In contrast to neighbouring countries, Algeria’s transition to digital is proving difficult. There is still a general lack of entrepreneurial mindset, but things are starting to change.
Interview, on the sidelines of a L'Atelier numérique (L’Atelier Digital) broadcast on the BFM Business channel, with Aline Mayard, French editor at Wamda, the support platform of choice for startups in the Arab world.
L’Atelier: What can you tell us about Algeria’s digital transition – if indeed it’s actually happening?
Aline MAYARD: I’m not at all sure that there is a digital transition going on at the moment. As in all countries, there’s a desire for it to happen, and the government talks about helping the digital transition to get underway. In fact they’ve been talking about it for almost ten years now, but the transition started only very recently – just last December. Internet penetration is extremely low in Algeria. As a rule, Algerians go on the Internet to watch football websites or sites displaying small ads for cars and so on. There’s not really much else.
But despite the fact that the country is lagging behind when it comes to digital technology, is there an ecosystem around innovation and startups?
It would be a bit of an exaggeration to use the word ‘ecosystem’, but a few things are happening. We see that young people with a software development or engineering background are getting motivated with a vague desire to set up businesses. Events such as ‘startups weekends’ have been taking place in Algeria for the last two or three years, driven by students – who have been a real motivating force. Today there are a huge number of them compared with any actual growth of the Internet. That’s a good sign but everything takes a long time because the country lacks resources and infrastructure. There’s also a lack of knowledge of the communication field and people find it difficult to present their projects clearly. It’s a pity because the ideas are there but they just don’t tend to turn into success stories as in other countries.
But even so, aren’t there a few incubators and accelerators to help those startups that do exist to get up and running and grow?
The government launched an interesting initiative a few years ago, in 2006 I think it was. It was called quite simply ‘The Incubator’. The only problem is that ‘The Incubator’ is controlled by the State, and there isn’t really any of the mentoring and support mentality that you see elsewhere. Another major initiative from the government was a plan to establish a technology centre near [the capital] Algiers. But the project fell to the ground halfway through for various political reasons. Still, the movement is now underway. Incubators are appearing in other major cities in Algeria and are also being set up at universities.
Can startups count on state-funded aid?
Well, first of all there’s no private investment. Secondly, would-be entrepreneurs can’t just count on their families or friends to help them with the initial outlay. Nor is there much help available from the government. What help there is on offer is usually targeted at small and medium-sized companies by bodies which don’t really understand how a startup works. On top of that, it always takes too long to obtain the aid. You can sometimes wait a year for even a small payment to be reimbursed. And that means a year of paperwork, effort and explanations. So by the time you get the funds that were supposed to be to help market your product, it will already be practically out of date. There’s a real responsiveness issue here.
So this doesn’t really help to foster an entrepreneurial mentality…?
No it doesn’t. Especially when you realise that the entrepreneurial mindset isn’t something that’s really part of Algerian culture. In Tunisia you can really feel a very strong entrepreneurial culture, and in Morocco there’s a very strong commercial tradition. These are two things that you don’t see in Algerian culture. It’s a very State-run country, closely controlled by the government. No-one is used to – or encouraged to – think in an entrepreneurial way. People always get quite scared when they hear that their children want to be entrepreneurs. But that’s changing as the Internet starts to take off. And although there aren’t very many Algerians abroad studying or developing the new technologies, young people can see what’s happening abroad when they get feedback from other young people coming from France and other countries. But the real proof of the absence of entrepreneurial spirit is the fact that events such as the ‘startup week-ends’ never actually succeed in creating any startups. There are lots of small projects here and there but nothing ever gets launched.