Tech : Marseille confirms its role as a Euro-African crossroads

As a metropolis at the heart of the Mediterranean, Aix-Marseille-Provence welcomes and supports African startups as part of its cooperation. A partnership that benefits both sides of the Mediterranean, thanks to the region's many business incubators.

By Mérième Alaoui

“Marseille is a strategic location for innovation between Europe and Africa,” says Samir Abdelkrim, founder of Emerging Valley. His event took place on November 28 in France’s second city. Aware of this asset, the Aix-Marseille-Provence (AMP) conurbation is playing its role as a Euro-Mediterranean platform. “With this meeting, we wanted to capitalize on the historical, geographical, geo-economic and demographic legitimacy of the region. Marseille is home to diasporas from Africa and the Middle East.

The seventh edition of Emerging Valley, the Euro-African technology forum, took place at The Camp, a futuristic innovation campus in Aix-en-Provence. An ideal place for this meeting. Two thousand people, in person and remotely, took part in the debates and business discussions. “In particular, a hundred accredited startups and dozens of investors came; the business village was full of meetings,” says Samir Abdelkrim, a native of the region.  “It’s a real ecosystem and the emulation is palpable; there’s a great desire for entrepreneurship between Europe and Africa. On the one hand, the region is nourishing its interest in innovation; on the other, African startups are looking to expand internationally in Europe. The aim is to make Marseille a destination for investment and startups and to bring about a change of scale,” adds Samir Abdelkrim.

Soft landing Provence Africa Connect, a new incubation program

With five data centers, Marseille is the fourth largest city in the world in terms of data capacity. In order to refine and anchor its partnerships with the continent, the metropolis has announced the creation of a new program: Soft Landing Provence Africa Connect. Dedicated to innovative African companies, this welcome and support program promises to help them set up in Europe and develop internationally from the South of France.

“The Provence Africa Connect initiative aims to make Aix-Marseille-Provence an international Euro-African crossroads for shared prosperity. Africa is a strategic economic, cultural and human area and a unique opportunity to be seized for the future of Aix-Marseille-Provence,” said Arnaud Mercier, AMP councilor in charge of the digital metropolis, public data policy and innovation.

Following a call for tenders, Accélérateur M, based at the Cité de l’innovation et des savoirs d’Aix-Marseille (CISAM), and Marseille Innovation, the region’s largest business incubator, are coordinating this important mission. “The roadmap has been drawn up by the metropolis. The accelerator will focus on the cultural and creative industries (CCI), the blue economy and smart cities. We have forged partnerships with other international incubators, including one in Tunisia, a country with which we work a lot. 90% of our international projects are Tunisian,” explains Franck Araujo, director of Accélérateur M. Other projects are being developed in Morocco: “We have a relationship with the private accelerator Hseven. We have started in North Africa. After that, our ambition is to expand throughout Africa”.

Lamiae Benmakhlouf, Managing Director of Technopark in Morocco, can attest to this partnership. “We work closely with Accélérateur M and Marseille Innovation. Together we developed the Soft Landing program. Several Moroccan companies have taken advantage of this to open their subsidiaries. We have also supported six diaspora startups as part of the Meet Africa 2 program. They are now based between Morocco and Marseille. It’s a real success story,” she says with satisfaction.

“The strength of the diaspora: speaking two languages”

Among the local councilors present at Emerging Valley, Vincent Laguille, Mayor of Le Tholonet and AMP’s delegate for foreign trade, pointed out that “the metropolis is home to 5,000 African talents at Aix-Marseille, the world’s leading French-speaking university. With an exciting ecosystem: six clusters, three technology parks…” he added.  After AMP, Lisbon has just been named European Capital of Innovation, a title awarded by iCapital and the European Commission.

No place in Europe can really compete with the strategic location of the Phocaean city. Not even Brussels. “I have been to Emerging Valley three times. I really like it. There’s a real ambition, a real strategy. Brussels is also a crossroads. It’s the city where the most forums and meetings of international organizations take place. This is due to the presence of the European Parliament. But Marseille has an advantage: its openness to the Mediterranean. What I like about the Forum is its ability to bring together different players: the private sector, entrepreneurs and the public sector. This fits in with my vision of de-compartmentalizing development policy,” explains Jean Van Wetter, Director General of the Belgian development agency Enabel.

At the end of this seventh edition, the Forum’s organizers are proud of their achievements. “Dozens of African startups have set up shop in the AMP metropolis, either by opening an office or being hosted by one of our incubators,” says Samir Abdelkrim. This is in addition to the cumulative presence of 515 companies and the attention of more than a hundred investors. The forum also brought together more than 200 technology centers from Africa and Europe.

Amid the rise of the far-right in France, the Provence region has used this event to promote openness to the world through business relations. To achieve this, it is relying on the diaspora, which is part and parcel of the Emerging Valley strategy to strengthen links between the two shores of the Mediterranean. “Their strength: they have a dual language, both cultural and economic, and the key to understanding the market. Today, we can clearly see that a profound economic movement is taking place in Africa and that the diaspora is often the first vector of this movement,” analyses Samir Abdelkrim.   

And make no mistake, as Jean Van Wetter, Managing Director of Enabel, points out, beyond Marseille, the whole of Europe is defending its market. “When it comes to relations with African countries, Westerners must be humble. There are four billion people in Africa, compared with three hundred million in Europe. What’s more, productivity on the old continent is stagnating. The balance of power is shifting. It makes no sense for one country to play its cards alone. It’s obvious. As France’s number one port and number one regional air hub for Africa, Marseille’s goal remains unchanged: to become one of the world’s top 20 cities for innovation.

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