NAPEO: A new North African and U.S. partnership

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After meeting with government officials and entrepreneurs throughout North Africa, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Economic, Energy and Business Affairs Jose Fernandez, says that links between U.S. and North African entrepreneurs and investors are already forming based on recognition of the many business opportunities in Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Morocco.

The trip — which included travel to Tunisia, Libya and Morocco — began in Algeria, where Fernandez unveiled the U.S.-North Africa Partnership for Economic Opportunity (NAPEO) during a U.S.-Maghreb Entrepreneurship Conference December 1–2.

The conference brought together an estimated 350 attendees from the Maghreb region and 70 panelists and speakers from the Maghreb, Europe, the United States and the Middle East. Attendees participated in skills-training workshops and networking opportunities, connecting youth entrepreneurs and business leaders.

Participants from the United States included investors, government officials, representatives from companies and executives from the Kaufman Foundation and the Angel Capitol Association of America. Academic institutions were also represented and included the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, and Babson College.

Built on President Obama’s 2009 speech in Cairo and the accomplishments of Obama’s Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship this past April, the conference was described by Fernandez as a successful and necessary step toward deepening economic relations with Muslim-majority countries around the world. It is these objectives that make up the basic framework of NAPEO, according to Fernandez.

The aim of NAPEO is to encourage startups through training and improved access to capital, and inspire budding entrepreneurs of all ages to create jobs.

NAPEO will establish a young business leaders network, a startup incubator for innovation and technology, and a “center of excellence” in each of the five Maghreb countries — Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia — that will bring together best practices and share knowledge and will serve as a regional academic institution on entrepreneurship.

NAPEO will be managed by the Aspen Institute. There will be a board of advisers in each country, as well as a regional board of advisers that will serve as the umbrella organization together with the Aspen Institute.

Change of business climate

After the conference, Fernandez traveled to Tunisia, Libya and Morocco to meet with government officials and entrepreneurs to discuss their reactions and work to incorporate their feedback into the future success of NAPEO. Fernandez said that government officials’ ability to recognize the opportunities for private sector growth, job creation and entrepreneurship are crucial to NAPEO’s success. He said that links between U.S. and North African entrepreneurs and investors are already forming based on recognition of the many business opportunities in this part of the world.

“I encouraged private sector representatives to participate in this initiative, and I can tell you without any reservations, that the overall reaction was very, very positive,” Fernandez said. “I was really pleased to see the support for this new initiative in the region from governments as well as from the private sector.”

Throughout his discussions with the region’s business leaders, Fernandez stated that there was a clear recognition that the old state-driven economies that rely on a small set of export items are not viable models for long-term economic growth.

Fernandez met with several young entrepreneurs across the region to hear their stories — including the challenges they face from the region’s business climate. Many of the entrepreneurs spoke of a demographic bulge. In some places throughout the region, 70 percent of the population is under age 35, which creates an urgent need for more jobs. Small and medium enterprises foster jobs, and Fernandez spoke of the importance of creating a business climate where these enterprises can flourish.

“In general, I found a widespread recognition that partnerships like NAPEO will bring real and lasting positive change in the Maghreb,” Fernandez said. “The reaction was good, and now we have to perform. Now we come to the next steps.”

The second U.S.-Maghreb Entrepreneurship Conference will be held at the end of 2011 in Morocco.

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