A small aviation startup in Tunisia has made a first by not only signing a deal with the Tunisian plane company Nouvelair, but with Airbus and Boeing too. It will be the first company of its kind to manufacture airplane seats in Tunisia.
It has been a long run for the twin brothers Férid and Fouad Kamel, in their thirties, who launched their startup in 2011. They now have the capacity to produce about 90 planes a year, with contractors from Jordan to the USA.
Their startup Avionav builds small planes, from start to finish, in Tunisia. Three years after their launch, their profit in 2016 was one million Tunisian dinars (about US$400, 000).
Their story with planes did not happen randomly. Their father was a pilot for the Tunisian army but the brothers were not keen on the job for themselves. Férid was into caving and climbing and Fouad specialized in artificial intelligence. However, the revolution of 2011 changed this.
The dream of the revolution
After completing their engineering degrees, the brothers headed abroad. Fouad went to the UAE and Férid to France and Italy.
In the wake of the revolution of 2011, the brothers wanted to return home to do something for their country. At this point, they felt things had changed. Previously, starting a business of their own was not a positive idea. “The family would get to you, trying to have shares in your concept whenever it becomes successful,” said Fouad at their offices in Borjine, a small town near the touristic city of Sousse.
Fouad said they decided to take advantage of the freedom the revolution brought. Willing to set an example for Tunisian youth, and showing there were more than textiles and tourism to the country, they decided to build the first all-Tunisian plane.
At the time, the regime had entertained a paranoia over planes. An example is the cancellation of movie shoots that involved planes or helicopters in scenes.
From handicraft to industrial
Despite the red tape, such as problems with slowness of the Tunisian customs, they had to go through, the two brothers managed to launch in 2011 their first startup, Oxygen Aeronautics, to manufacture light sports aircrafts. Their Rallye model is made with carbon fiber, whereas the Century model is made with aeronautic aluminium. Both models can seat two passengers.
They invested all their savings, 240,000 dinars (about US$98,000), into the venture but it finding raw material in Tunisia was challenging. However, they managed to get around it by putting in place a forecast system that will allow them know the essential time needed to find each part and build the plane. To date they have managed to find all supplies in Tunisia, except for the wheels.
The first plane they tried to put together led them to buy Storm, an Italian aircraft company which was already operating in Tunisia, at a low, but undisclosed sum, and used its clients’ network to grow their business further.
After buying the firm, the brothers transformed it into a more industrial one. They also knocked on private investors’ doors, convincing them to fund their venture, when banks were still reluctant. Then in 2014, they secured a seed investment of 4 million dinars (about US$1.6 million) and started Avionav.
“We tried to make the company up to the standards of industrialization and to modernize it a little,” said Fouad Kamel. They called it Avionav, redesigned the manufacture to make it more industrial, and started searching for potential clients around the world. “We did it through fairs and networking. I even got clients who put me in touch with other ones and so it went,” said Férid Kamel.
The road to success
By 2016, they had sold 38 planes in more than 10 different countries, including Tunisia, Jordan, Brazil, and Germany. Two of their Tunisian clients bought the planes for agricultural purposes, while others for different businesses, or just to pursue a hobby. They are also getting requests from doctors to develop emergency aircrafts.
Their team grew from five to 16 aeronautic engineers and technicians. They raised the bar by applying international standards in their manufacture, such as the ones of the FAA (US federal Aviation Authority), which require meeting high security standards. This will help granting their planes international certifications, which are usually difficult to get for planes production.
While it was difficult to make the Tunisian authorities take them seriously, as their company was a first attempt into building planes, it was also an advantage, as it meant no competition.
And the future looks busy
In 2016, the Kamel brothers launched Evada, an arm of Avionav that manufactures amphibian four-seater airplanes, which can go on land and water, and will be focusing on R&D. They are working on a ‘smart cockpit’, an idea of Fouad’s, given his background in AI. They are also scaling regionally to Algeria, where there is also no competition for home-grown light aircrafts.