From nomads to mobile: Mauritania’s unique path to growing digital
In Mauritania, Visa is now partnering with the public and private sector to help grow the country’s digital economy – with the new free-to-use Practical Business Skills platform delivering educational resources to its entrepreneurs. Here, Leila Serhan, Visa’s Group Country Manager for the North Africa, Levant and Pakistan (NALP) region, talks to Aissata Lam, Director General of the Investment Promotion Agency of Mauritania, about unlocking digitization, and why education is the key to this across Mauritania and beyond.
Leila Serhan: Could you tell us a bit about yourself, and your role at the Investment Promotion Agency of Mauritania (APIM) – which is, of course, the governmental entity in charge of direct investments in the country?
Aissata Lam: I became the Director General of APIM in April last year. I've always been involved in my country’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, and also women-led enterprises – I co-founded an incubator and venture fund in 2012, called the Youth Chamber of Commerce of Mauritania, which was an amazing experience. For me, this position was an opportunity to continue the fight for SMEs. I thought that the public sector had its role to play in terms of addressing the challenges that they were facing. And I really hope to be able to really push reforms to make the public policies more inclusive for SMEs and startups.
LS: Definitely big responsibilities on your shoulders! Can you tell us a bit more about the work you have been doing to promote digital transformation – and specifically digital acceptance – for those SMEs across Mauritania?
AL: The APIM team is quite young: we are not one year old yet. And the first 10 months have been unbelievable: we were accepted by the national and international private sector, and we gave a big signal to the public that: “If you need any information about opportunities in Mauritania, APIM is here for you – and Mauritania is open for business.” The first element of our mandate is really that: to put Mauritania on the map.
Second is to facilitate investment. Through the agency, under one single window, you have the all the elements needed for a company to get registered, but also for an investor to benefit from the advantages of the country’s investment code1. Our mission is also to feedback from investors to those in charge of everything related to the business climate, and to say, “Okay, we recommend this.”
And of course, there is a point concerning entrepreneurship, and the idea here is to use partnerships like the one we have with Visa, to give the tools to the young entrepreneurs, to SMEs, in order for them to thrive and succeed in the Mauritanian ecosystem in a formal way. In Africa, more than 80% of the economy is informal2 – that’s one of the elements that right now the government is trying to work on, and digitalization is a big, big component of that. The Mauritanians are known to be entrepreneurs – many women are traders – and we realized that there was a huge interest in mobile payment. All the banks are trying to be more inclusive in that sense, there is a new ministry in charge of digital innovation which is also prioritizing this, and APIM has a role here, too. It's our responsibility to give the population the tools to access the new ways of communicating, and also means of payment.
LS: What do you think are other benefits this partnership with Visa is going to bring?
AL: From our perspective, tools like the Practical Business Skills platform are very educational – sometimes I’ve navigated through it and learned a lot myself! So, the partnership will enable our ecosystem of entrepreneurs and SMEs to benefit from those educational tools, to better themselves as managers. Second, I really hope that Visa will be able to accompany the Mauritanian government in educating not only the entrepreneurs, but the wider population in the benefits of having a bank account, of using a card, of mobile payment. And finally, the informal sector still being very present, it would help us to understand why the people remain part of it and how can we actually learn from their ways of doing things, in order to adapt our ways of engaging them. And you are definitely the right partner for us in that process.
LS: And we're glad to have partners like yourself. So how important is financial education when you think of increasing digital payments acceptance with the broader population in Mauritania?
AL: In the past five years, the increase in acceptance has been phenomenal. Take the introduction of the mobile payment solution Bankily: a local bank developed it less than two years ago and they really have been pioneers.3 It was a way to access those who did not have a bank account, because you didn’t need one to use the service. Only around 30% of the population has a bank account, but everybody has a cell phone, so we made the leap – from being a population of nomadic people keeping money under the pillow, to one that now has Bankily, but not necessarily a bank account. And that was thanks to innovators here meeting the challenges that we had – including COVID-19, which has been the biggest accelerator of this digital acceptance. They understood the population and designed a solution around their way of doing things.
Digital acceptance is still very low. And this is where we at APIM jump in, because there is a pressing need to put the policies in place, in order for the banks and mobile companies to have the right tools. Also, more communication is needed around digital acceptance, while not a lot of banks offer digital solutions yet. So, once again, it all comes back to education. The question of pricing is also still very central and has been mentioned by banks in discussions.
LS: And we've seen a lot of policy changes across the region that have helped in that digital payment acceptance. In this context, what are your plans around presenting the platform to SMEs?
AL: The platform is very easy to use. But for us, it was important when introducing it to have somebody from Visa to explain the rationale and share experiences from other countries using it. We have also been discussing the next step being a group of startups and SMEs visiting you guys at the Innovation Center in Dubai. We're quite excited about that!
LS: And how do you see the team’s role in supporting financial education for SMEs beyond the borders of Mauritania?
AL: Good question. Africa is a global village nowadays, thanks to technology and also to the fact that this ecosystem of startups has enabled amazing few years in terms of what we have accomplished as a continent. Through APIM, what I would like to do is to give more visibility for the Mauritanian private sector, but also give back to the broader community. Through platforms like Visa’s, we can make start-ups and SMEs heard, can give them visibility, connect them to investors, to global partners – it is good for them, it is good for us, and it's good for the country.
LS: And APIM will become a role model for many other organizations across the continent, that's for sure.
Visa’s next steps in the North Africa, Levant and Pakistan (NALP) region
- Visa is committed to advancing financial education everywhere, working with regulators and financial institutions to digitally-enable 50 million SMEs3.
- In August 2021 Visa held talks with the country’s APIM agency about ways to promote digital payments acceptance. A key element of the resulting partnership is the free-to-use Practical Business Skills4 platform which aims to help Mauritanian entrepreneurs grow their businesses, with a focus on ‘ways to pay’ and ‘going digital’.
- In Egypt, Visa has already successfully launched a similar platform in English and Arabic through a partnership with the country’s Information Technology Industry Development Agency.
- Content on Visa’s Practical Business Skills5 platform is available in English, French, Spanish and Arabic.
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1 General Delegation of Private Investment Promotion, Code des Investissements, 2012 - http://www.investinmauritania.gov.mr/IMG/pdf/NV_code_Fr.pdf
2 Eight out of ten workers in Africa are in informal employment, the highest share among all regions. International Labour Organization report, 2020 - https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/---ed_emp/documents/publication/wcms_792078.pdf
3 Visa to Digitally Enable 50 Million Small Businesses to Power Recovery in Communities Worldwide, Visa, 22 June 2020, https://usa.visa.com/about-visa/newsroom/press-releases.releaseId.17176.html
4 Visa to Digitally Enable 50 Million Small Businesses to Power Recovery in Communities Worldwide, Visa, 22 June 2020, https://usa.visa.com/about-visa/newsroom/press-releases.releaseId.17176.html
5 Practical Business Skills, https://www.visa.practicalbusinessskills.com