SHARING EXPERTISE

Morocco 2020/21 | FINANCE | INTERVIEW

Asma Invest does not seek to become the largest real estate operator, but one of the best in terms of quality

Hicham Safir
BIOGRAPHY

Hicham Safir has been CEO of Asma Invest, a USD200- million investment JV between the Saudi and the Moroccan governments, since 2015. He spent more than 15 years in investment banks in the UK and the UAE. He also served as chief investment officer at Ithmar, Morocco's sovereign wealth fund, between 2012
and 2015. He is a mathematics and IT engineer (France's grande école), holds an Msc in finance from Imperial College in London, and is a certified director from INSEAD, France.

There has been a major change in Asma Invest's business plan since its establishment in 1992. Would you elaborate on the changes since 2015?
The major change since 2015 was an important capital increase of MAD1.2 billion (USD122.8 million) from its shareholders. We have almost tripled our capital. We are proud that our shareholders, the governments of Morocco and Saudi Arabia, still see us as an investment tool and a means to better connect the two countries. We are continuing our strategy of being a majority holder—if not a 100% owner—of our businesses. We are still in the process of exiting our minority shareholdings. The idea is to completely move into projects that we operate and diversify the sectors we operate in. Today, real estate accounts for around 50% of our portfolio and agriculture 15-20%. We want to not only continue growing in real estate and agriculture, including agri-business, but also open up to other sectors to achieve a mixed portfolio, ideally with real estate investments comprising 30%-35% and agriculture/agri-business around 25%. We are trying to move into the education and health sectors and are screening opportunities. We are also trying to move further into the industrial sector and industrial zones where we already have a presence. We are currently shareholders in two industrial companies well known in Morocco: Sapino, which prepares industrial zones, and Tanger Med Zones (TMZ), a subsidiary of the Port of Tangier.

What added value does Asma Invest bring as an investor-operator, and what makes you stand out from other operators in the real estate sector in particular?
We have a talented pool of people here, and we are raising them up to be the best team in Morocco. We do not plan to become the largest real estate operator, but one of the best in terms of quality and targeting the middle-income segment in Morocco. We might also offer our expertise to third-party investors either inside or outside of Morocco. We have been approached by investors because we have excellent projects in Casablanca Finance City, where we are the biggest real estate operator so far. We also serve as a co-investment vehicle: we create projects, package them, and find investors to join us for these projects. This means we can do two or three projects with the same amount of money we would need to do one project on our own. It is also good for those investors, because Asma Invest knows the market, from investing to operating. The biggest project we are currently working on is a MAD1-billion (USD100 million) project in Casablanca. For this, we opened up 40% of the capital to investors from outside Morocco.

Can you elaborate on about Asma Invest's approach to sustainability?
I received a certificate from MIT on strategies for sustainable business. Sustainability is dear to Asma Invest, and I wanted to put it into practice, especially in real estate. Building sustainable housing can cost the same as normal housing. We are having serious discussions internally about how to operate in a more sustainable way. Something we already do is build properties that are energy saving in terms of heating and cooling. For example, we use thermal and acoustic insulation, which is more energy efficient and reduces utility bills. We are thinking about solar energy use and many other environmentally sound practices that we can adopt.

What key areas will Asma Invest be focusing on in 2020?
In 2020, we are putting greater effort into agriculture and agri-business where we want to grow more. In the real estate sector, we are diversifying into other cities, rather than just operating in Casablanca. We have been successful in Casablanca, so the idea is to replicate this business model in other Moroccan cities. We are trying to leverage our know-how while finding financial leverage from outside, such as from banks and investors.