Industry focus key to a successful incubator, says Tunisian expert Leila Charfi

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If there’s one person that knows the incubators/accelerators sector in Maghreb, it’s Leila Charfi. The Tunisian, who describes herself as “an artist and engineer” (you can discover some of her work at the Tunis coworking space Cogite), has been working since 2007 to develop entrepreneurship culture in her country and in Africa.

She came back to her homeland after working for years as a telecom engineer in Canada and France to lead the Microsoft Innovation Center, at the time the only private incubator in Tunisia. Those were five difficult years, she says: “it was hard to instill an entrepreneurial culture in a country where computer science graduates are looking for an easy life as company executives. We had to change students’ mentalities.”

She then joined the Microsoft 4Afrika team to develop entrepreneurial culture in Africa through partnerships with local tech hubs (incubators, coworking spaces, accelerators). After that, she was selected to run the Yunus Social Business, a global accelerator program (and soon-to-be investment fund) for social ventures, created by Professor Yunus and several German entrepreneurs that kicked off in Tunisia in May 2014. The program has so far helped 11 projects, three of which are now ready for investment.

We asked her to share her secrets to building a high-impact accelerator or incubator in Africa as well as the specificities of working in Tunis.

There’s no ‘one-size-fits-all’

The Tunisian manager is adamant: “there’s no one-size-fits-all, you have to find the model that works in your local ecosystem.”

She argues that entrepreneurs have to work with local partners that will help them reach out to the different local players, organize activities (events or trainings) that will bring revenues, and find sponsors to fund operations. Sponsors can be local companies, such as telecoms who want to attract developers to create apps, or international companies based locally.  

Some incubators, like iHub, are going one step further by offering consulting services. “They managed to attract the IT community and to work with them to deliver their expertise to big IT companies,” she explains.

The most important thing is to create a community that every player will be interested in. That means attracting promising startups, she continues. Incubators have to find startups that have the potential to go a long way, but they have to help them until they succeed and can bring the incubators along for the ride.

To attract high potential startups, managers have to travel locally, and develop activities with local partners (universities, economic organizations, public incubators, etc.) to prompt local entrepreneurs to apply.  

One thing is for sure, says Leila Charfi: “An incubator too is a startup. You have to try everything because there’s not one model to follow. When you see that something isn’t working, you have to drop it, and find something else.”

Tunisia’s specificities

When she joined Yunus Social Business, an accelerator for social ventures (and itself a social venture), Charfi joined an initiative very representative of the Tunisian ecosystem.

Tunisia is home to many organizations whose mission is to help social ventures. This is where the first North African Center for Social Entrepreneurship was created (centers in Morocco and Algeria soon followed), and is home to social entrepreneurship incubator IMPACT.

Why is social entrepreneurship having such success in Tunisia? For Charfi, Tunisians have realized that “they can’t wait indefinitely for job creation initiatives, and hope there will be one matching their profile; they’ve have to create their own jobs.” Further, the revolution catalyzed the development of social entrepreneurship. “There has been a transformation following the revolution. Many international organizations wanted to help the country by helping Tunisians create their own jobs. There was a sense of urgency because the revolution was mostly caused by economic conditions.”

The accelerator also looked to adapt its model to Tunsians’ specific needs. “Project holders have good technical skills, but are not always good managers. They lack business maturity, and financial and managerial skills,” says Charfi, who was been working with them on their management style.

“There’re never enough incubators and initiative to support entrepreneurship”

Isn’t there a risk of incubators overload? Far from it, answers the Tunisian manager: There can never be enough incubators and initiatives to support entrepreneurship,” in terms of training, seed funding, and market opportunities.”

The worst that can happen from a multiplication of support initiatives is that some people who are not cut out for entrepreneurship will jump on the band wagon, she believes. But those people will develop their project management, their communication skills, and if they don’t make it as entrepreneurs, they will turn into great project managers or sales people.

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