Students swarm Tunisia's first major tech event

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Over two days last week, Tunisian IT and engineering students, investors, developers and software designers, and representatives of international tech firms (including IBM and Expensify) converged in Hammamet, a Tunisian beach town, for the International Innovation Summit.

This group of diverse participants gathered together for a series of discussions and debates concerning the latest tech developments and prospects for future innovation, with discussions ranging from cloud computing to developing a technologically up-to-date entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Marc-Arthur Pierre Louis of IBM 

The next regional innovation hub

At a time when multinational tech companies are looking for new markets and bases of operation, Tunisia is becoming an increasingly attractive option, with a highly skilled workforce and low operational costs. In addition, many non-governmental organizations, government agencies, and institutions are promoting stronger grassroots growth and technical innovation, as well as inspiring entrepreneurs to move into those sectors.

Despite this promising outlook, however, many hurdles remain, namely a lack of communication between investors and business owners, and hesitation on the part of entrepreneurs to look outside of Tunisia for markets and mentors.

This event, organized by IT Grapes in partnership with Société La Paix, sought to highlight these trends and challenges by bringing relevant stakeholders and emerging entrepreneurs together in one room.

The organizers focused on local, national, and global trends in tech, aiming to “promote the idea that entrepreneurship could and should be linked to innovation, show what [Tunisia] can do with innovation, and finally discuss and show the resources necessary to be a successful innovator,” noted Taher Mestiri, the event co-organizer.

A theoretical and practical approach to tech development

The two-day event had no shortage of interesting talks, whose topics ranged from big data and cybersecurity, cloud resource management, and wearable technologies, concluding in discussions that continued even after the talks were completed. Rather than providing solutions for current tech problems, the speakers challenged the audience to address voids in current technologies and take the lead in the next generation of technical innovation.

Apps and community forums were made available to the participants, eradicating barriers for any up-and-coming software developer to design and market their own products.

The first of its kind in Tunisia, the International Innovation Summit featured a plethora of high-profile guests, including David Barrett of Expensify who explored cloud computing and led a fireside chat with participants, IBM executives who presented their latest software program Bluemix, and Ahmed Darwish of the Institute of Electrial and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), who highlighted the challenges of creating a strong entrepreneurial ecosystem in countries in the Middle East and North Africa. 

The event consisted of more than just presentations; mixing the practical with the theoretical, participants had the opportunity to apply to the event organizers to pitch their business concepts to a group of investors, who also provided one-on-one feedback. 

Two companies, Winkom, a Tunisian online portal connecting consumers and producers for a more streamlined shopping experience, and K’Art Studio, creating augmented reality and other high-tech marketing presentations for Tunisian companies, set up stands within the conference venue to interact directly with the participants (and potential customers).

Testing K’Art Studio’s video game

Youth: Foundation of the conference

Scanning the crowd, it was obvious that the majority of this receptive audience was students from around the country, many studying IT development or engineering in their universities. For students, this was a unique opportunity to sit among the entrepreneurs they want to become and the investors they need to network with. According to Siwar, an IT student from Tunis, “because this is really new to me, I found sources of inspiration. I am also interested in entrepreneurship, so the most interesting thing for me is getting new contacts!”

The speakers and organizers challenged them especially to take advantage of the challenges currently faced by Tunisia and turn it into an opportunity. Ahmed Darwich had a special message for the next generation of Tunisian technical innovators: “The future currency is a currency of ideas. Don’t care if you fail and make sure to be different and not just one among the crowd. And above all, never forget your smile! It is one of the few universally understood gestures.”

Ahmed Darwich of IEEE

With a renewed focus on economic reform, more global attention on the structural reforms that Tunisia needs to implement, and recognition of a system that is no longer conducive to innovation, more conferences and programming are popping up around the country. The continued interest on the part of students gives hope to organizers and participants alike, as these emerging innovators are becoming increasingly comfortable building their skills, networking, and engaging with the latest ideas. As Tunisia looks to future reform and renewed economic policies, young people are ready and able to be the next generation of economic leaders.

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