How the Tunisian government revived its economy [Opinion]

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Tunisia in 2025 is quite different from the Tunisia following the Arab spring
Tunisia in 2025 is quite different from the Tunisia of the Arab spring (Image via Hongkiat)

* This is a hypothetical look-back from the year 2025, describing what Tunisia could become.

After its political revolution in 2011 that ignited the Arab Spring, Tunisia went through a decade-long period of economic stagnation.

In the years that followed the Jasmine Revolution, low growth yielded to negative growth, while the world economy witnessed its biggest disruptions in a century.

Stuck in the economic paradigm of the 1960s-1970s because of its inefficient government, inward looking economic elite, and dysfunctional financial system, Tunisia missed an historic opportunity.

While other economies in Africa and South America shifted profoundly by investing massively in what were then emerging technologies, Tunisia kept the focus on its ailing tourism, low cost manufacturing and nearshoring industries.

But four years ago in 2021, a new government took office, and winds of change swept away the decade long lethargy.

The head of the government, Samia Ben Yahya, is a 42-year-old Stanford-educated, swimming world champion and technology entrepreneur. On the day she took office she declared that ”Tunis will be the Mediterranean capital for innovation”.

Recognizing that successful startups require three ingredients: capital, skill and and a rebellious spirit, the government has set its priority to leverage the country’s assets to build a vibrant startup ecosystem.

Within four months, Yahya’s government launched 'Start in Tunisia', a national program to “bring to the world a unicorn – a billion dollar company- every year starting from 2027”.

These ambitious goals were met with skepticism and mockery at first, but four years later, two startups headquartered in Tunis made successful IPOs in the New York Stock Exchange.

Inventy, the three-year-old mobile retail company, has raised over $7.6 billion while GoK, the gaming studio that built the first major successful augmented reality game for the elderly, has raised $1.64 billion.

According to government officials, companies who benefited from 'Start In Tunisia' have raised over $26 billion in investment mainly from leading Silicon Valley and Berlin-based venture capital firms.

'Start In Tunisia' was designed to attract startups from across the world who were seeking alternative startup hubs to London, Paris, Berlin and Dubai, with great living standards, a constant supply of fresh talented engineering graduates, and, of course, investment money.

Tunisia’s government has funded over five early stage funds for a total of $2 billion, and invested in startups willing to relocate to Tunisia for a year.

The government program focused on attracting talents in gaming and artificial intelligence, two sectors that were historically strong in the tech-heavy country. By investing over $3 billion in research and innovation programs solely in these two areas, and by keeping a razor sharp focus, the country succeeded in attracting top notch researchers, engineers, developers and designers from all over the world in these two specialties.

A sweeping reform of the administrative and legal framework for creating startups removed hurdles that, in the past, rebuffed even local entrepreneurs.

'Revolution' is though the most important ingredient in this success story according to Inventy CEO Peter Chang, the first Tunisian company to get listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

“People in Tunisia have a strong culture of challenging status quo,” Chang said. “We found a pool of young people ready to go an extra mile to change the world.”

Vigorous ecosystems in the gaming and artificial intelligence industries are now triggering innovation in other sectors. It seems Tunisia is set to grow even more thanks to its new status as the region’s capital of innovation.

The billion-dollar success stories and the hundreds of companies building world-disrupting products are deeply transforming the economy of this emerging nation.

Both the once-rigid and archaic financial sector and higher education system have been drastically altered. We are witnessing a full scale restructuring of the economy.

Tunisia’s GDP expanded by 12 percent last year, and growth projections are very strong for the next five years. Moody's has upgraded the risk grade of the country four times in the last two years.

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