Algeria and its potential has fascinated me for a while. It’s a huge country, with the largest population in the Maghreb (many of whom happen to speak at least two languages), a widespread diaspora, and an enormous youth bubble. The country seems ripe for disruptive startups, and yet, it’s lagged behind its neighbors in developing a startup ecosystem. The powerful central government has historically revolved around traditional industries, namely exporting petroleum. The country’s insular nature also makes it a bit harder to find “on-the-ground” information about entrepreneurship in Algeria, so I was really lucky to connect with Aouf Abdellah, the Algerian founder of GO Platform.
Abdellah is part of a growing movement of Algerians turning to entrepreneurship as the government loosens regulations and the economy looks beyond oil. Not only is he extremely optimistic about his country’s future and the economic opportunities therein, but he’s dedicated his career and startup to ensuring that Algerians across the country benefit from those opportunities. GO Platform’s mission is to provide young people with the opportunities and mindset to realize their dreams. To date, they’ve received a number of accolades:
- Named one of Africa’s 100 top solutions by the World Bank
- Selected as one of the 10 best startups in Algeria to represent the country at Vivatech
- Included in the 20 best digital content solutions in the Arab World at Digital Arab Innovation Forum
- Winner of the Seedstars country competition
- Financed by the Next Society
Aouf has an international outlook and loves meeting new people from different cultures. His confidence that Algeria and its startups will eventually go “global” is contagious. Early in our conversation, he told me, “I believe strongly that Algeria is going to bring alot to the world.” By the end of our chat, I was 110% bought into that sentiment as well.
So, always wanted to learn more about the Arab world’s second largest country by population? Read on!
Can you start by introducing yourself and the GO platform?
My name is Aouf Abdellah. I’m a young entrepreneur from Algeria who is passionate about equal opportunities. I founded Global Opportunities, or GO Platform to provide those opportunities to everyone in the form of scholarships, exchange programs, international jobs, conferences, etc. through an online platform.
COVID has made business more difficult. We had a business model where we were working with universities, but now we had to pivot our business into something else that we’re going to launch this coming March. We’re pivoting to focus on digital “Transparency.” We found there aren’t many solutions that provide the necessary digital solutions to corporations and we believe that we’re in a good position to take advantage of this opportunity.
You are also involved in a bunch of different exciting innovation communities. Can you tell me about the most prominent ones you’re involved with and what you do with them?
I recently had the chance to talk to Global Shapers and apply to create a hub. I believe that Algeria has to be present in international events and confronting international work challenges. Global Shapers is an initiative launched by the World Economic Forum to bring young leaders from around the world to advocate solutions to local challenges. It’s a great network of people around the world.
I’m also an international partner with the World Business Angel Forum, which is a forum that happens every year in different countries, and brings together private and public sector representatives from all over the world. The forum highlights the business and investment opportunities, especially in emerging ecosystems. I had the chance to join them in September 2020.
What led to your initial interest in startups and entrepreneurship?
My experience isn’t too different from many other young people in the MENA region. Many of us had to start working at a young age. Personally, I had my first work experience at 11 years old, and this led me to discover my passions.
I should say that I actually did my studies as an engineer in renewable energy. I have a Masters degree in that field, but honestly, I was never passionate about it. I studied engineering for my parents, basically to get a diploma and make them proud of me. At a certain time though, you reach a crossroads in your life where you need to make a path for yourself. I discovered that I was more business oriented. Given that I started working at such a young age, by the time I graduated at 26, I felt like I had already had 15 years of business experience!
I decided to launch my own business and follow my passion. I launched it, as I said, to build a solution for what I saw as an inequality of opportunities. I come from a city called Blida, which is known as “the City of Roses.” It’s around 35 miles from the capital, Algiers. That may not seem like too far to Americans, but I didn’t feel like I received enough information regarding opportunities like jobs and scholarships. I just didn’t hear about those kinds of things, especially international-facing opportunities. I found out that I wasn’t the only one who faced this challenge; in fact it was faced by the whole country.
Can you dive further into the origin story of the company? How did you take the problem you identified and build it into a business?
During my studies, I saw young people like me going abroad. Initially, I thought those people must be rich, they must have the money to travel all around the world. Personally, I was working at the time. Every summer, I worked to support myself and my family. Later on, I discovered that those people were actually like me. They were workers. They weren’t really rich. I had always wondered “how could they afford going abroad?” and I came to learn they had been going through exchange programs. The concept of the “exchange program” isn’t widespread in Algeria, especially as you get outside the capital.
After doing a good deal of research, I found out that there were many full-funded opportunities, especially for students. I figured all of this out after finishing my degree, so I was pretty disappointed. I felt like I had missed out on some great opportunities to enhance my abilities. I believed those programs would have decreased the gap between university and the professional world. I thought it was such a bummer.
From this pain point, I decided, “that’s it. I’m going to do something about it, I’m going to create a solution that’s going to give access to information regarding all of this.”
How did you go about getting the company off the ground in Algeria?
The first hurdle is simply educating people about these kinds of programs and how to access them. Many didn’t even believe that they existed! In reality, there are many embassies, the U.S. or French for example, that provide programs and scholarships. Unfortunately, their communication was kind of poor and so very few folks were even hearing about them.
To tackle this, I went to the four corners of the country, partnering with and presenting to university clubs. Honestly, at that point in time, I was working in the “black market,” without a legal entity nor generating revenue, but I was just trying to educate people and give them all the necessary information.
Eventually though, I did create my legal entity, which kicked off my company’s “official” life. I had to get financed, which I got as a loan from the government through something called ANSEJ (now it’s called ANADE).
Is your platform solely focused on the Algerian market right now?
Yes, as a first step. We don’t want to miss the business opportunity here. We are the first to do this in Algeria, which is an emerging market, without many high tech solutions. It’s like an “empty” market with 43 million consumers. We do have other strategies to expand into the other markets, which we think would also be a good place to deploy our solution.
How do you measure the impact of GO Platform?
Social impact is a key pillar of our company, so we measure it with various indicators and metrics. The first is how many people are applying into opportunities. What we do is we try to spread the information through our social media and platform, but our number one goal is to generate applicants.
We found that many Algerians don’t want to apply because they are afraid. They fear that they won’t get accepted, that their volunteering, their work, etc is not enough. They think “wow, this international. I’m not that good. I’m having self-doubt.” What we’re doing is that we’re trying to push them to the point of applying to the scholarship.
Then, we go beyond that. For example, we created a partnership with a German university called IUBH for Applied Sciences, which provides up to 85% tuition costs for Algerian students. We also measure how many students actually get accepted to this scholarship.
How big is the team that you manage at GO?
I started with four people and now we are 32. That includes designers, web developers, and marketing. In the beginning we were truly a startup. We were just one small team doing everything. Now we have departments, each one with their own KPIs etc.
I understand you’re in the U.S. for the first time, and stuck here for a while due to COVID travel regulations. What are your impressions?
To be honest, I love the diversity here. You can meet a new person every day and learn from them. I’ve always been passionate about learning about different cultures. You never know where you’re going to land. One day, you may find yourself in South America, running a startup in Chile for example. You need to understand their culture. I love meeting people, learning about their problems and their solutions, as well as sharing my own culture. I’m an extrovert!
With the rest of the team based in Algeria, and you currently in the U.S, how has the remote work been for you?
I would say that the one thing that has enabled me to run the company from abroad is the scrum board. It’s really an amazing tool. It always gives the tasks to the team ahead of time. We also have a COO in Algeria who distributes and evaluates the tasks to every department. I can’t stress though, how much the scrum board has kept our company running and hitting our goals, despite the challenges of COVID and remote work.
Can you tell me more in general about the startup ecosystem in Algeria?
As you may know, Algeria right now is going through a governmental shift. The old government was more into “who knows who,” and not very business friendly. There were just a few people who did business between them, and not new people.
Now, with the new government, things have changed because of the economic urgency of the situation. The price of oil isn’t as high as it was before which is pushing the government to action. Now, the government is investing more into the startup ecosystem. They recently created a new website for startups called startup.dz, where you can get your label as a startup or innovative project, and get government financing.
Still, all those efforts are not enough. The government does not yet allow foreign investments because they are afraid of losing money to foreign organizations, like VCs. They worry that foreigners will come, make money, leave, and never come back. The government needs to look more into this. On a positive note, it does seem that the government is adopting more of a startup mindset … to test, learn, and improve.
How would you describe the startup community in Algeria? What kind of people does it attract?
I had the pleasure of coaching some Startup Weekends, which gave me insight into the ecosystem. Basically, it’s not only young people as many would think, but it actually has a variety of ages and backgrounds. Even people from the government. There is someone I would like to mention – her name is Madame Fatiha Slimani – she worked in the government and she promoted the startup ecosystem there. That was really good! We don’t see that all the time. I had the chance to meet a few Ministers to lobby for new startups laws and I believe that the whole ecosystem has contributed in some way to pushing it forward.
What do you see as the biggest areas for opportunity with Algeria?
I always say that every major field or industry can find success in Algeria. It is an empty market in such a large way that you can’t even imagine. You can deploy a high-tech solution and it can work perfectly, it can fit. As you know, we have historically been very insular, but the new internet boom has helped open our eyes to the world. People are accepting more new technologies. I can’t be specific, I’m sorry for that, but it’s because there’s no need to be specific!
What do you think will help Algeria unlock that potential? What are the challenges or barriers that need to be overcome?
We face challenges on a daily basis in the entrepreneurial journey. I believe that the first thing is the stability of regulations. This is the first challenge from the government. As I mentioned before, they always do tests. They may launch a new regulation just to test it… if it works, fine. If it doesn’t, they try another. I believe that this will play a major role in the development of the ecosystem. The government needs to know more about how they learn from other experiences in order to set up regulations that will be stable, so we can grow fast.
The government is so slow. This isn’t just for Algeria, but for almost all governments. They don’t understand the new trends and technologies. We, the young people, have to educate the government to find new solutions. Just as an example, we don’t have any fintech solutions, believe it or not. We don’t have a reliable e-payment solution. Some places don’t have strong internet accessibility. These are basic things that Algeria still needs in order to produce successful startups. This kind of infrastructure is a challenge for the whole region, not just Algeria.
In general, how do most startups in Algeria get funded?
There is no foreign venture capital, but there are some local initiatives like Business Angels and the government has the ANADE program I mentioned before. Recently, the government launched a fund for startups. It’s like a VC, but a governmental one. They’re looking for disruptive methods of financing to help companies go beyond the Algerian market.
What countries do you feel like Algeria’s ecosystem is most connected with?
We always compare ourselves to the ecosystems of our “neighbors,” namely Tunisia and Morocco. As you know the ecosystem in both countries is a bit more developed than ours. We compare ourselves to them so that we can learn from them, because culturally and historically we’re quite similar. We speak basically the same languages, even have some of the same regulations.
Has the Algerian diaspora plugged into the ecosystem at all? Do you think they have value to contribute to its growth?
There have been some private sector initiatives to bring the diaspora and their expertise from abroad, and to deploy their knowledge into the ecosystem in Algeria. Unfortunately though, I worry that the diaspora that do try to get involved can feel like “second-degree citizens.” They don’t have the real “say” in things, and the government hasn’t really called on them as the valuable resource they are. They feel a bit neglected.. There are some individuals who try to share their knowledge and connect, but it’s still not enough. I think it can be an asset to our country, so we can use their knowledge inside Algeria.
When you’re working with startups in Algeria, what’s the main language people use?
There is a diversity of language in the country. Mostly, we use our Algerian dialect, which is a mixture between Arabic, Amazigh and French. However, lately, the youngsters in the ecosystem are more attracted to English. They’re using it more because they have worldwide ambitions and they need English to communicate on a global level. This is a really good thing, since maybe soon we’ll have a startup from Algeria that can go global.
I’m sure running a startup in Algeria is no easy task. What keeps you motivated?
I actually had to pull an all-nighter last night on a project and then had a two-hour call this morning, so it’s definitely a lot of work (laughs).
What drives me the most is when I read comments from people that we helped achieve a goal of theirs. When we work with someone who lives in the desert, with only a phone and access to low-speed internet, and we give him access to information that will help him secure scholarships or exchange programs, then we have changed a life. That’s social impact, that’s what drives me the most. It’s amazing to see that. I’ve been many times to the desert and I can see the struggle of those people. I cannot imagine that happiness that it brings to their personal and professional lives.
How do you envision your own future? In 5 or 10 years, what do you dream about doing?
Right now, I’m working on GO platform and I’m really positive that I can take it to the next level, and even one day have a successful exit.
In the future, I’d love to found another company. I’m really interested in the gaming industry. I’ve always been passionate about gaming and I’m excited about the industry’s new frontiers, especially AR. I’m looking to invest my time and money in this sector in the future.