Giving back to Morocco
Hayat Essakkati grew up in the Netherlands and studied Public Administration in Leiden. She started her own company in Morocco, the country where her parents were born. 'Moroccan culture and religion are not as conservative as people in the Netherlands often think.'
What is your background?
‘My parents are Moroccan migrants from one of the most impoverished regions in Morocco, the Rif Mountains in the North; they’ve lived in the Netherlands for almost 30 years now. My mother did two years at primary school and since then has always been involved in self-study. My siblings were all studying at university as well when I started at Leiden University. My mom was very adamant about us getting a degree and achieving our goals as she never had that opportunity.’
Did you always know what you wanted to be when you grew up?
‘Definitely not. I never really felt that I fitted in with the other kids. My village - Boskoop - where I grew up was too small and my general outlook as a kid was very limiting. I read a lot of books to learn about other people’s lives, different countries and the human psyche. I wanted to become a hairdresser and then a truck driver: not the most impressive career paths!’
Why did you choose to study Public Administration and the Anthropology minor in Leiden?
‘Before starting at Leiden University I did a year of International Business in Rotterdam. I thought it was too commercial. Everything was about selling, selling and more selling. I knew I had an interest in business but more so in helping people and developing communities so I decided to study Public Administration. I felt it would help me understand how governments function, and the anthropology minor would give me an understanding of how societies work across the world.’
What was your student life like?
‘At the time, post 9/11, everyone always asked me about my religion, my culture and why I wasn’t wearing a veil. That bothered me because, like any other student, I was just focused on my future and not on the role of Islam in Dutch society. I wanted to be challenged in other ways so I got involved in all kinds of projects for young people, women and multicultural people to learn about other people outside my classroom. I lived at home for most of the time except for one year when I lived on my own in Leiden. I look back on my time at Leiden University as a period when I felt obliged to take a closer look at my roots. I didn’t feel I belonged, so I wondered where I would feel at home and be myself in my purest form without being labelled as Muslim, Moroccan or that horrible word only invented in the Netherlands: allochtoon. I wanted more.’
What lessons did your learn that are still useful to you today?
‘I learned how to communicate with people who are very different from how I am. I was surrounded by typical students: partying, drinking and generally not concerned about the world. They were my exact opposite as I was always engaged with the world around me and my place in it. I also learned about statistics and general policy theories which I used during my master’s.’
How did your career develop after you graduated in Leiden?
‘I pursued my Master’s in International Relations and Economics at Johns Hopkins University. In the first year I studied in Italy and then did the second year in the US. When I got admitted, my mom told everyone in Boskoop. Then the husband of her friend who works for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs told Minister Bert Koenders, who had studied at the same American university. He sent me a personal letter wishing me luck for my trip. It made me even more excited. Our village is a real community so everyone knew about the studies and some people even supported me financially. It taught me that countries and governments sometimes go off track but your small community will always support you regardless of whether you’re Moroccan or Dutch.
‘After my studies, I went into a whirlwind of travels for the World Bank in France, US, Morocco and for the African Development Bank in Tunisia. I finally started working on education for the IFC in Morocco and after a year started Maroc4Invest, a firm that supports foreign investors in getting into the Moroccan and African market.
What is it like, returning to your parents’ country?
‘Working for an international organization gave me time to adapt slowly to Moroccan society while having one foot in the international world. Even while I was studying, I already knew I wanted to give something back to Morocco. Although it was difficult at first in terms of who I could trust and I sometimes met up with the wrong people, I built a system of good contacts around me and I now see a positive outlook for Morocco and its role in Africa. I have become extremely proud of Morocco and of the country’s national and international efforts to hold its ground in gaining greater independence and becoming a nation of power, especially in the African continent. I no longer see Morocco as the place where only poor people live, which was my idea when I was a kid in Holland. Morocco is thriving.’
What do you want to achieve with your company?
‘Working on projects in Morocco can be quite difficult as a foreigner. Together with highly skilled in-house and international advisers, we support foreign companies and organizations in entering the Moroccan and African market, ranging from regulatory services and due diligence to partnership facilitation. We are basically the first people that foreign companies should meet before starting their activities in Morocco and the rest of Africa. Due to our knowledge of particular sectors, focusing on education, health, agribusiness and manufacturing, and our large network, we are able to bring value both to foreigners as well as locals.’
Since 2016, Leiden University has had an institute in Rabat, the NIMAR, that aims to give students and researchers the opportunity get to know Morocco and the Arab world better. What do you think of the idea?
‘I think it’s a great way of bringing students to Morocco so that they can see for themselves that Moroccan culture and religion are not as conservative as people in the Netherlands often think. An important reason for that could be that the Netherlands and Morocco, unlike the rest of the EU, don’t yet have any significant economic ties. My advice is to use the NIMAR as a centre for Dutch people who want to do business with Morocco.’