As Tunisia begins to overturn years of economic inefficiencies, stagnant creativity, and systemic corruption, entrepreneurship has begun to gain ground among Tunisians as a means of surmounting economic hardship as well as addressing social issues. The creation of Lab'ESS, an incubator dedicated to socially conscious businesses in Tunisia, demonstrates the growth of this awareness.
It’s this intersection of increased awareness of social welfare and economic growth that prompted the African Development Bank (AfDB), and Yunus Social Business (YSB) to develop the iBDA social business accelerator (‘ibda’ literally means “launch” in Arabic). YSB is an organization co-founded by Nobel Peace Laureate Muhammad Yunus, as a spin-off of The Grameen Creative Lab, to focus on providing funding and advisory services for socially conscious businesses all around the world. This pilot program, the first accelerator for social businesses, will ideally be recreated around the world.
The initiative invites 11 entrepreneurs from around Tunisia to participate in a two-month intensive training course. Following a highly competitive application process in April, the project launched in May and will run until July. The selected entrepreneurs have settled at Cogite, Tunisia’s first co-working space. Their various projects inhabit a variety of sectors, including handicrafts, agriculture, recycling, and eco-tourism.
Over the course of the program, these entrepreneurs will participate in training sessions with YSB consultants from around the world, in courses ranging from personal coaching to building a sustainable business plan, to how to make financial projections, with the goal of helping business beginners gain the necessary skills, networks, and tools to manage a successful social business. At the end of the program, the companies will have the opportunity to present themselves for funding; it will be up to the investment committee to select which companies will receive it.
I had the opportunity to sit with Fares Mabrouk, the Tunisia country director of Yunus Social Business in Tunisia, to discuss his vision for the program and the impact that these projects may have on developing long-term economic change and the imperative for reform in Tunisia.
Wamda: What is the role of social business in Tunisia’s attempts to reform its economic sector?
Fares Mabrouk: Tunisia is looking for a new model to tackle profound social issues. A solid, unified economy is absent and there is a lack of employment opportunities. Right now Tunisia is at a crossroads. I realized that there was an issue with the sustainability of many non-profit companies, and that the efforts of corporate responsibility were not addressing many roots of systemic social issues. I found that with a social business, you have the advantage of the private sector technologies and background, while also the capacity to address social concerns.
Some people see social problems as an opportunity, while others become depressed. In my opinion, these challenges are an opportunity and I feel that social businesses can have a significant impact on challenging the status quo.
Cogite and iBDA participants meet over lunch
Wamda: What do you think the most important outcome of the YSB project will be?
FM: This project will show that success is possible. The best way to ensure the longevity of social business is to communicate success stories and show that it is possible. There needs to be a new generation that highlights the potential for social businesses.
Wamda: What is the biggest hurdle to the creation of a culture of entrepreneurship?
FM: Right now, it is imperative that entrepreneurial sectors have the chance to develop. Tunisia needs to develop the right incentives for people, empowering them to take risks and be involved in new initiatives. In my opinion, there will not be a successful transition without the creation of a new economic model. [Many] countries are currently facing this hurdle, but Tunisia faces the dual challenge of creating a new democracy as well as a new economic model.
Wamda: Do you have any advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?
FM: In order to be successful in this market, it is critical to be creative and innovative in all different blocs.
Photo credit: Cogite