likewise managed to limit cases and began to lift lockdowns in June. Nevertheless, factors including ongoing political divisions and the near-total shutdown of the tourism industry will constitute significant challenges going forwards.

In Algeria lockdowns were also lifted in June, but this gave rise to an upward trend in cases throughout July. Quarantines were reinstated and 29 provinces are currently under curfew, while on July 31 the EU removed the country from its "safe travel" list.

Meanwhile, despite recent macroeconomic stability, Mauritania is one of the more vulnerable economies in the Maghreb, and indeed the broader MENA region. The World Bank recently warned that as a result of the pandemic, GDP growth could drop from 5.9% in 2019 to between -2% and -6.8% this year.

However, on July 31 the multilateral institution approved a $70m grant from the International Development Association to support Mauritania – just one of numerous recent initiatives in the region underwritten by development banks.

Lastly, the ongoing conflict and humanitarian crisis in Libya has made the country particularly vulnerable to Covid-19. Relief efforts are under way, and the World Health Organisation is helping manage the response to the pandemic.  

Accelerated digital uptake

Although Covid-19 is resulting in serious economic and social consequences, one positive side effect in the region has been a rapid and broad-based adoption of digital solutions, ranging from contactless payments, to innovative approaches to remote learning and working.

In Morocco, for example, everything from local government bureaucracy to Customs procedures shifted online. One important innovation in this regard was the provision of economic support to the most vulnerable members of society.

More than 2.4m Moroccans work in the informal sector. Soon after lockdown began, a digital database was set up to enable people without a social security number to register for economic support.

After entering their name and ID card number, they received a text message authorising them to withdraw a lump sum, calculated according to the size of their household, at one of 10,000 banks and ATMs across the country. Going forwards, this could be leveraged to incorporate more informal workers into the formal economy.

More broadly, there has been widespread growth in the use of apps and digital platforms.

In Algeria the Yassir VTC Company expanded its Yassir Food app to include all types of products, while Imadrassa, the first digital educational platform in the country, has seen a massive upsurge in engagement since the beginning of lockdown measures.

In March Morocco’s Ministry of Health launched an app for doctors and medical staff to pool expertise. Parallel to this, engineers, entrepreneurs and technicians launched a digital platform called Ingénierie VS COVID19MAROC (Engineering versus Covid-19, Morocco), designed to share expertise, while French-Moroccan start-up Dakibot recently made available a free chatbot that provides automatic answers in Moroccan Arabic to coronavirus-related questions.

The public’s newfound familiarity with such approaches will be something that companies and government agencies alike will seek to leverage once the pandemic has waned.

“Today the momentum has been unleashed, but there is still work to be done to avoid the risk of going back to old habits in the aftermath of the pandemic. Therefore it is crucial to pursue digital transformation and hedge against a potential slowdown, all the while supporting partners in order to instil a digital culture in Morocco and enhance value added,” Mohamed Faïcal Nebri, head of strategy, development, cooperation and communication at Morocco’s Digital Development Agency, told OBG in May.

Echoing this sentiment, Mohamed Fadhel Kraiem, Tunisia’s minister of communication technologies and digital transformation, took to Twitter in June to announce that the post-Covid-19 period would be “marked by the acceleration of digitalisation in the country”.

Health care self-sufficiency

Across the region, different companies adjusted their operations to offset disruptions to international supply chains, particularly when it came to medical supplies.

Thanks to a robust and diversified industrial base, Tunisia was already well positioned to satisfy its needs for manufactured goods, particularly those destined for the health care sector.

“A number of companies, including foreign businesses, are already fully engaged in the fight against Covid-19,” Abdelbasset Ghanmi, general manager of the Foreign Investment Promotion Agency, told OBG in April. “Such initiatives clearly demonstrate the strong potential of Tunisia’s industrial base and, more broadly, its drive to unite the public sector, private sector and civil society in addressing the crisis.”

One aspect of this is the deployment of cutting-edge technology. While the scale of some operations has been limited, many results were encouraging.

For example, in Béja, in the north, engineers from German automotive parts manufacturer Kromberg & Schuber developed face shields using 3D printing technology. Relying exclusively on existing raw materials and equipment, the company was able to produce around 30 pieces, all of which it donated to the regional hospital of Béja.

Similarly, France’s Orange Foundation, in collaboration with the Ministry of Health, supported six Solidarity FabLabs in Tunis, Sfax and Gabès in the production of face shields for hospital staff, created using laser-cutting machines.

Morocco was likewise well placed to leverage its existing industrial strengths. As in Tunisia, the textile sector – representing 15% of industrial GDP – has proven particularly instrumental, with many firms taking to manufacturing masks.

Alongside this, the Lamatem industrial unit in Berrechid – which was inaugurated in October and specialises in medical textiles – made commitments to meet the state health system’s medical equipment needs.

Headed by engineers and entrepreneurs, initiatives such as these are at the forefront of a new, increasingly prevalent approach to improving domestic industrial capacity. While their scope may be limited, they demonstrate that emerging economies can be more self-sufficient when it comes to certain essential products.

Enhancing regional collaboration?

While the Maghreb has not traditionally been characterised by strong intra-regional collaboration, certain initiatives that have emerged from the pandemic – particularly in the field of digital innovation – may point to a more interconnected future.

For instance, in a project coordinated by the Maghreb Startup Network, LaStartupFactory (Morocco), IncubMe (Algeria) and EY Tunisia organised the Covid-19 Maghreb Bootcamp, which was held entirely online at the end of June.

Participants developed digital approaches to managing Covid-19, with four projects selected as winners.

One of these was Libyan start-up Speetar, which is developing a digital platform to connect patients to doctors, ensuring that people in remote areas receive medical attention. Another example is Algeria’s Makelti, with an app that aims to cut food waste in institutional canteens by letting people reserve their meal a day in advance.

While region-wide ICT issues remain to be addressed – among them limited or unreliable internet access – initiatives such as these indicate that a more connected and collaborative regional ecosystem could emerge after Covid-19.

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