Interview with Mohammed Yahya Zniber, Chairman, Maghreb Steel, Kingdom of Morocco

Interview with Mohammed Yahya Zniber, Chairman, Maghreb Steel, Kingdom of Morocco


How would you assess the construction sector’s performance and dynamism today? What are the main trends you are observing at your level in the steel industry?

The overall metal, mechanical and electrical industry (IMME) in Morocco recorded sales of MAD 60 billion ($6 billion) in 2023, including MAD 20 billion ($2 billion) coming from steel industry. A good half of our metal, mechanical and electrical products are imported, either in the form of raw products or finished products – but predominantly finished products. That’s where there’s growth potential for Morocco, on the imported finished goods side, particularly in household appliances and automobiles. The added value is around MAD 10 billion ($1 billion).  The entire IMME sector generates around 60,000 direct jobs, while steelmaking accounts for just over 3,000. The IMME sector includes a lot of small-scale industries and processors, which makes for a diverse value chain. There are 60 different activities, 8,000 companies both small and large, 75% of which are concentrated in the Casablanca, Rabat and Tangier regions.

Steel production includes one the one hand, flat steel, of which Maghreb Steel is the only producer in Morocco with sales approaching MAD 5 billion ($502 million) and the rest of the industry which includes for example concrete reinforcing bars. Today we have an overall rolling capacity of 3.3 million tons and a steel mill capacity of 2.5 million tons. Steel production is only 1.8 million tons.

Aside from the concrete reinforcing bars manufacturer who will benefit from the future construction projects, the company with the greatest growth potential from my point of view is Maghreb Steel. Maghreb Steel, which makes flat steel, has an extremely wide range of downstream uses for its products, including the automotive industry, for which we import around 200,000 tons of flat steel.

Maghreb Steel is considering launching the production of steel for the automotive industry today, in coordination with various financial players. We have already begun to carry out a certain number of tests and to supply Renault and we are only awaiting an investment that will enable us to produce all of the 200,000 tons that are destined for the automotive sector which would give the company a totally different configuration. But in the first phases we expect to reach 80 to 100,000 tons


How are you benefiting from construction projects we are seeing in Morocco today?

With all the projects that are coming up, there are many other possibilities and strong potential for the steel industry and for Maghreb Steel particularly, starting with all-steel structure construction. Many of the companies involved in steel structures in Morocco have classical or classic steel structures. However these are not appropriate for soccer stadium construction for example, where you need structures that are a little more complex – but we are in a position to provide these. In the case of stadium construction, we can produce complex steel structures; in the case of harbors, we can manufacture large steel tubes up to 3 meters wide; in the case of regional water transfer infrastructure that require large-diameter tubes, one of our customers, Longofer invested in this. They are currently testing 3.20 meter diameter (10.5 feet) tubes as water highways. These can consume a lot of steel and so for us it’s an essential project. Household appliances is another interesting area where consumption can be relatively high. We are strongly encouraging a number of players to provide equipment for consumers, even if the quality standards are very high, especially in the surface aspect. We have this opportunity, the automotive segment in which we are currently investing involves more or less the same products.

Maghreb Steel is a valuable player to manufacture all these products because we produce green steel. All of the electricity we use is renewable and that has opened a lot of doors for us in terms of exports, particularly to Europe. In addition, we are members of an association called Construire en acier, whose aim is to generalize the use of steel as a building structure in the future. This is something we have to work on with our design offices, to build buildings like they do in Europe and the United States.

We’re working on everything from materials for defense to steel for defense. We have set up a joint research laboratory with Mohammed VI Polytechnic University, 70% belonging to Maghreb steel and 30% belonging to the university, where we are developing a number of materials. The first material we are developing is armor steel, which may enable us to supply a number of armored vehicle manufacturers, or armor plates for countries such as those in Africa who prefer to buy less expensive vehicles, but on which they would fit this kind of plate, either on the bottom or on the sides. It’s not huge volumes, but it gives us the opportunity as a company to become very diversified in the offer we make to the market.

We also have the opportunity to encourage people who want to build armored vehicles. Two years ago, we approached an armored vehicles manufacturer with the idea of making hulls for armored wheeled vehicles. We have developed products for commercial use in the naval sector, whether military or civilian. We believe that these are volumes that can be put end-to-end and produce large-scale consumption.

Maghreb Steel aims to manufacture steel for mass consumption, in addition to specialty steel with more industrial applications. Many other steel makers in Morocco have the same approach, they diversify, each taking into account the constraints of our products and equipment. They also do a lot of development, a lot of new products, but always in their own sector. Riva Industries has invested €80 million in Jorf Lasfar, for a steel mill and a long products line, for the automotive industry.

Maghreb Steel has been faced with difficulties in the past, having invested huge amounts in new construction plants when suddenly the price of steel collapsed in 2008. The company was heavily indebted, but rescued by the government and the banks, considering how strategic we were for the country. They set up an independent management team, distinct from the shareholders, to rescue the company, which is in progress.  We’ve managed to reduce the debt by more than half in two or three years.


What are Morocco’s assets in terms of know-how and talent in the steel sector? How does a company like Maghreb Steel continually strive to develop its workforce and skills in-house?

Morocco has benefited in recent years from many private initiatives in the academic field. The Université Mohammed VI Polytechnique (UM6P) has played a fundamental role as a locomotive and accelerator in the field of research. It’s a research-oriented university, they have created a number of subsidiaries, such as InnovX, with whom we work on a number of subjects. Public universities have done their job too. They have a lot of talent, a lot of researchers. The only difficulty they have is budgetary problems. They don’t receive the same kind of funding, because they’re still tied to the general state budget allocation. More and more synergies are being created between these public and private universities. The EuroMed University in Fes has developed a great deal of know-how in terms of research. The UIR in Salé has also developed a great deal of know-how. There are many others who have accelerated R&D in Morocco.

At Maghreb Steel, we work a lot with these universities to develop new products. We invested with UM6P in a number of steel products, starting with armored steel, because we know that it’s something that’s going to be necessary to help support the development of the Moroccan military industry. We’re already supplying steel for wind turbine towers, for example, but we want to go further, particularly for all the structures used in trackers for photovoltaic solar energy. Trackers are structures that enable panels to be oriented according to the direction of the sun. These trackers are generally made of galvanized steel.

On the other hand, what’s most in demand today is manganese protection steel, which we are trying to develop through our cooperation with UM6P. We also do a lot of in-house training. We are fortunate to have many engineering schools in Morocco today. Companies like Maghreb Steel, make great use of these engineers. We further train them if needed, either in-house or abroad.
This kind of approach in industrial concepts has gone very fast in Morocco, with a lot of talent, both in terms of engineers and technicians. We need to be able to support them, encourage them and show them that they are creators of value.


What does the USA represent for Maghreb Steel as a partner, export market or investor? What kind of opportunities would you like to highlight for our US readers?

A few years ago, we were exporting to the United States at the time when taxes were imposed on Chinese products. There was an immediate shortage of steel and Maghreb Steel took advantage of this opportunity and exported to the US. The number one problem in the United States today is the taxes imposed on imported products, particularly in the steel industry, as we can also see with fertilizers. I believe that we, as Maghreb Steel and Morocco in particular, have always been important allies of the United States. This goes back centuries, as the first country to recognize the independence of the United States was Morocco. We believe that when it comes to commercial and industrial cooperation, we should be on the same scale and at the same level as these long-term political relations. We don’t necessarily see that.

I think the United States can encourage investment in countries like ours and above all make full use of Morocco as a real base in Africa. We feel that the United States should go much further in Morocco notwithstanding the administration changes.

There is investment on an industrial level, but I think it’s well below what should be in Morocco. The military industry is, in my view, a sector in which the United States should be able to trust Morocco and develop things jointly, particularly for Africa, where today you have countries like China, Turkey and increasingly Russia investing in this continent. In my opinion, the United States, instead of trying to act on its own, should trust us and use us as a genuine platform for American industry aimed at Africa. I think that if this is done, many things can be developed.


What is your final message to our readers?

American people don’t know Morocco well enough. Moroccans are very emotional and sentimental people, we like our relations to be recognized on the basis of the feelings we have towards that country. In fact, many of our top executives lived in the United States, have studied in the United States, or studied in Europe. Many researchers in the United States are Moroccans, in various industries. The American administration should play its part in promoting countries like Morocco, which are allies of the United States and in making the American people aware of our good relations.

Secondly, there needs to be more courage to invest in Morocco and courage to move away from pure profitability, to project broader geostrategic and geopolitical ambitions. There should be a little more courage, a little more risk-taking with foreign investments. I believe that Morocco is capable of playing this role vis-à-vis the United States, particularly in Africa. Africa is the real challenge today. Africa is the real battle, and the United States should take advantage of these strong relations with Morocco to take a definitive place in Africa.