Tunisia's startup minister ousted, should we panic?

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Tunisia’s startup minister Noomane Fehri, who won over Tunisian entrepreneurs during his 18 months in office with his casual, collaborative style and pro-innovation actions, has ben replaced.

Engineer, ICT specialist, cofounder of independent party Afek Tounes in 2011, Fehri was named Minister of ICT and Digital Economy under the Habib Essid government in February 2015.

Yet on August 20 during a change of leadership, it was announced that he will be replaced by the very discreet Anouar Maarouf - so discreet there’s not even a picture of him online.

Online, entrepreneurs paid homage to ‘their’ minister and called for the continuation of his work.

Will the new minister be able to reproduce the dynamic his predecessor created? And importantly, will Maarouf continue ongoing projects?

Changing the legal framework

Fehri made first contact with the tech world during Droidcon in April 2015, an event dedicated to Android developers. Seduced by the energy, he canceled all of his meetings for the rest of the morning, went on stage, took off his tie, and promised to act.

The minister’s goal was to digitalize Tunisia via two programs: Smart Tunisia, to convince international tech companies to move there, and Digistartup, to create an ecosystem favorable to startups in Tunisia.

With Digistartup he created two committees, one for public policy and one for legislation. Banker and fintech entrepreneur Hichem Ben Fadhl led the latter.  

“Our economic laws in Tunisia date from the 90s, even before,” Ben Fadhl told Wamda. They had to draft a bill, called the Startup Act, to “make of Tunisia an attractive hub for startups in the years to come”.

Ben Fadhl met with entrepreneurs to hear their law-related problems and proposed solutions, which were gathered in a public document.

“To my knowledge, it’s the first law drafted in a collaborative way in Tunisia, meaning actually coming from the civil society,” he said.

Fehri created a committee to turn that document into a bill and later submit it to the Tunisian Assembly

The fate of this bill is now in the hands of Maarouf.

“The new minister must make sure that the committee can work fast, in collaboration with the startups community to finalize the legalistic writing,” said Ben Fadhl.

He’s confident. “[He’s] a young minister who understands the interest of [having] startups in Tunisia’s entrepreneurial ecosystem and will do, a priori, everything to ensure it will pass quickly.”

Leading major projects

Fehri has also been active when it comes to public policy to digitalize the country.

As part of Smart Tunisia, the minister nominated technological ambassadors in Paris, Lille, New York, and Silicon Valley. Their goal is to promote, mostly to multinationals, Tunisia as a technology destination.

The country’s digitization plan took the form of several projects including moving administrative procedures online, which Fehri said in an interview to Tunisian ICT news site THD was not moving fast enough, the launch of 4G early this year, connecting public schools to internet by the first quarter of 2017, and the development of Google services in the country.

The ministry signed an ambitious cooperation plan with Google, including integrating Tunisia into the Google Street View program. Earlier this month Google started taking pictures of 30 cultural and archeological sites for their Google Cultural Institute program.

Developers and entrepreneurs saw the launch of an international payment card in July 2015. In a country where money is not convertible, this card allows Tunisians to pay and receive payment from abroad online.  

Yesterday, Fehri told THD that 5,000 cards had been sold in its year of existence. Still, the card is facing technical problems and is not compatible with Paypal, although the payments company promised to open transactions to Tunisia as soon as 2017.

Noomane Fehri during a visit at Cogite earlier this year. (Image via Cogite)

Another young minister

Will the new minister continue on this path? Will he have the same passion for tech innovation?

Maarouf has a lot in common with Fehri, he’s young, just 45, and he’s an engineer with ICT experience. For example, he worked with French telecom operators before working in the cabinet of former ICT minister Mongi Marzoug.

He’s close to several players of the startup ecosystems and visited Cogite on August 25, ten days before taking the job, to “reinsure the ecosystem on the continuity of the action”, said startup hub Le15 founder Zakaria Belkhoja, who organized the visit.

The ecosystem players that were there felt better afterward.

The very active Zouz founder Bilel Bouraoui, who lead a petition for the new minister to keep pushing the Startup Act, was there.

“My discussion with him reinsured me a lot. He seems convinced that the ecosystem has a lot to bring, and aware there’s no other options,” he told Wamda.

Does this even matter?

Belkhoja, who worked on an investment reform bill with Ben Fadhl, is realistic.

“The entrepreneurial ecosystem today is not on the agenda of politics, and people [in the government] don’t understand what it is,” he said. Further, “a telecom and digital economy minister has other things to do than startups”, which is a young sector with a small impact on the economy.

“We hope that in the government, there will be one or two persons that will be able to continue the dynamic created by Noomane Fehri,” Belkhoja said, but even if the ministry didn’t realize the potential of startups it wouldn’t be that bad.  

The legal conditions were not optimal for startups but they won’t prevent success. He believed a startup didn’t need Paypal to succeed and Tunisia didn’t need to change laws to develop entrepreneurship.

“I don’t think stopping by the case law will change much,” he told Wamda. “Changing the law doesn’t change a country.”

Not convinced by the top down approach, Belkhoja thought change will come from startups themselves, from local success stories, from foreigners moving in Tunisia, and from entrepreneurship support organization, like Cogite, le 15, Yunus Social Business, and Réseau Entreprendre.

“Those are what really works, and that’s what will create a change of the system.”  

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