With up to a million people daily passing along Habib Bourguiba Avenue in Tunis, it is a strategic location for the latest addition to the world of Tunisian startups.
The B@labs incubator, by the Tunisian bank BIAT, and its foundation which funds projects regarding education, culture and entrepreneurship in Tunisia, was unofficially launched during Ramadan. The official launch is slated for next September.
"We wanted to position ourselves as something between the Founder Institute, which already supports entrepreneurial projects and Flat6labs which is an accelerator," says Dhia Ferchichi, a community developer at the incubator.
Founded with the help of Noomane Fehri, former minister of telecommunications, the space is to be an incubator for early stage startups, providing them with financial support. Through a partnership with the American 1776 incubator, in Washington, the B@labs program will also include MOOCs and mentoring hours.
The call for applications is open until the July 10 and will select 25 startups for a first four-month training program. At the end of this period, a demo day will select the startups that will receive financial support and an additional 12 months of training.
Fehri told Wamda that following his mandate as a minister, and after working with startups, he saw how the private sector wasn’t really involved. “This is why I turned towards the BIAT bank in order to encourage the involvement of the private sector,” he said. He explained that the Tunisian startup ecosystem is fragile: there is a lack of legal framework, venture capitalists, business angels and therefore funds from local investors.
Training early stage startups
“We realized that despite the breakthrough of Tunisian startups in recent years, there is a lack of diversity in the sectors of activity,” said Achraf Mattar, head of the incubation program. They are looking to encourage startups in the fintech or AI field.
The program is totally free and the value of the investment could be up to 40,000 Tunisian dinars (US$16,000) in exchange for five percent equity, but this amount is still under discussion. The first months will be devoted to business models and methodology, then market adjustment and planning. The idea is to move from the idea stage to a product, ready to be tested on the market.
“The most critical step, which is selecting the participants, is also important to test the entrepreneurial vibe of the candidates, because if the product can be rotated or changed over time, entrepreneurs must be prepared to work hard," said Mattar. He considers that the Tunisian entrepreneurial ecosystem is still at a premature stage and that early support is essential.
For Fehri, the added value in creating this incubator was the networking aspect. “My goal is that at the end of the year, the young startuppers who have followed our program will be able to test their product and especially to find potential customers.”
Goals of accessibility and decentralization
Settled in the heart of Tunis near the main train station, the incubator is easily accessible to entrepreneurs from the countries regions.
"Nearly three million people can arrive within two hours for less than 10 dinars (US $4), so the location is strategic,” said Mattar. He added that those selected from outside the country’s capital will be able to benefit from accommodation on a case-by-case basis.
The incubator has partnerships with incubators such as Big Booster in Lyon, France, The Camp in Aix-en-Provence, and Numa in Paris. "We want to become a regional hub that shines enough, so that foreign entrepreneurs also come here," said Mattar, who added that a Palestinian startup, and another one from Ivory Coast have already applied.
For now, the place is preparing for the selection of candidates but it is open to startuppers as a coworking place. The location is currently free of charge as it is not yet officially operating.
The finalists of the Bloomasters startup pitch contest that took place last month are working there already. In one cubicle, you can find Fares Hantous developing Marki, an app that digitizes the tasks of a blueprint for real estate developers and architects. In another, you can spot the entrepreneurs of Easy.tn, a platform that aims to map and provide information about public transport systems in Tunisia, in addition to the availability of taxis or parking places.
While Tunisia still lacks a legal framework specific to startups and entrepreneurs (the debate in parliament should take place in September based on the Startup Act bill, a project for the ecosystem), infrastructure is gradually building up with the proliferation of coworking spaces, training programs and acceleration labs.
Feature image via B@labs.