Foto: Nidal Abu Arif

Young Tunisians exploring new paths to jobs

More and more young Tunisians are trying their hand as entrepreneurs, and they have sky-high ambitions, despite the economic challenges in Tunisia. Experts point to a number of obstacles in starting a business in the Tunisian system. But despite the problems, a large group of young people are hard at work, creating their own businesses and bringing new jobs to the country.

Inside a warehouse in the district of Borj Louzir just north of the Tunisian capital, 30-year-old Essia Chaloueh is sitting in her office. Through a small glass window she can keep an eye on the three male craftsmen at work in her workshop. She is one of a growing number of young Tunisians who have found the courage to start a business.

Chaloueh has a master’s degree in design and has been playing with the idea of being her own boss ever since she was a student. After graduation, she got a permanent job in a company. But this did not stop her aspiring for independence.

“There are many Tunisians who have been successful worldwide. If you are committed and have the will, you will achieve success.”

Essia Chaloueh
Entrepreneur

With a calm voice she explains that her journey as an entrepreneur had already begun during her studies. But it was only possible to carry out her plans when she came across a post on the web from Souk Attanmia (in Arabic = ‘development market’) about an initiative that supports young entrepreneurs.

After the Tunisian revolution in 2011, Souk Attanmia was set up as a joint project between the African Development Bank (AfDB) and 19 other partners.

“My idea is to make bean bags and other traditional textile products and give them a modern twist. When I contacted Souk Attanmia in 2014, I was given access to training and mentoring as an entrepreneur. I invested TND 28,000 in the project myself and received a corresponding amount as a contribution from AfDB.” Chaloueh describes her first step on the road to entrepreneurship while she leans back in her office chair under a big sign with the word ‘Pouffy’, which is the company name.

“One of the biggest obstacles blocking the young Tunisians’ path to success is the lack of access to the global market.”

Ryadh Bouslama
Entrepreneur

In December 2017, the Tunisian capital Tunis was named as the most suitable city in the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region for start-ups and entrepreneurship by the German organisation Enpact. Tunis scores 57.9 points out of 100 on the Startup Friendliness Index (SFI). The city is thereby in first place, and ahead of other Arab cities like Amman (55 points), Cairo (46 points) and the Moroccan capital Rabat, which has to make do with 40 points.

The index measures factors such as human capital, infrastructure, access to finance for entrepreneurs, macro context and the market.

Young entrepreneurs seek inspiration in cultural heritage

Apart from scoring the highest in start-up-friendliness, Tunis is also the epicentre of entrepreneurship in terms of the number of start-ups in the country. Out of 386 registered start-ups in Tunisia, 342 are located in Tunis. This corresponds to 88 per cent according to the figures from the Biat Foundation, which specialises in mapping start-ups in the country.

“I wanted to plan my own life, and I can do that now. I put in more hours a week, but I have the freedom to live my dream and create a success story, and I’m proud of this.”

Essia Chaloueh
Entrepreneur

Chaloueh describes with enthusiasm how she took advantage of all the possible methods to sell her products during the start-up phase:

“I went door-to-door to find all the companies that could be interested in my products. I spoke with the larger and smaller players on the market, and fortunately there were some who chose to buy my products.”

In Tunisia, each region has a specific tradition for craftsmanship, and Chaloueh used this in concept and product development.

“I always try to be creative. So I took Tunisian cultural heritage as my starting point. This is something that has been ignored by the large companies, because their products had to be copies of international products.”

New York opens its doors

Actively using the local heritage turned out to be a good strategy. In 2016, she got the opportunity to present her craft at a trade exhibition in New York. International designers became aware of the – to use their words – “unique products”. Taking part in the exhibition was worthwhile, and Chaloueh began to receive orders from Canada and Australia.

“The international market has been my goal from the beginning, because the Tunisian market is not that big, and there is not enough purchasing power here. My personal ambition was to export my products, and with this I have been successful.”

Essia has called her business Pouffy, and the products are inspired by Tunisian cultural heritage. Photo: Nidal Abu Arif

Today, Essia has six permanent employees, and during the summer season she she employs 10 people. Apart from this, she has fixed collaboration agreements with dozens of local craftsmen from the different provinces of Tunisia.

Her earnings can only just keep the business in the black. But she sees the time she spends on her project as an investment in the future.

“I have never been happy working set hours, like for example from 8 to 4. I wanted to plan my own life, and I can do that now. I put in more hours a week, but I have the freedom to live my dream and create a success story, and I’m proud of this,” says Chaloueh.

No fear of failure

After the Jasmine revolution, Tunisia went through a period of growth in entrepreneurship, and this has attracted a number of international players to the country. They want to support young people in starting their own businesses. The Tunisian government has also launched a number of initiatives that have the purpose of strengthening this development and helping young people realise their dreams.

“I have started this company precisely to help young people avoid the mistakes that I made when I went down this path in 2009.”

Ryadh Bouslama
Entrepreneur

It is almost 6 p.m., and young people are converging on the first floor rooms in the modern buildings along the edge of a lake. The company Level 1 is organising an event there with a German entrepreneur who has crossed the Mediterranean to share his knowledge and experience with the young people of Tunisia.

Ryads Bouslama started Level 1 to support other entrepreneurs. Photo: Nidal Abu Arif

Level 1 is a start-up that was set up in September 2017 by the 33-year-old Ryadh Bouslama. It is not his first entrepreneurial project. Bouslama has tried it twice before, and both times failed. But it would take more than this to dampen his entrepreneurial enthusiasm.

“The first two attempts helped me to create a strong network in the business community in Tunisia and beyond. And this has taught me many things. That is why I feel more confident this time. And I have started this company precisely to help young people avoid the mistakes that I made when I went down this path in 2009,” says Bouslama.

Level 1 is a shared office space for young people who need a desk when they are working on their projects. Its motto decorates the walls: “Discover. Dream. Do.” The young people have the opportunity to rent a desk on a daily, weekly and monthly basis. It is even possible to rent a desk on an hourly basis. A day costs TND 25, corresponding to about 8 euros.

“The first two attempts helped me create a strong network in the business community in Tunisia and beyond. And this has taught me many things.”

Ryadh Bouslama
Entrepreneur

About 30 young people have turned up for the presentation this evening. Bouslama points to the room where the young people have sat themselves down and explains that the purpose of this company is not only to rent out desks. “The idea is to create a place for young people with dreams, where they can meet and enrich each other and can hopefully exchange thoughts and ideas that help them achieve their goals.”

Every month, several free presentations are held in the premises. In September and October alone, 600 young people took part.

Bouslama also uses his own experience and network to give guidance to the young people. In addition, he does presentations himself and tries to set up networks between the young people and the companies.

One of the biggest obstacles blocking the young Tunisians’ path to success is the lack of access to the global market, Bouslama says.

It’s all new and this creates challenges

A report from the World Bank from September 2017 places Tunisia 88th when it comes to setting up a business. This is a drop of eleven places over the previous year.

But these figures are of no concern to Houda Ghozzi, who is a PhD and associate professor at the prestigious Mediterranean School of Business in Tunis. She points out that the country has just got over a revolution, and that the political system is not yet stable.

Dr. Ghozzi warns that entrepreneurship cannot solve all the problems on the Tunisian job market.

“There has been more focus on politics than on the economy in recent years. We are still looking for major initiatives in the financial area,” says Ghozzi.

“I always try to be creative. So I took as my point of departure the Tunisian cultural heritage. This has been ignored by the larger companies, because their products had to be copies of international products.”

Essia Chaloueh
Entrepreneur

She points out that there is political focus on entrepreneurship and describes it as “a young eco-system, which is still in the start-up phase.” Ghozzi points to three obstacles that young hopeful entrepreneurs have to overcome: “As I see it now, there are three major obstacles blocking the path of these young people: First, the rigid administrative system and its many complex rules; second, the limits on the movement of Tunisian currency and third, the young entrepreneurs’ only limited access to international markets and funds.”

“It is wrong to think that start-ups can help bring down unemployment in the country, especially when it comes to the technology-based start-ups.”

Houda Ghozzi
PhD, Mediterranean School of Business

She warns against the idea that start-ups and entrepreneurship alone will resolve unemployment in Tunisia. Currently, we are dealing with a generation that is willing to go down other pathways than their parents. The young people are very entrepreneurial. But this cannot solve the whole challenge. There is a need to rejuvenate the big sectors like tourism to bring down the unemployment rate.” She adds: “It is wrong to think that start-ups can help bring down unemployment in the country, especially when it comes to the technology-based start-ups. The more the technology is prevalent in this sector, the fewer jobs there will be for young Tunisians.”

Lagging behind

example: “In Tunisia, the options for paying online are very limited, and companies cannot receive payments from abroad via services like PayPal. This stops many entrepreneurs, especially the web-based start-ups, since online payments play a crucial role in their survival.”

Lahimar believes that reforms are needed that can help achieve better results and that increase the chances of young people succeeding with their projects.

“It’s easier to make decisions under a dictatorship. But in a new democratic society like the Tunisian one, political decisions are long in coming. Our politicians are also not mature enough for the work that comes with a democracy,” he adds.

“It’s easier to make decisions under a dictatorship. But in a new democratic society like the Tunisian one, political decisions are long in coming. Our politicians are also not mature enough for the work that comes with a democracy,” he adds.

“We are still waiting for the impact and big results. But this may be because the market is too small and that the newly established businesses are struggling to grow. They need more time to get access to the market,” Lahimar points out.

According to the young, aspiring, businesswoman Essia Chaloueh, the secret to success is quite simple: Choose to work with what you like. Photo: Nidal Abu Arif

According to the young, aspiring, businesswoman Essia Chaloueh, the secret to success is quite simple: Choose to work with what you like.

Back in the workshop, Chaloueh has a smile on her lips. She sees herself as a fortunate young woman who was helped by circumstances. Her message to her generation is clear: “The government does not have the capacity to hire all of you. You have the opportunity to be in charge of your own work. The state has given us the opportunity to get an education. ‘Impossible’ is not a Tunisian concept. There are many Tunisians who have been successful worldwide. If you are committed and have the will, you will achieve success.”

According to the young, aspiring, businesswoman, the secret to success is quite simple: Choose to work with what you like.

Chaloueh agrees with the experts that one of the biggest challenges for entrepreneurs is the currency and the absence of options to pay or receive payment for products online.

“In my opinion, Tunisia needs to make it easier to export your products and that online payments are made an option.”

Interested in learning more about this topic? Watch this video of the Tunisian entrepreneur Khaled Boushousha.