“This country has something that other countries don’t have,” Noomen el Fehri, Tunisia’s former minister of technology, told me. A lot of what makes the Tunisian entrepreneurial experience stand out is having highly passionate entrepreneurs and experts believing in the potential of Tunisian youth.
After the Jasmine Revolution of 2011, the Tunisian ecosystem experienced an unexpected shift. The number of startups is constantly increasing (more than 500 startups after the revolution) and young people are being introduced to the entrepreneurial world.
Tunisian banks are also playing a role in reinforcing youth capacities through the sponsorship of events, competitions, boot camps and workshops.
However, even though some private initiatives are being taken, Tunisia is still in dire need of structural reforms. Being a Tunisian entrepreneur is not an easy task. Founding a startup is long road riddled with challenges since day one.
Non-convertibility of the Tunisian Dinar
Tunisia is considered a very closed economy. All monetary procedures must pass by the government. If the company wishes to import goods from a foreign country, it requires permissions.
PayPal is not available in Tunisia. When the company visited the country in 2011 to include it in its operational scope, the government seemed to have other priorities. The pressures created by Tunisia’s central bank to block the convertibility of Dinar started with good intentions.
The economy was closed to boost domestic production and enhance the economic situation but the results did not end up as intended.
The Tunisia market is now full of monopolistic industries where government-owned companies are presenting a mediocre service for high prices and no competition.
The monetary policies are immensely impacting young entrepreneurs, leaving them with no possibility to expand to bigger markets unless they move to another country — not to mention that it’s illegal to create accounts in foreign countries.
Heavy administrative procedures
The administrative procedure in Tunisia presents a heavy burden on entrepreneurs. This is particularly relevant in the case of innovation. The process of creating a startup requires a load of paperwork and lots of waiting. It also includes papers being rejected for minor reasons.
Once the startup is legal, more paperwork is required. To obtain funding from the bank, entrepreneurs need to provide a certificate of innovation, which also takes a long time to process.
Late adoption of technology
Young Tunisians are passionate about technology and are contributing to the creation of exceptionally helpful devices. A lot of rising startups in Tunisia are tech-based and some of them are developing solutions that can compete at an international level.
Incept is one startup working on augmented reality. Enova Robotics is working on developing mobile robotic solutions.
The Tunisian government was late to adopt technology, which caused a generation gap between officials and entrepreneurs.
The Tunisian market seems unable to absorb the increasing number of startups created each month, the ideas and the energy. And as the minister of technology said, “The Tunisian market is too small for Tunisian brains.”
Lack of access to funding
The access to funding is particularly relevant in the Tunisian context. This does not mean that there are no funding opportunities available.
In fact, experts claim that funding is the least of Tunisian entrepreneurs’ problems. Most fund granters argue that a lot of requests are denied because of the lack of their trust in entrepreneurs. They don’t believe they have enough understanding of the Tunisian market and enough skills to sustain a business.
The issue drives us back to the problem of the incompatibility of the Tunisian educational system with the needs of the market. Business planning is not given much importance in the curricular of a lot of specialties, leaving students unable to start their own businesses right after graduation.
The role of civil society in equipping Tunisian youth with the necessary skills
Despite all the challenges, Tunisia is full of inspiring people who have a strong willingness to change the country to the better.
Related: 5 reasons to invest in Tunisia
Tunisia’s civil society is playing a pertinent role in complementing the governments’ efforts. Even though soft skills are not taught in official educational programs, there are endless opportunities for Tunisian youth to work on their soft skills.
Co-working spaces, like Cogite and Elspace, present an environment where entrepreneurs can network with national and international investors.
Entrepreneurship competitions also contribute to the exposure of students to the world of business through having the opportunity to pitch in front of professionals and prepare business plans.
Columbia Startup Challenge was a competition organized lately in Tunisia in partnership with Columbia University. The winning team won a trip to New York City and participated in the global competition.
Every new step paves the way for a revolutionized eco-system and facilitates startup creation. But Tunisia still has a long way to go to reach its goal of becoming Africa’s first startup hub.
Civil society is currently pressuring the government into updating laws and putting an end to corruption, but NGO efforts aside, real change would not occur unless outdated regulations are overturned.
Cover cartoon credit: Sergio Algeri/GYV