The Jasmine is blooming: Inside Tunisia's entrepreneurial revolution

Throughout its history, Tunisia has always been a step ahead of the rest of the Arab world. For instance, Tunisia was the first Arab state to abolish polygamy in 1956, the first free Arab country that claimed democracy and the only one that had a successful revolution.

Nowadays, Tunisia is writing a new chapter, and this time, it’s far from politics. In fact, the small north African country is witnessing an increasing entrepreneurial trend which is, according to TechCrunch, setting the stage for Tunisia to become the next MENA region hub for startups.

Here are the main catalysts for this trend.

An open mindset

Before the revolution, people weren't familiar with innovation and taking initiative. It was due to the fact that former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali did not encourage “thinking outside of the box.”

The average Tunisian used to hope for a public sector job, since it was seen as the safest option. However, the Tunisian mindset has changed after the revolution.

As the authoritarian regime collapsed and the country became free, Tunisians unleashed their creativity, with many launching their own businesses.

Oversaturated public sector

The other factor that caused this trend was the saturation of the public sector. The public sector currently includes around 800,000 employees while the needs don’t exceed 300,000.

The current head of government, Habib Essid, said, “We don’t tolerate any other recruitment in the public sector, they [the fresh graduates] can generate more revenues and live better by taking up individual initiatives rather than working in the public sector.”

Through his speech, Essid demonstrated the willingness of the government to push for entrepreneurship. This willingness, though considered weak by many entrepreneurs, is manifested through some initiatives started by the government like “La Carte Technologique,” which consists of a prepaid bankcard that allows entrepreneurs to make and receive payments overseas.

However, for some entrepreneurs, this card is nothing but smokes and mirrors as it doesn’t work with major online platforms like PayPal.

Increase of startup accelerators and coworking spaces

Several startup accelerators have recently seen the light. Their main objective is to support new entrepreneurs throughout their journey. One of these accelerators is the Founder Institute Tunisia.

Initially founded in Silicon Valley, the Founder Institute has been brought to Tunisia by Emna Ghariani. It consists of a 14-week program in which entrepreneurs develop their vision and ideas, and improve the technical aspects of their projects.

Recently, the Founder Institute Tunisia graduated seven founders of six startups in its first year.

Technology session in Cogite Coworking space facilitated by Chifco, a Tunisian startup specialized in the Internet of Things. Credit: Cogite Coworking Space Facebook page

Technology session in Cogite Coworking space facilitated by Chifco, a Tunisian startup specialized in the Internet of Things. Credit: Cogite Coworking Space Facebook page

Moreover, coworking is becoming more and more popular in Tunisia. A lot of coworking spaces are being established to support the growing startup community, and foster the culture of collaboration among Tunisian entrepreneurs.

Coworking spaces not only provide a physical space for small and medium enterprises which cannot afford to have their own offices, but also give their members the chance to network with like-minded people.

This new ecosystem has already generated promising startups. Here is an overview of three companies with fresh ideas.

1. Chifco

Founded by Amine Chouaieb in 2011, Chifco specializes in the Internet of Things (IoT) and Machine to Machine (MtoM).

It was recently selected as the first Tunisian startup to participate in the 2016 edition of the French Tech Ticket, a program for non-French entrepreneurs who want to develop their startup in Paris.

Related: French tech startup initiatives come to Silicon Valley

When asked about his vision, Chouaieb said, “We want to offer something for Tunisia, using Tunisian competencies to make an added value in terms of security, comfort and energy optimization. We also want to familiarize Tunisians with a cutting-edge technology such as the Internet of Things.”

2. Saphon Energy

Saphon Energy is a cleantech startup founded by Anis Aouini. It is developing an innovative way of harnessing wind. Consisting in a bladeless wind converter, which is twice as efficient as the wind turbine and at least 45 percent cheaper to manufacture, this innovative technology proved to be worthy on an international scale. In fact, Saphon partnered up with Microsoft during the Global Entrepreneurship Summit 2014 in Marrakech. It also signed a contract with an Indian investment bank in order to provide them with 50 wind converters by 2018.

3. DigitalMania

DigitalMania Studio is a startup responsible for the development of video games. It was founded by Walid Midani in 2011. It released its first game the same year.

This startup went through hard times as its first release was a failure. “It was a disaster morally and financially,” Midani said. They kept pushing through, though, and their hard work ended up paying off, as they won the PITME (Progress in the Middle East) Program in Silicon Valley. Nowadays, DigitalMania has a portfolio of more than 20 international clients.

Despite all the progress that has been made, Tunisia’s entrepreneurial tech industry still has some flaws, including bureaucracy, the complexity of paperwork and an inefficient custom office. There is a long way to go on the road to a thriving economy. Today, Tunisia counts on the determination of its entrepreneurs to get the country on track toward a brighter economic future.

Cover credit: Vector Stock


Haithem Kchaou