Moroccan Start-Up Chari Facilitating Digital Transformation and Financial Inclusion for Mom-and-Pop Shop Owners

UNSGSA Queen Máxima on a field visit in Casablanca, Morocco
UNSGSA Queen Máxima is pictured with Ismail Berkouk, a small merchant who sells snacks at his store, during a field visit in March 2023 in Casablanca, Morocco. Photo: Patrick van Katwijk

Mom-and-pop shops represent the economic center of rural communities across Morocco. With supermarkets being expensive and often out of reach, many Moroccans head to corner stores to purchase essentials, sometimes making three to four trips a week. Goods are often purchased on informal credit, tracked by paper ledgers, and help manage household cash flow needs.

Most of these mom-and-pop shops in Morocco are run by one individual. When inventory becomes low, many are forced to shut down their stores and travel to the closest large retailer or wait for distributors to come to them. This means losing out on sales, sometimes for weeks, until new products arrive.

Chari, a Moroccan start-up founded in early 2020 by Sophia Alj and Ismael Belkhayat, aims to disrupt this distribution model for small merchants across Morocco. Chari is working with 25,000 registered shops that purchase inventory digitally with the company’s online platform and mobile application. Small merchants benefit from the convenience and transparency of purchasing goods online—having it delivered to their stores for free within 24 hours.

One of those small merchants is 29-year-old Ismail Berkouk, who owns a local store selling snacks like sunflower seeds and spices in Casablanca. Berkouk, who does not have a bank account, bought the shop approximately 2.5 years ago, using his savings and borrowing money from family and friends.

Berkouk tried Chari’s app two years ago after being referred by a friend. He explained to the UNSGSA during her March visit that the service has been helpful for him, making it easier to procure stock for his shop, quickly receiving deliveries instead of intermittently closing his store’s doors to order the items in person. Berkouk added that while he uses the app, he prefers when one of Chari’s agents call him to place an order on his behalf.

After recently receiving a non-bank payment service provider license from Bank Al-Maghrib (the central bank of Morocco), Chari now aims to expand into digital financial services by providing digital payments, utility bill payments, digital cash transfers, and credit to small merchants. Berkouk, who is outside the formal financial sector, told the UNSGSA he would like to use a mobile wallet on his smartphone to complete online utility bill payments through Chari.

Payment services will act as a digital onramp to the estimated 200,000 small merchants in Morocco. This is important in a county where cash remains king—76% (World Bank and Statista, 2023) of overall transactions are conducted in cash, 32% (World Bank and Statista, 2023) of the adult population uses debit cards, and only 6% (Global Findex, 2021) of Moroccan adults have a mobile wallet.

Chari also recently acquired Karny, a digital platform providing credit and bookkeeping services. The company is providing the digital tool to its shopkeepers for free so storeowners can better keep track of their multiple credit lines to customers. The company aims to use the data collected from Karny to build a credit score for merchants and offer them credit in the future. This is a major innovation as most bank credit in Morocco is backed by high levels of cash or real estate guarantees.

Alj told the UNSGSA that the company is leveraging the trust it has created with local neighborhood stores to support digital and financial inclusion of small merchants. To boost digital education, Chari has also set up a call center employing approximately 60 women to train shop owners to use the platform.

Moving ahead, Belkhayat explained to the UNSGSA that Chari plans to become a leading e-commerce and fintech platform for French-speaking Africa, with plans to expand further into Tunisia and Côte d’Ivoire.