Interview with Mohamed Zine El Abidine Ould Cheikh Ahmed, President, UNPM, Mauritania

Interview with Mohamed Zine El Abidine Ould Cheikh Ahmed, President, UNPM, Mauritania

Business Focus: The Mauritanian economy experienced sustained growth of 2.4% in 2021 and 5.2% in 2022. The country’s new oil, gas and mining potential, combined with its important agricultural industry, are currently driving growth. this growth. In 2023 and 2024, GDP growth is expected to average 6.5%. To begin, let’s talk a little about the Mauritanian economy. What are the main factors and sectors supporting the rapid growth of Mauritania’s GDP?

Mohamed Zine El Abidine Ould Cheikh Ahmed: Mauritania’s economic foundation rests on pivotal sectors, with agriculture standing out prominently. The private sector cultivates approximately 60,000 hectares of rice crops each season, effectively covering the nation’s domestic rice needs. Diversification initiatives have been successfully introduced, including the cultivation of watermelon and millet. The livestock sector, contributing a substantial 10% to the national GDP and employing 10% of the active population, underscores its importance in the economic landscape.

Furthermore, Mauritania’s prosperity extends to the thriving fishing sector, boasting an annual production of around 1,800 tons of fish. Over the past 3 to 4 years, this sector has experienced significant growth, evident in the establishment of 80 fish freezing and processing plants by 2022.

In the realm of mining and hydrocarbons, Mauritania has successfully attracted major foreign investments, with all key industry players actively engaged. The robust infrastructure, coupled with an investment-friendly framework outlined in the country’s investment code, has resulted in a notable influx of new gold factories. In the past two years alone, 40 such factories have been established, each producing 40 kilos of gold monthly.

Mauritania’s industrial prowess extends beyond its borders, with access to a substantial market of over 300 million Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) consumers. The sector benefits from seamless access to electricity, further solidifying the nation’s economic vibrancy.


BF: How would you assess the business climate in Mauritania? What are the main obstacles and areas for improvement, and what has the government done recently to alleviate business difficulties?

Mohamed Zine El Abidine Ould Cheikh Ahmed: Four years ago, the government took a significant step in enhancing the business environment by establishing an inter ministerial committee dedicated to monitoring the business climate. As a member of this committee, the National Union of Mauritanian Employers (UNPM) not only actively participates but also holds the position of chair for the technical commission within the committee. The committee convenes monthly, diligently assessing existing obstacles and identifying key areas for improvement.

Through this collaborative effort, substantial strides have been made in fostering a conducive business climate. The digitization of numerous procedures, including passports, civil status documentation, and formalities at the Ministry of Housing, stands out as a testament to this progress. Notably, Mauritanian banks have emerged as pioneers in digitalization, offering diverse digital payment options that contribute to the overall modernization of the business landscape.


BF: What is the importance of the Mauritanian private sector today?

Mohamed Zine El Abidine Ould Cheikh Ahmed: The pivotal role of the private sector in Mauritania cannot be overstated, as it stands as the primary generator of employment, contributing to a remarkable 90% of jobs in the country. Notably, this dynamic sector operates in close collaboration with the government, fostering a synergistic relationship. Within the UNPM, we actively engage in ongoing consultations with the government, ensuring effective coordination and cooperation.

Importantly, Mauritania hosts a multitude of import companies, reflecting the current reality of importing approximately 90% of our essential goods. Beyond meeting domestic needs, these companies extend their reach to neighboring countries, including Mali and Burkina, through substantial re-export activities. An illustrative example of the private sector’s resilience and strategic significance emerges during the challenging times of the Covid pandemic. Importers played a crucial role in building up strategic reserves for the nation, a strategic effort that has resulted in our stocks being replenished for the foreseeable future, ensuring stability and resilience in the face of uncertainties.


BF: The UNPM is the only representative of the private sector in Mauritania. The organization works hand in hand with the government to resolve key issues and advance dialogue among all shareholders. Can you give our readers an overview of the current role and responsibilities of UNPM?

Mohamed Zine El Abidine Ould Cheikh Ahmed: Established in 1957, UNPM holds a distinctive position as the exclusive intermediary connecting the government and the private sector, a status affirmed by a 2017 decree. Representing the entirety of the economic landscape, the UNPM encompasses 18 federations spanning various sectors crucial to the nation’s development. Despite navigating through changes in nomenclature and overcoming diverse challenges, the UNPM has consistently stood as a pivotal partner in Mauritania’s economic landscape.

Under the leadership of the current president, Mohammed Ould Cheikh El Ghazouani, the UNPM has found a dedicated advocate who recognizes the paramount importance of the private sector as the driving force behind the country’s economy. President El Ghazouani’s attentiveness to our needs underscores his commitment to fostering a symbiotic relationship between the government and the private sector, acknowledging the latter’s pivotal role as the engine propelling the nation’s economic growth.


BF: 2023 was a big year for UNPM global outreach. You met with ambassadors from the United Kingdom, France and Belgium as well as shareholders from the Chinese mining industry to discuss investment opportunities. What is the UNPM doing to strengthen ties with foreign markets to develop the country’s industrial capabilities? How important are these partnerships to advance Mauritania’s industrial production?

Mohamed Zine El Abidine Ould Cheikh Ahmed: UNPM has actively engaged on the international stage through a series of impactful forums and conventions alongside global employers. Notably, the UNPM currently assumes the chairmanship of both the Sahel Employers’ Association and the Arab Maghreb Employers Association. Additionally, it holds the vice-presidency within the French-speaking Employers Association, showcasing its prominent role in fostering international collaborations.

Through dedicated forums, the UNPM has consistently sought to capture the attention of foreign investors, offering comprehensive insights into the abundant investment opportunities available in Mauritania. The organization has successfully forged agreements with several countries, fostering strong ties with Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Algeria, Qatar, Germany, France and others. The UNPM’s robust relationships extend to diplomatic circles, maintaining excellent rapport with various embassies.


BF: American investments in Mauritania have focused on hydrocarbons and mines until now. However, other sectors such as green energy and telecommunications now look promising for these investors. By the end of 2022, the US government has committed to investing $55 billion in the African continent, which could have an impact on Mauritania. What potential role could the United States play in the country’s development? And what is the UNPM doing to get closer to American investors?

Mohamed Zine El Abidine Ould Cheikh Ahmed: From my perspective, the untapped potential of Mauritania has yet to be fully recognized by American investors, who may not have fully grasped the diverse opportunities across various economic sectors. Although trade connections exist with the United States, a substantial portion of our trade is routed through European countries, despite Mauritania’s geographical proximity to the United States. Currently engaged in discussions with the Mauritania-United States business forum, our aim is to enhance bilateral trade and garner increased interest from American investors, extending beyond the gas sector.

Anticipating the commencement of projects by BP and Kosmos Energy, we foresee a heightened attraction of American investors to diverse sectors within Mauritania. With abundant opportunities awaiting exploration, Mauritania stands as a rich landscape that merits greater attention on the global stage.


BF: Education has recently been a major priority for the government with a number of reforms recently adopted to create a more competitive domestic market and reduce dependence on foreign companies – such as the creation of a mining school and from the Kosmos Innovation Center. How would you assess the level of talent and human resources in Mauritania? What skills gaps are we seeing, and what is UNPM doing to ensure businesses in the country have adequate skills?

Mohamed Zine El Abidine Ould Cheikh Ahmed: Addressing the challenge of training is a critical aspect, and UNPM collaborates with various schools and training centers to tackle this issue. Annually, we communicate our requirements to the government regarding professional training, aligning them with the anticipated needs arising from the establishment of new factories. This information is factored into the recruitment process of institutes, ensuring a match between the skills of students and apprentices and the evolving demands of the industry.

Despite these efforts, a shortage of qualified labor persists, leading to occasional reliance on foreign labor. In response to this challenge, the government is planning to introduce comprehensive measures, including the deployment of trainers to enhance the skills of local instructors and the acquisition of state-of-the-art equipment. I am optimistic that these initiatives will significantly contribute to addressing the shortage of skilled labor in the near future.


BF: Regarding innovation, what is the UNPM doing to develop local entrepreneurship, to accelerate the emergence of new businesses and innovation in Mauritania?

Mohamed Zine El Abidine Ould Cheikh Ahmed: Our commitment to fostering entrepreneurship is reflected in our annual initiatives aimed at cultivating new entrepreneurs. As active members of a classification commission for companies, we play a crucial role in categorizing businesses, facilitating the establishment of new companies by recent graduates. Our advocacy for business creation is robust, with a particular focus on supporting women and young entrepreneurs. Through various actions, we contribute significantly to the creation of businesses.

An integral part of our efforts involves conducting regular training sessions, equipping entrepreneurs with the necessary skills to participate in calls for tender and effectively navigate the market. This proactive approach is designed to empower entrepreneurs, ensuring their successful entry into the business landscape.


BF: You have had a hugely successful career across several industries, including banking, civil engineering and IT. As head of the UNPM, you played an instrumental role in strengthening the country’s private sector and stimulating the growth of the Mauritanian economy. What are your main current priorities as president of the National Union of Mauritanian Employers?

Mohamed Zine El Abidine Ould Cheikh Ahmed: In my capacity as president of the UNPM, I serve as the representative of all businesspersons across diverse sectors in the country. My commitment is unwavering as I strive to advocate for the interests of each member. A key aspect of my role involves actively engaging with investors, working tirelessly to create opportunities that benefit the members of the UNPM. My dedication is centered on fostering collaboration and ensuring the prosperity of businesses across the spectrum.


BF: What vision do you have for Mauritania in the next five to ten years, and what needs to happen for the nation to reach its potential?

Mohamed Zine El Abidine Ould Cheikh Ahmed: Over the past two years, I have observed a substantial economic upswing in Mauritania. I am firmly convinced that the forthcoming year, marked by the commencement of the first gas exports, will propel this growth even further. The role of the High Council for Investment will be instrumental in bridging investors with Mauritania, and our nation holds immense potential, especially in the realm of renewable energies. The UNPM stands as a dedicated partner and advocate for these investors, contributing to the realization of their ventures.


BF: Do you have a final message for USA Today’s readers?

Mohamed Zine El Abidine Ould Cheikh Ahmed: I aspire for all American investors to regard Mauritania as their second home, extending a warm welcome to them. Mauritania stands out as an exceptionally stable country, and as an added advantage, a new investment code will be in place by the end of 2023. Across various sectors, plentiful opportunities await exploration, and we eagerly seek the involvement of investors. American partners can rest assured that they will encounter a trustworthy and steadfast ally in Mauritania.