Sophia Alj is the co-founder of Chari, a B2B e-commerce/fintech startup which digitizes the procurement process behind traditional “mom- and- pop” stores in Morocco. Alj, a former strategy consultant with McKinsey, founded Chari two years ago with her husband, Ismael Belkhayat, who was a strategy consultant with Boston Consulting Group. Chari participated in Y Combinator’s summer 2021 batch and this month raised $5 million in seed funding at a valuation of $70 million.

What’s the biggest tech opportunity in Morocco that’s often overlooked? 

We have realized that in Morocco and other French-speaking North African countries, there are very few players who are today digitized. So I think that there is a lot to do in terms of digital transformation for local companies — even banks and insurance companies. Some of the biggest institutions are getting there, but are not yet at their best.

What’s the most common misconception about doing business in North Africa?

Thinking it’s easy. I feel people abroad do not realize that these countries can have huge markets in specific industries. The question Y Combinator asks you is, “How are you going to make a billion-dollar company?” And depending on the industry you’re in, honestly, I truly believe that in North Africa, we can make unicorns and billion-dollar companies. 

What’s been a challenge in enabling online retail for these store owners or for these business owners? 

I would definitely say trust, because they had existing solutions to get access to procurement, but they were not very convenient for them. We have been trying to establish a completely new way of thinking about grocery shopping. They don’t have to move, but we are bringing them everything they need and ordered to them. It’s a bit of a shift in thinking about procurement that has worked well for us because once you show [customers] they can trust you by delivering on time, delivering at the right price etc, they start using more and more of your service. 

What markets are you watching for a possible expansion? 

We are starting with North Africa, Tunisia, and then we want to move to other French-speaking western African countries like Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Mauritania, among others. 

*Alj was interviewed by Najwa Jamal.