Moroccan woman sets out to drive a digital revolution

Hanae Bezad wants to empower trainees to express themselves as they learn the intricacies of coding.
Sunday 25/02/2018
A training session at Le Wagon Casablanca. (Le Wagon Casablanca)
Practical education. A training session at Le Wagon Casablanca. (Le Wagon Casablanca)

It was on a sabbatical back from South America that Hanae Bezad started to think about the state of high-tech in Morocco. Her country, she realised, was desperately seeking skilled talent.

Bezad, 28 and a former consultant to companies on the CAC40 French stock market index, decided to return home and get involved. The result is Le Wagon Casablanca, an intensive coding boot camp that has taken the French concept to Morocco.

“It’s accelerated programming training for young people who would like to start or to join a start-up,” Bezad said. Beginners are welcome, too.

Over nine intense weeks, Le Wagon offers “practical education using a collective methodology to not only teach technical skills such as design and prototyping but also highly sought skills such as teamwork and dedication,” she said.

“By the seventh week, our students are skilled enough to build a clone of a highly complex mobile platform such as Airbnb. The last two weeks are dedicated to letting young people build their own project.”

The course is the first such digital entrepreneurial scheme in North Africa. Bezad took the Le Wagon franchise, which spread across Europe and to Brazil, and repurposed it for Morocco.

It couldn’t have come at a better time. Morocco is desperately short of software engineers even as the world is remade by digital technology that powers e-commerce, websites, massive online open courses (MOOCs) and, more recently, blockchain.

Morocco’s French-language L’Economiste newspaper recently said the country produces 3,000 software engineers a year, fewer than one-third of the number it needs. The Moroccan Le Wagon will take four batches of 15-25 learners every year.

Bezad said her return to Morocco to fire up its embryonic digital start-up sector felt natural and intensely meaningful. “After a brief experience in a Paris social incubator as a board member, I discovered my real motivation,” she explained.

As a product of Le Wagon Barcelona, Bezad realised a boot-camp-style course could offer young Moroccans the right start and, crucially, the right skillsets. It could demystify coding for young people in the region. Many of them want to start their own companies, Bezad said, and that does not require financial capital so much as human capital.

“The idea was to attract the most talented youth in the region as well as in sub-Saharan Africa,” said Bezad, “thereby connecting the Arab world to a continent with lots of promise.”

She said she is aware of the challenges of being “the first such course in North Africa to introduce our youth to the international market.”

Bezad is keen on the trainees having the confidence to express themselves even as they learn the intricacies of coding. “They have their own perspectives and sense of different lived realities that could be beneficial to international markets,” she said.

Le Wagon Casablanca is conscious of regional differences. “We are addressing a less mature market in comparison to Western or Asian markets,” Bezad said.

Wamda, a venture capital fund that works with technology-enabled companies in the Arab world, estimated that $815 million was invested in the Middle East and North Africa region start-ups in 2016. In the United States it was $69.1 billion the same year.

Bezad pointed to another key difference between the MENA market and that of the West or in Asia. “It is one where technology can have a much greater impact,” she said.

The MENA market can mature at an accelerated rate if quality teaching is provided, along with an inclusive approach to student selection, Bezad added. “We are reaching out to women in particular.”

Le Wagon Casablanca is taking a broader approach to the market. “We are also trying to educate financial stakeholders about innovation, looking at partnerships with business schools seeking to add to their curriculum, and we’re talking to corporations that want to foster intrapreneurship,” Bezad said.

It’s early days yet and many more such ventures are needed to drive the digital revolution in Morocco and the region.