27 Nov Interview with Aïssata Lam, Director General Agency for the Promotion of Investment in Mauritania (APIM)
Business Focus: Mauritania’s economy has grown by 2.4% in 2021 and 5.2% in 2022, fueled by the newfound oil and gas combined with its large mining, agriculture and livestock resources. In 2023 and 2024, GDP growth is expected to average 6.5%. To begin, could you offer your analysis of the Mauritanian economy and its performance in 2023? How resilient has the Mauritanian economy been in the face of the multiple crises we have seen – from Covid, the Ukraine war, the galloping inflation to the security crisis in the Sahel region?
Aïssata Lam: In the face of formidable global challenges, including the repercussions of the Covid-19 pandemic and the Ukraine crisis, Mauritania has exhibited remarkable economic resilience. Despite these adversities, our nation foresees a modest increase in GDP for both the current and upcoming year, signaling stability and robustness. This optimism is grounded in the promising outlook of our gas prospects and the flourishing productive sectors.
A notable development is the upswing in the agriculture sector, particularly in livestock and fisheries. With over 20 million cattle and a rich coastal region, Mauritania possesses substantial potential in these areas. While the agriculture sector presently contributes only 10% to the GDP, it plays a vital role in the livelihoods of over 80% of the population. Recognizing this, our focus has been on promoting these sectors, harnessing their immense potential to contribute significantly to the GDP.
In response to the challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic, strategic measures have been implemented to mitigate risks and adopt a forward-looking approach. The president established a dedicated Covid fund aimed at alleviating risks and safeguarding the well-being of the most vulnerable members of society amid the subsequent economic downturn.
Looking ahead, the next five years hold promise, driven in part by our gas prospects. However, we approach this prospect with caution, fully aware that the transformation of our GDP will be a gradual process, requiring time before tangible benefits are felt by Mauritanian citizens. To fortify our economic resilience, there is a recognized need to diversify through commercial and productive sectors.
To achieve this, collaborative efforts are underway with ministries and potential investors, facilitated by organizations such as the Agency for the Promotion of Investment in Mauritania (APIM). The focus remains on showcasing the immense potential of agriculture, livestock, and fisheries. While working to enhance infrastructure and fiscal policies to attract investors, we also emphasize local transformation and value creation.
A significant shift in strategy involves moving from an emphasis on exports to prioritizing local transformation in agriculture, livestock, and fisheries. This approach aims to create a more sustained and less vulnerable economy, reinforcing our industrial capabilities and ensuring long-term prosperity for the people of Mauritania.
BF: Mauritania is a very resource rich country with huge reserves of iron, while its new oil & gas finds are setting up the country to become a key player in the African energy chessboard. How are you capitalizing on this new interest from international investors to position Mauritania on the map?
Aïssata Lam: We are encouraged to witness the heightened interest in Mauritania, indicative of our successful initiatives. However, our focus extends beyond mere publicity; it is imperative that when investors arrive, they find a conducive environment ready for investment. The narrative we aim to propagate is that Mauritania is the land of opportunities and the destination for forward-looking investments. Our primary challenge on the ground is to ensure preparedness on institutional, policy, and infrastructure fronts.
While Mauritania has been on the map for some time, the unfortunate backdrop has been the Sahel crisis. With the onset of the Covid-19 crisis, our interdependence has deepened. Mauritania is intricately connected to the Sahel, the Arab League, the Maghreb Union, sub-Saharan Africa, and is now a part of the African Free Trade Agreement. Operating in a region undergoing turmoil, we actively work to mitigate spillover effects. Our commitment extends to regional engagement, including bilateral agreements, positioning Mauritania not just as an investment destination but as an active participant in regional dynamics and African values.
In terms of diversification, there is a noticeable shift. Over the past decade, we leveraged our resources for business, but the emphasis was not optimal in terms of value creation and local transformation. Today, we seek to alter this narrative, urging investors to engage responsibly. This involves moving beyond raw resource exportation; we advocate for transformation rounds, establishing factories, creating jobs, and then discussing exports. Ensuring energy cost-effective electricity and the necessary infrastructure is also our responsibility to support this approach.
Additionally, as we deliver on infrastructure and projects, equal attention is given to human capacity. Recognizing that investors seek local talent and skills for project realization, we emphasize the importance of building and showcasing our human capital. This holistic approach underscores our commitment to creating an environment where investors can comfortably execute projects without solely relying on external labor, a facet often overlooked in discussions.
BF: What is being done to accelerate diversification beyond the traditional sectors like agriculture, oil, gas and mining? What sectors are priority and how can foreign investment accelerate their development?
Aïssata Lam: Our national strategy is strategically geared towards bolstering productive sectors, aiming for a more substantial contribution to the economy, increased job creation, and added value for Mauritanian citizens, fostering a path towards inclusive growth. While agriculture stands as a traditional sector, its potential for value creation remains largely untapped. Our concerted efforts are directed at creating an enabling environment that fosters value creation in agriculture. This involves comprehensive measures, including improvements in basic infrastructure such as land reforms and the establishment of special economic zones dedicated to these sectors, ensuring that investors find a ready-to-go framework for their projects. The emphasis lies on agriculture and livestock, where we have implemented the right incentives and tools to facilitate investment, along with a focus on local transformations in the fishery industry. These three sectors – agriculture, livestock, and fisheries – are our top priorities.
Tourism is another sector with vast untapped potential. Despite having a dedicated national agency – the ministry of Trade and Tourism – we believe that we have only scratched the surface, utilizing less than 1% of the sector’s potential. Mauritania’s picturesque countryside, in close proximity to Europe, the MENA region, and the US, provides ample opportunities for development. In the coming years, we are committed to harnessing this potential, evident in the ongoing development of hospitality facilities, including numerous hotels and resorts, particularly along the Nouadhibou route. The burgeoning interest in diversifying travel experiences makes Mauritania an increasingly attractive destination, boasting a blend of ocean and desert landscapes.
Lastly, renewable energy, particularly green hydrogen, stands out as a noteworthy sector. Over the past year, green hydrogen has garnered significant interest, and Mauritania, with its ideal geo-specific conditions, stands among countries poised to develop hydrogen projects. We have already signed five memorandums of understanding (MOUs) for studies in this sector, underscoring our commitment. A pivotal agreement between our president and the European Union (EU) for the development of infrastructure related to green hydrogen further positions us as a key player in this burgeoning sector. The momentum and strategic alliances established indicate a promising future for Mauritania in the realm of renewable energy.
BF: What about the tech sector? I know the Government plans to accelerate digitalization in the country. Are there any specific schemes, plans, programs, or incentives to accelerate tech development and promote SME or entrepreneurship in the country in this innovative sector?
Aïssata Lam: Embracing the digital era is a paramount priority for Mauritania, considering its youthful population and the imperative to adapt to evolving societal norms. The commitment to digitalization and modernization of the public sector has been a central strategy since the tenure of president Ghazouani. At APIM, the one-stop-shop agency for Mauritanian citizens and foreign investors to register companies, we are actively digitizing this process to enhance efficiency and transparency. Collaborating closely with the ministry responsible for Innovation, we navigate the complex task of ensuring alignment and perfect coordination. Currently, we have achieved a 90% digitalization rate, with the aim of reaching full digitalization by early next year.
A significant milestone towards fostering inclusivity and encouraging youth engagement in entrepreneurship is the passage of the Startup ACT in September. This legislation represents a substantial leap forward, aligning with our mission at APIM to promote inclusivity through a single-window approach. Collaborating with various Ministries and professional training centers, we tailor our services to meet the needs of young entrepreneurs, particularly those benefiting from grants provided by the ministry of Employment. The “Mon Project, Mon Avenir” initiative exemplifies our dedication to supporting young Mauritanians by offering small loans to start businesses and providing guidance through the intricacies of administrative processes. In our commitment to inclusivity, we also prioritize female entrepreneurship, extending support to women entrepreneurs who may need guidance in establishing their companies. We actively encourage them to seek assistance at APIM, ensuring that they receive the necessary guidance for a successful entrepreneurial journey.
BF: APIM was created quite recently and has the task of being a window and a one stop shop for investors into the country. Can you give us a brief introduction of your organization: what motivated your creation, what have been some of your biggest successes since you started and how does APIM contribute to Mauritania’s economy?
Aïssata Lam: Established in 2021 as one of the new institutions mandated by the president, APIM operates under the ministry of Economy with a primary focus on advancing the development of the private sector, aligning with the president’s commitments. The agency has four overarching objectives, each contributing to the broader goal of enhancing the economic landscape of Mauritania.
Firstly, APIM aims to position Mauritania rightfully on the international stage, fostering a nuanced understanding among American and European stakeholders. Addressing potential misconceptions is crucial in promoting a more accurate perception of the nation. The second objective centers on creating attractive investment opportunities by identifying priority sectors and diversifying the economy. To facilitate this, APIM diligently collects data to present investors not only with bankable projects but also the necessary elements for informed decision-making. The ongoing update of the investment code enhances investor confidence, providing assurances of investment security and financial incentives.
The third objective revolves around the establishment of a one-stop-shop approach, streamlining administrative processes, including company registration, to create a seamless experience for investors. APIM is committed to guiding investors through every stage, from initial contact to project implementation. The fourth objective emphasizes post-investment follow-up, ensuring that commitments made by investors, such as job creation and environmental responsibility, are honored. APIM plays a vital role in verifying that investors fulfill their social and environmental responsibilities.
In terms of reforms, APIM serves as a crucial liaison between investors and the private sector, collecting feedback and formulating recommendations based on on-the-ground experiences. The agency collaborates with the Inter-Ministerial Committee, chaired by the prime minister, overseeing the Business Climate, and the High Investment Council, chaired by the president, providing platforms for feedback from investors. APIM acts as a bridge between the private and public sectors, facilitating the implementation of necessary reforms and ensuring that investor projects are successfully realized.
While a young agency, APIM harbors significant ambitions, always keeping in mind the ultimate goal – the well-being of the Mauritanian citizen and their household. The success of the agency is measured not just in committee announcements and billions in investments but in tangible improvements, such as increased school enrollment for young girls and a rise in per capita GDP. Aligning broader objectives with on-the-ground impact remains a fundamental principle for APIM as it works toward fostering a prosperous future for Mauritania.
BF: This is also a highly competitive field with all the countries committing to attracting FDIs. Mauritania is sandwiched between Morocco and Senegal, two big countries, so how does Mauritania stand out? What is your unique narrative to attract investors?
Aïssata Lam: Navigating a highly competitive global landscape, especially amid current global events, underscores the necessity for collaboration and exchange among nations. Mauritania actively engages with peers such as Morocco, Senegal, Rwanda, and Gabon, recognizing that a country cannot exist in isolation. Rather than solely focusing on internal dynamics, it is imperative to understand and learn from the strategies and initiatives of others. While comparisons with countries like Morocco or Senegal may be common, it is essential to acknowledge the uniqueness of each economy, structured in distinct ways.
Contrary to traditional comparisons, Mauritania positions itself within a regional and integrated framework. The ease with which investors can extend their presence from Morocco or Senegal to Mauritania, considering geographical proximity, makes regional collaboration vital. The country’s strategic geographical position, with direct access to the ocean and proximity to Spain, facilitates favorable investment decisions. The consideration of factors such as production costs and transportation expenses underscores Mauritania’s role as an entry point to both sub-Saharan Africa and north Africa.
Mauritania’s strengths extend beyond its geographical advantages. Abundant land resources and immense potential in renewables, including solar, wind, and hydroelectricity, contribute to its overall resource endowment. However, recognizing that many countries possess similar resources, the crucial factor becomes how these resources are utilized. Here, political will plays a pivotal role, and Mauritania is fortunate to have a highly committed president dedicated to implementing strategies effectively.
The combination of available resources and unwavering political commitment sets the stage for Mauritania to leverage its unique strengths. It is not merely about having abundant resources and a favorable location but about utilizing these assets effectively. The political will at the highest level ensures a concerted effort to transform these advantages into tangible benefits for the nation. In essence, Mauritania’s strategic approach involves not just acknowledging its favorable position and abundant resources but also having the determination and leadership to translate these advantages into sustainable development and prosperity.
BF: What image does Mauritania currently have on the international stage, and what image would you like Mauritania to have on the global stage?
Aïssata Lam: Recognizing our limited international visibility and the frequent confusion with Mauritius, the creation of our agency was driven by the imperative to rectify this misconception. Over the past 2 and a half years, we have undertaken concerted efforts to enhance Mauritania’s global recognition. The tangible outcomes include increased discussions about Mauritania, heightened curiosity in the media, and a noticeable influx of investors – a promising signal.
A major challenge we confront is the prevalent risk perception associated with Mauritania. Prospective investors often form misperceptions based on limited online data or anecdotal experiences. Our proactive engagement involves extensive communication with embassies, ensuring they are equipped with accurate information and data. The goal is not to influence opinions but to counteract false information that might unfairly portray the country. Our collective effort aims at shifting the risk perception associated with Mauritania, transitioning from a discreet and mysterious nation to one recognized for its potential opportunities.
In our quest for international recognition, we strive for objectivity, transparency, and accuracy. We understand the impact of false information on investment decisions and work diligently to present Mauritania in a fair light. The ongoing shift in perception is a testament to our dedication to transforming the narrative surrounding our country – moving from obscurity to a recognized landscape of opportunities.
BF: At the end of 2022, the US government committed to investing $55 billion dollars into the African continent. Investment from the USA in Mauritania has generally been in hydrocarbons and mining. However, other sectors such as green energy, telecommunications, and agriculture could also be promising for US investors as you pointed out earlier. How are you working to channel more US investment into Mauritania specifically, especially since you have eligibility to the Millennium Challenge Corporation? What investment opportunities might be of interest to US?
Aïssata Lam: Significant efforts have been invested to elevate Mauritania to the standards of the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), marking a substantial stride in fortifying the economic relationship between Mauritania and the US. Collaborating closely with the embassy and receiving steadfast support from Ambassador Kierscht, our agency has worked diligently to enhance the flow of investment from the US. Recognizing the need for the right policies and initiatives to channel US investments effectively, we crafted an action plan. Engaging with potential investors in the US has been a focal point, with multiple visits and participation in events like the US Summit. During the Summit, we organized a side event with potential investors, generating considerable interest that has translated into subsequent assessments of the country. Our aim is to maintain a consistent presence at events to continually present opportunities to American investors.
Additionally, we strategically collaborated with the embassy to pursue reintegration into the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), a significant step that facilitates US investments in Mauritania. These diplomatic and strategic efforts, both with MCC and AGOA, hold paramount importance from a strategic political perspective. The focus now is on effective implementation, with the goal of soon rejoining AGOA.
In the oil and gas sector, we have a valuable ally in Kosmos Energy, a major American player. Leveraging their experience and success in Mauritania, Kosmos Energy serves as an ambassador for the country. Their involvement, including presentations in Washington, DC, adds significant credibility. The positive feedback from Kosmos Energy about the support they receive in the country contributes to creating a favorable image for potential investors. The strategy involves utilizing Kosmos Energy as a supporter and ambassador, particularly during their interactions with investors in the US. The belief is that hearing from a current investor, especially one of Kosmos Energy’s stature, enhances the credibility and attractiveness of Mauritania as an investment destination.
The collective efforts with MCC, AGOA, and the strategic partnership with Kosmos Energy position Mauritania on a promising trajectory for increased US investment. The ongoing commitment and collaboration showcase a concerted push to create a favorable environment for American investors, backed by tangible actions and support from current stakeholders.
BF: You’ve been running APIM since the start. You were appointed in 2019 to the G7 Gender Equality Council by French president Emmanuel Macron and awarded the “Chevalier de l’Ordre National du Mérite” medal by Mauritanian president Mohamed Ould Cheikh Ghazouani in 2020. What vision do you have for Mauritania in the next five to ten years?
Aïssata Lam: Our vision is resolute – a commitment to inclusive growth that keeps the end goal of positively impacting people’s lives at its core. We recognize the importance of avoiding a myopic focus on daily results and strive for a holistic approach that encompasses human aspects and societal well-being. This perspective aligns with the president’s mindset, emphasizing the tangible impact on the livelihoods of the people.
The accountability for our work is underscored by the realization that every action we take has consequences for someone’s life or, in my case, for the trajectory of the country or agency. This accountability, outlined in the president’s speeches, serves as an inspiration, ensuring a continuous focus on the positive impact of our endeavors. It’s not merely about achieving ambitious numerical targets; it’s about translating those numbers into tangible improvements in the lives of our citizens. This commitment resonates strongly, compelling us to consider the human dimension in all our actions.
Ensuring the sustainability of the agency is a top priority for me. Beyond achieving short-term goals, the aim is to establish the agency as a flourishing entity, setting an example for how the public sector should be managed. Central to this effort is cultivating a culture of dynamism, creativity, and ambition among the team. I envision a scenario where young, capable individuals can seamlessly take on leadership roles in the agency, ensuring its continued success for years to come. The responsibility of this endeavor is something that occupies my thoughts even beyond working hours.
Looking ahead, discussions often revolve around Mauritania’s future post-gas production, marking a pivotal moment with heightened expectations. Gas production is viewed as a transformative tool, but the potential extends far beyond. The people, the landscape, and the abundant resources create a canvas of possibilities. The key lies in harnessing the right willpower. Despite the challenges, I remain hopeful and optimistic about our country’s future, fueled by the belief that with determination and strategic planning, we can navigate toward a prosperous and sustainable trajectory. This optimism serves as a driving force in our pursuit of long-term impact and positive change.
BF: What is your final message for the readers of USA Today?
Aïssata Lam: Come to Mauritania now because tomorrow might be a bit too late.