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Cecile Corral

Morocco Exporters Eye U.S. Market

Now that many companies here have established themselves as viable home textiles exporters to Europe and the Middle East, some upholstery fabric manufacturers based in the northwest African nation of Morocco are turning their sights to the largely uncharted United States market.

Longtime cultural divides in design, business strategy, capacity, and marketing — not to mention the English-French language barriers — paired with competition from other countries like China and India have until very recently kept these Moroccan home textiles suppliers from crossing the Atlantic in search of new business.

But the one-year-old USAID-funded Morocco New Business Opportunities Program (NBO) — which was created in support of the US-Morocco Free Trade Agreement that came into effect January 1, 2006 — was established to help bridge the gap.

"Moroccan companies have been very slow to approach U.S. market," said Mike Blakeley, director of enterprise assistance for the NBO, which is managed by his Washington, DC-based company, Nathan Associates Inc. "Our objective is to encourage trade between the U.S. and Morocco," he continued. That means supporting Moroccan companies and helping them understand the free-trade agreement and U.S. market conditions, aid them in increasing their exports to the U.S., and create more jobs in Morocco in their sector. "And at the same time, we are here to facilitate U.S. companies interested in sourcing products out of Morocco," he added.

NBO's efforts are already starting to pay off, albeit in admittedly small numbers.

U.S. Customs reported a 46.2% increase of the value of U.S. imports of Moroccan textile products from 2005, when the value was $64.7 million, to 2006 when it rose to $94.6 million.

A breakdown of these numbers is not available. But while they may be heavily skewed by imports of garments/apparel textiles, they do include home textiles, which are dominated by upholstery fabrics.

"This [increase] was largely due to the implementation of the free-trade agreement, which provides duty-free preferences to imports of some Moroccan textile products," said Blakeley. He noted that textiles — in particular upholstery fabrics — are the most important export sector in the Moroccan economy, and "the reason we focus on it is because some of the strongest benefits under the free trade agreement apply to textile imports."

In fact, the largest companies with the most modern equipment operate in this segment, he continued.

In Morocco there are about 100 home textiles companies, and of those up to 30 actively export to Europe and the Middle East. Three have begun exporting to the U.S.

NBO has a full-time staff here but also works with several market experts in the United States for its different product sectors. In home textiles, industry veteran Louis Ragy — formerly of Trade Am — is NBO's senior international market expert.

"We have a number of sector experts like Louis who are based in the US and provide various services to the project — anything from helping to form business linkages to members of our program and potential US buyers to advising companies on things they can do, for example style wise."

NBO is also bringing American stylists and designers to Morocco to work closely with these home textiles manufacturers and develop US-specific collections.

"We are also teaching them the U.S. business culture," Blakeley said. "For example, here there is no understanding of reactivity. When a U.S. company sends an email, it expects a response right away. In Morocco they reply whenever they want. There isn't that urgency."

Capacity issues are also a hurdle. "Companies here are used to producing small orders and making partial shipments at a time," he said. "But the U.S. companies make large orders and expect it all delivered in one shipment."

While NBO is not yet participating in a U.S. trade show geared for its home textiles companies, Blakeley and Ragy are organizing a trade mission to New York in April, when it will bring several Moroccan upholstery fabric companies to meet with 12 to 15 potential U.S. buyers. They will bring with them product samples, "which we helped them develop for U.S. market," Blakeley said.

"These companies offer world-class manufacturing at very competitive pricing for the U.S. market," Ragy said. "They offer European quality and styling at very competitive pricing. We are bridging the gap by taking our know-how and pairing it with their know-how to bring the product to the American consumer." HTT

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