Notes from Tarfaya. Should we start the residency here?

Hi guys, am spending my final two days in Morocco after which I will be in Lebanon. Some quick notes.

Marocco has a system of generous unemployment benefits. In the town where I am right now, Tarfaya, it is the main source of income for large swaths of the population. I have been told that it is the government’s attempt to keep rebellion at bay in parts of the country. (That could it be in response to the Arab spring? Don’t know, need to find out.) This has several adverse effects as it dis-incentivises people from working. I have found the work ethics in this town (where we currently are) to be “so-so”. People keep inshallah-ing about everything and take a lax attitude to getting things done. Perhaps it is because of the subsidies, perhaps everything is just slower in the desert :slight_smile: If we are to do anything here we will not be able to rely on local collaborators.

There are several immediately visible and possibly actionable problems which could be good calls to action / areas of focus for incubated projects. (Because success at tackling them will be visible fairly soon?):

  • Crazy high sugar consumption as well as high prevalence of diabetes (need to check whether it's Type A or Type B). The main culprit? Moroccan Tea. It's the key social ceremony, you cannot walk past any group of acquaintances without being offered, and having to drink, it. And people put in insane amounts of white processed sugar.At the same time they all have at least one family member who has diabetes. Perhaps they have been told that they are correlated. But several people whom I spoke to seemed to have no idea about the consequences of excessive consumption of sugar, especially the white processed kind.
  • Chronically bored teens, hash addiction and lack of initiative. The most active crew are the surfers. I guess it makes sense, you have to be disciplined to practice a sport like surfing since it's equipment intensive, weather dependent and hard.
  • Surfing and water sports in general are interesting for our initiative because there are many interesting projects with commercial potential which we could incubate in the residencies. E.g. production of surf boards from mycelium and recuperated plastic bottles (which litter the city and beach). Tarfaya is great for surfing. Which means market opportunities for certain kinds of cottage industries.
  • Tourism. Also, it looks like the new ferry service connecting Tarfaya port with others including the Canary Islands. This will mean tourism. There is literally no infrastructure for tourism, we could get in there and quickly set the foundations for sustainable tourism businesses if we move quickly.
  • Agriculture and food. We found two interesting possible allies / mentors. Frederi is a French guy who is a biologist (I think) and has a lot of experience with setting up commercially viable small scale agriculture/food businesses. He wants to set up an agriculture venture in the desert - but cannot get the permit without political backing and 80k in a moroccan bank as a deposit. Very experienced and could be possible partner for fundraising. Second is Dr. Issam Boucholy who is a pharmaceutical doctor and has developed cheap rapid-testing kits for different diseases including HIV and Diabetes. He also tried setting up a local spirulina production plant, but the equipment was saboutaged by vandals. Is from Casablanca but a Tarfaya resident since over 10 years. Pretty much a biohacker and entrepreneurial - possible local mentor in the residency program.

    (It’s Frederi’s house we could rent for 300 Eur per month. We could possibly also do a deal where we do a non monetary exchange - we help with some renovation of his house while we use it (ideally rent free) and he helps with setting up some kind of revenue stream to finance the space and generate income for Edgeryders.) E.g. he mentioned that the demand, and willingness to pay for, for organic food in the main cities in Maroc is comparable to that in Western Europe. So it could be a nice partnership. Frederi likes us and the OpenVillage project. If and when the ferries start running (people say September 1, but you never know) then he wants to move to Tarfaya permanently as the French Reunion islands where he lives are turning from a tropical paradise to a crazy commercialised consumption space with the entry of large chains like Carrefour. So his interests are aligned with ours. OpenSource Hardware for agricultural / food production starts to get interesting as land is dirt cheap, you have loads of water and sunshine.

  • Microbrewery. A potentially high return on investment venture is microbrewery. Because for the alternative of importing alcohol, you need a 3 million EUR license. Which is still profitable according to a canarian hotel owner we have befriended. You can count on 3 EUR a cup, which is a lot of money in local context. If you brew your own locally? Well :)

After having thought about this a lot I think it would be wise to just make a decision to set the space here starting now and running for the duration of the project and a couple of months afterwards. And run a killer party / festival in December here. That will give us a month in town to build social capital, and recruit people into the project at a pace natural to this place. It’ll be easy to get people to come here in the winter (weather’s much better, sunshine, sea, not crowded, nice escape esp. around Christmas / New Year).

There are a lot of opportunities to show tangible outcomes and build support for the Reef from unusual sources who want in for different reasons. We have someone on board to set up a biohacking space and convene the bleeding edge around local projects. As we have learned – get a place that looks amazing on a postcard and you have basically won already. Our outreach infrastructure are the cafes, the beach and the market. Get a stall in the market for very little money (50 USD/month) and run a bunch of activities out of it. Host everyone in the house (300 USD/month). Minimal effort to get a space up and running and focus on producing results.

GIrls and Women. We are going to have to make extra efforts to engage girls and women. The simplest will be setting up a ladies cafe with lots of activities close to their interests. Crafts, Health Science etc… Engaging Girls from other countries will be a mess if they are religious. They will need separate residency quarters and much more patience in terms of engagement. So with Women I suggest we focus on locals. If/ When we raise sufficient financing we can sort out a space that also works for females from elsewhere in the region (separate sleeping quarters). Another issue is that the girls and women who do show up from other parts of the region and world will have to adapt to the local norms when it comes to behaviour and clothing in public. Modest clothers, no public displays of affection with males etc etc etc.

Can I have a vote on this @zmorda / @hazem / @alberto / @matthias / @johncoate / @noemi ?

Once we have the proof of concept in place, we can then raise engagement and money for other iteration in different parts of the region and beyond.

Pros and Cons

While I’m still undecided, but I can clearly see what makes this attractive …

I have to say, I really like the part about Friederi … desert agri project for unemployed young folks, with “fair and direct” sales to Europe would fit in very nicely with my other activities in that area :slight_smile: I’m also interested in ecosystem restoration …

With the future ferry connections and existing Ryan Air connections to Gran Canaria, Tarfaya is actually not that far out there either. Off-season price starts at 45 EUR for Frankfurt/Maain (Germany) to Gran Canaria.

It will still be really, really hard to keep something running at that location – which we should / will when getting involved in business projects there. It’s not impossible though. Even an on-and-off presence is enough for trade / business relations (see the “Nepal Coffee” project).

Since it’s that far out, I can’t promise yet I will go to Tarfaya with the truck. I’ll try, but if it does not make any economic sense, I’ll come with one pallet (16+ boxes) of tools and materials only, and live in the house for the runtime of the project.

Edit: I should state this potential collaboration with our “fair and direct food sales” project more clearly. A friend of mine, who is behind this project and vision, is looking for ways to create economic opportunities in West and North Africa in agriculture / livestock / food processing. It’s geared towards unemployed / underemployed people, and would work based on self supply use, internal markets and esp. also direct trade to EU markets. So if there’s any activity inside this World Bank project, including but not limited to these “desert farming etc.” opportunities in Tarfaya, we can count on support from him with what he has available (truck, flatbed semi-trailer, heavy-duty workshop, forklift, several hundred square meters of storage space in central Germany). Would apply to things like “take a truck, collect these 15 tons of used industrial food processing machines in Europe, put them into an ISO container and ship that to Tarfaya” or “we have a bunch of old production machines here in Tarfaya and no idea how to repair and install them … help!”. The idea would be to demonstrate to World Bank a working economic model of food production and trade “done differently”, to be hopefully replicated and expanded in the region with follow-up support from World Bank.

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Beer and Islam

Not too compatible, are they?

I ask partly because I wonder how strong Islamic traditional culture is there.  Not necessarily hard core fundamentalist, but alcohol is something the whole religion avoids?

Critical Notes

Tarfya seems to be quite an intriguing place but I will be a bit critical here.

  1. on the sugar and diabetes issue, that’s a good track but wouldn’t this take time also to get some results ? or what is the supposed process as tea has deep roots in the culture as you mentioned. ( I am missing a lot of what’s happening on the opencare side )

  2. I am afraid that the project in the end can tend to go in the direction of sustainble tourism; getting involved in initiating this in the town is quite a good chance but it can get us outside of the scope of the open village MENA. ( if it became dominant in the space )

  3. On the Brewery and “on-boarding women” issues, this is very tricky as it could brand the open village as an alien project trying to plant roots in the region rather than getting integrated within.

    Starting a Brewery could be hostile for many other potential collaborators.

    Women, in my opinion, should be involved in the physical space; Whatever the space looks like in the end but it’s a challenge we have to solve. As “depending on local women” + “everything is slow in the desert and we shouldn’t relay on local collaborators” = [ could end up with] no women ( at least not from the region)

  4. Open village as a lab

    Tarfya is [going to be] connected to Europe but for other MENA countries it is still “far”.

    Being a lab/prototype/proof of concept in a far small town comes a lot of opportuinities and risks as well.

    Being there could be perfect for some projects ( off-grid tech, farming, bio-related…etc) but for social projects it is outside of the mess and doesn’t offer much than a relaxing place to work.

    I have lived for a while in El-gouna ( it’s kinda lab also but its totally another story, a privately developed “town” or in other words a rich man’s fanatasy ) El-gouna is functioning well, they even call it a “town” with good PR as living there is “live as it should be”. It is actually good as a lab for energy and water works, but imagine studying there urban development (which I did) . In other words, El-gouna is a bubble inside Egypt and has nothing to do with Egypt ( of course there are some indirect interactions like , well myself and other gouna temporary residents and workers ) and I am afraid Tarfya could tend to be an isolatd bubble as well. ( this seems to be a very off-topic example but hey El-gouna was and is a crazy idea as well but in another context and ironically known for kitesurfing )

On the other hand Tarfya seems to offer a lot and we are ( and can ) steer the project, am just being crtitical to some potential scenarios. worth mentioning that “Tarfya” in arabic comes from “Tarf” which means “edge” :smiley: - I am not sure if means something else in the Morrocan dialect or other language - but also I think we could set a deadline to see other alternatives as well (to compare between one option as Tarfya and another in a bigger city or so).


Comes from an indigenous tree called Tarfa

The municipality of course cut down all the 200 year old trees to start a construction project which they never finished.

Strategic thinking: Short, medium and long term.

Our ability to secure engagement and resourcing will depend on showing some results very quickly, so I ask where it is wisest to pour our limited time and resources in order to secure the long term prospects for the initiative. Our max budget for rent is 300 usd/month for a maximum of one year. So if you can find something that works for both females and males in that price range, then why not? Either way we have find some kind of revenue streams/ financing to offset the cost of rent fairly soon.

The tea was a case. An example activity could be about getting cafe owners and staff to not drown the tea in sugar by default. And put limited amounts of sugar on the table. Etc etc

That said I hear what you and @Matthias are saying. Let’s put it up as one of several options and continue looking Ok?  Our deadline for finding a location is August 20. How about setting up something like this (ideally using openstreetmap) for crowdsourcing both possible locations and projects?

@johncoate well they do have a lot of car workshops but I don’t think their hardware stores are anywhere near as well stocked as anything in the US. on the other hand they have a lot of unused/broken household electronics that could be recycled…


Make the “space hunt” into a first big call-to-action activity?

Helping to find a space could give people a voice to influence where we eventually land.

And because I can’t keep myself from recommending software, even if I have to install it: the Ushahidi Platform is really nice for this. Allows crowdsourcing of geolocated information via web, SMS, e-mail etc… It is made by a Kenyan startup, and available open source for installation on our server. Alternatively, and because we’ll need this software only for three weeks, we can use the free Mapper plan, or apply for a big “500 USD/month” plan to be for free since we’re a not-for-profit …

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TransforMap could be also an option ? am not sure about the technical details but I think they are building on top of openstreetmaps

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Makes sense

  1. What do we need? An enterprise installation or something else? Also could you use openethnographer on it?

  2. Btw. Is this compatible with Discourse and or Matrix?

Second thoughts

We are expecting <50 submissions, certainly <100. No real need for a special-purpose software for that amount, I think. The added complexity is a net disadvantage: forcing people to register yet another account that is not our main platform, people not getting used to our new main platform, more integration problems with Open Ethnographer etc…

So rather, we could make this one challenge in Discourse (=sub-category under Open Village), and the challenge is to find a suitable location for the first Open Village. People will respond by creating a topic on Discourse, including pictures and (if they have) a geolocation. We can include instructions for embedding a map, which should be as simple as putting a URL on a new line in a Discourse post.

About the second question: this SMS-to-HTTP gateway can be connected to Discourse, but we’ll have to create a proper HTTP API endpoint for that (which is a small task of custom programming, say one day). Then, people can send a SMS and it will become a topic on the platform in a pre-defined category corresponding to the phone number they send it to. More advanced functions are possible, but so difficult to use it will hardly be meaningful (discussions per SMS? user identities?).

The time factor and how it plays out

I think @Nadia and @Hazem are very right to highlight the time factor.

The way I see it: for the WB project, we need some quick, easy win to show. Remember the unMonastery crowd’s reluctance to commit to results within the duration of the prototype, insisting the time frame was unrealistic. This rules agriculture right out: by definition, it follows the rythm of the seasons. Most crops need a minimum of one year. If you are looking at olive orchards, you are going to need twenty.

On the other hand, Tarfaya or some other out-of-the-way place has advantages for the WB-funded prototype, some of which others have already pointed out. If the unMonastery experience is anything to go by, a Reef in Tarfaya will be highly conspicuous – maybe even too conspiscuous, but that’s a good problem to have. However, out-of-the-way locations are hard to reach for people in the region, and sometimes even in the country, as Hazem points out.

BUT if we are looking at an ER long-term investment, the case for cities (real cities, @matthias , not 50K inhabitants towns) becomes much stronger. If we are to invest, we need sustainability, and we need it right away, because we do not want to go into debt. For now, the only proven source of revenue in the region is consulting on development issues. I am persuaded that having a presence in the region might be an advantage, allowing us to get more contracts than we do now. Also, it could become a template for future expansion: we could spawn a Reef hosting Edgeryders West Africa, Edgeryders SouthEast Asia or whatever. But in this case, we would need to climb the learning curve of getting these contracts, and I am afraid that calls for being close to clients and donors. Also, we need a place where we can ourselves go quite quickly and cheaply as needed. In Morocco, that means to a first approximation Rabat (but Casablanca is close enough that you can get away with it). As you get established, you can probably get away with relocation, but in the early days the economics of a space far from sources of money are the economics of fixed costs and burnthrough rates. That’s quite risky.

So, here’s a suggestion: maybe decide if we are prioritising doing a great prototype now, and then maybe we’ll make a permanent investment. In this case we are more free to pick locations, because the prototype is already funded. On the other hand, if we insist that the location of the prototype be ready to stabilise, then we need to be conservative and prioritise the ease of making sales – which is the hardest bit of the ER experience.

In all cases, the idea of crowdsourcing locations is great.

Local infrastructure

Is there a decent hardware store in that town?  because you are always going to need to get parts and complete dependence on Amazon is going to mean not being able to go down and get something to fix the problem right now.

I think we don’t want to be too close to current unrest

Agree: no special software

We use open conversation on Discourse to discuss and evaluate proposals. This makes it “Open Ethnographer ready”.

I would leave it up to Nadia and whoever will be on the ground

Great work @Nadia ! I’m not qualified to weigh in on this, have been following the conversation and couldnt articulate really :slight_smile:

I also trust @Hazem with his take because he’s the one with roots in the region. You make very compelling points, thanks for that [me impressed]!

If Nadia found this so quickly I think by 20 August we’ll have more info - especially if we crowdsource, happy to second that idea!

One thing I will say, building on what Alberto says (and rightly so) about our business development record: it’s hard. Opportunities we identify in a place may not be a good enough case to start there- what needs to happen first is the other way around: find the core people who have interests and skills in projects which can be market opportunities too, but are already somewhat embedded - Frederi in Tarfaya is about as far as we can base the decision on. Otherwise we will find ourselves having to set up shop without the proper training so to speak.

Thanks for all the useful info, @unknown_author. This is just to let you know some of us are reading you here. Someone will make a decision about location pretty quickly, I think.

So many choices, my brain is floating :))

For me the key things are : solid internet connectivity, visually beautiful and good for sports, and what we build there becoming financially self-sufficient fairly quickly. @matthias put a map of coverage in the country, so that could eliminate some of the places…Matt, where did you post it?

Besides tasting bad, is the water ok?

I think you are on the right track, so I vote yes. I trust your judgement. I agree about helping girls/women - I recently read that Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt have some of the worst inequality for women of all countries (according to National Geographic magazine).

The coverage map @nadia is referring to is this one: KA-Sat footprint map. KA-Sat is a satellite providing Internet connectivity at speeds and costs comparable to broadband landline connections (DSL etc.).