Spark Tunisia student geekout bridges social divides

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Two members of the winning team at Spark Tunisia came from a high school in Aïn Draham, one of the poorest areas in the country. A third came from Gâafour, a town in northwest Tunisia.

Khaled Rouissi, 18, Sivar Arfaoui, 17, and Eya Ferchichi, 17 teamed up with Sarra Mars, who came from a high school in Tunis, to develop an innovative project about education. In their five minute speech, the students role-played their idea: a video game to make learning history fun - for instance, while studying the Punic Wars via pop quizzes that win the battles.

For its second edition in Tunis, the Spark competition gathered more than 400 teenagers around an ideation workshop and entrepreneurship trainings. It was held by the BIAT Foundation and brought together 15 to 18-year-olds from across the country for a weekend ideas marathon.

Highschoolers await the results of the Spark Hackathon. (Images via the BIAT Foundation)

The winning team was a weird combination of smarts and artistic skill.

“The idea was to make them come together and use the skill of each of them. For instance, Sarra was the typical girl who is the first of her class so she wanted everything to run well. Khaled, the other one, was used to theater so he wanted to introduce some of it in the presentation,” said Ines Cherif Langliz, a finance manager for the BIAT bank in Tunis.

She coached the team during the weekend for their final pitch to a jury including former Minister of Communication and Digital Technologies Noomane Fehri and Leila Charfi, president of Tunisia’s branch of the Yunus Social Business, a nonprofit venture fund.

Ten teams made it to the finals out of an initial 100. The second place team came up with a web extension called “Say it easy, say it châabi” (‘say it’ in the local dialect) which proposes different Tunisian proverbs when you chat with your friends.

The winning team worked on the theme of education. The members of the team come from three different regions in Tunisia.
More regional, more creative

“For this second edition, we had many students from regions from Tunisia whereas the first time it was too focused on Tunis,” said Cogite coworking space cofounder Rym Baouendi.

Some of the students took the train from Gafsa, a mining area in central Tunusia. Others came from Gabès, a town in the south.

“It was great to meet people from everywhere. I heard about the event from a friend and I registered,” said Mars.

Besides encouraging students to be young entrepreneurs and to think like them, the Spark event showed how innovation and technology are deeply intertwined for the young generation of Tunisians.

Technology against unemployment

Tunisia has at least six million Facebook users, showing its 10,89 million population is able to get online and participate there, but 100,000 young people between 15-19 years old are unemployed and aren’t in school, according to a 2014 study by the Ministry of Employment.

As a result events which promote alternative jobs and innovation are more than welcome in Tunisia.

“I think the young generation knows they can use technology to their advantage. Among all the projects, there was no obligation to use the technology but everyone came up with ideas of mobile apps, websites or video games,” Baouendi said. “We even had to reject some projects which were very innovative but so much that we had doubts about their feasibility,” she said.

Working on a pitch during the workshops.

Projects to clean the sea or promote heritage

Among the finalists, some invented an automatic vending machine with Tunisian food “to promote the local culinary heritage even abroad,” said the team in their pitch. Others created a “rubbish snare”, a device which is stuck to the bottom of a boat or a jet ski and collects trash while they are in the water.

“We got used to dirty beaches and dirty seas so we tried to find a way to clean the sea even for people who want to have fun. You can go on your jet ski and clean at the same time,” said Khalil Ellouze, 16, a teenager who also took part in the first edition of Spark. During the workshop, he even got to call boat owners to see how much they would invest in his project. “I think it is good to learn how valuable is your project in real life.”

Others came for the show but also to inspire teens.

Yahya Bouhlel, a 19-year-old prodigy of Cogite who starts his own coding school next January, came to promote his idea but also to recruit the next generation of high schoolers. He said they could be entrepreneurs “when they want … and not wait for a diploma to get ideas”. The 10 finalists won free registration at Bouhlel’s school Gomycode to finish their project.

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