Brilliant achievements in sustainability in Morocco show that soon, the rest of the world may be looking to Africa to learn how to survive
The media is littered with tired (and often Orientalist) stereotypes about Morocco, and headlines espousing doom and gloom predictions of climate change’s catastrophic impact on the world’s hottest continent. But in reality, the African country – situated on the north-western border – has single-handedly become a defiant beacon of hope.
According to the 2019 Climate Change Performance Index, which ranks a country’s efforts to prevent climate change by a combination of factors (greenhouse gas emissions, renewable energy, energy use and climate policy) Morocco is the only country in Africa to have achieved a ‘high’ ranking (the highest score possible), making it the second best performing country in the entire world, beaten only by Sweden.
Growing up and visiting family in Morocco, I was always acutely aware – and in awe – of the way they approached sustainability. I remember running around in the streets with my cousins on a searingly hot summer day, living on a diet of organic lentils, fresh pomegranates, juicy oranges and mint tea (all grown within a few miles from the house).
If I went to the corner shop to get a bottle of Coke, I’d be handed a large glass bottle that I knew to bring back when I was finished (you’d get five dirhams off your next bottle if you did, so the incentive was always there).
My mum and dad would often regale me with stories of how they grew up, and how fortunate we are to have constant running water in England. Having both been raised on neighbouring mountains in the Rif, they met whilst getting water from the one and only well in the region – so as soon as they made some money, it made sense that they decided to dedicate themselves to providing water and irrigation systems for the villages they had come from. These are places where reusing shower water has long been the norm, and the idea of using fertilisers on your vegetables, or buying pre-packaged food, is an expensive and bizarre notion.
Morocco’s staggering environmental achievements in 2019 didn’t happen by chance. King Mohammed VI, and the government, affirmed their ambitious commitment to sustainability and the Paris Agreement in 2016 at COP22, the UN’s Climate Change Conference which was held in Marrakesh. Up until 2010, Morocco outsourced more than 90 per cent of their energy. Their newest goal is that by 2030, 52 per cent of the entire country’s energy capacity must come from renewables. A new study shows that the entire country could be run on renewable energy by 2050 – to give some perspective, the global average stands at around 10-20 per cent.
For a country with a 32 per cent illiteracy rate (where four million people are living in poverty, and three million live in remote rural areas), Morocco has long been progressive in the way of sustainability. “A lot of Africa is still underdeveloped because the wealth of African countries is siphoned by their leaders, who only think of how to line their pockets,” says Dr Ali Bahaijoub, director of the Centre for Euro-Mediterranean and African Studies in London. “Morocco is different. Organic food is what people are used to, because canned food is more expensive than fresh produce.”
In the West, carrying reusable bags, eating organic and drinking from non-plastic bottles has become a virtuous symbol of mindful consumption in recent years – but in Morocco, refillable glass bottles have been the norm since Coke was invented. As a country, Morocco is made up of 78 per cent desert or “dry zones”, and the effect of climate change has been felt since the 1970s. Adapting and evolving with the ever-changing climates has been a necessity, not a luxury. Having recently started transitioning its 15,000 mosques to renewable energy, and banning the production, sale and use of plastic bags, the Moroccan government’s commitment and gargantuan investment in green energy and sustainability has meant that despite the oft-depicted image of African countries as “backwards” and technologically devoid, it looks like the rest of the world may end up looking to Africa in order to survive.
“As a developing country, we have a double challenge... to grow and do it in a clean way” – Kenza Taoufik
At the forefront of Africa’s climate change revolution is Noor, the straight-out-of-a-sci-fi-movie solar farm located six miles from Ouarzazate, the gateway to the Sahara. Using half a million mirrors, Noor is the world’s biggest solar farm, and is built on an area the size of 3,500 football fields. Opened in four phases (three of which are fully functioning), Noor is already providing energy for two million citizens – that’s twice the needs of the entire city of Marrakesh – with solar energy alone.
“We want to become more independent,” says Kenza Taoufik, Noor’s local development analyst. “We are surfing the wave of renewable energy, because if we don’t take action today, it will be too late.” A large part of Taoufik’s job is to integrate Noor within the local community, and more importantly, create a sustainable future for the Moroccan population by funding healthcare, education and agricultural projects. “Before construction even starts there’s a whole process of creating awareness about renewable energy: what solar energy is, what the benefits are, and why it’s good for them,” she says. “For the whole country, but more specifically the entire planet. But parallel to all of this, we ask the local community what they need and how we can improve their daily lives. We don’t do what we feel is right for the local communities, they come to us with what they want”.
Since planning started in 2010, Masen (the company that owns the solar plant) has invested over £60 million in improving the daily lives of Moroccan people. From building roads to opening up remote villages and providing free healthcare for locals who usually wouldn’t be able to afford to see a doctor, Masen is committed to applying the same mindful approach to the community as it has to the climate. “We’ve bought buses for the kids so they don’t drop out of school; some of these kids used to walk for 30km to try and get to the only high school in the area,” Taoufik says.
“We’re working to help give young girls education, and we’ve built some facilities and safe houses for them to be able to work,” adds Yassir Badih, Noor’s senior project manager. “We’re giving ambulances to the local hospitals, and are working with local people who have agricultural knowledge. We’re trying to empower them to create companies that will then train people on how to make their agriculture sustainable, and improve the level of production with fertiliser and irrigation techniques. Our aim isn’t just to give money to people, we want to use Noor as a vehicle for the social and economic development of the entire country.”
With climate change dawning as Africa’s biggest challenge, Morocco’s ambitious stance and serious investment in green innovation reinforces the notion that the greatest liberation a developing country can achieve is self-sustainability. And if the rest of Africa can get behind this, it might be our chance to turn catastrophe in to triumph.
“As a developing country, we have a double challenge,” Taoufik says, “to grow and do it in a clean way. We’re going to be struggling more and more, but the sun is one of the resources we have plenty of in this country. We believe it’s possible to achieve our goals and also be an example to other countries in Africa and the world.”