#02 Business
Leny van Oyen

Morocco: The Courage of a Young Returnee From the Diaspora

This article is the first of a series of "stories" about remarkable young entrepreneurs met during field work. The subject of this piece is a shoe manufacturer met in Morocco.

Karim Ezzaki is 35 years old and manager-owner of a small business in Mohammedia, near Casablanca. Son of Moroccan immigrants in France, he grew up in Seine-Saint-Dénis, widely known to be " a difficult suburb " near Paris. In 1996, at the age of 20, Karim decided to try his luck in Morocco. His motivation at the time for trying to go to Morocco is certainly not positive….

Like most youngsters, Karim intended to pursue his studies in France after high school. He wanted to obtain a ‘Brevet de Technicien Supérieur’ (BTS) with a specialization in business management. In order to be accepted into the BTS programme, he would need an enterprise willing to take him on board as part time intern.

Entrepreneurship seems to be "in his blood". He described how his father who came to France in 1966 started with little jobs such as selling carpets, and ended up having his own business as painter-plasterer. From childhood onwards, Karim did different odd jobs, starting with helping salesmen on the nearby local market to unpack and pack their merchandise. Later he worked during weekends at the Porte Clignancourt market in Paris to sell leather jackets made by Chinese workers in Paris. In order to make money, he even harvested vegetables and picked lilies of the valley, using the pocket money to buy brand name sneakers and to be able to go out with his friends. His " jobs " in the field of handling freight bring him in touch with factories, an environment that he likes: the industrial processes, the people involved. He tells himself that one day he will have his own business.

Unfortunately, Karim’s plan to pursue his education is blocked by a major obstacle. Notwithstanding his multiple attempts to find an internship in a company -- a precondition for being admitted into the BTS programme -- , he gets no reply whatsoever to his requests, apart from "we are sorry" letters… After having sent some 85 applications, all in vain, Karim felt truly trapped as regards his future. Perhaps business managers are worried to bring in an intern with a foreign name and, on top, with a Seine-Saint-Denis address? When asked if the school was not able to help him to find an internship, he defends the school: " how to find internships for some 1,000 students? "

But Karim does not give up. While he worked with his father in the painting business, they talk a lot about Morocco and the opportunities in the country. For his father, returning to Morocco is not a realistic option, in that he is at the end of his career, with both his family and his business in France. But he encourages his son to take the step. Initially Karim is not very excited about the idea of Morocco. He knows the country from their annual family holidays there, but spending the summer on the beach is after all not the same as settling in the home country of his parents. Moreover, the image of the country, certainly at that time, was not really encouraging: heavy bureaucracy, unpredictable regulations…. His friends consider the idea pretty crazy: "What do you want to do there when so many young Moroccans dream about coming to France?"

The decision to leave behind family and friends and head for Morocco at the age of 20 is not an easy one, but Karim tells himself he has nothing to loose. Even if he does not read nor write Arabic, the fact that he speaks Arabic is an advantage. He starts with a project suggested and supported by his father: a taxi business. After managing for about a year and a half two taxis, he does not think this business has a bright future due to the costs and the risks involved. He wants to engage in more lucrative activities and thinks about getting into the garment business (jeans and street wear).

Coincidence brings him in touch with a Moroccan entrepreneur engaged in shoemaking, specializing for more than 50 years in the manufacturing of security shoes. This entrepreneur encourages him to set up a business in this field as subcontractor and ends up becoming not only Karim’s main client but also in a way his business mentor. He facilitates his access to certain equipment, giving him advice and also staff training.

When Karim launches the company " Group Home " in 1997, the company employs 5 sewing machine operators – mainly women. In 2010 the business employs 50 operators out of a total of 62 employees, all declared and insured. Group Home staff currently includes a production manager and staff in charge of material cutting, quality control, machine maintenance, as well as administrative support. It also has a training section hosting apprentices that are absorbed into the company depending on apprentice performance and the overall trend in orders.

Work at the shoe factory (Leny van Oyen)

In this business everything turns around the factor "time". As subcontractor, Group Home has to deliver to its main client on a daily basis a quantity of upper parts (tiges) equivalent to " 16,000 minutes ". The client (contractor) provides all raw materials and the subcontractor is paid per minute of work provided. Group Home is one of some 10 subcontractors of the contractor that exports per week more than 30,000 pairs of security shoes across the globe. When Group Home started, it produced 80 pairs of upper parts per day. At present it makes from 500 to 800 pairs per day (depending on the model). Usually the production planning is known some 15 days in advance, but quite often urgent orders are received that require some flexibility of the subcontractor.

The creation of one’s own business is certainly not without challenges, and Karim has known some moments of doubt if he did the right thing. One such challenge was to find reliable business partners. Whereas Karim worked in the early years of the business with two partners, he is now the sole owner-manager. Also the recent world economic crisis is felt and at times it has been difficult to pay all charges at the end of the month. He recently had to decide not to extend the contracts of some 15 employees due to a slowdown in demand.

One of the reasons behind the name of the company is the intention to create a home in which people work well together. Contrary to the starting period of the business, he thinks his presence is not needed all the time anymore for the business to operate. This enables him to work on some new projects. The current location does not constitute the ideal environment for Group Home’s operations and he wants to improve the lay-out. Whereas he now rents the work space, he hopes to be able to build his own factory one day. He considers International Standards Organization (ISO) certification important, given his intention to expand and diversify and already started to introduce certain procedures copied from his contractor that is already certified. Karim does this at his own initiative and without any support.

But in the very short run Karim has another priority: he wants to open a shoe sales outlet in a neighbouring city when he realized there is no such shop yet. He considers this an important step in his attempt to diversify his business. His main client is and will remain important but such a subcontracting relationship implies great dependence and, accordingly, business risks.

It is Karim’s medium term plan to engage in the integral production of childrens’ shoes, in addition to pursuing the manufacturing of upper parts of safety shoes as subcontractor. He already started to make sample models of childrens’ shoes for which he initially targets the local market (through his envisaged sales outlet) and, later on, export markets. Karim is well aware of the complexity of integral production compared to acting as subcontractor: he needs to find the markets, buy all raw material inputs, etc. Yet he is optimistic as far as market opportunities are concerned and notes that Morocco has signed free trade agreements with some 55 countries, corresponding to a population of about one billion people. It is in particular his dream to sell on the North-American market.

Karim has already some experience with integral production, as supplier of baby shoes for a French client. When this client surprisingly and suddenly changed suppliers, Group Home lost his sole customer and tried to sell these products on the local market. However, it was difficult to compete with a pair of baby shoes produced in China and sold in Morocco at retail price of some € 1.30. As a result, he decided to stop this production line, at least for the moment, and he expects to find later on market niches abroad for baby shoes.

He realizes that in order to implement his export dream, he cannot act alone and cites a Moroccan saying: "one single hand cannot clap". Karim got interested in the export consortia concept introduced in Morocco with the support of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) and together with 3 other companies (also subcontractors), Group Home created in 2009 a consortium called Casa Leather. All 4 member companies are keen to engage in the integral production of shoes. The consortium already carried out market exposure missions and exhibited at the trade fair Maroc Cuir as a group. They also jointly employed a designer. The real take-off of the consortium is expected once the member companies are ready to launch in a concerted manner their own models and brand names. This step will require additional investments by each of the four companies.

Karim closely follows the steps taken by the Moroccan authorities to foster the development and upgrading of the country’s small and medium industries. As member of the Federation of Leather Industries, he participated in a conference on the state of the industrial sector held in April 2010. He is keen for his company to benefit as much as possible from available support schemes, such as put in place within the context of the Plan Emergence and the Hassan II Fund, among others. He thinks such support will help him to move forward as regards his different projects to further develop Group Home. Up to now, he has managed without public support, with the exception of the assistance received to establish the Casa Leather consortium.

"My initial bad luck has after all been beneficial for me", he states. Talking about his old friends in his neighbourhood in France, he says that few have found their way. Karim suspects that currently the situation in the suburbs is more difficult than when he lived there. He puts emphasis on the need to give young people the hope that "there is a way out", that they can work towards a better life.

He does not know many other young people who like him returned to Morocco to settle and stay. Also, he warns young Moroccans who dream about going to France: " if we who were born there face these obstacles, what is the hope of going there without diplomas and what future can one expect there? "

Man working at the shoe factory (Leny van Oyen)

Karim’s plan to do a BTS in France was blocked, but instead of a formal training in France, he has gained a rich experience as a self-made entrepreneur in Morocco. He is modest about his success so far: " after all, I am not heading NASA "……

This story is about the itinerary of a young man who could have ended up "on the wrong path", as a result of discouragement and frustrations faced, but who decided to take his fate in his own hands. He has been able to overcome difficult moments as a result of faith in his ability to succeed. Self-confidence, hard work and perseverance seem to be the major factors explaining the achievements of this diaspora returnee to date.