Left out: Tunisian startups demand attention

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Tunisian entrepreneurs think the government should pay more attention to them rather than focusing on megaprojects, after a major investment summit saw corporations pledge billions for large projects, and very little for them.

The Tunisia2020 conference at the end of November saw 34 billion dinars (around $14 billion) pledged to 140 major projects, from infrastructure to public transportation, but precious little on the country’s new beat: the young scene of entrepreneurs who do not create as many jobs as a big construction site but represent a change towards a digital economy and different jobs.

So an unresolved issue remained: involving the startup world in government plans for the future as well. It was an area where a conference in 2014 had also failed.

The new Ministry of Investment, Fadhel Abdelkefi speaking at the conference Tunisia2020. (Image via Lilia Blaise)

 Nothing new for the startups

Many entrepreneurs who are launching startups are suffering from obstacles caused by administrative stiffness and the lack of convertibility of the dinar, and many are waiting for a government bill called the Start Up Act, which should ease some of the procedures of startups.

Omar Yaacoubi, an IT entrepreneur who worked on Fablab and Barac.io, started his business in Tunis and left for France several months ago, citing the restrictive nature of doing business in Tunisia.

“Our startup could have been 100 percent Tunisian but we were forced to move to be able to develop on a more international scale with less restrictions,” he said. “Tunisia must position itself more for entrepreneurship and value creation instead of marketing itself as an offshore destination with a ‘cheap’ labor.”

In Tunis, 'Follow the Leaders' took place in the chapel of the IHEC Carthage business school in December, as a forum to bring together entrepreneurs, politicians and others. (Image via Thinkers and Doers)

Khaled Helioui, CEO of German gaming company Bigpoint, said the issue was that there is still the perception that Tunisian startups were too small or were inadequate to compete with multinationals or on an international stage.

“A local success story will go a long way to change that perception and there are a number of entrepreneurs who are well on their way for making this happen, they need acknowledgement and support,” he said. “This conference aimed to initiate a dialogue with the international scene and raise funds, notably towards employment, so in that sense it seems a success. It remains a missed opportunity to highlight the thriving startup ecosystem that is most likely to lead the country’s economy.

 Money for young entrepreneurs but not more leverage

But politicians are not completely dismissing entrepreneurs. The new Prime Minister Youssef Chahed paid a visit to Cogite coworking space when he came into power, and announced in November a 250 million of dinar micro-finance fund (around US$108 million) to help young entrepreneurs, saying “the government has not the means to provide for jobs anymore”.

Smart Tunisia is a government program which aims to encourage entrepreneurship and innovation. The program signed up 10 startups working in the creative industries to support them, and create 400 new jobs within three years.

“This was good for this emerging industry in Tunisia because people are not aware of its existence. But we have skills and talents here who could work in gaming, 3D development and so on. We just need more training schools for them” said Mohamed Zoghlami, the vice president of entertainment company Createc.

Amine Chouaieb, CEO of Chifco, speaking about his experience as an entrepreneur at the Follow the Leaders event. (Image via Thinkers and Doers)

Closing the gap between politicians and entrepreneurs

Giant conferences like Tunisia2020 are clearly not the right place to get politicians’ attention anyway.

Jumia Ghana managing director and in charge of North Africa, 26-year-old Tunisian Sofiène Marzouki, was rebuffed by the Minister of Investment Mohammed Fadel Abdel Kafi when he asked why Tunisia was not more present in Africa. Another young entrepreneur asked why she did not have access to more information to develop her project if investment and money was indeed there, as the minister had said. “We can discuss it face to face afterwards,” was all he said.

Some Tunisian entrepreneurs did not apply to attend the conference because of this.

“We don’t really have a voice, we are not invited to talk in panels and there is no vision for the startups in their big projects,” said Ahmed Hadri, cofounder of Yallaread. “We could have taken advantage of this conference to promote more the startups and innovation in Tunisia like Portugal, who got to held the next Web Summit in Lisbon for instance.”

Workshop with the deputy minister for employment and leaders of social business organization about the entrepreneurship outside Tunis. (Image via Thinkers and Doers)

Seeding the regions

Yunus Tunisia president Leila Charfi said the country needed new clusters outside Tunis. “We need enablers who are based outside of Tunis like in Sfax and who create networks to encourage entrepreneurship there.”

Social entrepreneur Mehdi Baccouche said the country needed to provide better tools for young people in the regions so they could also pitch and create their ideas.

“Our event [Follow the leaders in the IHEC Carthage business school] is clearly an easier platform for entrepreneurs to speak out [at instead of Tunisia2020] since it is smaller and more focused,” said Amandine Lepoutre, the founder of Dubai-based French think tank Thinkers and Doers.

While the event earlier this month gathered the French tech people as well as young Tunisian startups, politicians were also there to discuss how to improve the impact of entrepreneurship outside of Tunis.

“The entrepreneurs in the region have a creative and an economical relevance so they are able to interact with the debate in the public space and therefore, they stand as a decision force,” Lepoutre said.

Between feelings of success and unachievement, Tunisia2020’s promises and agreements hold a lot for the future of the country. Some might stay skeptical, others, too optimistic. For entrepreneurs, the gap between the government’s ambitions and their own vision for the country  is still too deep.

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