Consumer boycott in MoroccoIf you can’t take it to the streets, take it to the supermarket
It may often seem that big business is untouchable. Moroccans have proven it is not: Three companies in the Arabic country experienced just how closely their fate really depends on the goodwill of their consumers. And harming their business can put pressure on the government as well. Read More
They say the customer is king. A protest in Morocco showed just how powerful this marketing saying is: Customers can take advantage of their power and even use it to put pressure on politicians. This is not a new idea, but it has been rarely implemented so far.
When Moroccans began boycotting some basic, everyday products in 2018, they forced a drop in prices and even made ministers resign. Since the government had brutally cracked down on demonstrations before, people found that the boycott offered them another way to put pressure on the government using completely legal means. According to Al-Jazeera, the campaign “demonstrated how regular citizens can influence politics in an authoritarian context with limited risks.” And while that sounds like a pretty good start, it did not end on the same positive note.
When street protests got riskier
There has been continued social unrest in Morocco since 2011. When the Arab Spring sparked protest throughout the Arab World, Moroccans took to the streets as well. In contrast to many other countries though, their government rapidly mounted a political response, announcing political reforms and holding early elections. In the years that followed though, little changed for citizens in terms of welfare or liberties, and vigorous protests re-emerged after a fisherman was allegedly crushed to death during a 2016 police raid.
When Moroccans began boycotting some basic products, they forced a drop in prices and even made ministers resign.
The protest quickly spread from urban centers to more remote and rural areas. Demonstrators were not only furious about police violence, but about corruption and increasing political authoritarianism too. Social malaise had increased in previous years, with unemployment, high cost of living and poor basic services including insufficient health care and electricity supply impacting people’s lives. This time, the government reacted with repression, cracking down on demonstrations and arresting protesters, successfully reducing the number of street protests. More than 50 activists were sentenced to several years in prison, including protest leader Nasser Zefzafi who was arrested in May 2017 and sentenced to 20 years behind bars in 2018.
Public demonstrations had become risky, which only served to fuel people’s frustration. So nation-wide protests erupted again in 2018, though in a very different way.
If you can’t take it to the streets, take it to the supermarket
On 20th April 1018, a consumer boycott aimed at the major suppliers of milk, bottled water and petrol was launched with the primary objective of pushing the government to lower the prices. The effect was impressive as the revenues of the targeted companies dwindled, and politicians as well as company owners were forced to respond. In September of that year, dairy giant Danone lowered milk prices by 30 Moroccan dirham centimes per liter, one minister had to step down and another asked to resign.
“The boycott goes beyond lowering prices to express outrage at the feeble purchasing power of citizens as a result of the marriage between power and business.”
The boycott targeted three firms providing everyday consumer products, namely the Afriquia petrol station chain, Les Eaux Minérales d’Oulmès maker of Sidi Ali mineral water, and dairy product giant Centrale Danone, a subsidiary of the French Danone food corporation. All of them were in a dominant economic position with products that enjoyed a market share of more than 50%. Additionally, they were seen as symbols of an economy dominated by business conglomerates linked to the political elite. Aziz Akhannouch, the owner of Afriquia gas, for instance, was Morocco’s minister for agriculture until 2018 and numbers among the country’s wealthiest people. The manager of Les Eaux Minérales d’Oulmès, Meriem Bensaleh, has strong ties to the royal family. Protesters accused them of benefitting from their political influence and of using their market position to impose higher prices. The companies denied these allegations, but they weren’t the protesters only target anyway: “The boycott goes beyond lowering prices to express outrage at the feeble purchasing power of citizens as a result of the marriage between power and business,” activist Fouad Abdelmoumni, who backed the campaign, said.
The initiators of the campaign remain anonymous, and no political group has claimed responsibility. But their message hit a nerve.
Calls for boycotts had been made on social media before without much success. Now, apparently, the time was ripe. The call spread rapidly, mainly on Facebook, where campaign pages and groups soon had millions of followers. Most importantly, it spread to the supermarkets and gas stations, where sales started to drop.
Young Moroccans were particularly active on Facebook, posting and sharing boycott calls, and also sharing information with their parents and elderly family members. The topic was soon discussed everywhere: in schools, on the streets, in the gyms, souks and hamams. Many famous actors, singers and artists joined in, using their platforms to support and promote the campaign until every Moroccan knew about it.
They couldn’t be ignored
For Moroccans, the boycott campaign was a new and revolutionary way to resist the government. It offered an option for protest without running the risk of prosecution and even jail time, as the boycotters stayed entirely within the law. After all, all they were doing was making free purchasing decisions.
The economic effect was enormous. Centrale Danone reported a 40% loss in sales in the first few weeks. Even a year after the protests began, sales figures were still well below the average of previous years. According to the international Danone corporation, the company’s global profit fell by about 4 per cent in 2018, partly due to the boycott. While both CEOs and politicians initially downplayed the protest, they increasingly felt compelled to react. The protesters in return accepted that their local economy would also take a hit from the boycott.
Danone did not renew the contracts of hundreds of seasonal workers, who in turn now gathered for demonstrations outside the presidential palace. Several politicians warned of the consequences for the country, especially for the seasonal workers and farmers who sold their services and products to Danone. But in some cases, those who overreacted in tone had to suffer the consequences: Finance Minister Mohamed Boussaid was sacked by the King after calling the protesters “modawakhine” (morons). Minister of Governance Lahcen Daoudi’s pledge of support for Danone workers in their protest of the boycott incited huge public outrage. He ultimately sent a resignation request to the Crown, which was never approved.
Will calling for a boycott soon be a punishable offense?
Economic impact, publicity and government attention – the movement has undoubtedly achieved a lot. But not its ultimate goal. When Danone lowered the price of milk in autumn 2018, the population refused to accept this peace offering and continued to boycott the company’s products. Their real goal was a greater political response: less market power for the three companies, lower overall living costs, less corruption, and more public participation in decision-making. One boycott page claims: “The goal of this boycott is to unite the Moroccan people and speak out with one voice against expensive prices, poverty, unemployment, injustice, corruption and despotism. It is time to make a change!”
“The goal of this boycott is to speak out with one voice against expensive prices, poverty, unemployment, injustice, corruption and despotism.”
The government decided not to meet these demands, and has even taken the battle one step further. In spring 2020, it discussed a bill that would make calling for a boycott a punishable offense. If the law comes into force, offenders could face up to five years in prison.
Moroccans will have to find a new form of peaceful and legal protest. But they have shown the world the true power of consumers: How they can bring even international giants to their knees and put pressure on politicians - in a completely legal way, through small choices made in everyday life.
Moroccans have shown the world the true power of consumers: How they can bring international giants to their knees and put pressure on politicians.
Persian Tobacco Riots
Moroccans are not the only ones in history who have tried a consumer product boycott to achieve political change. More than a century before, Iranians changed the course of their country through a nation-wide boycott of tobacco.
In 1890, Naser al-Din Shah granted a 50-year concession on the purchase, sale, and processing of all tobacco in the country to a British citizen. In return, his company, the Imperial Tobacco Corporation of Persia, would pass on a substantial share of its profits to the Persian government.
Forced to sell their tobacco to the British company, tobacco farmers began burning their crops, merchants closed the bazaars, and most Iranians stopped smoking. The strict tobacco boycott compelled Naser al-Din to cancel the concession in 1892.