Efret CEO Alain Jestin talks road transport to and from “workshop of Europe” Morocco

With Morocco’s reputation as a nearshoring hub growing, we talk to Efret Ltd CEO and co-founder Alain Jestin about the challenges concerning express transport between the North African country and Europe.

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Developments in recent months, including heated farmers’ protests, have brought Morocco’s agricultural exports to the EU in the spotlight. However, there is also plenty of evidence pointing to increased manufacturing activity in the North African country. Morocco’s ports are handling more freight, while exports of manufactured goods to the EU and the UK have increased in recent times.

This increase in trade points towards Morocco becoming an attractive proposition for major companies looking to nearshore their supply chains. For, example, according to Maersk, Morocco is being considered as an alternative sourcing location by 4% of European companies.

“Supply chain disruptions as a result of Covid-19, geopolitical environment, and recessionary trends have led to African countries climbing higher on the emerging markets list for many businesses, particularly due to the free trade agreements across the continent. To fully make use of these trends, the connectivity between Europe and Morocco needs to improve,” said Maersk, in an article published on its website earlier this year.

Moreover there is plenty of data to support the argument that Morocco is becoming a key nearshoring destination for European companies.

First and foremost, Tanger Med Port’s official statistics show the port processed 8,617,410 TEUs in 2023, marking a growth of 13.4% compared to 2022. Moreover, in 2023, 477,993 trucks were processed, representing a 4.1% increase from 2022. Industrial product traffic also saw a significant surge of 14.3% compared to the previous year, offsetting a 7.7% decrease in agribusiness product traffic.

In addition to this, according to the UK Department for International Trade, total trade in goods and services (exports plus imports) between the UK and Morocco was 3.5 billion in the four quarters to the end of Q3 2023, an increase of 14.1% or £432 million in current prices from the four quarters to the end of Q3 2022. In Q3 2023, cars made up almost 10% of the total value of the goods imported into the UK from Morocco, with ‘miscellaneous electrical goods’ responsible for over 25%.

Finally, when it comes to EU trade, the latest data comes from 2022, when the EU’s imports from Morocco amounted to €21.7 billion, led by transport equipment (€5.1 billion, 23.5%) and followed by machinery and appliances (€4.6 billion, 21.2%).

Someone very much familiar with this trend is Alain Jestin, CEO and co-founder of Efret Ltd, a company whose operations span UK & European road transport, global air freight, multimodal and customs brokerage.

Efret have been running Morocco-Europe road transport operations for a number of years now, and earlier this year, announced a new Morocco-UK service.

Why is Morocco emerging as an attractive destination for nearshoring, and what are the challenges involved in operating express road transport services between Morocco and Europe? To find out answers to these questions and more, we reached out to Jestin himself.

Morocco “the engine room of Europe”

To begin with, we asked Jestin what was going on in the country and what has sparked demand for fast road transports between Morocco and Europe. The Efret CEO made it clear that Morocco is developing fast, and described the country as “a key partner in the European manufacturing supply chain.”

“Morocco is modernising really quickly. Chinese companies are investing a lot in Morocco. Japanese companies are there too, as are French and German ones. Morocco is the engine room of Europe for sure. Hence the interest of Efret doing more and more transports in and out of Morocco. They’re hungry for growth,” Jestin told trans.iNFO.

Jestin added:

“You’ve got a lot of automotive suppliers in Morocco that are feeding the European automotive industry, and in the UK too. For example, a major car manufacturer in the north east of the UK is bringing a lot of wiring looms into the UK from Morocco. So the equipment we have coming into the UK is strongly related to automotive.”

Jestin was also complimentary about the talent and skills in the country. “The people there are skilled, there’s been a lot of investment in training.  There are French engineering schools that have branched out to Morocco that offer qualifications equivalent to the French one,” said the Efret co-founder.

The aforementioned EU trade figures also show that a sizable chunk of Morocco’s exports come from the ‘transport equipment’ category. Initiatives such as Tanger Automotive City, located near the Port of Tanger Med itself, are part of the reason.

Among the companies tapping into Morocco’s manufacturing capabilities are major European tyre manufacturers. Chinese manufacturers have been getting in on the act too, with Sentury beginning production at its Moroccan plant last autumn.

This has been reflected in Efret’s business, with Jestin telling trans.iNFO that some of the European tyre manufacturers have been using Efret’s road freight service to keep their just-in-time supply chains ticking. According to Jestin, there is demand for express services between Morocco and several other European countries, including Germany, Italy, Spain, and now – the UK.

The challenges of express road freight between Morocco and Europe

Driver regulations and re-loading

One of the factors limiting Morocco-Europe road freight, according to Jestin, are the cabotage regulations that limit Moroccan hauliers’ opportunities to reload in the EU.

“You may encounter problems when using trucks registered in Morocco, as they can only reload in the country where they deliver. There are very few bilateral or multilateral agreements that allow a Moroccan driver to travel and reload within the EU.” Jestin told trans.iNFO.

Elaborating further on what this means in practise, Jestin said:

“From time to time, we manage inbound vehicles registered and manned by Moroccan drivers. This is where it can be a bit of a headache and an expensive exercise if the driver does not have with him the traffic permits for the countries they need to pass through.  If we cannot reload directly from the UK to Morocco, this means that the nearest country we could return to is Spain, as there is a bilateral agreement between Spain & Morocco. We would therefore like 100% of our vehicles arriving in the UK to have the ability to load back.”

Market conditions

Another challenge highlighted by Jestin is the “diabolical” situation in the road transport market, which has seen numerous companies in the sector go to the wall.

Although Efret does have its own fleet, including mega-trailers, 7.5t vans and double-manned Arctic vehicles, it also utilises alliances with identified partners, and the company has seen capacity fall as a result of the dire economic situation:

“When we started [the Morocco-UK service] we had over-capacity a few months ago. I can see that on some routes, we’re actually starting to be short of capacity. That’s the result of the companies going down. It’s a scary trend that household names have gone under very quickly. It’s true for the UK and for continental Europe,” said the Efret CEO.

Jestin added that he is also of the opinion that capacity is set to be further constrained in the not-too-distant future once demand picks up, something that numerous road transport companies have warned trans.iNFO about in recent weeks.

Problems in France

The UK-Morocco road freight service inevitably involves trucks travelling through France from south to north and back again. This entails its own set of challenges, some of which Jestin alluded to during our discussion.

Firstly, Jestin believes that foreign-registered trucks are more-commonly targeted by the road transport control authorities in France, leading to frustrating delays and hassle. The Efret co-founder also repeated claims made by other hauliers regarding fines being issued to drivers unable to provide physical proof that they’d spent their weekly rest outside the cabin.

Although the European Commission has published a clarification on this matter that states hotel receipts need not be presented by drivers, Jestin says that in practice, the control authorities in France are continuing to demand them. The fines can be fought and contested given the ruling from the Commission, but in Efret’s case, the time and effort required to do so often means it’s simply easier to pay the fines and move on.

The other problem, says Jestin, is finding secure truck parking.

“We have to be very careful, especially when transporting tyres, for example, because they are an easy commodity to sell on the black market. You really have to use-very specific pre-designed routes and ensure you find a secure lorry park. Even at these facilities, in the Barcelona area for instance, we have to take very stringent precautions to avoid theft. So it’s a real headache for every carrier,” Jestin told trans.iNFO.

Intermodal opportunities?

Given the focus on sustainability, the highly-publicised driver shortage, and the distances involved in moving freight from Morocco to northern Europe, could there be scope to shift a significant section of the journey to rail?

In reply to this question, Jestin showed some optimism about the opportunities for an intermodal solution on the horizon:

“At the moment we are working on a rail solution with a Group partner between Spain and Poland using existing infrastructure. In addition to that , we’re looking at a train from southern Spain all the way to Calais. What we want to do in the future is connect southern Europe to northern Africa and Morocco in particular,” said Jestin, who continued: “the idea would be to load semi mega-trailers from southern Spain and then rail them up to Aiton Bourgneuf, which is not finalised yet. From there, you can go to the UK or Eastern Europe.”

On the other hand, Jestin admitted that as it stands, rail freight is not as an attractive option that we would like it to be, although the potential is there.

“Unfortunately, the terminals are full. Before I co-founded Efret in 2005, I worked for one of the early adopters of European intermodal freight movements. We were running block trains from northern Italy to Le Havre, and northern Italy to Zeebrugge, with a transit time of around 3 days. From the Midlands in England to the Milan area, it was something around 5-6 days. If everything goes well today, it’s nearly double that. So we’re going backwards, not forward.”

Finally, Jestin was also keen to stress that despite evident PR regarding companies’ climate goals, many businesses have not been able to resist the temptation of bargain-basement road transport offers:

“A lot of shippers have very ambitious net-zero goals to achieve by 2040 or 2050. For long distance transports, it’s actually best to switch to intermodal. However, because the market is in such a dire situation, you will always have a cheap road carrier coming along offering a cut-priced deal. Then, as soon as the factor of prices comes in, a lot of companies forget their green ambitions and commitments. We’ve observed this strongly over the last few months.”